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Doctor Who S10E2 – Smile

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The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) takes Bill (Pearl Mackie) into humanity’s far future, where an offworld colony has been prepared for an approaching starship full of people. The original landing crew, however, are dead – killed by their own robot servants – and unless the Doctor can work out what disaster occurred, the entire arriving colony will share the same fate.

With its 10th season Doctor Who appears to be undergoing a long-overdue overhaul. Since its return in 2005 the series has progressively buried itself underneath an increasingly labyrinthine mess of long-form story arcs, complex non-linear timelines and weirdly inappropriate romantic sub-texts. For two episodes in a row now all of that additional baggage has been tossed over the side, leaving behind a stripped-back no-nonsense science fiction adventure for a family audience. There is a strong sense of rediscovery to the season thus far, focusing more than ever on simply telling inventive and visually interesting stories that both children and adults will enjoy.

It is the ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ approach; in the case of “Smile”, written by Frank Cottrell-Boyce (Millions), it means an episode that would not have felt out of place with Christopher Eccleston in the title role, or Tom Baker, or even the late, great Patrick Troughton. The Doctor and his companion arrive on an alien planet. There is a mystery to solve and a monster to defeat, and plenty of running down corridors and sharing amusing banter along the way. For some long-term viewers of the series that may make “Smile” a mild disappointment. Given the long-running nature of Doctor Who, I think a few tightly focused no-nonsense episodes is precisely what is required; particularly after the series spent all of 2016 off the air bar one underwhelming Christmas special.

Pearl Mackie is excellent as new companion Bill Potts, giving the series yet another small breath of fresh air. Mackie has a great screen presence and a gift for comic timing, and Cottrell-Boyce provides her with plenty of strong material. Bill is shaping up to be the companion who asks the questions the viewer would ask in the same situation. She is a rare character in science fiction television: one who has actually seen and read some science fiction. Her introduction has also freed up Peter Capaldi’s performance. This is his third and final season as the Doctor, and thus far the scripts are finally allowing him to fully extend himself in the role.

The antagonists of this episode are a deliberately cute style of small robot. They communicate with emojis, and police the emotional states of any people that they encounter. If you are happy, they are happy. If you are sad, their electronic faces turn murderous and they hunt you down and have you killed. It is a nicely creepy use of the seemingly prevalent emoji culture, and a solid demonstration that no matter how far in the future you set your story science fiction is ultimately always about the here and now.

Being a contemporary television drama there is still an ongoing story arc lurking underneath the main action. The Doctor has exiled himself to Bristol to guard a mysterious alien vault, and his eccentric assistant-come-butler Nardole (Matt Lucas) presses him to remain on Earth and keep his promise (to whom he has made the promise, we remain unaware). So far it is a nicely intriguing undercurrent, and hopefully when it does reach the forefront of the series it will be dealt with cleanly and without showrunner Steven Moffat’s now-notorious penchant for time-travelling complexity. Don’t get me wrong: I am a huge fan of Moffat’s writing, and one of his stronger defenders in recent years, but to maintain a mainstream audience sometimes a series benefits from taking a direct and streamlined approach to storytelling.

For anyone who grew up with Doctor Who but drifted away over the decades, “Smile” is a pleasant throwback. For any new viewers looking for an enjoyable all-ages science fiction series, it really may be worth giving Doctor Who a look.

 
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Genius

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When people think of Albert Einstein, specific expressions and images come to mind: E=MC² and a wavy-haired Einstein sticking his tongue out, to name a couple. But, there is much more to this man than meets the eye. One of his wives (he had more than one) was his second cousin. In his youth, he was brash and rebellious. A letter he wrote was the catalyst for the creation of the atomic bomb.

This is the fertile territory where National Geographic’s 10-part series Genius delves. Jumping between pivotal moments in his life, the show asks the question: who was the real man behind the legend of Albert Einstein? And in the first episode, we’re teased a glimpse of his greatest achievements and failures; as a scientist and as a man.

