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Marvel’s Iron Fist

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Following in the footsteps of Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage (and presaging team-up series, The Defenders), the latest Marvel/Netflix series has a lot to live up to – and a lot of now-apparent baggage to shed. Sadly, Iron Fist does neither.

Which is not to say it’s a terrible time, but Iron Fist exhibits a lack of ambition and an inability to effectively define its own identity. It feels by the numbers in a way its predecessors, even when they were working to formula, didn’t. If Daredevil is the opener of the way, and Jessica Jones filtered that narrative model through the lens of a woman’s experience, while Luke Cage steeped it in African American culture and history, then this series does… well, nothing too interesting.

Which may in fact be the best argument for re-imagining Danny Rand as an Asian character, instead of the comics-canonical white guy trained in the mystic East. There’s engaging work to be done in viewing the hoary tropes of the ’70s born martial arts movie through the eyes of, say, a savvy second- or third- generation Asian American.

Instead we get Finn Jones (Game of Thrones) as Rand, long thought dead after being lost in a plane crash along with his parents in the Himalayas, returning to New York City 15 years after the fact. Where’s he been in the interim? Why, learning martial arts in the magical mountain retreat of K’un L’un – hence why he’s now presenting as a shoeless hippie wanderer, a look that doesn’t endear him to the current executives of his father’s former company when he fronts up and informs them that he’d like his billions back, please.

Perhaps the weirdest choice made in Iron Fist is to spend so much time focusing on the machinations and maneuvering involved in Danny wresting back control of his company from his former childhood friends, Ward (Tom Pelphrey) and Joy (Jessica Stroup) Meachum, who are acting as catspaws for their father, Harold (David Wenham, having fun), Rand Senior’s former business partner , who is currently pretending to be dead for nebulous reasons.  If nothing else, Batman Begins handled this entire plot much more quickly and adroitly.

Still we do get some martial arts action, largely from Danny’s reluctant ally, dojo-owner Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick), who gets involved in illegal cage fighting in order to pay the bills. And Danny gets some moments to shine, too – his skirmish against a squad of hatchet-wielding Chinese toughs ticks the boxes nicely. But it’s all a bit underwhelming, lacking the audacity and brutality of Daredevil‘s fight choreography, and the casual superhuman power of Jessica Jones and Luke Cage. And, forgive us, but isn’t Iron Fist’s whole schtick supposed to be spectacular martial arts?

If anything is a dealbreaker, it’s the series’ failure to fulfill the inherent promise of its premise. We should be seeing some Yuen Woo-ping style wire-fu, some scenery shattering displays of mystic kung-fu power (which we do from time to time, to be fair, but it’s underwhelming), something that takes us above the street-level beat-ups we’ve seen so far and bridges the gap between Daredevil and, say, Doctor Strange. It’s all there in the premise.

But it’s not there in the show.

So far, at least. Netflix put out the first six episodes for review purposes, and it’s possible that Iron Fist picks up significantly in the back half, but it wants to ramp up to an extraordinary degree to make up for its plodding opening act. If there’s one thing Netflix needs to learn – and this goes beyond their Marvel properties to encompass pretty much all their original series – it’s that length is not its own virtue. We shouldn’t have to trudge through hours of makework storytelling to get to the climax. It is, at base, bad writing beholden to a pointless production mandate.

Based on what we’ve seen so far, Iron Fist is for completists only. It’s not a complete mess, but it’s a significant step down in quality.

 
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The Walking Dead S7E12: Say Yes

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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]

It’s almost always good news when Greg Nicotero directs an episode of The Walking Dead. Nicotero started out in the world of special makeup effects, learning under the tutelage of the maestro, Tom Savini, and honed his craft on the set of George Romero’s Day of the Dead (1985). What this means in practical terms is that Nicotero knows how to shoot zombie action and always delivers something fresh and memorable, which isn’t bad for a television series in its seventh season.

Nicotero’s latest, “Say Yes”, is also his nineteenth episode and the man shows no sign of running out of new ways to deliver fresh twists on ambulatory corpses, but more on that in a moment. First a quick recap.

The cold open has Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and Michonne (Dana Gurira) moseying around the countryside in what could quite honestly be its own spin-off show called Scavengin’ and Lovin’ with the tagline “they loot, shoot and occasionally root!” It’s a jaunty little sequence and really plays to the rarely-seen lighter side of both characters, although as Rick suggests they keep on pushing further out the ominous music clues us in to the fact this might be a terrible idea. Cue titles.

Back at Alexandria, Rosita (Christian Serratos) is being unnecessarily dickish to Tara (Alanna Masterson). There’s nothing wrong with Rosita being mad that her ex was clobbered into a fine patch of skull porridge but her petulant, adolescent reaction is winning her no friends. She pops off to find firearms (a recurring motif of “Say Yes”) and is almost eaten by a large mama zombie that looks like it washes itself with a rag on a stick. Rosita lives but scores nothing for her troubles except a kid’s toy gun. Damn you, American children and your realistic-looking toy weapons!

