Thursday, November 29, 2018

HAPPY HALLOWEEN? A RAMBLING REACTION TO THE SLASHER REVIVAL





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Detailed spoilers for Halloween 1978 and 2018 to follow…

David Gordon Green’s Halloween sequel/reboot is in most respects a superbly executed slasher movie.  It’s excellently performed, phenomenally shot and features genuinely clever twists on the original’s iconography.  But it is also the complete antithesis of the original in some fundamental ways.  Some of these make for satisfying inversions, some are the only option available to put a new spin on tropes that have grown extremely hoary, and some of those takes get so fresh as to completely refute the basic thrust of the original and the very things that gave it staying power.   

All of it flows from the basic premise, that this is a sequel to John Carpenter’s Halloween that disregards all the other follow-ups and picks up 40 years after the original film.  Given its intent to return to the more grounded reality of the original, this is really the only plausible choice.  But it still positions it with a foot in several different spheres, with corresponding baggage from each; it is at once a slasher sequel, a specific follow up to the iconic ending of the original, and a “legacy” sequel, that increasingly common reboot/continuation that dusts off a decrepit icon from decades past and tries to revive their franchise cache for a new generation (see: Creed, Blade Runner 2049, Disney Star Wars). 


Do not see:  Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull, any Die Hard After A Vengeance,
Tron: Legacy, Top Gun 2099 (if they are actually serious with that shit)

Taking each in turn…


ON SLASHER SEQUELS

All sequels struggle with the inherent dilemma of how much to imitate what made the first entry a success versus bringing enough new to the table to justify their existence as a separate entity.  But slasher movies, for as relentlessly as they are sequelized, have such specific requirements to function that recreating them steers things immediately and pretty much inevitably into self-parody.   Even before smartphones, it took some contriving to get a) a big enough group of people to provide a proper body count, b) isolated enough that they cannot easily get outside help, but also c) separated enough that they can be separated and picked off in individual set pieces.  The contrivances required to serve up that same platter to the same killer a second (much less fifth and sixth) time only compound on each other, and that’s without even getting into the proliferation of immediate, effective communication devices that everyone carries on their person at all times.  There’s a reason most slasher series tend to get progressively goofier, while making their killer more explicitly supernatural, as they go.  And they mostly ignore the implication that the villain would immediately become the most notorious killer in history, which renders the requisite naivete of the victims and obliviousness of law enforcement in each subsequent installment all the more ludicrous. 

To its credit, H18 manages to pull off a credible slasher sequel without doing any of that.  Myers still enjoys the moderate teleportation ability that all slasher scripts provide their killers, and there is the early bit where his reaction to the mask seems to spread distress to other patients and dogs in the yard.  But that is more a bit of creepy mood-setting than anything that has bearing on the plot. And while the comedic bits are more overtly “comedic” (and identifiable as the style of Green and collaborator Danny McBride) than the original, the central threat of Myers is taken entirely, deadly seriously.  I also want to single out the brief bit where one of the teens points out that nightmarish rampage of the original pales in comparison to what their generation experiences in schools on a bi-monthly basis.  This is savvy, both as a succinct piece of social commentary and as a subtle bit of justification for why the town of Haddonfield can be sufficiently unprepared for the most significant and traumatic event in its history to repeat itself so exactly.

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Town Motto:  "What are the odds..?"

The 40 year gap also works to mitigate that self-parody aspect, of an inmate famous for escaping a mental institution and going on a killing spree on Halloween night once again escaping that institution and going on a killing spree, on Halloween night, in the same town.  And I will defend the “Evil Loomis” twist, which is admittedly goofy, but is the one inversion of the original’s elements that actually took me by surprise.  And the surprise goofiness did serve to leaven the inherent goofiness required to once again spring Michael on Halloween night and get him once again stalking Laurie Strode with a big knife. Evil Loomis essentially steps into the shoes of the screenwriters, contriving to create this scenario from within the story itself rather than their doing so entirely from without.  And I do love how his scheming allows for the entire film and its climactic confrontation to play out while leaving open the question of whether Michael even remembers or cares who Laurie is.  It saps some of Myers’ cred as an unstoppable monster, which I’ll get into later, but also preserves the opacity of his motivations that is so central to making him one of horror’s most enduring icons.  Which I’ll get into now.