This is National Geographic’s first foray into scripted television drama, and it has enlisted a top tier cast and crew to bring it to life. Behind the scenes are Academy Award winners Ron Howard (Apollo 13) and Brian Grazer (American Gangster) executive-producing the series, with Howard also directing (in his television debut) the pilot. Despite some recent critical and commercial misfires such as Inferno and In the Heart of the Sea, Howard puts his virtuosity on display in the pilot, evoking the tone and style of his brilliant Best Picture winner A Beautiful Mind – establishing the benchmark for the rest of the season. The production value of the series is equally spectacular as the first episode alone moves between Berlin, Zurich, Milan and more, with the world appearing as visceral and lived in as we can assume it would have been in 1890s Italy or 1930s Germany. However, it is perhaps those in front of the camera that are the standouts of the first episode.

As already detailed, the series follows Einstein as an eccentric and elderly scientist/celebrity (played by Geoffrey Rush) and as a young dreamer (played by Johnny Flynn), jumping through space and time as Einstein’s ideas once did. The pilot episode specifically deals with Einstein’s persecution as a Jew in Germany during the rise of the Nazi Party and his attempts to garner an education in Zurich to legitimise his place in the world of physics. It balances the mathematical history and personal turmoil masterfully, never letting one moment drag out for too long. For those who thought they were getting a by-the-numbers history of Einstein’s life, you’ve tuned in to the wrong show. There is potential, however, that since the show draws on the personal and political dramas of Einstein’s life, his greatest achievements, scientific ones, could be overshadowed in future episodes.

The series brings various historical figures associated with Einstein – including Marie and Pierre Curie, Carl Jung, and J. Edgar Hoover – to life with a fabulous ensemble cast of familiar faces from film and television.

Genius is not a rose-tinted depiction of the titan of the twentieth century. Instead, the series emphasises his flaws and delves into the complexities and contradictions of the man, rendering the entire series all the more intriguing.

Einstein’s story is worth telling and Genius is a telling worthy of the man at its heart.

Lochley Shaddock is a novelist, essayist, film critic and screenwriter/director

 
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Doctor Who S10 E1 – The Pilot

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Doctor Who is back with a 10th full season, following a year-long delay during which time viewers only received two Christmas specials – one relatively enjoyable, and one absolutely dreadful. That gives the new new season premiere a little extra sense of anticipation. In addition it not only heralds a new year but a new companion in the shape of Bill Potts (Pearl Mackie) and the final season for showrunner Steven Moffat and star Peter Capaldi.

Bill works in the canteen of a Bristol university, but spends half of her spare time sneaking into lectures by the university’s mysterious academic known only as the Doctor. When she forms a crush on another student named Heather (Stephanie Hyam), Bill follows her to an unusual puddle in a back alley – and into deadly danger from a fluid-like alien hunting her down.

“The Pilot” takes advantage of the lengthy break between seasons to offer something that’s about the most accessible season premiere since “The Eleventh Hour” all the way back in 2010. Cleverly the episode does not begin with the Doctor. It begins with Bill Potts: bright, optimistic, smart, gay, and both immediately and enormously likeable. It then uses Bill as a viewpoint through which we can discover Peter Capaldi’s Doctor all over again. He has been living in Bristol for 50 years. He now appears to have a sort of assistant-come-manservant named Nardole (Matt Lucas), who was seen in both preceding Christmas specials but feels much more comfortably included than before. The Doctor guards a high-tech vault underneath the university: we get no significant clues to what’s inside, but he has been guarding it for a long time.

There is an underlying sadness to the Doctor here. His desk is decorated with two photographs: one a long-departed granddaughter, the other a long-dead wife. Through Bill, it seems, he may finally rediscover some happiness. There has been a nice character arc to Capaldi’s Doctor over the past three years. He started a severely dislocated alien with a poor sense of humanity and tact. He slowly developed both. Now he has been struck by tragedy: a wife gone, and the vanished memory of a much-missed companion chafing at the sides of his mind. I admire the references to Clara’s absence, but I am rejoicing in that same absence; she was a relatively dull character performed in a relatively inadequate way, and the series immediately feels sharper and more entertaining without Jenna Coleman in it.