Back with the A plot, Rick and Michonne fall into some supplies. Literally. The roof of the building they’re on collapses and it’s food for all. Even better the nearby carnival is brimming with military zombies who are all packing some serious heat. The loved up duo enjoy each other’s company, and the freshly-found food, as they prepare to take down the zombies in the light of day. Michonne asks Rick “What happens after we win?” Rick claims he doesn’t want a continuation of the Ricktatorship, but would be happy to rule as partners with Michonne. This seems like a sensible course of action.

Meanwhile in the B plots, Rosita is unnecessarily dickish to Father Gabriel for a while and Tara wonders aloud to baby Judith (aka Lil’ Ass-Kicker) if she should tell Rick about the Oceanside community.

Back at the carnival of the damned, Rick and Michonne embark on a mission to clear out the fairground and claim their weapons. At first things run smoothly, with the dead going down nice and easy, however when a well-armed walker accidently pops off a few rounds things turn south and the pair have to improvise. This is the meat of “Say Yes” and it’s totally worth the wait. Seeing two of the show’s most capable characters dispatching zombies, changing weapons on the fly and just managing to escape from certain death is a thrill. Sadly, however, Rick falls off a ferris wheel and is devoured by zombies.

Oh, alright, that doesn’t actually happen – but for a few moments Michonne thinks it does and it sours the mood from dry levity to something darker. Later Michonne laments that she can’t lose Rick, but Rick disagrees. “You can lose me,” he says in a surprisingly nuanced argument for The Walking Dead, “It’s not about us anymore, it’s about a future.”

Then we’re back to Junktown where Rick does some more sexy bartering with Jadis (Pollyanna McIntosh), queen of the Scavengers (aka Heapsters) who agrees to fight but only after she receives yet more weapons. Tara has wrestled with her demons and approaches Rick, apparently to tell him about the Oceansiders. Things are moving forwards and the plan appears to be gathering steam.

The episode concludes with Rosita approaching Sasha (Sonequa Martin) but instead of being unnecessarily dickish, she proposes the pair of them join forces and take out Negan by themselves, alone, with a single sniper rifle. It’s a plan so bad that the term “face-palmingly fucking stupid” is woefully insufficient a descriptor and yet apparently rendered simple-minded by grief Sasha agrees as long as she can fire the killing shot. Odds are high that at least one of this pair won’t be back for season eight.

“Say Yes” is a solid, fast-paced and frequently funny episode that skillfully matches striking imagery – fairground zombies, a walker falling to pieces in Rick’s hands, a wandering deer amidst the carnage – with genuinely solid character work in the A plot. The notion that society could, and indeed has to, continue after our heroes are gone is a strong one and perhaps hints at a potential endgame for the series.

 
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The Walking Dead S7E11 – Hostiles and Calamities

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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]

What’s it like to be the henchman of a truly evil person? That’s the question that underlies every scene in this week’s quirky detour, “Hostiles and Calamities”. The theme is explored through the experiences of two of the show’s most eccentric characters, Eugene (Josh McDermitt) and Dwight (Austin Amelio) with a number of tense appearances from Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), who is a much more effective villain when used sparingly, but more on that later.

We open with Dwight discovering Daryl has flown the coop and Eugene getting delivered to Negan’s compound aka The Sanctuary. It’s a nice juxtaposition, as Dwight is one of Negan’s favoured acolytes and Eugene is a hostage, literally bound with a sack over his head, but we’re about to see a rather neat reversal of fortune.

Eugene is dragged towards what we imagine will end up being a grim and grisly cell but is in fact a totally terrifying… comfortable-looking room! He’s then offered a meal and is left to his own devices. His fridge is full, the stereo works and Eugene cranks that bloody ‘Easy Street’ song. Enjoy having that stuck in your head for another week. Thanks a bunch, Walking Dead.

The Walking DeadDwight meanwhile ponders the note Daryl received that reads “Go now”. Does he recognise the handwriting or is he just an ardent fan of neat penmanship? His train of thought is abruptly derailed as Negan is at the door with a group of Saviors. Poker night for the boys? No, actually it’s a savage beating for Dwight. Negan is evidently displeased by Daryl’s escape and perhaps something else? Cue the opening titles.

The next day Dwight, found lounging in Daryl’s old cell, receives a visit from Negan. Apparently Sherry (Christine Evangelista) former wife of Dwight and current “wife” of Negan, has done a runner. Negan wants to know if she helped Daryl and, perhaps more importantly, where she is. After reestablishing his dominance over Dwight with a classic “Who are you?”, “I’m Negan” exchange, Dwight says he’ll find Sherry and bring her back, first paying creepy, gaunt-looking Dr. Carson (Tim Parati) a visit to get his busted mug fixed. No shade, Dwight, but that’s like pouring perfume on a pig, mate.

Eugene meanwhile gets a brief tour of what looks like the most depressing post-apocalyptic version of Paddy’s Markets imaginable and scores a jar of pickles for his troubles. He’s then lead outside where Negan quizzes our clearly-on-the-spectrum hero about just how smart Eugene really is. Initially, it does not go well, and Eugene delivers a stumbling, flustered monologue about his own intelligence to little avail. As if to punctuate just how badly he flopped a nearby zombie drops its guts, leading Negan to ask how Brains Trust would fix the problem of fence zombies falling apart like poorly-rolled burritos. Eugene comes up with an insane plan that involves pouring molten lead over the walkers. Naturally Negan loves it, praising the idea as “not only practical… it is just badass!” Eugene lives to eat more pickles, but just what game is he playing?

