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

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[SPOILER WARNING: Please don’t read unless you’ve seen the episode. I mean, come on, you know how this works]

Saying goodbye is hard. It’s a trial both in real life and pop culture, and the difficulty level spikes even higher when it comes to saying goodbye to the most successful television show of all time, say. That’s the unenviable task that David Benioff and D. B. Weiss – showrunners of Game of Thrones and writer/directors of the final episode – have set themselves with “The Iron Throne”.

So, how’d they do? Well, naturally opinions will vary. Hell, after last week’s divisive episode “The Bells”, some one million (!) pissed off fans have signed an online petition for season eight to be remade “with competent writers”. And while that’s a bit funny in a slightly sad sort of way, it also demonstrates the range of passionate reactions floating around out there. That said, “The Iron Throne”, while flawed in the same ways seasons 6-8 have been, does a pretty solid job of putting a fork in this fantasy opus. But let’s recap, one final time.

The episode opens with Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) wandering through the smoking ruins of King’s Landing. It’s a rough stroll, filled with weeping survivors, shell shocked wounded and many, many crispy skin corpses. He is joined by Davos Seaworth (Liam Cunningham) and Jon Snow (Kit Harington), but the wee man isn’t in the mood for chatter. Jon wanders on and finds Grey Worm (Jacob Anderson) about to slit the throats of some Lannister soldiers. Wormy reckons he’s doing it on the queen’s orders, but Jon disagrees that it is necessary. The pair almost come to blows, but Davos manages to calm them down, and Grey Worm starts killing the prisoners in bold defiance of whatever the Westeros equivalent of the Geneva Convention is.

Tyrion goes digging through the rubble and finds the corpses of Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey). Their underwhelming, silly deaths from last episode are rendered even more underwhelming and silly by the fact that the rest of the room appears relatively intact and they could have easily survived. Tyrion, nonetheless, is moved by the sight of his dead siblings and cries, showcasing yet again how wonderful Peter Dinklage has been in this role.

Outside Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) wanders about looking lost, when she spies Jon ascending the stairs, moving past the massed Dothraki Riders and Unsullied. Drogon arrives with Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) and she hops off and gives a rousing speech, in which she talks about “freeing” the people of Westeros, just like she “freed” the people (aka piles of ash) of King’s Landing. Grey Worm gets a promotion, Jon looks pensive and Tyrion tells Dany he quits, which leads to his immediate arrest. Tyrion is going home in the back of a divvy van!

Jon visits Tyrion in his cell and over a rather bittersweet sequence, Tyrion talks about how he has been so very wrong and how it would be pretty great if Jon killed Dany. Jon looks pensive.

Jon heads over to visit Dany, whereupon he meets a snow-covered Drogon who gives him a quick once over but deems him okay to enter. Jon visits Dany who is dreamily fondling the Iron Throne. Sure, she’s massacred thousands of people, but she genuinely believes she’s doing the right thing. She’s not a full Mad Queen, but rather something more insidious, Dany is a true believer who genuinely thinks she can do only good. We understand this from a cracking little interaction between Dany and Jon, and the pair are both acting their little hearts out.

“Be with me, build the new world with me. This is our reason,” Dany says, “we do it together, we break the wheel together.”

“You are my queen,” Jon whispers, “now and always.”

The pair pash on like their pingers are kicking in but Jon takes the moment to slide his dagger into Dany’s heart. She’s too surprised to be angry and dies, her mouth leaking blood and her eyes wide in disbelief. Jon cries at what he’s done, and then Drogon pops in for a visit. It looks for all the world as if Drogon is going to fire Jonno, but instead the scaly champion turns his burning attentions to the Iron Throne itself, melting it down to a puddle of boiling slag. The concept of the throne being a symbol rather than a literal source of power is apparently lost on Drogon. Stupid dragon. Drogon then grabs Dany’s corpse and pisses off into the sky, to places unknown.

Some weeks later, Grey Worm grabs Tyrion from his cell and takes him to a staff meeting of pretty much everyone who is still alive. The important players are Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner), Brandon Stark (Isaac Hempstead Wright), Arya, Davos, Ser Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie), Yara Greyjoy (Gemma Whelan) and Samwell Tarly (John Bradley). The question of what to do with Tyrion and Jon is raised, with Grey Worm falling very much on the side of Team Decapitate. The point is, a leader needs to be chosen and though Sam gamely tries to raise the idea of democracy (to much laughter and disdain) it is ultimately Bran who everyone wants. Wait, what?! Fucken BRAN?! Captain Uncomfortable Stare? Good lord. Everyone seems pretty down with the idea, except Sansa who wants the North to be an independent state. Bran accepts the role but insists that Tyrion be his hand, and will make up for his mistakes for the rest of his life. So begins the reign of “Bran the broken”. Which, guys, awkward name, hey?

Tyrion goes to tell Jon the good news. Said news being “you won’t be killed, but you’re back off to the Night’s Watch again”. Jon takes the news pensively.

Jon walks along in a fancy fur coat, with his fellow men of the Night’s Watch, and farewells his family. Sansa is going to be Queen in the North, Arya is going to explore the lands “west of Westeros” and Bran the Broken (ugh) will rule the Seven Kingdoms. Meanwhile, Brienne fills in Jaime Lannister’s Wikipedia entry, and manages to make him sound like not a complete fuckwit, which is pretty big of her, to be honest.

Next, we have the first meeting with the new king, with Tyrion, Davos, Samwell and Bronn (Jerome Flynn)! Yes, in a lovely moment for a character much ignored in this final season, Bronn gets a somewhat happy ending as the new “Master of Coin”. Tyrion is nonplussed to be left out of “A Song of Ice and Fire”, a rather meta tome that has the appealing feature of ACTUALLY BEING FINISHED, EH GEORGE? Bran enters, does very little, and buggers back off with Ser Podrick Payne (Daniel Portman) and the adults are left to talk about the best way to rebuild. It’s not a perfect system but it works.