The episode’s narrative is relatively slight, but excels in providing nice science fiction beats and creepy moments of horror. It sets a strong tone for the season ahead and introduces the new companion – and the Doctor’s current status quo – very effectively. Guest star Stephanie Hyam is brilliantly unsettling and intense as the possessed Heather. Her name is also a nice small touch, given her brief romance with Bill – Heather was the name of William Hartnell’s wife. The episode abounds with kisses to the past – the photographs, a cup filled with sonic screwdrivers, the return of two old Doctor Who aliens – but I think Heather’s name is probably my favourite.

Doctor Who is back once again, and with the end for the Capaldi and Moffat eras in sight it feels genuinely energised for one last run. Bill seems great, Nardole is showing a fresh potential, and Capaldi is in excellent form. Let us hope the quality continues for the next eleven episodes.

 
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High Life

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Luke Eve’s web series, High Life provides a highly visceral depiction of mental health issues and their impact if they remain unacknowledged and ignored. High school girl, Gen Barrett (rising star Odessa Young from The Daughter and Looking For Grace) is getting ready for her year 12 exams. She is an excellent student, sexually innocent and possesses an exquisite musical talent. On the outside, Gen seems like she has it all figured out. From the beginning however, cracks in her perfect facade begin to form as Gen is about to have her first bipolar disorder manic episode.

High Life comes on the heels of Luke Eve’s independent web series, Low Life, a black comedy about depression, signalling the personal nature of the material. The series is comprised of six ten minute episodes (The Ascent, The Rush, The Twist, The Pinnacle, The Fall, The Return), which works equally well as a singular one hour piece. The way it is split up into episodes, however, is striking. Rather than being solely time based, each episode is a distinct compartmentalised chapter representing a significant phase in the story. All end with a cliff hanger and the pause between watching them allows time to absorb and reflect on the content before moving on.

With Gen as our guide, the audience are taken on an all access tour to understanding her deepest feelings and innermost thoughts. Odessa Young triumphs in this role. Her performance is honest and natural, making Gen a loveable character who you come to care about and enjoy in a rather short amount of time. The series is distinctly Australian but also universally relatable. While it does delve into dark themes, at times it is also humorous and whimsical. High Life is definitely worth a watch.

High Life is available on 9Now, uh, now

 
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American Gods Episode 1: The Bone Orchard

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After a short stretch in prison, all gentle giant Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle) wants to do is get back to his Indiana home town and pick up where he left off with his loving wife, Laura (Emily Browning). Her death in a car accident scuppers those plans, and with his whole life ripped out from under him he sees no reason not to take a job as bodyguard and general dogsbody to Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane, and hallelujah for that), a mysterious itinerant conman. That decision leads Shadow into a weird underground world of fallen gods and strange magic – a world that is gearing up for a war between the Old Gods and the New.

That is, at least, the overall conceit, but whether your average viewer can pick up what American Gods is putting down might depend on whether they’re familiar with the source novel by Neil Gaiman or, indeed, his broader body of work. In its first episode at least, American Gods gives up its secrets reluctantly, and while there are clues aplenty layered into the dense pilot, there are also surprises that would be a shame to spoil.

Still, there are enough pieces in play to get a sense of the show’s ambition and general direction. A hilariously bloody opening that sees a shipful of Vikings chopping each other into sashimi sets up the notion of immigrant populations bringing their own gods to America, and subsequent scenes leave us in no doubt that those gods are still around, eking out a living in what Tom Waits once called the warm, wet, narcotic American night. We only meet a couple in this first outing. There’s Bilquis (Yetide Badaki), a love goddess who lives on the worship of her romantic conquests, and Mad Sweeney (Pablo Schreiber), a pugnacious Irishman who claims to be a leprechaun and can produce gold coins out of thin air.

And there’s Mr. Wednesday himself, whose identity is heavily hinted at without being stated outright (a quick perusal of Gaiman’s latest, Norse Mythology, might be in order). His agenda is similarly opaque at this stage. Indeed, American Gods is pulling as much from noir tradition as from the various mythologies that Gaiman is famous for remixing – if you look at Shadow as a kind of hulking Philip Marlowe going down these mean and magical streets, you’re not too far off. At one point he even gets shanghaied by the opposition for a limousine-backseat interrogation by one of their number, computer spirit Technical Boy (Bruce Langley).