As a reward for his grand idea, Doctor Smartypants (Eugene’s new nickname) gets a visit from three of Negan’s wives. Frankie (Elyse Nicole DuFour), Tanya (Chloe Aktas) and Amber (Autumn Dial) all purr and coo at Eugene who plays Yar’s Revenge on an old Atari 2600. Eventually the ladies convince Eugene to perform a few explosive science experiments and the mulleted one delivers, getting awkward hugs and mild sexual tension for his efforts. Eugene, you lady killer.

Meanwhile Dwight searches his old house and finds a note from Sherry. Sherry apologises for leaving, but claims they never should have returned to the Saviors. Even though that course of action was Sherry’s idea, the note concludes with “I loved who you were – I am sorry I made you into who you are” and Dwight finds his former wife’s wedding rings inside. It’s a surprisingly emotional moment and one can almost sympathise with Dwight’s plight, although a lot depends on what he does next.

Meanwhile back at The Sanctuary, Frankie and Tanya beg Eugene for a suicide pill to give Amber. Amber has fallen into a dark and abiding depression and wants to shuffle off this mortal coil painlessly and soon. This seems a lot to lay on the big fella, but Eugene mumbles and nods his assent and uses his newfound status to score meds at the market, not to mention a bedpan, flyswatter and cuddly toy.

Dwight returns and tells Doc Carson that Sherry was torn apart by walkers. Carson is about as sympathetic as a particularly callous brick and one wonders why the scene exists at all. The question is answered in the next sequence where Negan is heating up the branding iron in the furnace. It seems a note has been found in the not-very-good doctor’s belongings, implying that he wanted to impress Sherry by releasing Daryl to curry her sexual favour. A ripped bit of paper seems a fairly thin piece of evidence, but Negan is convinced and offers Carson the iron or the apology. Because Carson has clearly never watched the show before, he admits his guilt, apologises and gets chucked into the furnace.

Eugene gets a final visit from Frankie and Tanya but it doesn’t go well for the ladies. Eugene is hip to their plan, which is to poison Negan, and will not be a part of that. “You’re a coward!” the ladies spit, “That is a correct assessment” Eugene replies. Later Negan visits and it’s time to ask Eugene the big question, but Eugene is so ready to answer he doesn’t even let Negan finish asking: “I am utterly, completely, stone-cold Negan.” Oh, Eugene, say it ain’t so.

The final scene shows Eugene’s molten-lead-on-the-walkers plan being implemented while Eugene munches on a pickle. For him there is a sense of belonging here, even if it comes at the cost of personal freedom and dignity. Dwight sidles up next to him and the compromised pair chat awkwardly. “We are Negan” Eugene says. “Yeah,” Dwight replies.

“Hostiles and Calamities” is a strange episode, offering a mixture of deadpan humour, quirky dialogue and genuinely threatening Negan all at the same time. It’s light on zombies and violence but it does offer an interesting glimpse into the henchman’s dilemma. Is it really is it better to die on your feet than live on your knees? For Dwight the court’s still out, but for Eugene – when slavery comes with an Atari 2600 and all the fresh pickles you can eat – it seems he’s all too willing to bend the knee.

 

 
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Girls S6E3 – American Bitch

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There’s a quiet and compelling energy that pulsates in “American Bitch”, which goes deep into the world of sexual politics, accountability, and consequence. A brooding exchange between Hannah and lothario writer, Chuck Palmer (Matthew Rhys), sustains an entire twenty-seven minutes where we discover Chuck has summoned her to his expensive apartment to question her on a piece she wrote about his occupied position as a famous author having his way with young, impressionable, literary groupies – who then kiss and tell by blogging about it.

What unfolds is a low-key, slow-burn narrative and fluctuating power play that starts off as a curious enough encounter between two people. Hannah gets kudos straight up assuming he has “an ass-deep google alert” on himself – how else would he know of the article written for a niche feminist website? And she gains traction stating she’s an unknown writer whose only wish is to use her voice momentously – which, again, means accusing hip authors of using their power and influence to bed fawning female creative writing students. Chuck pushes back, but not in an obvious way. He’s prickly, yes, but hardly in combat stance, and concedes she’s smart and funny by reading out a line from said article. ‘If one more male writer I love reveals himself to be a heinous sleazebag I’m going to do a bunch of murders, create a new isle of Lesbos and never look back.’ “You’re funny – that’s a funny sentence”, he says.

The episode alternates between opinions and differences due to gaps of gender and age and suffice to say a war begins between them. A war between generations, a war of the sexes, a war for and against technology. “Isn’t that the crazy part about all of this? About being alive right now?” Chuck says. “So much of your life, your world, can be destroyed by something called Tumbler without an e?” Hannah cheerleads for the internet as some kind of public town hall that gives voice to the marginalised. “Is that why the internet is so cool? Because some might argue that it’s a monster we’ve created that will ultimately kill us”, Chuck shoots back. “Yeah, well the people who argue that are probably a generation above me”, she retorts.