ON THE SHAPE

It can be easy to take the artistry of the original Halloween for granted because there is nothing complicated about its execution. But that simplicity allows for a peerless balance between ominous symbolism and chilling plausibility.  The movie frames him as The Boogeyman, an avatar of all primeval terrors that permeates the collective subconscious of humanity.  But it also grounds him as a crazy guy with a knife, which is a visceral enough threat to (pardon the pun) cut through all of that cerebral claptrap and engage the lizardbrain directly.  Which horror has to do, or else all the richest, creamiest subtext in the world won’t penetrate the fog of boredom and ugliness that an un-scary scary movie represents. 

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There is that one guy who doesn't care that the plot is nonsense because he is really into the Jungian symbolism and Oedipal subtext. You don't want to be that guy. 

That balance is what makes OG Michael Myers such a perfect manifestation of Evil; how he manages to embody all at once its indomitability, its ineffability, as well as its banality. Because although we are given his backstory right up front, it doesn’t make his motives any less inscrutable.  The “explanation” doesn’t explain anything.  To the childcare community of Haddonfield, he is more than human, all their worst fears manifested in the horrible, faceless flesh.  But for the psychologists (and latter-day bloggers) intent on deconstructing him, he remains maddeningly unknowable because he is so much less than human.  As in, it literally drives his shrinks mad – Loomis comes to the conclusion that the only treatment for him is a bullet, which the DSM V identifies as “totally not what psychiatry is are about”, and his subsequent doctor goes even crazier trying to find some hint of the layers that  modern psychological theory would insist must drive a pathology of such extreme behavior.  But there are no layers to Michael. 

He’s more than an abstract concept, but less than a man.  He isn’t even a “he”, not really, just a dark and endlessly malleable shape. The Shape.  


ON THE DIFFERENT ENDINGS

John Carpenter is the master of horror endings, and Halloween’s is in its own way as apocalyptic as The Thing or Prince Of Darkness. But it packs an even sneakier punch, because the stakes had not been set that high throughout the movie.  Laurie wasn’t fighting to stop an alien takeover of the planet or the return of Satan, she was just trying to escape a lunatic with a knife.  And it’s only after she does, and Loomis empties his gun into the Shape, that the film fully embraces the nightmare logic it has toyed with all along as the body (impossibly?) disappears.  And then that’s it, it’s over. 

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Can't get video to embed, so link will have to do

A recurring theme on Schwartzblog is that I’m a big believer in the power of endings. And Halloween’s closing statement elevates the horror of the preceding hour and a half from the visceral to the existential.  There’s no need for another chase scene with Michael as an explicitly unkillable hulk.  As his theme (and breathing) play over shots of the empty spaces in the house where he could be hiding, it accentuates how none of these places will ever be safe again.  The Boogeyman is always out there.  Evil can never be destroyed, only temporarily escaped. 

It’s not that you have to believe that “moral” is an accurate reflection of the real world.  I don’t, really.  But that doesn’t take away from its grim potency.  Speaking generally, I don’t think horror films should be sober reflections of the real world.  In its purest form, horror is a nightmare distilled for the screen.  And nightmares don’t come any more primal than to be hunted by unstoppable forces we can’t quite define. 

By contrast, in Halloween 2018 Michael is defeated more thoroughly.  Yes, there is a quick shot of the burning basement with Michael conspicuously absent, which is an attempt to maintain that not-quite-explicitly supernatural mystique (and keep the door cracked open for further sequels).  But for one thing, that “ambiguity” can’t match the gutpunch of the original’s much starker revelation.  And for another, it doesn’t even matter all that much if the film had actually come out and confirmed he is definitely immortal.  Even if The Shape still can’t be killed, H18 shows that he can be fought and he can be beaten. He spends entire second half of the film being manhandled, undressed, shanghaied, mangled, tricked and trapped.  The entire point of the third act is that he becomes the hunted rather than the hunter.  The Boogeyman becomes the underdog. 