We don’t learn much about Technical Boy and his pantheon yet, and that is as it should be – a few more episodes like this, and you’ll either be praying for an info-dump or overwhelmingly grateful there hasn’t been one yet. The world of American Gods is a strange and sorcerous one, and as viewers we should be on the backfoot to some degree, looking for meaning and causality in a place that runs on older and stranger rules, where symbols mean more than objects, and dreams are as real as waking life.

All of it is packaged in a gorgeously rich and dark visual package, as you would expect from showrunners Bryan Fuller (Hannibal) and Michael Green (Gotham), not to mention pilot director David Slade (30 Days of Night). The show has been production-designed to within an inch of its life, but with the narrative’s emphasis on signs and portents in mind, that makes perfect sense – on some level this thing is all about finding a signal in the noise of the mundane world, and presenting an ordered, readable and, lest we forget, darkly beautiful version of the world underlines that theme.

As a first step into a weirder, wider world, the pilot for American Gods is the business. This promises to be a rich, resonant, haunting series, in the way you hope every urban fantasy show is. What puts it ahead of the pack is that it takes itself seriously. So many series in this vein hedge their bets, winking at the audience about the ludicrousness of their premise. It’s something Joss Whedon was able to pull off with his Buffyverse, but almost no other creator has managed the trick since. American Gods, while not without humour, goes in the other direction, shooting for weirdness and awe. Our first meeting with Bilquis will probably be the litmus test for most viewers: whether that sequence strikes you as amazing or preposterous will tell you whether this series is for you.

It’s certainly for us. If this high note is maintained, American Gods is liable to be the best urban fantasy series since, well, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. If it can avoid the Fuller Curse, whereby the erstwhile showrunner tends to get his series’ cancelled out from under him by the powers that be, we should be in for a hell of a trip.

American Gods will premiere on Amazon Prime Video on May 1, 2017. Customers who are not already Amazon Prime Video members can sign up for a free 7-day trial at PrimeVideo.com.

 
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Better Call Saul Season Three

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When rumours of a Breaking Bad spin-off series first surfaced it seemed an absurd concept. How could writer/director Vince Gilligan imbue occasional comic relief character, Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) with the requisite gravitas to make an audience care and the potential for exciting narrative directions, particularly in the context of a show that is part prequel. The answer ended up being “really freaking well”.

Now in its third season, Better Call Saul continues its tradition of slow burn tension, human drama and occasional bouts of yelling at Chuck (Michael McKean), a character who inspires the kind of throbbing-veined hatred usually reserved for the baddies on Game of Thrones.

It’s difficult to discuss the new season without spoilers, but needless to say the respective fates of Jimmy/Saul (Bob Odenkirk), Mike (Jonathan Banks) and a certain eerily calm antagonist from Breaking Bad are are set to collide in ways that are both thrilling and unexpected.

The first two episodes “Mabel” and “Witness”, both directed by Vince Gilligan himself, sketch out a potentially dark and intriguing path for this season where kind-hearted Jimmy morphs into the glib, corrupt Saul.

One sequence in particular, where Mike attempts to find who has placed a tracking device on his car, is testament to Gilligan’s eye for visual storytelling and ratcheting up the tension. You’re basically watching Jonathan Banks dismantle a car, fiddle around with a petrol cap and then sit and wait by a window, yet it’s gripping in a way that’s hard to explain.

In fact the best way to experience the new season is with very little prior information. Better Call Saul remains one of the most unique and riveting programs on television so head over to Stan to catch up on any episodes you’ve missed and get ready for the black comedy, the pathos and yelling at Chuck.

Better Call Saul Season 3 starts streaming on Stan April 11 at 5pm.

 
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Five Came Back

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Hollywood and history collide in the sterling documentary series Five Came Back, based on the book of the same name by journalist Mark Harris. Across three parts, director Laurent Bouzereau follows the wartime exploits of five acclaimed filmmakers who put their studio careers on hold to make documentary and propaganda films for the US war department following the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that brought America into World War II.