The problem is, Hannah thinks she knows Chuck because she’s read all his stuff along with some of the facts. But she wouldn’t know the first thing about who the private man is. She knows of the public figure and the prize-winning writer in possession of an unruly sexual appetite, but it’s Chuck Palmer and his shitstorm of a personal life that is the revelation for her. She also asks why she alone was invited to his apartment knowing she wasn’t the only writer who declared open season on him. It seems to be an insignificant question yet plays out well in a satisfying denouement. But it isn’t until their encounter abruptly devolves into an eye-popping disaster that you finally see Chuck and his ‘master manipulator’ shadow – one which fell across their entire meeting from the start.

 
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Riverdale Chapter 4: The Last Picture Show

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More Jughead = better Riverdale. It’s a simple formula largely based on this episode, which partly focuses on Cole Sprouse’s moody, beanie-clad outsider campaigning to save the Twilight Drive-In from impending destruction.

Of course, Juggie is an obsessive cinephile. It’s a perfect grace note for the character, denoted by a fairly basic Tarantino reference, but really driven home by our humble narrator referring to Betty Cooper as a “Hitchcock blonde”. As it transpires, Jughead has better reasons than cinematic taste to try and preserve the old drive-in cinema not only does he work there as a projectionist, he’s camping out there. Juggie’s home life is less than ideal; his mother and little sister are nowhere to be found, while his old man, F.P. Jones (Skeet Ulrich), is the leader of the South Side Serpents, a 1%er outfit of leather-clad ne’er-do-wells. Jug and his old man really only get one scene together, but it’s milked for pathos – especially since F.P. is partly responsible for the Drive-In being sold off to a developer, acting as a bagman in a bit of skullduggery involving Mayor McCoy (Robin Givens) and… the Lodges!

Remember the big bag of money Hermione Lodge was gifted with back in episode one? As it turns out, Hermione is acting as a catspaw for the imprisoned and as-yet-unseen Hiram Lodge, paying off McCoy and the Serpents in order for Lodge Industries purchase of the old drive-in to go smoothly. It’s a cool development, one that is hard to see coming but makes perfect sense in retrospect. Canonically, Mr. Lodge has always been the major financial player in town, and this lets him still fulfill that role while remaining offscreen.

The battle over the drive-in is also a strong thematic touchstone; it represents “Old Riverdale”, the innocent land of neon and classic cars, hot dogs and teen canoodling – how apt that it’s being destroyed by the “New Riverdale” of soap opera plot twists, corruption, and dirty dealing. Jughead, our POV man, wants to protect Old Riverdale; sadly, he can only bear witness to its passing, even as he himself is hurt by the machinations that grind it up.

We also get a better idea of the social dynamics underpinning Riverdale’s older generation. Hermione and Fred head to the drive-in together for its final screening (top marks for using Rebel Without A Cause) and it becomes clear that they used to have a thing going on back in the day before she ditched him for the wealthier Hiram. At another point, after Veronica sees her having an argument with F.P., Hermione explains that the two of them went to high school together Meanwhile, we learn that Fred once fired F.P. for theft. If anything, the middle-aged Riverdalers have more going on than their front-and-centre kids.

All this is background stuff, though, with the A-plot reserved for – and seemingly resolving – the increasingly icky relationship between Archie and Ms Grundy, as Girl Detective Betty Cooper learns that the music teacher is, in fact, using an assumed name (cue photo cameo from the real Grundy, the spitting image of her comic book counterpart). Grundy’s explanation for this is that she is fleeing an abusive relationship, but the show has put up too many red flags for that to fly, chief among them that she previously did an “independent study project” with the now deceased Jason Blossom.

Once all this is out in the open there’s nothing to do but put Grundy on a (literal) bus, but what’s really jarring is the fairly blase attitude everyone – including Fred, Archie’s dad – takes to the revelation that the music teacher has been in a sexual relationship with one of her students. There’s no way to read that as anything other than predatory, but only Betty’s mother, Alice, really getting bent out of shape over the situation and calling a spade a spade – and we’ve already been encouraged to view her as nuts, anyway (indeed, there’s a scene this ep where she suddenly appears outside a car window at the drive-in, flashlight in hand, that seemingly exists just to reinforce this). There’s actually a weird disconnect between the way characters react to the situation and the way the show represents it – consider the scene where Grundy – real name Jennifer Gibson if you’re keeping track – favouring a group of teen hunks with a lingering gaze; there’s a disturbing pattern being hinted at here, and we the viewers are far more squicked out than almost anyone on the show.

Still, “The Last Picture Show” is a pretty great episode, deepening our understanding of the town’s dynamics and laying foundations for further plots beyond the whole “who killed Jason Blossom?” hook. It’ll be interesting to see what kind of fallout results from the Archie/Grundy storyline – it’d be good to see ol’ Arch realise how badly he’s been used at least – but if not getting that is the price of moving forward narratively, fair enough. There’s plenty going on in the Town With Pep that’s more worthy of our attention.

 
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The Walking Dead S7E10: New Best Friends

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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]

Traditionally the second episode back after either the premiere or mid-season premiere tends to be a lesser entity. The logic at play seems to be: the showrunners have hooked us with the first one and now they can slack off a little, with more filler and less killer. While that’s true to an extent in terms of visual panache, New Best Friends is a solid, occasionally funny and moving entry for the back half of Season Seven. There’s nothing quite as gloriously gory as the zombie massacre-via-wire sequence from Rock in the Road, but what it lacks in splatter is made up for in Carol and Daryl’s oft-delayed reunion. More on that in a bit.