A gorgeously directed final sequence shows where our Starks have ended up. Jon joins Tormund Giantsbane (Kristofer Hivju) and Ghost (WHO FINALLY GETS THAT PAT) and heads North of the Wall with the Wildlings. Sansa gets the crown and becomes Queen of the North. Arya commands a ship heading out to lands unknown and we can only wonder what happens next, because that’s all she wrote, ladies and gentleman, Game of Thrones – at least in this incarnation – has ended.

There are endings great and terrible in television. Of the former, Mad Men, Breaking Bad and The Shield are notable examples. Of the latter, Dexter, Lost and How I Met Your Mother wear the shame crown. So, where does Game of Thrones sit? Look, it’s subjective but in terms of these last three seasons, it’s pretty good. Dany’s execution isn’t particularly exciting, or tense, but the genuine emotion of the moment lands. And the episode actually improves in the second half, with a brief-but-tantalising look at what will happen next in Westeros.

Of course, “a brief look” is likely the biggest problem here, with these last two seasons being needlessly truncated. Two ten episode seasons would have served this narrative better, and yet what we got, while imperfect, still managed to feel emotionally resonant and satisfying on a level that admittedly has to ignore a lot of dangling plot threads, missing characters and various prophecies that were, apparently, just wrong.

Current internet punching bags, David Benioff and D. B. Weiss direct this series finale with a kind of somber style, bringing a solid conclusion to an increasingly inconsistent saga. And whether you loved, hated or were simply bemused by how it all wrapped up, let’s take a moment to appreciate the mammoth undertaking this entire series represents. This is an epic fantasy told over many hours, brimming with love and death, monsters and gore, characters and locations. There may be shows that equal, or even surpass, it in the future but this was the first one to sing the song of ice and fire.

The major missing piece was, of course, Ser Pounce’s paw bursting through the ashes and clawing its way to victory, but they probably just ran out of money before they could shoot that one. Thanks for reading, everyone, see you at the next wildly entertaining, if controversial, cultural landmark!

 
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Game of Thrones, Season 8 Episode 5: The Bells

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[SPOILER WARNING: Please don’t read unless you’ve seen the episode. Come on, you know how this works]

Game of Thrones’ penultimate episode ever, “The Bells”, is a perfect encapsulation of everything good and everything bad about the show. It manages to attain gripping, edge-of-your-seat tension and laughable, forehead-slapping stupidity in a propulsive 78-minute package. It’s the kind of episode people will remember for years, citing the pros and the cons, and will likely end up on numerous “best of” and “worst of” lists, with shouty people on the internet seemingly leaning towards the latter with frankly alarming zeal.

But before we dig deeper, let’s recap this bad boy and see what all the fuss is about.

We open in Dragonstone with Lord Varys (Conleth Hill) writing a note to send via Adorable Child Post. Said note is regarding Jon Snow’s rightful place on the Iron Throne. The sad music and somber tone of this scene suggests that this was not Varys’ smartest play. Continuing his stubborn resistance towards “smart things”, he then tries to convince Jon Snow that his missus may, in fact, be a little bit cray. Jon doesn’t want a bar of it and Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) watches from afar, having a good old frown.

Tyrion then takes it upon himself to pay a mourning Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) a visit, informing her that she is being betrayed by Varys. This bit of dibber dobbing is a harsh pill to swallow and Tyrion tries to sweeten it by suggesting Varys’ heart, like all of their hearts, was in the right place. This goes down about as well as you might expect.

Nek minute, Varys is arrested by Grey Worm (Jacob Anderson) and taken to the beach where Dany, Jon and Tyrion stand around with faces like smacked bums. Tyrion tells Varys that it was he who sold him out, and with a final moment of dignity, Varys tells Tyrion he “hopes [he’s] wrong… goodbye old friend.” Then Dany summons Drogon and fries one of the show’s best characters like a pork chop on a barbie. Goodbye, Varys, more characters should have listened to you, mate.

Dany has a bit of a debrief with Grey Worm, and she gives him Missandei’s (Nathalie Emmanuel) only possession, her old slave collar. Grey Worm burns the gift in the fire and leaves when Jon arrives. Dany grills Jon (verbally, unlike Varys) and wants to feel out his loyalty; she claims she wants more from Westeros than fear. She goes in for a pash but Jon is clearly not feeling frisky – on account of his ambivalence about aunty-fucking, no doubt – and Dany mutters, “alright then, let it be fear.”

Tyrion has one final crack at making Dany see reason, but she’s pretty intent on turning King’s Landing into a smouldering ruin. Tyrion makes one last play, begging her that if the city surrenders and rings its bells, will she then not kill everyone? Dany rather huffily agrees and as Tyrion goes to leave, offhandedly mentions that she has pinged Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) trying to sneak back home. That’s Tyrion’s final warning, she tells him.

Preparations for battle begin in earnest. At King’s Landing, we see scores of innocent people moving into the “safety” of the Red Keep. From there, we cut back to Tyrion asking a favour of Davos Seaworth (Liam Cunningham), and it’s a biggie. Nearby, Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) and Sandor Clegane aka The Hound (Rory McCann) bullshit their way past some guards and head to where the action is. Tyrion springs Jaime from his makeshift jail and we have the episode’s most moving and well-observed tender moment between the pair. Tyrion thanks Jaime for never treating him like a monster and they embrace and it’s sweet and- oh shit, Jaime’s defo gunna die, isn’t he?

In the light of day, everyone prepares for battle. Including Euron Greyjoy (Pilou Asbæk), Tyrion, Jon, Cersei and everyone else. Cersei, in particular, smirks like the cat who got the cream and we have to wonder what her secret plan is. Downstairs, an adorable moppet and her mum are stuck outside the walls because Arya and The Hound pushed in. Yet again, the little people suffer because of the whims of the powerful, a classic recurring GoT theme.