Our subjects are John Ford (The Searchers), John Huston (The Maltese Falcon), Frank Capra (It’s a Wonderful Life), William Wyler (Ben-Hur), and George Stevens (Shane) – great filmmakers by any yardstick. Appropriately, director Laurent Bouzereau has recruited five modern masters (your mileage may vary on one or two, but let’s go with it) to comment on the events depicted and put them in their historical context: Godfather maestro Francis Ford Coppola, Raiders of the Lost Ark screenwriter turned director Lawrence Kasdan, documentarian turned Bourne action master Paul Greengrass, Mexican fantasist Guillermo del Toro, and Steven Spielberg. The whole thing is narrated by Meryl Streep.

That’s a lot of star power. Let’s face it, Hollywood loves stories about the worthiness and magic of show business, and  the power of cinema, and this particular subject is potentially heavy with that kind of self-importance – a little cynicism on the part of the viewer is understandable. However, it soon fades, because in this case the power and the worthiness are real.

Five Came Back takes the time to put the events in their historical context, explaining the importance of newsreels in the days before television news (and the internet), before plunging us into the war, taking us from The Battle of Midway (which Ford recorded) through the North African campaign, the invasion of Italy, D-Day (Ford and Stevens were there, landing at Normandy with the troops) through to Berlin and, with tragic inevitability thanks to clarity of hindsight, Dachau and the other death camps.

Along the way we get plenty of anecdotes – the film benefits immensely from older clips of the loquacious Huston and the thoughtful Capra recalling their wartime adventures – plenty of heroism, such as Wyler flying on bombing missions to make his incredible film Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress; and more heartbreaking moments of sheer, impactful emotion than you could countenance.

What’s more, despite the “print the legend” hagiographic leanings that are almost impossible to avoid in this sort of thing, especially when Hollywood’s tendency to self-aggrandise gets combined with “Greatest Generation” mythologising, Five Came Back is remarkably clear-eyed, never failing to note that these directors were making propaganda to boost the war effort (comparisons with Goebbels and Riefenstahl are made), and also taking the time to comment on the racial issues prevalent during the period, including the internment of Japanese Americans and the disenfranchisement of African Americans – Capra produced the documentary The Negro Soldier in attempt to address the latter. The series is also honest about the times that the filmmakers restaged events to get better coverage than naked reality allowed; indeed, you have to admire Stevens’ moxie in demanding General de Gaulle redo the German surrender of Paris outside in better lighting!

Throughout it all, we get the footage that these men captured, most of it taken from the films they made, some only now seeing the light of day (much of Stevens’ D-Day footage was deemed too horrifying for public consumption, to say nothing of what he captured at Dachau, which was later used as evidence at the Nuremberg trials). It’s stunning stuff – seeing these events, captured with the sure hands of these masterful directors, will leave a mark. Netflix (to surpass Netflix geo-restrictions use a VPN. Read more about VPN services here) has also made available a selection of the films the five made, including The Memphis Belle, Prelude to War, San Pietro, and John Huston’s long suppressed Let There Be Light, a look at a group of soldiers trying to overcome PTSD and other psychological ailments in the aftermath of the war. Taken together as a whole, all these elements comprise a an incredibly comprehensive look at the role of cinema in WWII.

Five Came Back is nothing less than a masterpiece. Any student of cinema and/or history will already be champing at the bit to see this one, and rightly so. Everyone else is advised to make time as well.

 
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Shots Fired

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Shots Fired covers the investigation of a shooting of a young white man by a black cop, in a small southern US town. The state governor Patricia Eamons (Helen Hunt) is accommodating and welcomes the investigation, though local Sheriff Platt (Will Patton) and his Lt. Breeland (True Blood’s Stephen Moyer) are less than forthcoming, closing ranks. Department of Justice lawyer Preston Terry (Stephan James) and his investigator Ashe Akino (Sanaa Lathan) are soon asking questions of witnesses and the victim’s family but they become mired in a hotbed of local police politics and social activism as local Pastor, Janae James (Aisha Hinds) sees an opportunity to politicise the killing, using it as activist fodder within the community and inflaming tensions. As they dig deeper, Terry and Akino’s investigation is met with silence and a troubling undercurrent of fear amongst local black residents, impeding their case.