The episode opens with the Saviors collecting from Ezekiel and a select group of his subjects. Naturally, Negan’s crew are a bunch of dickbags and soon get into a messy tussle, which ends up with Richard (Karl Makinen) shouty, Morgan (Lennie James) injured and his prize stick (which inexplicably isn’t named) being flogged by a salty Savior. It’s a scene that speaks to the underlying tension between these two groups, but once again Ezekiel is contrite and de-escalates the situation. Back at the Kingdom Morgan continues to not tell Daryl (Norman Reedus) about Carol’s whereabouts (thus cementing his place on my angrily-scrawled shit list) and Richard gives Daryl a bowgun. This is apparently extremely important because straight afterward the opening titles begin.

Richard takes Daryl to his weapon-filled clubhouse, the pair get armed up and head out to… where? Well, Richard’s plan is to start the war. Ezekiel will not fire the first shot so Richard reckons he and Daryl kill some Saviors, plant evidence on some crazed loner who is loosely affiliated with The Kingdom and when the Saviors murder said loner, Ezekiel will be honour-bound to join the fight. It’s a strange and convoluted plan that might have actually worked until Daryl starts to grill Richard about the identity of the loner. After much glaring through his sweaty fringe and growling “say her damn name!” Daryl gets Richard to admit the loner is Carol. The pair fight and Daryl buggers off. Go to Carol, Daryl. Go to her!

Meanwhile at the endless junkyard of scary sculptures, Rick and crew are being menaced by what looks like a Type O Negative tribute group. The sour-faced, dark-clad band are either rogue puppeteers or the next evolution of emo, but apparently all they want is this world is to flog stuff and live in a junkyard. Their leader, Jadis (played by the wonderful Pollyanna McIntosh of The Woman and Hap and Leonard fame) is a strange mix of quirky and intimidating, but despite all this Rick continues to smile. Rick asserts his position: he wants his priest back (yes, the junkyard kids have Gabriel – although why Rick wants him back remains a mystery) and he wants Jadis to join his fight. Jadis seems to ponder the issue and then pushes Rick into a pit.

Rick sits up, Michonne desperately calling his name, and is confronted by a spiked, armoured zombie hungrily making its way towards him. The concept of armouring a zombie is a great idea, and conceptually this is a fantastic sequence, however director Jeffrey F. January lacks Greg Nicotero’s knack for framing zombie action. After an awkwardly-staged fight, Rick manages to kill the barbed mongrel and Jadis is suitably impressed. The pair have an oddly flirty bartering session and agree on terms. Jadis will join the fight but wants a crapload of stuff in return. Rick will also need several tetanus shots.

Back at Carol’s shack, after a cruel fake-out involving Ezekiel delivering cobbler, Daryl and Carol are finally (finally!) reunited. The authenticity of Carol’s tears is a testament to Melissa McBride’s acting skills and her genuine platonic love for Daryl is moving as hell. The pair bond over dinner, Carol explains her reasons for leaving (which are still dubious, but we’ll let it go) and asks Daryl if the Saviors killed anyone. Daryl straight up lies to her face and tells her everything is fine. Thankfully Carol doesn’t have twitter in the zombie apocalypse so she won’t have the lie spoiled… for now. But what hell will she unleash when she does learn of Negan’s actions? Honestly, I can’t wait to see it.

Daryl heads back to the Kingdom and hangs out with Shiva (Ezekiel’s tiger). Morgan pops in and mutters some tiresome, zen nonsense that just reminds us how much more of an interesting character he was in seasons 1 and 3. We gave peace a chance, Morgan, the shit didn’t take. “Wake the hell up!” Daryl growls, and tells Morgan he’s heading to the Hilltop in the morning. Morgan and Ezekiel may be comfortable in their bubble of non-violence but Daryl has made it clear he won’t be a part of it.

New Best Friends won’t be on anyone’s all-time favourite list, but it’s engaging nonetheless. The junkyard kids (aka Bin Chickens) are a strange but fascinating group and the moments between Carol and Daryl are pure gold. The show seems to be moving in a proactive, occasionally humourous direction, which is a nice change. Certainly it’ll all end in tears and blood, but for now the good guys are winning more than they lose.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
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Girls: S6E2 – Hostage Situation

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“Downright intolerable.” “Frankenstein’s monster of our own creation.” Just a couple of crystalised terms coined about writer, hellraiser and Girls creator, Lena Dunham. “Why does she insist on being naked, completely out of context?”, one scribe begs – maybe he should read Pin-Up Grrls by Maria Elena Buszek. But if there is a context, he failed to mention what it was. Perhaps, to assume, conventionally attractive? Fat-free? Man-pleasing, to an extent? Clicking insanely on the “Like” button programmed in our collective heads may go against the angry Facebook emoji for some upon seeing a vain, nude and plump Lena Dunham when in character. But she’s been too busy spinning a career out of brash confidence and comic self-loathing to care about context.

