Tuesday, April 29, 2014

GAME OF THRONES 4.04 - "OATHKEEPER"

thrones


“Oathkeeper” starts by breaking from tradition, which has indicated for the last couple years that we check in on Dany for one sequence at the close of an episode, rather than the opening.  The base material here is as much of a foregone conclusion as the last couple times Dany slaughtered some aristocrats, but the execution was as good as it’s ever been. Part of that is that Mereen has a scale and effects budget behind it that makes it seem like a genuinely sprawling city, whereas Yunkai and Astapor had the feel of the handsomely-appointed soundstages. The budget still has limits, of course, as that final shot of Dany atop the pyramid conspicuously lacked a couple dragons swooping and screeching around it.

The other reason I liked this better was that the focus on Grey Worm lent it some novelty, and we got to see a level of strategy involved that was not based around pressing the “MY DRAGONS!!!” button.  The Masters were never going to turn back Dany, but Grey Worm is just ancillary enough to be a potential casualty, so there is a teensy bit of tension to the sequence.

But it’s been a long while since that storyline could hold a candle to the action in Westeros in my estimation, and I was still more interested in watching Marge manipulate the wee monarch Tommen (and his kitten, Ser Pounce), or Littlefinger vamp it up with Sansa.  I’m a little torn how to react to the show coming so clean so quickly about the conspiracy to off Joffrey. On the one hand, I sort of feel like they could’ve gotten some mileage out of a mystery plot.  But on the other, some kindly Samaritan dropped a spoiler about Olenna in the comments immediately after the wedding episode, despite multiple, bolded requests not to do precisely that.  So I’m glad to not have to tiptoe around that for weeks on end.

Anyway, Littlefinger is a devious twat.  But you have to respect his balls.  It’s one thing to realize that not having a motive to murder someone makes it easier to get away with it, but it’s another to have the stones to go ahead and off a king who was your ally just because you think the next one in line is more predictable.  But what I really can’t wait for at this point is to see what Varys does when/if he finds out what went down.  He’s smart enough to realize that it was his attempt to warn Olenna about Littlefinger last year is probably what led her to get in bed with him.

After last week’s grossness at Joffrey’s bierside, Jaime’s storyline is a little off in that he’s back to acting somewhat nobly, and it doesn’t seem like the show is even aware of what happened last week.  I’d like to think the show was making some sort of intentional point about how recently our current notions regarding rape came about, but the conflicting interpretations of what the scene was supposed to convey that have been expressed in interviews by the various writers, directors, and actors involved make it hard to buy that.  It seems more like they just figured that the GoT audience expects a certain degree of sexual transgression from the show and failed to account for how different it is to depict something like rape in a graphic-but-unequivocally-negative context and tossing it off as a relatively minor faux pax by a fan favorite.

That said, there is room for a reading of the scene between the siblings wherein Cersei’s berating of the “Lord Commander” for failing to properly protect Joffrey and Tommen as implicitly rebuking him for betraying his role as her protector in such a horrible way.  Such an interpretation does seem to fit the character of Cersei, whose unhappy lot is defined by feeling completely subjugated to the whims of men (be it her father, husband, or brother/lover) and being too proud to let them see how much it hurts her.  But also maybe I want to think that so I can enjoy scenes where Coster-Waldau plays wounded nobility opposite a suddenly-sentimental Bronn, or says a near-tearful goodbye to Brienne, as I would’ve previously.  You know, when he was just an unrepentant fucker of sisters and killer of cousins and children.

But damn, it’s hard not to feel something when he says goodbye to Brienne.  That this show has lured such a large, mainstream crowd to a place where they are familiar enough with fictionalized medieval forging technology that you can tug on their heartstrings by having one character give a bastard sword +1 to another is rather remarkable.  And that it can also mine pathos from naming that sword, something that even some characters within the show regard as deeply uncool, is similarly amazing.  The geeks have really won out, in case that wasn’t obvious.  But damn if I didn’t get a lump in the throat when Brienne dubs it Oathkeeper, which is the highest tribute she can think to give a gift from a man who has complained so bitterly about being known as Oathbreaker.  And then feel weird about it because the man raped a grieving widow next to the corpse of her son last week.

Again, that’s a hell of a thing to shake, particularly from a character that is still portrayed in a largely sympathetic light. It’s interesting to contrast it with the mutineer subplot in this episode, which is full of wall-to-wall depravity that makes last week’s scene in the sept look polite and tasteful in comparison.  The mutineer material is also interesting because apparently it’s been greatly expanded upon from the books (and that’s all we’ll say about that, thank you very much), and it also functions as a sort of microcosm of the whole show, with Rast the human ballsack getting to learn firsthand that those who are suited to take power can be the worst at wielding it.  In that way, Kal Tanner seems to be a nightmare combination of Joffrey’s viciousness with Robert’s physical prowess.  If he’s not quite as horrifying, it’s only because one secluded keep is not an entire kingdom, and because we know from the first scene of him in charge that there is a reckoning on its way in the form of one of the few purely heroic characters on the show.