The battle kicks off with Dany riding Drogon in a vertical attack pattern against Euron’s fleet. Apparently, Euron has run out of the magic arrows from last week because he gets absolutely fucked on, with Dany burning his boats and men from bonce to ballbag. Dany continues the wave of mutilation against the scorpions perched on the walls of King’s Landing with similar results. She’s the firestarter, twisted firestarter.

Outside the walls, the Golden Company led by Harry Strickland (Marc Rissmann) get ready to show off the moves we’ve been waiting to see since they were first introduced. Wow, this is going to be good, what sort of epic- wait, no, Dany just bursts through the city’s walls and the whole company get wrecked by the Dothraki riders. Huh, you uh… kinda sucked, Harry.

Cersei, still watching from on high, loses about 34% of her smirk and continues to do nothing.

Jon and Grey Worm and crew, head in to face a group of very dispirited looking Lannister forces. Tension rises as we’re about to see a nasty battle but, sensing the reversal of fortune, the Lannister troops drop their weapons and surrender. Sanity has prevailed and a new dawn will rise. The bells ring out, a sound of hope, which causes Cersei’s smirk to vanish completely and everyone else to be much happier. Everyone, that is, except Dany who apparently has not spilt enough blood yet, because she kickstarts Drogon and, in an effective albeit predictable sequence, starts to burn King’s Landing to ash, one screaming peasant at a time.

The battle resumes despite Jon’s attempt to calm everyone’s tits, and what follows is some of Game of Thrones’ most effective, albeit staggeringly bleak, sequences of innocent people caught up in the grisly machines of rich people’s wars.

Jaime, while attempting to sneak upstairs to see Cersei, is interrupted by Euron and the pair have a rather silly sword fight. At the same time Qyburn (Anton Lesser), accompanied by The Mountain (Ian Whyte), tells Cersei they should really head off somewhere safer than the large building a dragon is currently burning. Cersei cries and agrees. This is literally the first thing she has done for this entire episode and… wow, okay.

The silly sword fights conclude with Jaime mortally wounded and Euron bleeding out, proud of the fact that he’s “the man who killed Jaime Lannister”. Which apparently means a lot to him, despite his guts hanging out. Weird flex, Euron, weird flex.

In the Red Keep, The Hound tells Arya she should probably leave because he’s about to die, one way or the other. Arya actually listens, realising revenge is no way to live, and scarpers. The Hound, meanwhile, finally confronts his brother on the stairs, killing all the adds and ready to fight the main boss. Qyburn tells the Mountain to protect the Queen and do as he’s told, so the big fella smashes his skull open and throws his body away like a sack of spuds. Cersei awkwardly scampers past the pair of them and Clegane Fight Night is about to begin!

Jaime finds Cersei and she cries a lot, and hugs Jaime. The pair of them will attempt to flee. Hound vs Mountain is a brutal battle, with The Mountain being super OP because no sword wound seems to hurt him particularly. This brutal blue is juxtaposed with an equally brutal sequence of Arya trying to escape King’s Landing, as the place literally falls to pieces. In the final moments of the brother battle, Sandor seems to realise that there’s only one way to win and tackles Gregor off the side of the building and the pair fall into a sea of seething fire. Farewell the brothers Clegane, you were both wonderful and horrible.

Jon rallies the troops to leave King’s Landing, and elsewhere Arya tries to help the mum and daughter we met earlier. It does not go well. Meanwhile, Jaime and Cersei’s escape plan is similarly stymied by the fact that the secret tunnel has been filled in. Cersei starts sobbing desperately (seriously, what’s happening with her this episode?!) and Jaime holds her close… as the pair of them are crushed by falling rubble. And… that’s a wrap on Cersei and Jaime, apparently. This is probably the episode’s weakest moment, sadly.

Arya has survived, the young mum and daughter have not. Arya mounts a friendly horse (a pale horse, in fact) and rides off into the distance and cue the end credits.

What a ride. A lot of extremely noisy people on the internet have decried Dany’s arc with this episode, but honestly that’s been on the boil for ages. While it might be sad and tragic, it was also inevitable, if a bit ham-fisted in its delivery. What really rankles about this episode is Cersei’s astonishingly passive reaction to everything. We’ve been building her up as the big bad for ages and she goes out like a scared child? It just seems like a waste. Sorry, Night King, you’ve just been surpassed as Most Underwhelming Villain Ending in GoT.

Having said that, the destruction of King’s Landing from a ground level perspective is the perfect Game of Thrones sequence, and shows how effective this program can be when it’s focusing on the right perspective. So now the tables are set for a final Starks vs Dany battle next week and while that will no doubt be entertaining it does feel a little rote and predictable.

It’s probably a little much to hope for a big surprise after eight seasons, but here’s hoping the GoT crew can deliver a few shocks. Like, say, THE RETURN OF SER POUNCE?! Okay, probably not. We’ll find out for sure in seven. See ya then.

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

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[SPOILER WARNING: Please don’t read unless you’ve seen the episode. I mean, come on, you know how this works]

Can an episode of television be both a satisfying climax and an oddly empty anticlimax at the same time? It’s a paradox, or perhaps a Zen Koan for pop culture obsessives, but that’s how last week’s Game of Thrones feels, the big battle-orientated extravaganza known as “The Long Night”. Because, while it was as dark as advertised, it wasn’t all that long from any objective perspective, and at its conclusion we lost a potentially fascinating antagonist and his army of awesome looking ice zombies. Could this following episode, “The Last of the Starks” live up those lofty heights, now that only humans are left to squabble like the ghastly little monkeys we are? Well, the episode makes a decent, albeit not definitive, case for the affirmative but let’s revisit the concept after the recap.

The episode opens, appropriately enough, with the burning of the honoured dead. And there are a shitload of them! The heroic corpses have been all piled up, with Daenerys Stormborn (Emilia Clarke) having a sook over the corpse of Jorah Mormont (Iain Glen). Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) cries over the body of Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen), and Jon Snow (Kit Harington) grunts out a gruff speech about how everyone was pretty grouse, but now they’ve carked it, and it’s a bit of a kick in the tits (not his exact words). Then the bodies are burned and smoke fills the sky.