The second episode in the sixth and final season of the femmy world of Girls sees Marnie (Allison Williams) in deep frustration, ransacking her memory of doomed relationships and cursing her life in general: “How did I get here? … How the fuck did I end up here?” As in TV, as in life, it’s one of many universal questions. Marnie and Desi (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) are stoking the somewhat dying embers of married life. With a country weekend in Poughkeepsie they drag Hannah along to appease some guilt because they’ve reconciled behind Ray’s back and in Hannah’s eyes, she’s supporting both Marnie’s “sick little tryst” with Desi, and her cycle of lies to Ray (Alex Karpovsky). She briefly escapes the charade to walk into a junk shop and finds a woman who could be mistaken for a highly-stylised, statuesque, Mesopotamian goddess who’s risen, ghostlike, from the ancient city of Nineveh. It’s not as romantic but instead, she has fled the New York diva fashion world to run a humble Poughkeepsie bric-a-brac shop to live “her truth.” She then gifts Hannah with a fine china tea set that becomes a delicate visual motif of the episode – particularly when we’re palpably thrilled watching Desi in a huge meltdown at the country cabin.

In the interim, Shosh (Zosia Mamet) is still on a quest for a dream life that could only be attained by having the dream job. In a trendy space of young professional women and wannabes, Elijah (Andrew Rannells) and Jessa (Jemima Kirke) accompany her to a networking event run by two young, nasally-sounding CEOs who have founded a hip, new and successful company, ‘Jamba Jeans’. As former friends of Shoshanna’s, the CEOs have cracked the life that Shosh craves. But she bails on a holiday with them at the last minute to go with Jessa in the hope of spotting Vincent Gallo!

The closing scene is touching. We see Hannah pick a bloodied Desi up from the ground after his emotional breakdown and he leans on her the way an injured soldier might as they make their way to the car for the drive back to Brooklyn. He’s carrying the weight of his broken spirit on his shoulders and they become the walking wounded. Two imperfect human beings in a perfect frame of darkness; Marnie in the drivers’ seat switches the headlights on to illuminate them, and their crosses to bare. She smiles a gentle smile, with a look that flits knowingly across her face. It’s one of unconditional love and acceptance of human foibles. As in TV, as in life.

 
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Riverdale Chapter 3: Body Double

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Our assertion last week that Riverdale won’t be messing with the core characteristics of its cast of characters may have been premature. While the Big Four may be inviolate, lesser members of the Archie Comics pantheon seem to much more malleable in this side-universe. To wit: Chuck Clayton (Jordan Calloway), for decades a sports-happy aspiring comic book artist, is now a slut-shaming alpha jock, while boy genius Dilton Doiley (Major Kurda) is a hardcore survivalist bent on welding his scout troop into a militia. That’s a bit different.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Episode three kicks off with one of the fastest cliffhanger-reversals in history. When we last saw Cheryl Blossom (Madelaine Petsch) she was holding her wrists out for the handcuffs and declaring herself guilty. Pretty much immediately she’s clarifying the situation to Mr. Weatherbee (Peter James Bryant) and Sheriff Keller (Martin Cummins): she’s guilty of lying to the authorities, not offing her brother, Jason. Now, at last, we get the heavily telegraphed revelation that Jason wanted to run away from Riverdale forever, and Cheryl was helping him fake his own death in order to get out from under their parents (who we meet briefly this episode, and it’s kind of an anticlimax).

The main thrust of this episode is the aftermath of Veronica’s (Camila Mendes) date with Chuck, who takes to social media to put it about that he gave her a “sticky maple” (apparently that’s a Riverdale thing, with the exact details left to the imagination). Ronnie is livid, but it’s social justice minded Betty (Lili Reinhart), currently in the middle of reviving the Riverdale High school newspaper, The Blue & Gold, who spearheads the counterattack, uncovering a culture of misogyny in the football team and bringing together a number of victims – including Big Ethel, played by none other than Shannon “Barb from Stranger Things” Purser. Revenge being needed, a honeypot is set, with Betty as the bait.

Meanwhile, Jughead’s (Cole Sprouse) investigation of Jason’s death continues, with Betty now promising him column inches in the paper a la Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Juggie takes a run at a witness that we haven’t spent much time with – Dilton, the smartest kid in town, who was nearby with his scout troop when Jason disappeared. After zeroing in on a weak link in Dilton’s khaki-clad foĺlowers, Jug learns that it was Dilton who was responsible for the gunshot everyone heard on the 4th of July – he was drilling his charges for the coming apocalypse because in this version of crazy-smart Dilton Doiley, the emphasis is on crazy. In return for Jughead not telling the cops about his penchant for firearms, Dilton drops a clue on him that the audience already knows – Ms. Grundy’s car was at the river that day, presumably along with Ms Grundy (Sarah Habel) herself. This will in all likelihood swing the focus of the investigation onto her next episode (a promise made, as it turns out, in this ep’s kicker).

Kind of lost in the mix this episode is ol’ Arch (KJ Apa), who manages to parlay Cheryl’s interest in him into an in with Josie and the Pussycats in order to further his music. Plus he manages to convince his dad that music to him is as important as football and deserves equal paternal support, which is all well and good, but pretty vanilla in an episode where Betty is donning a stripper wig and almost drowning a handcuffed Chuck in a hot tub.