And that slots in with why I don’t expect to see many think-pieces written this week about the rapefest that Kal’s been throwing at Craster’s, even if it is more graphic, extended, devoid of any possible ambiguity as to consent, and inflicted upon more wholly innocent characters.  Because no matter how “villainous” Cersei may be on the extremely subjective scale of GoT likeability, her attacker is not presented as anywhere near so one-dimensionally evil as the mutineers.  It may be unpleasant to witness an evil fuck like Kal Tanner brutalize helpless women, but there’s no question that he’s doing it precisely because he’s an evil fuck (with a comeuppance on the way).  That’s not upsetting in the same way as seeing a character we’ve come to like victimize a woman who, while frequently hateful, is already in a place of extreme hurt and vulnerability.

It feels a bit odd to take issue with this, as one of the great strengths of the show is how thoroughly it subverts one-dimensional and absolute judgments of any of its characters or situations.  One of the things I like best about it is how it presents complex scenarios without apology and makes very little effort to tell you how to feel about things, and I imagine that ethos is what enabled the creative team to make such a seemingly-unwitting stumble.  Why is this the bridge too far, you can almost hear them asking, and not any of the other horrific rapes and beheadings and castrations and cannibalism we’ve graphically depicted?

What I think is that it steps onto the very fuzzy line between a lack of hand-holding and outright nihilism, one that I find it crucial to remain (just) on the right side of in order to enjoy the show.  I’m all for the show painting in shades of gray, and generally have a very high tolerance for darkness and brutality in my entertainment.  But there is a very fine distinction that exists in my head when it comes to gray characters.  When it feels like the show’s POV is that everyone is a gray character because even the most evil people have glimmers of compassion and the capacity for goodness from time to time, I am on board with that.  If done right, it feels perversely hopeful – HBO’s recent True Detective went for this in its final episode, but not as successfully as its predecessor Deadwood, which is the most sneakily optimistic of the blood-soaked, gritty, nudity-filled historical dramas that have populated cable in its wake.  It also quite probably the greatest TV show ever made, but I digress.

The point was that it’s uplifting in a way to acknowledge that even terrible people are capable of moments of surprising grace, and if this can be expressed without excusing the terrible things they do, it resonates all the more. What’s trickier is exploring the same territory from the opposite side.  If it feels as though the point is that even the good guys have flaws and failings of their own to overcome, then that is in its own way a mature and worthy goal.  But it also means that you run the risk of accidentally saying that rape is something that even good guys are going to slip up and do every now and then, which…yikes.

This is not necessarily confined to rape, of course.  When a show that traffics in antiheroes comes at these issues from the wrong end, you get some of the more problematic aspects of shows like Dexter or Sons Of Anarchy – shows that, at their worst, seem to imply that deliberately murdering people by the dozens doesn’t mean you can’t be a basically all right guy*.  And that is, I think, the problem the show stepped in with Jaime**.  Because framing it as “just” a failing on his part on his way to becoming a better man utterly dismisses the effects on the victim.  Other people can and have written about the issue better than me, but turning Cersei’s rape into something that happened to Jaime is an insult on top of an already grievous injury.  And the show not even seeming to realize that is an entire other layer of insult on top.  So that’s what I think the problem is there.

Oh, also the previously-unseen Lord of the Dead turned a baby into a frozen wizard abomination at his secret arctic lair. So that’s also something to keep an eye on for next week.

…is it next week yet? Oh, come on!

 got

*An interesting middle note between those shows and a Deadwood is the “original” cable antihero drama, The Sopranos. It had none of the optimism about human nature of Deadwood, but its contempt for its characters’ behavior seem to only grow more palpable as the show got later into its run, which is exactly the point where its lesser progeny would become more precious about their own Bad Boys and lose any sense that the occasional finger-wagging was really sincere.

**I think there’s also something significant about how fictional depictions of a scenario more akin to date-rape is more upsetting to our modern sensibilities, because we still struggle with how to handle that issue today, whereas we’ve come to a relatively full societal consensus when it comes to outright enslavement for the purpose of “fucking them til they’re dead!”

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

GAME OF THRONES 4.03 - "BREAKER OF CHAINS"

thrones

  “Breaker Of Chains” may have been better titled “Cutter Of Losses”.  All over Westeros (and Essos), people are forced to decide what must be protected at all costs, and what can be discarded in service of that end. The Stark girls get harsh lessons on pragmatism from The Hound and a returning Littlefinger.  The latter slimeball was apparently the primary mover behind Joffrey’s assassination (though the kid’s all-encompassing shittiness means that he could still plausibly be revealed to have anywhere from 0 to 28 distinct accomplices), and hardly gives a second thought to treating the Fool as a mere loose end to be crossed off to cover his tracks.  Sansa is the piece of this puzzle that matters to him, and the rest can burn for all he cares.  Arya meanwhile is “taught” that survival of the fittest means that the weak’s only use is to feed those that have a chance at making their own way.  It may not be the most mind-blowing revelation to either her or us, given what we’ve already witnessed, but the Hound’s particularly brutal explication of it – “How many Starks do they have to behead before you figure that out?” – allows a minor diversion of a subplot to at least end on a strong note.