Later, at an increasingly hedonistic piss up, the survivors get on with their lives. Gendry (Joe Dempsie) really wants to find Arya (Maisie Williams), but balks at Sandor Glegane’s (Rory McCann) suggestion that it’s just for a root. The Hound reminds him that “of course it’s about that, you twat, the dead are dead. You’re not.” Well said, bro, well said. Gendry starts to head off when Dany stops him and makes him Lord of Storm’s End. This makes him, and everyone else very happy, and the party kicks off in earnest. Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) admires Dany’s clever playing of the game of thrones.

The party gives rise to a number of interesting, well-observed character moments. Tyrion chats with Brandon Stark (Isaac Hempstead Wright) who claims to “not feel much of anything” and “mainly lives in the past”. Righto, Bran, thanks for the update. Hopefully you’ll actually do something before this bloody show finishes.

Later, Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) starts playing drinking games with Ser Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie), Tyrion and Podrick (Daniel Portman) and boy, there seems to be a bit of frisson with Jaime and Brienne!

Tormund Giantsbane (Kristofer Hivju) gives an increasingly sloppy toast to Jon, and Dany seems to realise that the North loves its heroes but it will never love her. She leaves in a bit of a snit, and Lord Varys (Conleth Hill) follows, sensing trouble brewing.

Tyrion somewhat cruelly outs Brienne as a virgin, which seems a very season one Tyrion move, and leaves after knocking Tormund back. Tormund begins to have a sook about losing his chance with the giant woman but swiftly scores a random groupie and perks right up. A different lady has a crack at The Hound but he doesn’t want a bar of it. He is, however, much more receptive to a visit from Sansa and the pair of them chat about old times. Sansa reckons her trials and tribulations transformed her from a “little bird” into the woman she is now, which is a fairly philosophical way to look at kidnapping, rape and attempted murder. But hey, go Sansa for finding that silver lining.

Gendry heads over to Arya and actually proposes, the big dumb galoot. Arya knocks him back in the gentlest way possible, but makes it clear that she “is no lady”.

Elsewhere, Jaime knocks upon Brienne’s door and after a bit of awkward flirting the pair hook up, launching no doubt endless fan fiction story prompts across the internet.

Jon and Dany have a heartbreaking scene where we see the ultimate way in which their natures are incompatible. Jon may not want the throne, but nor will he conceal his lineage from his family. Dany begs him to reconsider, because she is unwilling to brook even slight amounts of dissension to her rule. Blockheaded honesty and an unquenchable lust for power and control are not traits that gel well, and we get the feeling these two will be on opposite sides before this tale is through.

The next day, the gang plan the battle to come. Tyrion advises slow going but Dany has a lust for blood and wants the battle to commence quick-sticks. Sansa asks that the armies be given time to rest, but Dany won’t have it. Jon sides with her, but the tensions are palpable. Afterwards, in the Godswood, Jon tries to justify his missus to Sansa, Arya and Bran but the ladies are not fans. Jon, in a move that will no doubt set the final moments of this final season into action, asks Bran to tell them the truth of his lineage.

Tyrion and Jaime are shooting the shit about ladies (and “climbing mountains”) ,when Bronn (Jerome Flynn) lobs up and makes them an offer they can’t refuse. He won’t kill them with his fancy crossbow if they make him the Lord of Highgarden. Tyrion agrees, after copping a punch to the nose, and Bronn shuffles off. Hopefully that won’t be his final appearance, but he certainly doesn’t seem inclined to join any battle where dragons are involved.

The Hound is joined by Arya, and the pair of them ride to King’s Landing together, ready to settle their own private agendas. This is a bit of a limp moment in the episode, but no doubt it will pay off next week.

Tormund is buggering off up North and farewells Jon, who wants him to take Ghost. Pets are forever, not just a weekend, JON. Samwell Tarly (John Bradley) and preggers Gilly (Hannah Murray) bid Jon an emotional farewell and Ghost just sort of lurks in the background. Honestly, the show has never really known how to deal with the direwolves.

The fleet of the Unsullied sail towards Dragonstone with a dragon escort, and Grey Worm (Jacob Anderson) and Missandei (Nathalie Emmanuel) hold hands on the deck. Oh crikey, one of them is defo about to die, hey.

Tyrion and Varys, having being worded up on the Jon Snow secret, talk about options with Varys leaning towards Team Jon and Tyrion leaning towards Team I’d Prefer Not To Have to Kill Dany. Meanwhile, up in the sky, Dany flies along with surviving dragons, Drogon and Rhaegal and everything is fine until GIGANTIC ARROWS FLY FROM SEEMINGLY NOWHERE AND BLOODY EVISCERATE POOR BLOODY RHAEGAL! In a genuinely disturbing scene, Rhaegal dies horribly and sinks below the water. It’s fucken Euron Greyjoy (Pilou Asbæk) swaggering onto the scene and mucking everything up. After killing one dragon, Dany attempts to swing down, but Euron’s fleet are equipped with dragon-killing giant crossbows. He also makes absolute mincemeat of the Unsullied ships, wrecking the boats and killing many.

At King’s Landing, Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) tells Euron the bun in her oven is his, and then lets the castle fill with civilians so that when Dany attacks she’ll be forced to kill innocents. Boy, she is really leaning into this whole cartoony supervillain thing, huh? Oh also, she’s kidnapped Missandei, so that’s nice.

The next war room meeting is dicey, with Dany becoming increasingly focused on vicious plans of attack. Afterwards, Varys continues to suggest that Dany needs to meet a swift end and Tyrion is learning to love his wine once more.

Jaime buggers off like a thief in the knight, to either save or slice Cersei (it’s not entirely clear) and he leaves Brienne crying, because no matter how much she wants him to be a good man, he is just a man. And, actually, a bit of a shit one at times, to be honest.