Created by Reggie Rock Bythewood and Gina Prince-Bythewood (who both got their start on Bill Cosby’s A Different World but have gone on to much more ‘respectable’ work such as the film Beyond the Lights), this crime ensemble drama has currency at the moment. The People vs OJ Simpson was a surprise hit and along with the set-and-forget reliability of the TV police procedural that refuses to die, it seems that cable TV has forced network TV to be a little smarter in how it delivers the cop drama staple.

The recent real-life spate of police killing black youths is the primary discussion here with the main story being an interesting inversion of that narrative. A mash-up of Law and Order and In The Heat of the Night that largely works, Shots Fired isn’t afraid to tackle some heavy social issues and do it with smarts and surprisingly, some nuance.

 
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The Walking Dead S7 E16: The First Day of the Rest of Your Life

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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]

Well here we are – the season seven finale of The Walking Dead and the shambling show’s ninety-ninth episode! Season seven has been an odd one. On the one hand we had bold, shocking episodes like the season opener “The Day Will Come When You Won’t Be” and enjoyably goofy adventures in splatter like “Rock in the Road”, not to mention Richonne-centric episode “Say Yes”. However those high points have often been floundering next to oddly-paced efforts like “Swear” and “The Other Side”.

What this season needed was a kick-arse, game-changing, jaw-dropping finale that will make the occasional stumbles feel worthwhile. So is “The First Day of the Rest of Your Life” that episode? Partially, yes, but we’ll get back to that in a bit.

The episode opens with a creepy close-up of Sasha’s (Sonequa Martin-Green) sweaty face. She appears to be in a small dark room and is listening to music on an iPod. Is she dying, crying or passing out? We don’t know yet and we’ll be revisiting this strong image throughout the episode.

After the opening titles, and a quick visit to Sasha again, we head into a flashback where Sasha recalls her final day with Abraham (Michael Cudlitz). The pair of them are still in the early period of their relationship and Sasha has had a nightmare about Abe’s death. It soon becomes clear they’re about to leave on the journey at the end of which Abraham gets his proud ginger bonce flattened. It’s a bittersweet memory that we’ll be returning to throughout the episode’s extended runtime.

Back at Alexandria, Rick (Andrew Lincoln) is grilling Dwight (Austin Amelio) about why he wants to help them. Dwight claims he wants Negan dead, but Daryl (Norman Reedus) and Tara (Alanna Masterson) would quite happily kill the scarred defector on the spot. Cooler heads prevail and Dwight is allowed to initiate a plan to kill Negan. As Dwight drives off Daryl observes he’s “gonna kill that sum’bitch” when everything’s all over. For that “Easy Street” song alone, we’re with you, Dazza.

Meanwhile in Sasha’s cell, Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is talking to Sasha about how peace can reign after “Lucille takes three”. Sasha is horrified by this revelation and cunningly talks Negs down to one. “Just one person has to die,” she says in a way that pretty much guarantees we won’t be seeing her in season eight.

At the Hilltop, Maggie (Lauren Cohan) pitches her plan to help Rick to Jesus (Tom Payne). Jesus agrees with her and offers that it’s good Maggie is the one giving the order as it seems Gregory (Xander Berkeley) has done a runner, possibly to dob on our heroes. Fuck’s sake, Gregory, Maggie saved you from two zombies last week! Have a word with yourself.

Elsewhere the Kingdom is on patrol. They come up against a line of shopping trolleys, a technique last seen in “Bury Me Here”. Morgan (Lennie James) emerges from the shadows and, just in case you hadn’t realised how crazy he was, we can see he’s sharpened his staff into a spear. Morgan is clad in Benjamin’s armour and doesn’t seem keen to join with the Kingdom until Ezekiel (Khary Payton) delivers a speech that declares, “No one will suffer under [The Savior’s] capricious malevolence again!” When a bloke with a tiger says stuff like that it’s hard not to fall in line, and Morgan walks next to Carol (Melissa McBride) as they march to war.