"mumblemumble, too nice, mumblemumble, killorbekilled, mumblemumble, CUNTS."  - The Hound
“mumblemumble, too nice, rhubarbrhurab, killorbekilled…CUNTS.” 
– The Words of House Hound
On the Wall, Sam has to decide whether Gilly’s virtue is worth sacrificing their relationship to protect.  Being a generally good and overwhelmingly timid guy, he of course decides that it is.  At the same time, Jon Snow and the new Lord Commander have to decide whether their oath to shield the Wall is entirely literal, or if it requires they abandon their post to protect those living behind it.  And whereas the Jon Snow of the first season would dash off to save the peasants, today’s bastard takes a longer view, one which requires he ride out in the opposite direction of the innocents being slaughtered in order to murder his own wayward “brothers”.  I’ve been critical of Kit Harrington’s performance from the beginning of the series; I think he miscalculated the greener version of the character, such that he came off as simply dim instead of na├»ve.  But he’s carrying himself differently after his adventure with the Wildlings, and he seems to have grown into the more lordly incarnation. He’s still not among the better performers in the ludicrously-stacked cast, but it’s a noticeable improvement.

In the other isolated stretch of the show, Dany is taking another slave-state, although in more stylish and inventive fashion than she did in Yunkai or Astapor.  There is also some improved acting over here, as I can easily picture last year’s Daario model smirking his way through the whole sequence at the gates, whereas new guy appears to recognize that a credible approximation of humility is what is currently needed to secure the khaleesi’s good graces (this after she explains why she considers her other warriors too valuable to risk on a publicity stunt).  The outcome is of course never really in question; Daario slaughters the mounted champion without breaking a sweat and then literally waggles his dick around a bit.  But it’s just a prelude to the main event, as Dany launches barrels of broken chains over the walls to incite the slaves of Mereen to risk their lives to gain their freedom.  Which is pretty cool, even if it doesn’t get the dragons any closer to Westeros.

dan
“Okay, so…now maybe tapas?”
Meanwhile, back in King’s Landing, Tyrion decides that Pod’s life is an unacceptable price to pay to help his chances of avoiding execution.  It’s a sweet scene that Dinklage unsurprisingly sells the shit out of, turning on a dime from some nicely understated comedy work when he gives a Perry-Mason style rundown of the plentiful suspects (which does omit Littlefinger, but no imp is perfect).  His only potential ally at this point is his brother, but Jaime…

Oof, Jaime. The most controversial part of the episode is obviously his forcing himself on his sister while their son’s body cools mere feet away. This is a collection of circumstances that those in the realm of cultural anthropology call “rather uncool”.  The internet’s already worked itself into a froth over this, of course, and to be honest I don’t feel like I have too much more to add.  My feelings are basically: One, rape is not cool.  Two, rape is really not cool.  Also, any quasi-consensual “grey area” scenario is not cool.  But Cersei and Jaime’s relationship is completely fucked up from the ground up, and there seems to have been a combative aspect to it from their first appearance, so that this doesn’t feel like such an enormous stretch for the characters.  It is also important to note that depiction of an act does not equate to condoning it.

And also, I don't know if I mentioned it, but rape is very not cool
And also, I don’t know if I mentioned it, but rape is very not cool
Anyway, the best scenes of the episode belong, as is customary, to Tywin.  Charles Dance has never been less than great in any scene, but he is absolutely phenomenal in his big ones tonight.  First he brings young King Tommen completely under his sway in the course of a single conversation, having decided that his goal of securing a hold over the new monarch is worth the price of permanently alienating Cersei.  It’s a miniature tour-de-force combined with a little history lesson for those of us that haven’t read the books with their hundreds of pages of exposition, and Dance makes an absolute meal out of every rhetorical question and condescending look.

And it’s not even his best scene, which comes when he visits Oberyn in the brothel, having decided that the Mountain is as expendable as his relationship with his daughter, if it stops a blood feud from boiling over.  I’m far from convinced that Oberyn will be satiated with this offering, but Tywin’s no fool.  He probably figures that whoever kills whoever in the upcoming encounter, it will buy him some time to restabilize things before the Martells come at the Lannisters directly. And given that the old man is finally acknowledging the severity of the threats the Kingdoms are facing from Wildlings and dragons in the north and east, it makes sense that he can’t abide a further threat from the south, even if we’ve only been recently introduced to its details. And if it gives us an Oberyn vs Mountain fight sequence? I can live with that.

Is it next week yet? Oh, come on!

got

Monday, April 14, 2014

GAME OF THRONES 4.02 - "THE LION AND THE ROSE"




.
Aaaaaaaaaaaaah, that hit the spot.

Game Of Thrones, much as I lurve it, can be a punishing experience.  A big part of the series’ point of view is that a feudal system like that of Westeros allows those in power to inflict terrible injustices upon those they rule over.  And the lords of Westeros are behaving particularly badly in “The Lion And The Rose”, which opens with Ramsay Snow and one of the vamps he used to torment Theon last year re-enacting his favorite Ice-T movies at the expense of a terrified girl (who might be the other one, but I haven’t checked).  It’s hard for Game Of Thrones to shock me when it comes to abject cruelty anymore, but this was a particularly stomach-turning effort, it must be said.

As Bolton returns, we see that Ramsay and Locke are old buddies (of course they are) and that Theon’s spirit remains utterly broken, as he can’t even take up his tormentor on the invitation to cut his throat.  We also see that old man Bolton is none too impressed with his work, though that’s more out of disdain for the strategy than disgust for the sadism.  He sends the boys to go take back a Northern castle from the Ironborn, which is disappointing in that it probably puts a couple more episodes distance between the bastard’s torso and 30 inches of Yara’s spear.