The episode’s biggest moment comes outside the walls at King’s Landing. Cersei stands with Gregor Clegane aka The Mountain (Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson) and captured Missandei. She also has numerous archers and crossbow peeps ready. Tyrion, standing ahead of Dany’s army, chats with Qyburn (Anton Lesser) about how, maybe, she could surrender and be totally chill. Unsurprisingly, Qyburn gives him very little so Tyrion makes the very risky move of begging Cersei directly. His speech appears to move her a little, but in the end Cersei goes full Cersei by getting The Mountain to decapitate Missandei; who at least makes her last word “Dracarys!” Dany’s facial expression speaks volumes and it looks like we’re about to see just how pissed off a mad Targaryen can be… next week!

“The Last of the Starks” feels, in a lot of ways, like several classic episodes of Game of Thrones smushed together. It’s light on action, but full of intrigue and menace, and is clearly building to what Dany optimistically calls “the final war”. And while it stills feels a little lacking in magic, both literally and figuratively, to have the Night King dispatched so quickly does set up what promises to be a visceral, cathartic and probably quite traumatic climax next week. It is a little table setty, to be frank, but having drunk Tyrion chatting with Varys is always welcome, and we can’t wait to see who triumphs in next week’s battle.

See you in seven days, when SER POUNCE WILL LAUNCH HIS SUPER SECRET PLAN (possibly).

 
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Game of Thrones, Season 8 Episode 1: Winterfell

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[SPOILER WARNING: Please don’t read unless you’ve seen the episode. Come on, you know how this works]

As a Game of Thrones fan it’s impossible not to feel a frisson of excitement as we begin this eighth and final season. Everything has led to this. Every battle, every sneaky murder, every root – ill-advised and otherwise – is all culminating in this season. It’s a lot to get your head around and the first episode, “Winterfell”, does an admirable job of restating the various factions and loyalties, and reminding us of the stakes at play.

They’re big stakes. It doesn’t get much bigger than “the Wall has collapsed and the army of the dead are flooding in with a bloody zombie dragon”.

“Winterfell” begins with an updated credit sequence, one that reflects the very unwally state of The Wall, and opens in miserable, cold Winterfell. The grand army of Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) has arrived and she and Jon Snow (Kit Harington) are taking in the sights, riding together in an obvious display of support for one another. However the hard, stubborn locals aren’t exactly stoked with the whole caper, and stare at Dany with their mouths puckered like cat clackers. This isn’t quite the hero’s welcome she might have hoped for.

Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) rides along with the procession in a covered wagon, busting Lord Varys’s (Conleth Hill) lack of balls. Honestly, it’s not his best material but we get the feeling the whole conversation is to mask Tyrion’s bone-deep nervousness at being in the home of a people with a fairly sensible grudge against his family.

Next minute the dragons, Drogon and Rhaegal, soar over the wintery district, scaring the absolute shit out of the locals and causing Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) to watch with a mixture of awe and foreboding.

The first of many reunions takes place, with Jon meeting up with Brandon Stark (Isaac Hempstead Wright). Jon’s super happy to see Bran, but the wheelchair-bound mystic acts like that one mate of yours who’s just a little bit into his mushies, speaking all cryptic and portentously. Sansa and Dany give each other some vicious side eye, and share a few choice words, but Bran tells them to knock it off. “We don’t have time for this,” he says accurately yet somehow still very annoyingly, “the dead march south.”

Later, in a staff meeting, the locals are becoming increasingly confused by who the hell is actually in charge. Is it Jon? Sansa? Dany? Lyanna Mormont (Bella Ramsey) best epitomises the confusion, saying to Jon, “you left Winterfell a king and came back a… I’m not sure what you are, now. A lord? Nothing at all?” Jon tries to explain that a zombie army is defo a bigger worry than local politics, but the crowd are unconvinced. Tyrion attempts to win them over by mentioning Cersei’s army is on the way. It goes down about as well as a lamb chop at a vegan dinner party.

Later, Tyrion and Sansa have a reunion of their own. They haven’t actually hung out since the Purple Wedding, where Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) died choking in front of everyone. “Miserable affair,” Tyrion recalls.

“It had its moments,” Sansa replies with a smile.

The two sort of bond, but there’s been a lot of history since those days. Sansa also doesn’t believe for a second that Cersei is going to help, which – to be fair – is 100% accurate.

Jon and Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) reunite in the Godswood and it’s actually a delightfully sweet scene. They hug, compare weapons and chat about current events. In a nicely observed twist, Arya praises Sansa, calling her the “smartest person I’ve ever met”.

“You’re defending her? You?” Jon chortles.

“I’m defending our family. She is too,” Arya replies.

Meanwhile, Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) glowers on the battlements at King’s Landing. When she’s told of the dead breaking through the Wall she smirks and says, “good.” Subtle stuff, guys, very nuanced. In the harbour nearby, Euron Greyjoy (Pilou Asbæk) swaggers about, crowing of his magnificence to still-alive-but-captured Yara Greyjoy (Gemma Whelan). Then hops back onto dry land to impress Cersei with the brand spanking new army he has delivered. Euron makes it clear that he really feels Cersei should throw a quickie his way. At first Cersei doesn’t want a bar of it, but ever calculating seems to realise a well-rooted Euron is most likely a happy Euron, and gives him the nod.

Speaking of rooting, Bronn (Jerome Flynn) has a foursome interrupted by creepy Qyburn (Anton Lesser), which is enough to put a bloke off his stroke. Qyburn is offering riches beyond compare for one job: kill Cersei’s brothers. This is setting up a potentially tragic arc with Bronn possibly murdering his mate Tyrion, or dying in the attempt. In one scene we see that everything really is up for grabs this season and a lot of our favourites aren’t going to survive.

Next up, a bunch of people are killed and Yara freed by… Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen)?! Yes, it appears the dickless one grew some balls. Yara thanks him with a headbutt but then pulls him to his feet; he is forgiven. Later, she gives Theon permission to fight with the Starks, because she knows that’s where his true loyalty lies.