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And any fan knows, Michael Myers is only ever at a disadvantage against Flip Mode 

There’s nothing wrong with that, necessarily.  It’s an empowering turn, and it isn’t hard to see why people, particularly less miserable pricks than myself, would find it more satisfying.  Moreover, there is a fairly limited matrix of options for how you resolve things between Laurie and her tormentor once you resolve to bring her back, and I don’t find any of them entirely satisfying:


1.   She Dies, He Lives 


There was never much possibility that the level of talent involved would go to this much trouble reviving the character just so the monster can finish the job.  For one, Curtis had already gone through similar motions 20 years ago with Halloweens: H20/Resurrection.  For another, it would lean right into the misogynist underpinnings of the slasher genre in a really ugly way, and come on. No one was going to make a movie this high profile in 2018 without a credible line of defense about how it’s actually about female empowerment for the press junkets.  I may take some issue with how much Michael gets batted around in the final product, but I would have reacted worse to a movie that seemed to exist just so the filmmakers could go back to the prototypical Survivor Girl four decades later and “get her” this time.

But even if you ignore any sex-based implications entirely, killing her would still be a miscarriage of the thematic thrust of the original ending. There is a big difference between a final note that says “no matter how defeated Evil appears, you will still never truly be safe and can never rest easy” and one that says “no matter how defeated Evil appears, you will still definitely be stabbed to death with a big knife”.  By removing all the Implication, you take a creeping existential dread and render it fully (if not cartoonishly) nihilistic.  The original ending is so striking because of how it pivots from a movie that has been about the fear of dying horribly to a horrific thought about living.  Kill her off at the end and it closes off all the open-endedness and makes it just about death. 

2.    They Both Die

                               
At first blush, this seems to hew closer to the “no escape” ethos of the original ending, while taking it the further step that would justify a sequel as a thematic continuation instead of a simple regurgitation.  But it still closes things off in a way that provides finality.  And however grim that resolution may be, my contention is that it is precisely the way the original snatches closure away at the last moment that elevates it. 


3.     They Both Live

No matter how enamored I may be with the original ending, there is not much point in dragging everyone back a lifetime later just to recreate it exactly. It’s the basics of diminishing sequel returns; if you do the exact same thing and only the same, then who could care?  Even if you improve production values, have better dialogue and so on, if you’re throwing the exact same punch, the second will never land as hard as the first. In order for H18 to have any reason to exist as a “serious” sequel, it needs to advance the Laurie/Michael dynamic in some way, not just regurgitate it.


4.   She Lives, He Dies

This provides closure too, but of a more upbeat variety.  And it invites the question of whether we want a happy ending in horror movies?  Personally, I tend to think that horror works best as a provocation without providing a resolution. 

Ultimately, the movie splits the difference between options 3 and 4.  It tries, rather weakly in my opinion, to preserve some of the open-endedness from ‘78, but there’s simply no way to replicate the way the original found to make that ambiguity land with the force of a sledgehammer.  It’s mostly that we’ve seen the disappearing act before and are prepared for it this time, but also that Laurie was prepared for him, and even if Michael did get away, he’s already been cut down to size.  Even before the fire starts, he’s no longer the unstoppable, ethereal Boogeyman. He’s an old man, permanently maimed, who can be batted around by an old woman. 

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An old woman with the bowels of a champion, but still.

To hone in on a particular detail to illustrate this point, I think it’s when we see the shotgun blow off his fingers that the spell was irrevocably broken for me.  A subtly brilliant touch in the original was how it had Myers jerk in reaction to the gunshots, but not to use squibs or show any bloodstains in the grass when the body disappears.  In addition to saving on effects budget, it both makes his disappearance more eerie, and keeps one toe in the realm of rationality even as it raises the question of whether he is actually supernatural.  Could Loomis just be a terrible shot, missing any important body parts?  Could Michael have some kind of armor under the jumpsuit to stop the bullets?  Is it a less frightening thought if he is an immortal revenant, or if all our efforts and bravery can still fail to stop a single mental patient from wreaking whatever havoc he wants?  If he is actually immortal, what does that mean?