Things are even less cheery at Dragonstone, where Stannis is joylessly (how else?) burning “infidels” at the stake, up to and including his brother-in-law, whose ships and men it sounds like he cannot afford to lose.  This didn’t work out so well for Robb Stark when he pulled a similar move with Lord Karstark, but then he didn’t have a fire witch in his corner.  And it seems like for all her hemming and hawing about the leech ritual being weak sauce compared to a proper blood sacrifice, it has proven remarkably effective so far.  Balon Greyjoy better watch his back, not that he wouldn’t be already.  I did like the scene between Shireen and Melisandre for what it was, but the overall sense I took away was disappointment that after last year’s climactic decision to mount up and do something about the White Walkers, this storyline has inexplicably returned to Sleep Mode.

But who cares about that, and who cares about Bran (HODOR cares!) and the Reeds in the North.  The main event and bulk of the episode is Joffrey’s wedding.  And it’s wonderful and awful from start to finish.  It would’ve been a standout if it had just delivered the 20 minutes we got of terrific character details and interactions, be it Olenna amiably sparring with Tywin, or Tywin less-amiably sparring with Oberyn, or Cersei needling Brienne about her relationship with Jaime, or Loras making eyes at Oberyn, or Varys getting bumped on the head by one of the dwarf kings.


But it is going to be remembered as one of the very best episodes of the show because all of that is leading up to one of those absolute jaw-droppers of a twist that makes me love Game Of Thrones so very, very much.  I mentioned the idea that this is a system with no almost checks on the abuse of power, but the flip side to that is that those in power never have but a tenuous grip on it.  Tywin is so dangerous because he never forgets this for a moment, no matter how secure the Lannister position might seem.  Littlefinger is dangerous because he delights in that uncertainty, believing it affords the chance to leap up the socio-political ladder to those who have no family name but a gambling spirit.  Joffrey never let himself believe it was true, probably because it would mean facing up to the fact that he had no useful skills to contribute to his own success, and was wholly dependent on others to prop up his rule.  And he is struck down at the very height of his vindictive, petty, sadistic hubris.  The king is dead.  Long may he burn in the deepest of the 7 Hells.

I realize that I am cheering the murder of a disturbed teenager, in front of his parents and bride, and that could be considered, in the scheme of things, a bit gauche.  But I couldn’t give a straining, dusty Pycelle shit.  Joffrey was one of the most singularly hateful characters in the history of fiction, and I celebrated his death like college kids celebrate ethnic holidays, which is to say soberly and tastefully.

Punctuated by the occasional, contemplative “WHOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!”
Hats off to Jack Gleeson for giving such a full-throated performance over the last 3 years, for which I’m sure he has had to deal with no shortage of shit from idiotic strangers.  It was hilarious, completely devoid of vanity, and terrifying (seriously, I’ve had actual nightmares about being singled out for torment in his court and having no one come to my defense).  And he was in full form last night, with his horrible comments about Ned and Renly’s deaths in front of their loved ones, extended (and somehow worse for being so bald and uninspired) humiliations of Tyrion in front of the reception, spectacularly distasteful dwarf “battle” and particularly his fratboy-at-The-Hangover-II reactions to it, complete with full blown spit-take.

As I said, this turn completely floored me.  I have heard the mantra that “no one is safe” on this show so many times, and thought that I had accepted it, but I realize now that I had also internalized Sansa’s assertion that “the worst ones never die”.  I thought that our more heroic characters would remain in genuine jeopardy, but I thought that Joffrey would outlive the likes of…well, a lot of people, but I took Jorah in the First Dead pool my friends made prior to the premiere (hey, his daddy won it for me last year).  I do a lot of praising of the show on this basis, but the fact is I loooove being surprised by fiction, and it doesn’t happen all that often as I get older and experience more and more of it and spend objectively-pitiable amounts of time analyzing it on the internet.



See, with most shows, the crowd-sourced nature of internet commentary allows for just about any reasonable plot variations to sussed out (or at least wildly guessed at) before the season gets there.  But with GoT, perhaps because we all know the answers are out there if we want them, I/we seem to get it wrong so much more often.  It’s not that no one had ever considered that Joffrey might be murdered (although “fantasized” might be a more accurate term), it’s that no one had really put forward that he might be poisoned at his wedding.  Two episodes into the season, no less!  This feels all the more remarkable because the answers are out there, a Google search or careless tweet away, but actually I think that probably helps cut down on it because it undercuts any fleeting internet-glory/”I told ya so!” cred by ensuring that everyone will just assume you looked it up.  Whereas with Mad Men, everyone and their dog will be taking stabs in the dark all year about how it will end, secure in the knowledge that they will get to shout “Called It!!” If they turn out to be right, and no one will remember or care that they made 32 other wrong calls on the way there.