Back at Alexandria the Bin Chickens (aka Heapsters) arrive on pushbikes and garbage trucks. Yes, they drive actual garbage trucks. They’re thematically consistent, which you’ve gotta admire. Jadis (Pollyanna McIntosh, who can do no wrong) looks Rick over and asks Michonne if she can: “Lay with him after. You care?” Clearly Michonne would care but Rick seems at least at a little tempted.

We move into a tension-building sequence where we cut back and forth between Alexandria preparing for war and Negan approaching, slowed down by Dwight’s felled tree trap. This is a beautifully scored sequence and really amps up the expectations for the violence to come.

The Saviors finally arrive but something seems off. For a start, Eugene (Josh McDermitt) is standing in for the big fella. When Rick asks where Negan is, Eugene answers: “I am Negan.” Rick’s had about enough of this bullshit and he gives Rosita the nod for her to spring her explosive trap. She presses the button and… nothing. What’s going on? Cue the episode’s best twist. The fucking BIN CHICKENS turn on our heroes, bamboozling the ENTIRE COMMUNITY OF ALEXANDRIA with the weapons they themselves fought so hard to get. What the hell, Pollyanna McIntosh, we literally said you could do no wrong two paragraphs ago!

Personal feelings aside this is a really excellent and surprising development. Alexandria is suddenly on the back foot and Negan enters, holding Lucille and grinning the smuggest of smug grins. Apparently Negan just made a better deal with the Bin Chickens (booo!) which, you know, Rick probably should have allowed for. Negan wants the following: all the guns, a victim for Lucille (of Rick’s choosing, no less), Daryl and a pool table – with cues and chalk. Rick, on the other hand, wants to see that Sasha is still alive. Negan presents a coffin which he begins to open…

We go into a recent flashback where Sasha claims she’ll ride in the coffin, and all she wants is a small bottle of water. This apparently gives Negan a major boner but he lets it happen. We finally understand what we’ve been flashing back to: Sasha riding in the coffin after swallowing Eugene’s suicide pill.

So when Negan opens the coffin, zombie Sasha lurches out, trying to take a big bite out of his tasty flesh! The bamboozler has become the bamboozled! Rick and a number of Alexandrians use the opportunity to fight back against the Bin Chickens and Saviors, and a messy gunfight ensues. Rosita (Christian Serratos) cops a bullet but is dragged to safety by Tara. Michonne has a nasty battle with a random Bin Chicken. Rick attempts to do some sexy bartering with Jadis but instead of joining in like usual she just shoots him in the thigh. So, you know, a little less sexy than usual.

The uprising is thwarted. Rick ends up on his knees next to Carl (Chandler Riggs) and Negan delivers a big old speech that we know will end with Carl getting his head turned into skull hommus. Someone falls off the sniper’s perch and Rick seems to believe it’s Michonne. Negan crows to Rick about the bad shit that’s about to happen but Rick reminds him that he, in fact, will kill Negan no matter what. Negan fury chuckles and hefts Lucille…

… when SHIVA THE FUCKING TIGER jumps into the fray and starts eating Saviors! The Kingdom has arrived! The Hilltop has arrived! And did we mention the motherflipping tiger? The tide has seriously turned and the the Bin Chickens and Saviors all bid a hasty retreat, taking heavy casualties along the way. Negan leaves Alexandria, defiantly offering a one-fingered salute as he goes. Rick finds Michonne badly beaten but alive.

Back at the Sanctuary, Negan is pissed off. He quizzes Eugene on how Sasha died. Eugene lies and claims she must have suffocated but Negan seems suspicious. Maybe Eugene isn’t quite as Negan as he claims? Regardless, the boss man addresses his troops, saying “we’re going to war!” Everyone cheers. These boys love a fight.

The episode ends with a bittersweet conversation between Rick and Maggie delivered in voice over. During the talk we see Jesus take down walker Sasha and Maggie pulling out her knife to finish her off. Carol and Morgan share a moment, bloodied from battle. Daryl discovers a message from Dwight that he “Didn’t Know”, but do we trust him? Alliances are affirmed and the battlelines drawn. It’s a surprisingly emotional sequence that leans heavily on the viewer’s nostalgia for the previous six seasons, but works nonetheless.