Back in Winterfell, Tyrion, Varys and Davos Seaworth (Liam Cunningham) discuss what a handsome, Westeros-uniting couple Dany and Jon would make if they wed. Tyrion sees sense in the idea, but worries that love doesn’t last, particularly in political unions. Jon and Dany go to check on the dragons, who aren’t eating much, and the pair mount the scaly beasts and go for a ride. It’s an exhilarating sequence, with Jon barely staying upright during the trip and ends with some sexy times. Although Jon can’t quite get past the fact Dragon is staring at him. You know when your significant other’s cat won’t stop staring at you? Imagine that, but the cat is the size of Rooty Hill RSL. Yeesh.

Gendry (Joe Dempsie) impresses Sandor “The Hound” Glegane (Rory McCann) with his weapons-crafting skills but then Arya rocks up and a tense scene takes place between the latter pair. The Hound either forgives Arya for their last altercation, or can’t be bothered getting into it, and gruffly admires her ability to stay alive. Then Gendry and Arya have a scene together dripping with sexual tension and oh my, is this going to be a thing now?

Dany and Jorah Mormont (Iain Glen) pay what should be a lovely visit to Samwell Tarly (John Bradley), to thank him for curing Jorah’s dragonscale. The problem? Well, when Sam responds to Dany’s generous offer of reward it comes out that she had both his father Randyll (James Sebastian Faulkner) and brother Dickon (Tom Hopper) burnt alive by her dragons. Sam mostly manages to keep it together, admirably, but we can see his mighty heart is broken. This is actually the episode’s best scene, because it hammers home that there often is not a right answer in politics and war, just a series of least worst options. This leads to the biggest moment of the night – the one we’ve all been waiting for – when Sam goes to see Jon and tells him he is the child of Lyanna Stark and Rhaegar Targaryen. This makes Jon not only not a bastard, but the true heir to the Iron Throne! Jon is rocked by the revelation and oh man, this is going to be awkward with Dany!

The episode then delivers a wonderfully creepy scene where Tormund Giantsbane (Kristofer Hivju) and Beric Dondarrion (Richard Dormer) find young Ned Umber (Harry Grasby) very much dead and nailed to the wall, with a spiral of limbs left as a message from the Night King. However, Ned’s not as dead as he first appears, and attacks our heroes. He is stopped, and dispatched with fire, but it’s clear the Night King, and his army of the dead, are not pissfarting about anymore.

In a final scene, that appears to circle right back to the show’s very first episode, Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) arrives in Winterfell, attempting to be incognito. However, Bran – who apparently never leaves his spot in the yard – recognises him. You know, the bloke who put in the damn wheelchair in the first place!

“Winterfell” is a cracker of a first episode back, that manages to successfully reintroduce everyone and remind us why we’ve missed these characters over the long break between seasons. In keeping with latter era Thrones, it’s not exactly subtle. The writing is fairly blunt, as all the plot strands hurtle towards their respective climaxes, but atmospheric direction by David Nutter and stellar performances from all, particularly John Bradley, anchor the proceedings and give a sense of gravitas.

Welcome back, Game of Thrones! Now, if you could please confirm that Ser Pounce is actually still alive, and doing fine, that would be grand.

 
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Castle Rock: The Complete First Season

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The premise for Castle Rock could only go one of two ways: bloody great or bloody awful. The conceit is a drama thriller that takes place in the town of Castle Rock, the location of some of Stephen King’s most horrific tales. In lesser hands this could have rendered the series an inert collection of King fanservice, where every car is called Christine and every dog is a Saint Bernard. Happily, and surprisingly, the actual end result is a far more subtle and stranger proposition.

We’re slowly introduced to the weird world of Castle Rock through criminal attorney Henry Deaver (Andre Holland) who is drawn back into his hometown after getting an anonymous call to represent a strange young man called “The Kid” (Bill Skarsgard). Said character is a creepy amnesiac who had been kept at Shawshank Prison off the books, and seems to have a strange effect on those who he touches… Of course this is just the tip of the weird iceberg that Castle Rocks represents, and we soon meet possibly psychic Molly Strand (Melanie Lynskey), chirpy but quirky Jackie Torrence (Jane Levy) and Henry’s adopted mum, Ruth Deaver (Sissy Spacek).

In terms of Stephen King’s mythology, it’s Scott Glenn as Alan Pangborn who is the most direct reference point. Pangborn was the sheriff of Castle Rock for a decade, and in that time faced the sentient pseudonym, George Stark (The Dark Half) and owner of a store with an extremely dodgy returns policy, Leland Gaunt (Needful Things). In this series, Alan has a personal relationship with Henry and a very intimate relationship with his mum, Ruth. This leads to quality family drama and genuinely surprising twists and turns, with the viewer never entirely sure about who to trust.

In terms of performances the entire cast are stellar, with Holland, Lynskey and Skarsgard doing superb work; however it is Sissy Spacey (previously cast in Brian De Palma’s 1976 adaptation of Stephen King’s Carrie) who owns the show with a stunning turn as a woman beset by Alzheimer’s trying to hold onto the past for as long as possible. The seventh episode titled “The Queen” isn’t just the best of Castle Rock, it’s possibly the best hour of television from 2018.

Ultimately, Castle Rock is a risky genre experiment that pays off beyond all expectations. Certainly, there are questionable elements, the deliberate pace of the series left the final episode with too much to do and the ending hotly contested, but the journey to get there remains deeply satisfying. Plus this is the first series of (hopefully) many, so the lingering unresolved plot strands will no doubt be revisited at some point down the line.

The extra features are a tad scant here, with two featurettes that are essentially puff pieces, however the Inside the Episode mini-docos for each part are a great deeper dive into the more obscure elements of the story.