All of this is to say that I love that GoT can still shock me this deep in the run.  The deaths of the various Starks taught me that this was not a series that would play by the rules of other fantasy epics, but “The Lion And The Rose” showed me that it would not even play by its own rules.  Or at least that I was wrong to think I had figured out what those might be.  Since I thought that a cornerstone would be that a monster like Joffrey would hang around until the endgame commenced.  Of course, we have yet to see what sort of hydra heads will pop up to replace him now that he’s gone…


Still a considerable step up, I’d say

I generally don’t do bullet points, but it appears this week I have more thoughts than segues, so…

–  There has already been an immediate flurry of speculation already as to the identity of the poisoner, but I didn’t come away from the episode thinking it was a whodunit.  Ser Dontoss the Fool tells Sansa they have to leave if they want to live the moment Joffrey starts to cough, which is a weird conclusion for him to jump to if he wasn’t behind it.  But seeing as how no book readers have stepped in to clarify that it was definitely him, I infer that this is something the books treat as a mystery for awhile.  By the way, book readers, that is REALLY, REALLY NOT an invitation to step in and clarify in the comments.  Anyway, Olenna seems to be the current prime suspect, but I don’t see that only because I think she would give her granddaughter’s position as queen to have more time to solidify before overthrowing the reign they’ve worked so hard to insinuate themselves into.  Not buying Tywin either, because no matter how much he might loathe the boy, I keep going back to his introductory lecture to Jaime back in S1, about how a public attack on even the lowest of them (Tyrion) makes the entire Family look unacceptably weak.  I certainly wouldn’t put it past Oberyn, but I think he’s a little too fresh to the narrative to be responsible for such an enormous plot development.  And then there’s sweet Sansa herself, who has all the motives in several worlds to do the deed, and the Stark simple-mindedness not to realize that doing it this way would cast suspicion directly upon her already-downtrodden husband…

Hmm, maybe Sansa could be in on it.  Although I think the most fruitful dramatic avenue would be that Dontoss did it, and she is forced to choose between letting Tyrion hang for it or condemning the Fool to torture and death in order to exonerate him.  We shall see in the coming weeks I suppose.

–  Another week, I would have full paragraphs about the awesomeness of Jaime and Bronn as secret sparring partners (and the gorgeous location for that set), and Tyrion finally pushing Shae all the way out of the capitol, not to mention Bran’s vision.  But the King was the man of this hour.


–  It’s kind of amazing to me that they didn’t force this into last year’s finale, but instead chose to let the bitter, bitter aftertaste of Red Wedding linger for a full year.  I could say the same about the Hound/Arya finale to last week’s premiere, which would’ve been even easier to move up to leave such a brutal season on a higher note (plus her killing of the Frey goon in the finale seems like a less potent version of the same scene anyway).  Between seeing these villains get theirs and Shae (apparently) escaping a nasty fate at the last second, the 4th season seems to be starting on almost indulgent terms, which of course only makes me more nervous for what horrors await in the back half.

–  Add Sigur Ros to the ranks of The National, Coldplay and The Hold Steady on the list of contemporary bands that have contributed a cover and/or cameo as musicians to an episode of Game Of Thrones.  I like how they’ve established “Rains Of Castamere” so well that they can just play a few bars of it and hustle it off like the pop song from last summer that every ended up hearing way too many times.  Oh, and Sigur Ros are pretty great.  Weird sound, but there’s no one that sounds like them.  Best I can do is they sound like maybe what would happen if Bjork fucked Slint.

–  I did less pictures this week and mostly just reposted .gifs and vids from the message board reactions.  What can I say, they made me laugh.

Is it next week yet?  Oh, come on!

got

Friday, April 11, 2014

STUCK IN THE MIDDLE WITH AGENTS OF SHIELD

shield

Disclaimer:  If you somehow were interested in reading this column without realizing it would contain spoilers for both Agents Of Shield and Captain America: The Winter Soldier…then you were wrong, and kind of weirdly dumb for even thinking that.

Marvel’s Agents Of Shield has not been a good show.  In its first 15 weeks of life, it has featured flat, unengaging characters engaging in rote, unimpressive action sequences and exchanging in sporadically amusing banter across the same cheap set. “Crossover” episodes that were less eventful than the standard procedural episodes.  Production values that make you wonder if ABC and Disney even knew these kids were making a show from their IP.

But how much of this was really the show’s “fault”?  A great deal of it, undoubtedly.  But as a serialized narrative, it was lethally middled from the moment of its conception.  So how much of AoS’s failure should be attributed to Nature (being inherently torn between the need to stand on its own and simultaneously serve the greater needs of the MCU), and how much to Nurture (failings in writing, casting, and general execution)?

NATURE:
AoS is unprecedented in certain ways.  It exists primarily to prop up and promote the Marvel film franchises, so one might have expected more extensive crossovers and guest appearances from the Avengers.  But so far, we have had one scene with Nick Fury, and one episode where one of Thor’s Lil’ Buddies came through town.  That’s not really exploiting the enormous, colorful Marvel Universe to its fullest potential, a need which would seem to be built into the show’s DNA.
But it’s also as it should be, probably.  This is a 22 episode season of a weekly drama series.  It can’t be nothing but cockteases for The Winter Soldier and Age Of Ultron and Starfox: The Worst Avenger.  And thus you have the major instability at heart of the show.  We have to buy into these characters and be interested in their adventures in and of themselves, but we are really only supposed to care because of their proximity to the real deal Heroes and Shit That Actually Matters (the movies).  Separate them too much from the big events and you have people tune out because they aren’t getting the MCU action they signed up for; tie them too closely to the Big Stuff and the same people will get antsy wondering why we’re wasting our time with the JV squad when all the cool shit is happening just to the left of frame.