And therein lies the problem with Archie as a character, at least in Riverdale; for all that he’s hunked out and had an affair with a teacher, he’s still a good kid trying to do the right thing, and the show is struggling to both dramatise that in a meaningful way and to make it stand out amongst all the other salacious action going on – and this is certainly the most salacious episode so far. The focus on Archie’s music is also sitting awkwardly; the creative process is always difficult to depict in a way that doesn’t come across as mawkish, and the series is definitely failing here. The show’s title certainly implies an ensemble piece, but surely the flagship character shouldn’t be this uninteresting? Give the Andrews kid some agency, for crying out loud.

There’s still plenty to enjoy here, not the least of which is some Melrose Place style histrionics among the parental set – Betty’s eminently bitter mum and the grieving Mrs Blossom damn near have a catfight, for crying out loud, and you get the feeling that some serious sins-of-the-father stuff will come to light before the series is done. There are also plenty of dangling threads left to ruminate on, in addition to the ongoing plot; Betty called Chuck “Jason” when she was torturing him, then claimed to not remember – does mental illness run in the Cooper family? Are we gonna meet the mysterious broken bird, Polly, soon? Still, this feels like a minor but measurable step down from what has gone before.

 
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The Walking Dead S7E9 – Rock in the Road

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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]

The first half of season seven was a little rough for The Walking Dead. After the borderline insulting cliffhanger that ended season six, we had one of the most shocking and divisive premiere episodes in the show’s history, “The Day Will Come When You Won’t Be”. In a particularly sadistic twist Abraham (Michael Cudlitz) and Glenn (Steven Yeun) were both dispatched in a visceral, shocking fashion by Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and his barbed wire-wrapped “vampire bat”, Lucille.

The Greg Nicotero-directed episode alienated a lot of fans and critics but, honestly, this was the episode the season six finale should have been. The problem was after it was all over the rest of the season became wildly uneven and strangely directionless. Grief is hard to define visually and even harder to make entertaining. So we ended up with a lot of choppy, stop/start episodes where Rick (Andrew Lincoln) channeled his mopey inner goth and the other characters just kinda wandered around talking about “stuff and thangs”.

To make matters worse Negan, the villain of the piece, became curiously likeable, especially compared to our inert lead characters. That’s not to say there weren’t some decent moments along the way, but did we really need an entire episode dedicated to Tara? In a show already stuffed with too many characters it was a weird move.

Things seemed to be getting back on track with the mid-season finale, however, as Rick regained his mojo and the band got back together. So can 7B shake the lack of forward momentum and bring the goods? If the first episode back, “Rock in the Road”, is any indication… yes, actually!

Rock in the Road“’s cold open is a curious one. Father Gabriel (Seth Gilliam) is on watch in Alexandria at night but something is wrong. He goes from reading the bible, to looking tense to raiding the pantry, flogging all the food and drink and piling it into his car. He drives off to destinations unknown. It’s an odd way to reintroduce us to the world of The Walking Dead but we’ll come back to that in a bit.

After the opening titles, we have Rick and crew talking to the gloriously, hideously slimy head of the Hilltop, Gregory (played to perfection by Xander Berkeley who clearly loves being a scumbag) about taking the fight to the Saviors. Gregory is the worst so, naturally, he doesn’t want to join the battle, but he seems okay with Rick doing all the work and him taking all the credit later: classic Gregory. Initially, our heroes are frustrated but when they leave the G-man’s office the “sorghum farmers” of the community express their willingness to fight. Score one for the good guys.

Rick’s visit to the Kingdom is less successful. Rick pitches his united front against the Saviors spiel and initially, King Ezekiel (Khary Payton) is attentive. He tells the band to crash over and he’ll let them know in the morning. In that time we get to see a little more of the idyllic existence at the Kingdom: a community that, for the most part, is unaware of the backdoor deal they have going with Negan.

The Kingdom, in many ways, represents the better, more optimistic version of Alexandria and society in general in the zombie apocalypse. King Ezekiel reads the “I have a dream” speech by Martin Luther King to children as a bedtime story, which is wholly mawkish yet utterly charming. He’s the kind of man who teaches amputee children archery and raises crops. Despite this, or perhaps because he doesn’t want to lose hope, the King says no to Rick. He offers Daryl asylum (which Daryl accepts with a classic Norman Reedus grumpy glare) but says he will not fight. It’s a bummer but it would be surprising if the King and Shiva (Ezekiel’s tiger) don’t join the fight down the road a spell, they just need some more convincing.

This brings us to the episode’s best moment: the explosive roadblock. Rick and crew come across a Savior-rigged stretch of freeway where an explosively booby-trapped length of high tensile wire is stretched between two cars. The gang disarm the explosives with Rosita (Christian Serratos) doing most of the work (because that’s something she can do now, I guess?) but just as the last stick of dynamite has been grabbed a massive horde of zombies descends. Rick and Michonne (Danai Gurira) manage to hot wire the trap cars and drive headfirst into the undead herd, the wire tearing the stinking shamblers asunder in a splattery cloud of limbs and gore – and it is amazing.