Castle Rock is stellar genre television and a loving homage to a master storyteller that can stand on its own. You don’t need to be a fan of Stephen King to appreciate it, but those who are even vaguely familiar with the work of Maine’s most famous son are in for a deliciously twisted treat.

 
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The Cry

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Compelling four-part television drama mini-series The Cry will shock and enthral viewers.

Based on the novel by Australian author Helen FitzGerald, viewers will be on the edge of their seat watching this drama unfold. Over six-million people tuned into watch the show when it premiered on BBC One last year. The popular series also attracted 10 million plus plays via BBCs i-player.

The British-Australian co-production was filmed across the two continents (Glasgow and Melbourne) and features a strong cast – including Ewen Leslie (Top of the Lake, Safe Harbour), Asher Keddie, Alex Dimitriades and Jenna Coleman (Dr Who, Victoria) – each delivering powerful and convincingly-played emotive performances.

Adapted by Jacquelin Perske (Love My Way, Seven Types of Ambiguity), The Cry follows the lives of a young couple, Joanna (Jenna Coleman) and her husband Alistair (Ewen Leslie). Joanna and Alistair travel with their baby from Scotland to Australia to see Alistair’s mother, and to fight for custody of Alistair’s daughter against his Australian ex-wife Alexandra (Asher Keddie). Almost as soon as they arrive in rural Victoria, every parent’s worst nightmare is brought to life when their four-month old baby boy Noah goes missing. The already fragile relationship between the young couple quickly disintegrates as the public scrutiny intensifies and the mystery deepens.

There are echoes of little Madeleine McCann and Azaria Chamberlain disappearances and while the abduction of baby Noah is the catalyst and what drives this story, it’s the characters that provide the intrigue. The lines of truth and manipulation are blurred in this plot-twisting drama where everyone is a suspect.

Viewers will slowly despise Leslie’s character, who is smug, patronising and a completely unhelpful new father. “He earns the money; he wears the earplugs” Joanna justifies, explaining why Alistair never wakes to help with Noah’s night-time feedings.

Keddie is brilliant as the ex-wife to Leslie but it’s Coleman who excels, unravelling before our eyes. The English actress does not hide her feelings of loss, anger or confusion. She’s completely relatable as a struggling mother and viewers will feel her pain during the flight to Australia scene as she repetitively walks up and down the aisle trying to quieten her screaming baby and ignore the look of distain from fellow passengers. This intelligent drama provides a harsh view of motherhood at its most harrowing.

The Cry will not be relaxing Sunday night viewing, but audiences will find it grippingly addictive.

 
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Marvel’s Iron Fist Season 2

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Boy, did Marvel listen.

The first season of Marvel’s Iron Fist landed with a resounding thud not unlike a noob kung fu disciple hitting the mat. Critics were unkind, fans were unimpressed, and the general consensus was that it was the worst of Marvel’s Netflix offerings so far.

However, it seems that the powers that be had considerable faith in Danny Rand (Finn Jones), heir-to-billions-turned-mystic-martial-arts-master, and after co-starring in The Defenders and guesting on Luke Cage, the wielder of the titular metal mitt is back in the saddle of his own series. And while Iron Fist is still not in a position comparable to the best of the MarFlix series (if you’re wondering, Jessica Jones S1 is the reigning champ), this season it has definitely found its feet, becoming a solid action procedural.

That’s chiefly down to some serious tonal retooling. Season 2, under the stewardship of new showrunner Raven Metzner, handily picking up the baton fumbled by departing incumbent Scott Buck. Metzner doesn’t retcon anything that has gone before (although to be honest, memories of Season 1 are rather indistinct…) but rather deftly pushes the whole operation in a new direction. The show now feels like it knows what it wants to be and where it wants to go, and that confidence is refreshing.

The changes are myriad but generally subtle. One thing that jumps out is that our hero is less of an asshole. Original Recipe Danny Rand was nigh-unbearable in his #worldtraveller smug wokeness, but this season he’s a much more humble and driven character, having taken up Daredevil’s vigilante duties in the wake of the events of The Defenders. Eschewing luxury, he’s moving furniture by day, mopping up criminals in Chinatown by night, and making a cute couple with fellow martial artist/former member of The Hand (there is so much backstory and jargon now – just go with it if you’re a bit lost) Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick).

It’s a nice little superhero life, suddenly complicated by two things: the arrival of Danny’s old friend and rival Davos (Sacha Dawan), a fellow student in the mystical city of K’un L’un (so much backstory and jargon…); and the appearance of the mysterious Mary (Alice Eve), who is either a naive artist trying to make it in the Big Apple, a deadly assassin who can go toe to toe with Iron Fist, or both.

Davos functions as the now overly familiar “dark mirror” villain of the piece, a self-flagellating ascetic bad-ass who thinks he deserves to wield the power of the Iron Fist more than Danny, and is willing to do some pretty awful stuff to wrest our guy’s glowing hand from him. As for Alice, her agenda is murkier, but fans of the comics and denizens of the internet will already know that she’s the live action incarnation of noted Marvel villain Typhoid Mary, normally an opponent of Daredevil, and we’ll just leave this hyperlink here for those who don’t mind spoilers.

Whenever these plots intersect, violence erupts – and it’s good violence, too. For all its leaden pacing and poorly sketched characters, the first season’s biggest problem was that its fight sequences were embarrassingly lackluster – that’s a serious handicap when your show is literally and specifically about a guy whose main power is Super Punching. Wisely, the production team called in veteran fight choreographer Clayton Barber to bring this season’s action beats up to par, and the improvement is immediately and viscerally noticeable. Barber understands how to reveal story and character through action. While the show is still somewhat hampered by the practical limitations of time and money, each fight scene is its own beast with its own flavour. Of the first six episodes previewed, the two stand outs are a pretty nifty scrap in a restaurant kitchen that could fit nicely in a prime-era Hong Kong action flick, and a flashback sequence that sees Danny and Davos battling in a K’un L’un temple, all flowing scarves, graceful leaping kicks, and misty lighting.