The original ending doesn’t just leave us with questions, its parting shot actually raises a host of new ones.  The only question 2018 can leave open is whether or not the dragon has actually been slain. But that question doesn’t feel as urgent when we’ve already seen its fangs removed (or at the least, sanded down considerably).  In any case, Laurie has protected her progeny, confronted her demons and lived to tell the tale.  I consider that a happy ending.  At least by horror standards, and certainly when contrasted directly with its predecessor.


ON HAPPY ENDINGS

So what’s wrong with that?  Nothing really.  I can recognize that in the abstract, a scary movie with a happy ending is not worse than a downer ending, it’s just different.  So more power to anyone who finds 2018’s resolution, or its more-vincible monster, more appealing.  But it raises the question of whether it is actually horror if it has a happy ending.  And I don’t really think so.  If in the end, the monster is slain and the hero(s) survive, you essentially have an adventure story with a lot of gore.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.  Genre classifications are not badges of quality unto themselves. The best works in a genre are often hybrids with others, whether that is Star Wars blending sci-fi and fantasy, Alien or the Terminator mixing sci-fi with horror, or the Cabin In The Woods blending horror and comedy.  So when I argue that you can’t have “real” horror story with a happy ending, it’s not to say that “real” horror is inherently superior to the “fake” kind.  There are certainly other things besides scary that a movie can be that are just as worthwhile.

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For instance, some instance, are Dirty Work.  And that's just fine.

Buuut, the thing is, Halloween is as pure as horror gets.  It’s not cross-pollinated with any other genre, or polluted by any ulterior motive except to put a nightmare on screen.  The “value” of horror storytelling, as I see it, is that it is a way for audiences to confront primal fears in a low-stakes, if still emotionally intense, context.  Ideally, this would be the first step in exorcising such fears; a sort of low-grade exposure therapy for the cultural consciousness.  But it’s my opinion that when a horror movie seeks to perform that exorcism itself, it robs both those fears and the audience of their full due.  Therapy only works (I think) if the patient is doing some of the work along with the doctor.

Which is all by way of saying that a bleak ending is not inherently better than a happy one.  But a Halloween movie with a happy ending is less powerful than one that ends on a gutpunch.


ON LEGACY SEQUELS

Most of these issues with the revival arise directly from the reintroduction of Laurie Strode as an elder, grizzled slasher-prepper.  This is characterization makes sense, in that it is about the only believable way for her to still be around and involved this far down the line.  Having her scarred but willing and able to fight back and, with the help of her progeny, vanquish him; this is a cathartic arc and resolution for the character.  As outlined above, it’s about the only satisfying way to resolve things if you’re going to revisit her, and it perhaps has special resonance in 2018 to see the Boogeyman beaten down by his would-be victim(s). 

But with all the considerable respect due to Jamie Lee Curtis, the character of Laurie Strode was not the source of fascination that kept the franchise alive for decades.  Nor was Dr. Loomis, or the iconic score, or any other element that outlasted her original tenure.  It was The Shape.  And giving Laurie her due comes at the expense of that mythical menace.  It has to.   

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Aw, cheer up, champ.  I'm sure you'll get her when your
prison bus crashes again in another 40 years

Similarly, the revival takes the wind out of the original ending just by existing.  And in its efforts to re-ground him in a plausible reality, it offhandedly reveals that the outcome of the horrifying revelation that Michael had escaped again was as anticlimactic as it could get: the cops picked him up shortly later.   And I found that striking, since it is completely inverted from most legacy sequels, which usually have to revoke the happy ending the characters got in 1983 in order to find more story for them in 2015.   