So what the show needs is to carve out its own identity, independent from the movies it spun off from, so we can invest in the story we’re actually watching rather than the more interesting one it suggests is happening elsewhere.  But then how is it that this week’s episode was by far the most intimately tied to a Marvel movie, and also by far the best episode to date?


NURTURE:

Because it fixed a lot of the problems with the execution.  The action was still largely confined to the plane and dark corridors, but it is rougher, bloodier and has a desperate edge that fits with the dire circumstances the team finds themselves in compared to earlier romps.  And the dogfighting sequences are a bit of a change of pace and features decent effects work to boot.  It’s not on the level of Winter Soldier*, but it’s a real step up and pretty good by TV standards.

But more than that it’s that things actually HAPPENED.  That the major events were rolling downhill from the movies doesn’t matter much, because the team needed a shakeup in a bad, bad way.  Worse than they needed better fight choreography, even; for all the improved action and wild twists, my favorite bit in the episode was Fitz responding to the threat of torture and enslavement by swearing to bring Paxton down.  Except that he’s not Iron Man, so he actually just promises to play a part in taking him down.  And he’s not Captain America, so he forces it out through tears.

FitzSimmons are the best characters on AoS, because they are the only team members that actually are the “normal folk”, on a show that is ostensibly premised around exploring normal folk within this very abnormal world.  Skye is some sort of alien from the planet Sexytron, and it’s been all too easy to see Coulson/May/Ward as ersatz analogues for Captain America/Black Widow/Hawkeye.  We’ve talked a lot on the message boards about how these folks are bland individuals, but it’s also a problem that their team dynamic is basically what you would get if you removed the really heavy hitters from the Avengers, then made the less powerful folks even weaker and less distinctive.  It creates a feeling that we’re wasting time passing it with the watered-down versions, which creeps into each and every scene in the show without our really realizing it.

But as mentioned before this episode was definitely the high point of the series.  The final twist turns the weak characterization of Ward on its head and allows for a shake-up of the team dynamic.  But it’s about the fourth twist of the episode, which pits the team against each other before plunging them into a legitimately tense situation, where neither they nor we know who they can trust.  They can’t pack this many twists into every episode, or else they would rapidly become weightless and numbing.  And they can’t drastically reboot the show every time they need a goosing, no matter how much it spices things up that the team is fractured and cut off from the unlimited resources, infrastructure and reinforcements that SHIELD represented (a safety net that constantly worked to erode any sense of danger or urgency an episode threatened to build).

Now, though, things have the potential to be much more interesting going forward.  Don’t get me wrong, one good episode does not make AoS a good show.  15 hours is a long time to spend building a boring, lukewarm house just so you can have fun burning it down in the 16th, and I’m neither in a hurry to revisit the earlier parts of the season myself nor to blame anyone who bailed along the way. But there is opportunity here, so as a public service I am going to offer my advice for how to keep Agents Of Shield operating at a level we might call “good” with a straight face.  I do this knowing that the remainder of the season has no doubt been written if not shot already, but Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen would have to be crazy not to reopen production to implement these suggestions.  For clearly I possess expertise they cannot hope to match.  They are but experienced, professional, HUGO Award-winning writers and showrunners, whereas I…I have the internet.

So in helpful DO/DON’T format, here is how to save Agents Of Shield:

DO:  Move FitzSimmons further to the fore.  As mentioned, they’re the only completely human characters, and as such offer a perspective that is unique to this show’s setting.  I’m agnostic on positioning them as a romantic pairing (because on the one hand that seems really hacky and obvious, but on the other they’re so cute together…), but give them emotional storylines to anchor and I don’t think they will let you down.

DON’T:  Hire more models for new roles.  I know Clark Gregg looks like a normal dad, but having everyone else on the team, down to the tech geeks, look runway-ready glamorous has not been working terribly well.  Agents Blake and Garrett immediately outshone the superhumanly-symmetrical Skye and Ward from the moment they stepped on screen, because they were played by honest-to-god Actors, with immediate, distinctive personalities.  I realize that the most likely additions to the team are Cobie Smulders (now that HIMYM is done) and the replacement-Ward that showed up with Paxton, neither of whom are too rough on the ol’ eyebones, but I’m just saying.  The sets and costumes are already homogenizing enough, so in the future cast with an eye for diversity (be it of race, age, or rating on the Clydesdale Scale).

DO:  Give the team their own ongoing antagonist.  Yes, they’ve had the Clairvoyant, but it would seem that he turned out to be Paxton, who is definitely not going to stick around on a weekly basis.  Even if the Clairvoyant is a mantle that gets passed around HYDRA according to convenience, it’s no longer really viable now that we’ve seen behind the curtain.  Bring someone from the comics, but not a heavy hitter or anything.  It can be someone who has already been used in a minor capacity in the films, like Armin Zola or Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell is arguably as big a star as Paxton, but he seems more like he’s game for just about anything, so who knows?), or someone that is unlikely to ever see the silver screen (Motherfucking MODOK!!!).  Marvel’s got several thousand characters to their names; don’t be afraid to burn a few just because you might want to maybe use them in Doctor Strange 3 in 2022. Of course, “Turn, Turn, Turn” set up Ward as the perfect person to take on recurring villain duties.  Which leads me to the most important Don’t…