While there are connecting threads to both The Defenders and Season 1, six episodes in, Season 2 seems content to be just a street level action drama, and that’s to its credit. The plot more or less just exists to get us to the next fight, and the fights exist because, well, properly choreographed and framed fights are cool – here, as in the best action cinema, action is its own reward. While shows like Jessica Jones and Luke Cage – and even, to a degree, Daredevil – have loftier thematic goals, Iron Fist is a straight-up chop-socky beat ’em up, and that’s fine.

 
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Disenchantment Season 1, Part 1

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In the magical kingdom of Dreamland, princesses just want to have fun. At least, Bean (Broad City‘s Abbi Jacobson) does, much to the consternation of her grumpy, despotic old man, King Zog (the ever-reliable John “Bender” DiMaggio), who wants to use his hard-drinking, hard-partying daughter to seal up a political deal in an arranged marriage. Such is the lot of a fairy tale princess.

Onto this scene come two interlopers, Elfo the Elf (Nat Faxon), booted from his smurf-alike village for not being happy enough, and Luci (Eric Andre), Bean’s sarcastic, wisecracking personal demon, sicced on her in a subplot that will no doubt pay off some time down the track.

In the meantime, though, what we get is essentially Futurama-but-with-fantasy-tropes (Fantasirama?), which is only to be expected seeing as Disenchantment is the latest TV series from Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons and the aforementioned sci-fi satire. 10 episodes will drop on Netflix this Friday and, based on having checked out the first seven, is worth carving some time out for over the weekend.

Let’s qualify that, though. Like all Groening series, Disenchantment takes its time to find its feet, and it’s not quite there yet. At the moment it’s a broad concept, some character traits, and a set of tropes that have been flung at the wall – we’re yet to see what sticks (Elfo’s characterisation is all over the shop right now, for example). It remains to be seen whether the fantasy genre, although a very broad church, offers to Disenchantment the depth and complexity that science fiction gave Futurama, in terms of providing  a variety of subjects and dilemmas for the show to deal with. Right now we’re pretty much dealing with a Grimm’s Fairy Tales/Game of Thrones mash up, which is fine, but may not have the legs required for longevity. Fantasy has a pretty deep conceptual bench – here’s hoping the creative team use it effectively. Bring us Conan, bring us Elric, bring us Dunsany, Peake, Liever, and more.

In the meantime, the jokes-per-minute ratio is in the acceptable range (and certainly bluer than what the Simpsons ever got away with on network TV), the animation is comfortably familiar (only Luci pushes the boundaries appreciably, being a matte black demony kinda thing) and the voice cast is game and talented – Britcom fans please note the presence of Noel Fielding, Matt Berry, and Rich Fulcher in supporting roles.

Based on this first taste, Disenchantment is good, and promises to get even better once it’s found its groove. It’s probably greedy to expect a third bonafide classic in a row out of Groening and co. – but let’s hope for it anyway.

 
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GLOW Season 2

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And so we return to the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling and their ongoing battles within and without the ring. Netflix’s feminist underdog story, which traces the fortunes of a troupe of dreamers, wannabes and cynical veterans at the very fringes of the entertainment world as they try and carve out a place for themselves in the fascinatingly lurid milieu of professional wrestling, is such a vibrant, funny, and defiantly weird piece of television that it’s easy to forget that, under all the spandex and big hair, it’s actually doing serious cultural work.

At base, GLOW is about marginalised women fighting for self determination. The ace up its sleeve, the thing that makes it such a pitch perfect cocktail of comedy and drama, is that failure is built into the narrative model. Hell, most of the characters have already failed, from Alison Brie’s would-be serious actress to Betty Gilpin’s fallen soap star to Marc Maron’s cynical B movie auteur, and they expect to fail again. Moreover, the world expects them to fail. What this means is that every little victory, every incremental win, feels momentous. It means that even when we’re laughing at the excesses of the period and the setting, we’re cheering for our characters – it’s a heady emotional high.

Season 2 does lack the novelty of the previous run, although it still pops with vitality. Whereas the sheer audacious weirdness of the conceit could carry us through the first 10 episodes, now the show – like its characters – has to settle into the production groove. The sprawling ensemble means that there’s always something going on, even when it feels like, overall, we’re not making too much narrative headway. As we said, small victories, incremental steps. The focus remains more or less on Ruth (Brie) and Debbie’s (Gilpin) frenemy-ship, as the latter tries to flex her muscles by taking on a producing role on the show-within-a-show, while the former leans into her position as the wrestling franchise’s chief bad guy, the USSR-themed Zoya the Destroyer.

There’s more interesting stuff happening elsewhere in the ensemble, though, especially when the show grapples with issues of race and representation. Kia Stevens’  Tammé “Welfare Queen” Dawson has to deal with her college student son learning that she’s playing a damaging African American stereotype in the ring, while Sunita Mani’s Arthie struggles to shed her character “Beirut the Mad Bomber”, a role she finds particularly demeaning given that she’s actually Indian.

Meanwhile, Maron’s embittered Sam Sylvia tries – and largely fails, because, hey, he is who he is – to forge a meaningful relationship with his newly discovered daughter, Justine (Britt Baron), although the real meat of his arc is him dealing with his feelings for go-getter Ruth, whose talents he both respects and finds threatening. Men feeling threatened by talented women is a big theme in GLOW, and its embodied by guys we’re also positioned to like – mainly Sam and rich kid producer Bash (Chris Lowell), who spend a lot of time shutting down freshly minted producer Debbie just because they can.

Which sounds heavy, but GLOW‘s charm is that it channels these themes inside a bright, poppy, garishly candy-coloured package, and it never lets its thematic concerns bog down the action of the narrative, which nimbly skips along. For a show that concerns itself with failure and the fragility of dreams, GLOW is almost never not fun. It’s hard to see it lasting for too many more seasons – after all, what’s the end game here? – but while it’s here, it’s a must watch.