“The First Day of the Rest of Your Life” is not the all out war some viewers may have been hoping for. As we predicted in last week’s review, it’s more the first battle of many rather than the concluding chapter. Our heroes will be fighting Negan for some time yet to come, but if that’s the case at least they’re united with a common goal which will hopefully lead to more focus in the storytelling.

Greg Nicotero does a superb job as usual with everything except some of the gunplay in the episode’s second half, which felt oddly clumsy. However that’s easily forgiven when you consider the tiger attack, trio of big surprises and the solid character work with Sasha – we shall miss you, Sonequa Martin-Green.

Ultimately “The First Day of the Rest of Your Life” is a solid, course-correcting conclusion to a shambolic, occasionally directionless season. It sets up a eighth season of proactive storytelling and, hopefully, will dig into some of Negan’s backstory… before he gets killed in a horrifically graphic fashion, that is.

So that’s FilmInk’s coverage of season seven done for the year. Thanks for reading and we’ll see you back for weekly coverage of both Fear the Walking Dead and Game of Thrones in the coming months.

 
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13 Reasons Why

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Not all Netflix series are made equal. For every Daredevil, there is an Iron Fist; every Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt has its lesser, Fuller House counterpart. And in the wake of pulpy-teen murder mystery Riverdale, Netflix’s new teen mystery 13 Reasons Why is an emotionless, forgettable affair.

Based off the YA novel by Jay Asher and executive produced by Selena Gomez, 13 Reasons Why is the story of Hannah Baker (newcomer Katherine Langford), a high school girl who committed suicide a week before the first episode picks up. Without her present, we follow Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette), the quiet teenage boy who was in love with her before she died, struggling with grief when a mysterious package arrives at his door one afternoon. It’s thirteen cassette tapes, each recorded sardonically by Hannah before her death, explaining the thirteen reasons why she killed herself.

Each episode chronicles Clay listening to a different tape, biking around town in an attempt to piece together Hannah’s story. From school jocks who took advantage of her and spread rumours to fickle friends who believed them, Hannah spills the beans on everyone who wronged her – and even when we finally reach Clay’s tape, the story is far from over. As Hannah’s plan to expose the horrible bullying and toxic masculinity of her high school comes to a head, the lines blur between victim and culprit.

13 Reasons Why is incredibly lifeless (sorry) and dull, moving like molasses as its “mystery” is slowly uncovered. Each of Hannah’s stories would be interesting and compelling if they weren’t stretched out over the course of full hour-long episodes; all thirteen episodes could be condensed into four, or even just a movie, with tighter storytelling and quicker reveals.

Instead, 13 Reasons Why pads out its gloomy world, introducing us to dozens of characters who receive such small, infrequent moments in the sun that it’s hard to distinguish one stereotypical jock from the next; Hannah’s selfish friends and disinterested teachers all blurring into one. This becomes a showcase for the show’s terrible soap-opera dialogue and the actors’ awkward chemistry. And as our emotional entry into this world, Clay should be so much more sympathetic than he is – after all, his is the epitome of unrequited love – but he lacks any kind of heart, or character at all, instead coming off as creepy and irrational, made worse by a dull performance by Minnette.

The only compelling character is Hannah: her tapes are full of sarcasm and attitude, but seeing her heartbroken eyes as we learn the tragic story shows us how much she truly has given up on living any longer, made more powerful by an impassioned performance from Langford. The show’s message about the toxic treatment of girls in high school is certainly fascinating and frustrating – from objectification and even sexual assault, this show is not afraid to go there – but its treatment of suicide is occasionally problematic, since, as one character laments, ‘leaving those tapes was a dick move’. Regardless, this serves to make Hannah just more complex and interesting, and her descent into depression is believable and melancholy, as each person turns their back on her until no one is left.

Despite its sympathetic main character, 13 Reasons Why fails to inject life (sorry, again) into a story that we’ve all experienced to a certain degree – coming of age stories should make us feel and remember, but this is just boring. Even for lovers of mystery, Thirteen Reasons Why fails to capture attention and create intrigue – but maybe that’s because this isn’t a whodunit, but a whydunit, and since the “why” isn’t a big surprise, it’s barely even that.