With something like Star Wars, for instance, many fans took umbrage at how The Last Jedi brought back Luke Skywalker as a broken old man, which was an intentionally sharp contrast to where Return Of The Jedi left him, at his point of apotheosis to full blown wizard-savior. Whether Rian Johnson actually went overboard in dragging Luke through the muck is debatable, but the impulse is a necessary one, since there is not much in the way of compelling story to spun around someone who begins as an all-powerful wizard-savior (for further information on this difficulty, see The Matrix sequels).  Interestingly, not as many fans got mad about how Han and Leia’s stories in the new Star Wars trilogy crap even harder on their happily-ever-afters, if you actually look at it. I put that down mainly to how hard The Force Awakens tries to avoid acknowledging that at all. That’s a movie that never stops sprinting to keep ahead of the audience cottoning to any number of absolute nonsense storytelling and characterization beats, not least that it wants to pretend that Han gallavanting about is just as much fun as when he was doing the exact same thing 40 years earlier, ignoring that he is now a 70 year-old man whose family collapsed in a whirlwind of murder and recrimination.  

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"Well, no, I wouldn't say it's the most cowardly and soul-crushing
coda to my journey in the original trilogy possible...but..."

But I digress.  The point is, there is no point checking in on “happily ever after” if it actually is ever after.  So if you are going to revive a character decades down the line, it has to turn out that things aren’t actually so happy.  So it goes for the Skywalkers, Balboas, McClanes, and Rambos of the world anyway.  Halloween works in the reverse, as returning after its existentially dark ending requires a retroactive catharsis that the original pointedly denied, and punctures the entire mythological power that denial wrought.  Rather than being in all (and none) of the rooms in the final montage, Michael had to go somewhere specific and literal, and that place turned out to be nowhere new or especially exciting.  Just locked back up. 

And in turn, barring the (thematically and politically untenable) route of killing her off, Laurie’s story can only get better than where we left her. And so we get Curtis kicking ass in her 60s, which is par for the course for most of these legacy sequels. They often seem to exist just so aging stars can “prove” they “still got it” by pretending to kick even more ass than they pretended to kick in their prime. The best of them find more interesting things to do than play out some divorced dad’s three-quarter-life crisis fantasy.  Mad Max: Fury Road sidesteps the whole issue by eschewing continuity and the need to incorporate a 60-something Max, or Mel Gibson, into the mix.  The most interesting thing about The Last Jedi is how it pointedly avoids making Luke a bigger badass than ever.  Creed is great in no small part because Sylvester Stallone had the grace to abdicate the ring for a supporting role.  Perhaps he found it easier to step aside and let the younger generation take the lead since he’d already brought his iconic bruiser back from retirement to prove he could still kick 20 year-old ass in Rocky V.  And also in Rocky Balboa.

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And also in Rambo (2008).  And The Expendables
And The Expendables 2 and 3.
Speaking of Sly, before he was the poster boy for the efforts to forcibly botox the entirety of the 1980s into the 2010s, he was a preeminent force in the spat of movies in the 80s where he or Chuck Norris basically went back and got a do-over on Vietnam, so we could win it this time.  It may seem like I’m veering completely off-topic, but this sort of thing relates to my antipathy about bringing Michael Myers back to Haddonfield so he can lose this time. Because while this impulse is sort of silly and self-indulgent when you dig into it, Vietnam was real, a legit trauma for the psyche of a nation. The Boogeyman is not, and apparently my generation’s Vietnam, the formative trauma we are still struggling to process that trauma as we advance into middle age, was a slasher movie. It’s one thing to use narrative fiction to game the system so that you can vanquish, however vicariously, your historical enemies.  What does it say when you have to use a movie to game the system to defeat a previous movie?

Something faintly pathetic, I suspect.  Which is part of why no matter how good Halloween 18 was in most respects, part of me still feels that it may have been better to let sleeping Boogeymen lie.


 Or maybe I'm overthinking thinks.  That's been known to happen.  So okay, TL;DR version:  



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THREE STARS (Judy Greer rules)


Sunday, November 25, 2018

SEVEN BLESSINGS: THE BEST MOMENTS OF GAME OF THRONES SEASON FIVE



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In honor of the faith of the Seven, and to pass the interminable wait for the conclusive episodes of Game Of Thrones, and not at all to scratch a compulsive itch that wouldn't go away once the idea occurred to me, I have decided to list my seven favorite moments from each of the first seven seasons.  Videos will be embedded in the headings.  Anyway, without further ado...