This is the kind of gloriously gory and slightly silly stuff The Walking Dead should be about. Fighting obstacles, problem-solving and outrageously over-the-top gore realised by Greg Nicotero, who himself learned the art of zombie dispatch at the feet of the master, Tom Savini, during the filming of George Romero’s Day of the Dead. To be honest, I watched this sequence a half dozen times and will probably do so some more, it’s cathartic and fun, something The Walking Dead should be more often.

The band arrives back in Alexandria just to have the Saviors appear looking for Daryl. Led by Simon (Steven Ogg aka Trevor from GTA V) the visit is brief and comparatively cordial (just a few plates smashed, no one shot or gutted – it’s progress!) but full of potential menace. It looks like Negan will not forgive the death of Fat Joey soon, so Daryl better beware.

This, of course, brings Rick’s attention to the cold open and the lack of goods in the pantry. Rosita figures Gabriel is just a dick and has flogged the food and done a runner but Rick refuses to believe it and finds a clue in Gabriel’s diary, the word “BOAT”.

Rick and the gang investigate, looking for the missing padre, but before you can say “ongoing mystery” a band of scruffy-looking cultist types, armed with spiked weapons, surround our heroes and Rick, somewhat inexplicably, breaks into a big smile.

So who are these grimy newcomers? Yet another group? The post-apocalyptic version of Scientologists? More cannibals? Hopefully, we’ll find out more next week.

Overall “Rock in the Road” is a pacey, intriguing course correction for season seven of The Walking Dead. Honestly, the wire vs zombies sequence is worth the price of admission alone, but the general sense of cautious optimism of the episode echoes my own. Hopefully, the back half of this season can continue the upward trend and stay focused on characters we care about, doing things that make at least a vague amount of sense.

Oh and if we could kill Negan in a spectacularly gory fashion, that would be great too.

 
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Legion Chapter 1

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Another day, another Marvel series, or so it seems. This one is actually coming to us courtesy of Fox, screen rights holders for all things mutant, and showrunner Noah Hawley, who gave us the exemplary TV iteration of Fargo. It’s his involvement that makes us prick up our ears, promising something a little different from the usual sturm und drang superhero angst and action.

Meet David Haller (Dan Stevens of The Guest and the upcoming Beauty and the Beast), long time mental illness sufferer and recent suicide attempt, currently confined to the Clockwork Psychiatric Hospital. He has a best friend, the substance-abusing, sardonic Lenny (Aubrey Plaza, great) but he doesn’t have a girlfriend – that is until a new inmate, the mysterious Syd (Rachel Keller) comes along, and David falls hard. Syd doesn’t like to be touched, and David is fine with that rule, up until Syd gets discharged and…

…well, that would be telling, but something catastrophic happens, resulting in the bulk of the episode being narrated by David under interrogation by a mysterious agent (Hamish Linklater) while nervous SWAT-types stand guard, guns at the ready. As it turns out, David’s visions and delusions of power may not just be symptoms of a troubled mind – or at least, not only that, and there are serious people who would much rather he not figure that out.

The subjectivity of experience seems to be the central thesis of Legion. Syd (whose last name is the rather-on-the-nose Barrett) states it plainly at one point: “What if your problems aren’t all in your head? What if they’re not even problems?” Or, more plainly, what if what makes you special is the same thing that makes you broken – a provocative, potentially dangerous area of exploration that is nonetheless tantalising to anyone who toils in the arts.

We spend a lot of time right in David’s head with him, and that invites the viewer to try and parse what is real and what isn’t, a mode heightened by the episode’s use of a fractured timeline and repeating frightening visions and (presumably) real displays of superhuman power. For a while there the jury is even out on whether Syd is a figment of David’s imagination (the smart money is on No, unless this show is playing a very long and interesting game). There’s more than a touch of Terry Gilliam going on here, with David’s eventual embracing of what could be, by the show’s own lights, insanity, reminiscent of Brazil, and the psychiatric hospital echoing 12 Monkeys. Indeed, that second point of reference is a bit of a problem; the show’s aesthetic edges right up to the precipice of “unbearably precious”, frequently stunningly imaginative in its compositions and colours, but flirting with “twee” a little too often. That this is part of Legion‘s depiction of mental illness is sure to grate on some – a well delivered cliche is still a cliche, and culturally we’re right in the middle of renegotiating how we perceive mental issues – it’d be nice if Legion was the first of the new guard in that respect, not the last of the old.

Thankfully we have some sterling performances to carry us through, chiefly Dan Stevens as Haller, who manages to combine charm, humour, self doubt, fear, keen intelligence and a certain level of outright intimidating power in one package. It’s really a bravura performance – even when the episode is over-egging the pudding with its choices, Stevens is there to anchor it.

Legion falters when it cleaves too closely to the expectations of the superhero/comic book genre. A big rescue/action setpiece closes out the episode, and it’s easily the weakest few minutes so far; we’ve seen this sort of TV-budget action a thousand times before and besides, we know how this is going to end up – the stakes are incredibly low. Our first hour and change in the company of David Haller sees him and us hooked up with a mysterious mentor figure (Jean Smart) and her team of armed and superpowered accomplices – easily the most obvious place for us to land, and a bit of a shame considering what has gone before. Legion isn’t perfect, but it shows a hell of a lot of promise. Hopefully the more workaday genre elements will fall away as we move forward, and we’re left with something really new and unique. We shall see.