DON’TDO NOT PULL THE PUNCH WITH WARD’S TURN.  Don’t have it turn out that he was brainwashed or coerced into killing his fellow agents.  You can’t play that card again so soon after the Deathlok arc.  Don’t have it turn out that Hand planned to sacrifice herself all along so that Ward could infiltrate Hydra and take it down from the inside.  That’s too risky and dumb for ostensibly smart characters to think of as a viable plan, particularly when she is about the highest-ranking loyalist left in the ranks.  Really don’t have it turn out that the gun was loaded with blanks and the agents had ketchup packet squibs ready as an elaborate fake out.  If we can’t trust that people are dead when you show them get shot point blank, followed by a double-tap once they’re down, why should we even bother paying attention to anything you ever show us again?  And don’t have it be a Life Model Decoy.  Actually…

DON’T:  Do anything with Life Model Decoys, ever.  I mean fucking ever.  They are dramatic antimatter.  Once you introduce that device, you will never be able to create a smidge of tension again (and this is a show that runs on life-and-death stakes), and there is no putting the genie back in the bottle.  Again, if we can’t trust that a graphically depicted point-blank firearm execution will result in death, then we can’t trust anything and nothing matters at all.  It’s bad enough that Coulson was brought back to life and Fury elaborately faked his death in Winter Soldier.  I know coming back from the dead is a longstanding comic book trope, but it’s probably the shittiest thing about comics and it’s, if anything, even shittier here.

DO:  Keep the action choreographer from last episode.  The fights were much better than they had been before, if not movie-level.  The show benefits from playing a little rougher.  To that end…

DON’T:  Keep futzing with the icers.  I know the show’s for kids (sorta) but kids don’t give a shit about the good guys shooting bad guys.  They don’t care that Star Wars doesn’t stop in its tracks to establish that Leia’s always sets her blaster to stun before taking a shot at a stormtrooper.  They would not have tuned out on GI Joe if the heroes occasionally hit their target.  Kids can play with Nerf guns themselves, they want to watch the grown-ups use the real things.

DON’T:  Force a fistfight and a shootout into every episode.  I know I just made a big deal about the action, but elaborate action sequences are simply not within the means of a weekly show like this.  Besides, I was talking mainly about stakes, not quotas for violence.  A better idea is to…

DO:  Play up the sci-fi and espionage angles of the premise.  Aim for more suspense than action.  The most effective part of “Turn, Turn, Turn” was the The Thing vibe that came from the crew creeping around a base under siege, never sure who was actually the enemy.  There was a long infiltration scene on The Americans this week that eschewed any depiction of violence whatsoever, but was as intense as any gunfight I’ve seen this year.  That sort of thing falls well within AoS’s wheelhouse and budgetary limits, but for some reason past episodes apparently felt like such sequences weren’t complete until several armed guards ran at Ward and tried punching him instead of shooting or tazing or macing him.

DON’T:  Do another 22 episode season.  13 is fine, really.  It works for all the best shows, and a lot of them still end up with some filler in there.  13 hours is a long time.

DO:  Keep HYDRA in the driver’s seat for a while.  I know that the title of the show kind of indicates that the team can’t operate independently forever, but the heroes work better as underdogs.  And again, operating without that safety net raises the stakes.

So that’s my plan for saving Marvel’s Agents Of Shield.  I have another, more drastic one for if no renewal is coming and you want to burn the whole thing down, but I assume that’s not going to be the case.  AoS is never going to become the crown jewel of the MCU, but I think moving in these directions would give the show a decent chance at nabbing the elusive brass ring of Not Sucking. YOU’RE WELCOME, Marvel/Disney/America.

*which features the best superhero action since The Avengers, or Spiderman 2 before it – I particularly like how so many of the combatants are not shy about bringing guns to a fistfight, in sharp contrast to the unfailingly polite guards and goons on AoS.

Monday, April 7, 2014

GAME OF THRONES 4.01 - "TWO SWORDS"

thrones

We’re back in Westeros, for an hour that somehow does not include a single major tragedy, and concludes with Arya and the Hound going all Charles Bronson on a pack of torturers and rapists.  It’s as happy-go-lucky as the show can get, but of course half of our characters are utterly miserable nonetheless.  The Starks are still on the canvas following the Red Wedding, having lost their lands, castle, armies, the heads of all the adult members of the family, and now their ancestral weapon to boot.  But they are not so entirely removed from the game as the Lannisters would believe; for starters, they underestimate the number of surviving Stark children by 3.  We don’t see Bran or Rickon at all in this episode, but for an episode that begins with Tywin haughtily melting down the blade that symbolized his enemy’s power, it is significant that it ends with Arya reclaiming a sword of her own.  Needle may look like a trifle next to the “absurdly large” decapitator that Ned used (and was used on him in turn), but it’s plenty sharp enough for her to draw her first Lannister blood and perhaps scratch one name off her nighttime litany.