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In a series with a reputation for sadism, Brienne’s story of how she came to love Renly Baratheon stands out as an example of how kindness can reverberate as powerfully as cruelty.  Characters are still discussing Ned Stark’s death 5 years later, but just as often, they discuss his example.  It’s not just his children, but his former allies and even enemies that remember his honor and fortitude, as well as his mistakes. 

Less people hold Renly’s memory in such high esteem, but his death has always struck me as one of the greatest tragedies in the scheme of things; murdered just as he had brokered a deal that would have brought the War Of Five Kings to a swift, more-or-less just end.  Brienne is not most people, though. She does not forget Renly’s kindness, nor the dirty tricks Stannis played to kill him.  There are many people on the show out for revenge, but she is fairly unique in how keenly she still values the virtue of compassion.  For as often as the series demonstrates the opposite, she has seen that power can be wielded with grace, and for her that is a source of strength. 



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Stannis is a hard man, and a hard man to like.  He’s been around for four seasons before we get to see his softer side, and it’s…still rather severe, actually.  Because Game Of Thrones is about, among other things, the power of perspective, and because Martin created a world with such a deep and detailed history, and because the cast is impeccably stacked with powerhouse actors, it is often at its best when it just lets one of them tell a story about their background (see: the last entry here, Jaime’s hot tub confessions, Robert’s war stories, Aemon’s reminiscences of his former life, Oberyn’s stories of his childhood, Tywin’s ruminations on  his family history, Thoros recounting how he lost and rekindled his faith, a dozen other examples). 

Shireen’s story is the most sentimental we have ever seen Stannis, but it is still a testament to his obstinance as much as anything.  Like most good writing, it is doing more than it appears.  Showing us Stannis’s softer side (if still remarkably rigid) is setting us up to make the absolutely brutal sacrifice he will make that much more heartwrenching.  And it is also subtly providing exposition about greyscale and the Stonemen before they become more central in the following hour. But even in hindsight, with those elements noticeable, Stephen Dillane’s performance overpowers everything else.   And the sacrifice is that much worse because there is nothing insincere about any of it.  Indeed, Stannis is constitutionally incapable of insincerity, which makes him a rather bad father overall, but renders his blunt force statement of devotion even more powerful.

Poor, poor Shireen.


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Especially in the most sprawling middle section of the series, it could be a fun diversion to imagine what character pairings from the far-flung sections of the show would be most interesting (how would Jorah and Arya get along? What would Melisandre think of Bran’s pagan magic? Could Dany resist Oberyn’s charms?). One pairing I never even thought to ask for was Samwell Tarly and Stannis Baratheon. The meeting between these two men who could not possibly be any different is brief, but where you’d expect Stannis to be disgusted by Sam’s lack of martial prowess, he actually acknowledges the importance of knowledge when it comes to making war. It’s subtly reminding us about Sam’s father and seeding the idea that Dragonstone has obsidian deposits, which will come into play in future seasons, but really I just like the moments where this famously bloody, ruthless series defends intellectualism. In season 3, I very nearly included the bit where Gilly is so impressed with Sam’s ability to know things that happened far away and long ago by looking at marks on paper that she calls him a wizard. I didn’t mainly because I knew this one was coming up, and I prefer the contrast that Stannis’s no-nonsense demeanor provides.


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Season 5 was not the strongest for Tyrion, as he left the chaotic muck of Westeros, where fortunes are constantly changing and anything can happen, to tour the Land Of Foregone Conclusions.   He and Jorah did not make for as interesting traveling companions as Jaime and Brienne or Arya and the Hound, but they had one memorable scene together at least.  After discussing the finer points of the DTs, the men are inspired by the sights of the ruins of Valyria to have an impromptu poetry jam.  It’s a nice, lyrical moment even before Drogon passes overhead, and Tyrion gets his first, dumbstruck look at a real, live dragon in flight.  Even after 5 years of having them on screen in elaborately-rendered glory, a great actor can show them to us with fresh eyes. 