Also Sansa, a character whose pathos is rooted in her utter powerlessness, gets a lengthy scene with the drunk she managed to save from Joffrey’s pique in the season 2 premiere.  For a show with so many dozens of characters and far-flung storylines to service, it’s safe to  assume that any scene that lasts longer than a minute is carefully selected for a specific purpose. I don’t know that I really expect the drunk jester to become a major player in the later seasons, but I do think that the writers felt it was important to remind both us and Sansa at this point that she is still capable of exerting some form of influence from within her gilded cage.  She has importance, and whether she realizes it or not, that gives her some degree of power.  I don’t expect this season to end with her on the Iron Throne, but I do think that she and her siblings will be important parts of the series ultimate endgame, and ultimately enjoy some form of payback on their many tormentors.

There’s also pseudo-Stark Jon Snow, whose story is still among the least interesting aspects of the series for me, but who I fully expect to be an important character all the way to the end.  I’ve never been blown away by Kit Harrington’s performance, but he gets a nice quiet moment reminiscing about Robb, and the potent stew of admiration and resentment and love that make up fraternal relationships.  I can’t say that I was riveted by his “trial” scene, as it was obvious that the Watch wasn’t going to execute him now, but it was kind of cool to see Janos Slynt pop up again after so long.

Sure is purdy, though
Sure is purdy, though
I am more interested in his former pack of Wildlings, who are still waiting on the signal from Mance Rayder to take Castle Black.  They meet up with a group of ritualistically scarred cannibals that make Tormund look cuddly by comparison, and I’m immediately eager to see them in action (and eating Janos, preferably).  Their arm-on-a-spit can’t hold a candle to the decadent concoctions Mads Mikkelsen is cooking up from peoples over on Hannibal, but it makes an impression nonetheless.  For as much as GoT eschews traditional fantasy good vs. evil derring do, there is value to having some straight up heavies around to menace our “heroes”.

I don't have a bit for here, you should just really check out this show
I don’t have a bit for here, you should just really check out this show too
Meanwhile, in Essos…they recast Daario, which is a marked improvement, since the original guy is the only casting in three years that I thought was outright bad (he had a modern look and feel that didn’t fit the period setting). I’ll have more to say about it when we see something new over there, I imagine. Right now it’s still blah blah slaves bad blah blah khaleesi pretty blah blah dragons be cray-cray.

dany
Also, Dany started wearing Levi’s under her dresses. Somehow, I blame this on hipsters.
Because really, the episode and by inference the season is/will be focused primarily on the ascendant Lannisters.  It’s a neat trick the series has pulled, introducing us to the Stark brood at the outset and gradually having their hated, incestuous, duplicitous enemies supplant them as the central protagonists.  To the extent that Game Of Thrones has a traditional protagonist, anyhow.  While I can look back and see Ned as the central figure of season one, and Tyrion of season two, last year is harder to pin down (perhaps a function of its covering only half a book).  But if “Two Swords” is any indication, Jaime just might be the focal point of this season.  And I’m down with that, because Nicolaj Coster-Waldau has been fantastic mining the depths of feeling and hidden honor within the sister-fucking, oath-breaking, child-killing, newly-dismembered knight.  Also, he’s funny, and as Tyrion has shown, the ability to earn a laugh goes a long way to gaining my affections amidst such grim surroundings.


Jaime has developed into such a complex and oddly sympathetic character, largely by virtue of being dragged through the mud for the last two years.  He’s now free again, but his family is buffeting him around to the extent that he probably doesn’t feel that way. Tywin wants to separate him from both the family and his last shreds of honor by renouncing the Kingsguard, Joffrey wants to assert his independence by running his old man down, Cersei isn’t keen on picking up where they left off, and even Brienne is getting in his face about finding a way to keep his word and help Sansa.  And no one is above taking cheap shots at his missing hand and impending middle age.  Oh, and Oberyn Martell wants to murder him and all the others.

Oberyn makes an immediate impression as the decadent and dangerous new enemy for the Lannisters (who need one, since Stannis is distracted and the Starks are too bloodied and scattered to pursue their vendetta for quite some time).  You can sort of feel the show straining in that brothel sequence to find a level of depravity that will impress us, but after everything we’ve seen in the show over the last few years, it’s hard to feel scandalized by finding out the new guy is bisexual.  I am impressed with how quickly and effectively they establish the Martells’ grudge with the Lannisters, however, despite their absence from the first 3 years of the show.  We’ve heard about the sacking of King’s Landing enough, and what happened to the Targaryen children, that this feels like a reasonably organic development rather than a late-stage retcon.  I am curious as to why they chose now to strike, and not at any time in the last year or two when they were more vulnerable, but I can wait for an answer on that.  First I want to see Oberyn interact with Jaime, and Cersei, and Olenna, and Varys.  And Bronn.  The two seem to hit it off right away, and anyone that likes Bronn is worthwhile in my books.

mart
His, uh, his friend can stay too, I guess
Last but never least we have the Imp himself.  Dinklage is always great, but he has not been his best, most interesting self the last half season or so, having shed his devil-may-care charisma for moping and repetitive sniping with Shae.  It looks like that will not repeat itself much more, however, as Cersei finding out about her can only mean that she is about to meet a bad, bad fate.  Too many people within his own family wish him harm for this season to go well for my favorite character, I’m afraid.  It’s gonna be hard out there for an Imp, and only get harder, is my prediction.  In the meantime, if they can just give me one scene between him and Jaime next week, that would go a long way to making me satisfied.

So, is it next week yet?  Oh, come on!

got