And then there is the stomach-dropping capper, when the stone begins to move.  



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We have waited along time for Dany and Tyrion to meet, and while that meeting couldn’t suddenly make Meereen seem like anything more than a speed bump on Dany’s predestined path back to Westeros, it did make it immediately more interesting than it had been before.  Bringing Tyrion and Varys into the mix was a positive step, but giving her more interesting advisors doesn’t address that the fundamental weakness in Essos was on the opposing side.  The various slavers were never invested with any of the depth or nuance of the various feuding families in Westeros, and with her dragons and armies constantly growing, they actually felt like the underdogs most of the time. 

Which all by way of saying that Dany’s scenes become instantly more interesting when she is discussing Westerosi politics rather than the problems immediately in front of her.  We also get some of the tangled web of loyalties and sympathies that makes the main conflicts more interesting, with the reminders that Tyrion’s brother killed Dany’s father (and his unwillingness to apologize for it).  This is potential that unfortunately goes mostly unfulfilled, as Dany is spirited away in their next scene together and then the show just sort of acts as though he had been her trusted advisor since forever, instead of an enemy that spent a day or two currying favor.  But for one scene at least, we are promised a reinvigorated dynamic with new players and a sharper focus on the conflicts that actually matter, far off though they may still be.


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The series' action has gotten increasingly impressive over the years.  And while “Blackwater” remains my favorite battle episode, “Watchers On The Wall” is more extensive, and “The Roseroad” and “Death Is The Enemy” add dragons and zombies to the mix for spectacle.   But this is my favorite action sequence of the show.  I love the way it springs on us unawares, an episode before we’ve been trained to expect the big fireworks. I love how it is as much a horror sequence as an action setpiece, how all that managed to put me far enough back on my heels to feel a credible threat to Jon in spite of any more sober analysis telling me he had a lot more plot lifting to do.  I love how aside from that, there are enough redshirts around (up to and including Ed and Tormund) that there is no relief from the dread even when it cuts away from him.  I love that it gave us Wun Wun and put him in action right away.  I love the shot of the Walkers on their horses ringing the cliffs, and of the dead throwing themselves off them like lemmings, and of the fresh walkers rising silently at the end.  I love how it gave fresh urgency and punch to the specter of the Walkers, who had been a very intermittent threat up to that point.  

Really, I love that the series had earned its ruthless reputation so thoroughly that I was not just wowed by the giant spectacle (literally), but genuinely had my heart in my throat, not knowing what would happen next but caring desperately what did. That’s the power great storytelling can exert.

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Stannis’s end was shocking for just how straightforward it turned out to be, in a series known for its wild twists and turns.  That, and all the prophecy and sorcery trappings make what happens – which is exactly what would happen when marching a small contingent of starving, bedraggled infantry into a much larger force of cavalry holding a fortified position – into the last thing you expect to happen.  It’s not as painful as the Red Wedding, as Stannis’s actions have definitely branded him as Not A Good Guy at that point, but it was shocking for some of the same reason. Without him, the war that’s been the central conflict of the show since the start would seem to be over, and so for him to be taken out by one of the more minor houses rather than his “true” enemy, so far from his ultimate goal, seems to violate the basic rules of dramatic construction. 

But really, it’s the performances that make it one of the most memorable moments of the series. Say what you will about Stannis Baratheon. He would have been a terrible king. He was less than spectacular as a husband. Somehow even worse as a brother. Worse still as a father. But he sure knew how to die. Stephen Dillane’s performance was remarkable for how it not only avoided courting the audience’s sympathy, but also the desire to impress them by looking cool or clever or badass or what have you. And he really slays it at the end; if I were being stricter with myself on defining a “moment” as an actual moment instead of a whole scene, I might confine this to just the look on his face when he sees the Bolton army charging down and realizes that all his sacrifices bought him nothing. Though he is just as good grunting his way through one last fight and accepting Brienne’s long-simmering judgment