Tag Archives: Episode 1

Season Premiere: Game of Thrones – “The Wars To Come”


“The Wars To Come”

April 12, 2015

Over the past four seasons, I’ve very much enjoyed writing about Game of Thrones here at Cultural Learnings, and have been privileged to have a wide audience for those reviews. The subsequent conversations have been among my most rewarding, and I want to thank everyone who has read, commented, or otherwise engaged with my reviews during that period.

However, I was given the opportunity to take over from my friend and former colleague Todd VanDerWerff writing the “Experts” reviews for The A.V. Club, and therefore there will be no more reviews here at Cultural Learnings. It also means that if you are someone who has not read the books, these reviews may potentially be something you do not want to read—while they will not explicitly spoil future events, they are written for those who know what’s coming, and may occasionally make references to foreshadowing and other forward-looking developments. I apologize for this, but it’s a byproduct of the opportunity.

However, given that the comments can be a bit more fast and furious over there, I will be posting a link to the review each week, and I encourage anyone with any specific questions or comments to leave them here, and I’m happy to create a side dialogue if anyone desires it. Thanks for reading, and hopefully you’ll still find something of value in the new reviews in the new location.

Game of Thrones (experts): “The Wars To Come”

“We have reached a stage where reader and non-reader are closer than ever before. Each group comes to the text with similar levels of expectation, shaped by their respective understandings of this world and its characters. Readers, admittedly, still come with expectations that are based on what unfolds in the novels past this point, but those expectations have been destabilized such that some of them hold no clear authority over the expectations that non-readers have developed on their own. Where once readers had lengthy emotional connections to the text that outstripped those only recently encountering the story, non-readers may now have been diehard fans for four years, growing in number as the show evolved into a mainstream phenomenon. And while there are more readers than ever before (I certainly didn’t use to see people reading the books on public transit before it premiered), they’re a different kind of reader, one for whom the show was likely the entry point.”


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Lost – “Pilot”


Aired: September 22, 2004/September 29, 2004

It seems probable that I revisited parts of the first season of Lost back in 2005, when I received the first season on DVD for Christmas. I have a distinct memory of watching some of the DVD bonus features, at the very least. But as life and the show grew more complicated, time grew shorter, and I’ve never revisited the show in any detail since despite writing about Seasons 3-6 in some detail here at the blog.

This is changing now that I’m stepping in to take on The A.V. Club’s TV Club Classic coverage of Lost’s first season this summer following the exit of esteemed former editor—and a big part of how I got into this episodic television criticism racket—Todd VanDerWerff. He’s completed coverage of the first six episodes of the season, and I’ll be stepping in to handle the rest, but in part for the sake of my own momentum and also to offer some perspective, I wanted to write at least some brief thoughts as I work my way through the episodes leading up to “The Moth” and “Confidence Man” next week.

And while I suggest above that I haven’t rewatched Lost, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t specific episodes—like “The Constant,” which is what Netflix told me was the last episode I’d watched—that I’ve revisited over the years. The “Pilot” is foremost among those, one of those episodes of television that I could recount almost beat-for-beat. It’s strikingly familiar, which is exactly why it’s so interesting to revisit it while knowing you’re about to embark on the journey of writing about the first season of the show while most viewers are still caught up in its sixth.

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Season Premiere: Game of Thrones – “Two Swords”


“Two Swords”

April 6th, 2014

“Killed the right people, I suppose.”

The beginning of Game of Thrones’ fourth season is caught in evaluative limbo.

We are past the point where it is a critic’s job to tell you what Game of Thrones is. At this stage, the show is the show, and nothing in the first three episodes of the season—which were sent to critics—changes that. To write an advance review of a season of Game of Thrones is less about evaluating its quality and more about offering vague previews of what’s to come for those who haven’t read the books but nonetheless want some sense of where their favorite characters are headed in the early-going, or for those who’ve read the books and want a basic gutcheck on how certain details were translated. If something in these first three episodes actually changes someone’s mind regarding the series, it would shock me not unlike the Red Wedding shocked non-readers.

This might be the last time I say this. The fourth season marks the first that will begin to actively and aggressively merge material from multiple books, likely resulting in some of the most substantial deviations from the source material to date. As someone whose interest in writing about the show comes in large part based on how the series approaches narratives, characters, and themes from the book in a different medium, we are on the verge of one of the most exciting periods for the series, one where the discourse will take on considerably higher stakes. Will readers embrace the changes? Will non-readers even notice that something is amiss?

“Two Swords” marks the calm before the storm, hence the evaluative limbo—although we are approaching the moment when I expect we’ll see far more interesting ranges of critical response to the series, the season premiere has the series firmly in transition, still holding onto the familiar instability we’ve come to understand. It’s a delicate transition, mind you, and one that David Benioff and D.B. Weiss—who doubles as director—handle extremely well, but it’s ultimately a familiar feeling returning to Westeros in season four.

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Season Premiere: Game of Thrones – “Valar Dohaeris”


“Valar Dohaeris”

March 31st, 2013

“You’ve got to invent a story about where the ship is going and why.”

As Sansa and Shae look out on Blackwater Bay imagining where the ships are going, it’s hard not to think about the last time we as an audience watched the ships on Blackwater Bay. “Blackwater” brought a striking amount of clarity to the show, its tight focus clearly defining where the ships were going: Stannis Baratheon intended to take King’s Landing, because he believes himself to be the one true king of Westeros.

As Game of Thrones returns for its third season, such clarity seems long gone. As Robb notes, his men haven’t had a real battle in weeks, their “war” more of a glacial march in search of Lannister men more likely to “raze and run” than fight in the open battlefield. Stannis has retreated to Dragonstone to burn men alive in sacrifice to Melisandre’s lord of light, in hopes they will provide a path forward. Westeros is still at war, that much is certain, but the terms of that warfare are as muddled as they’ve ever been: much as the Narrow Sea separates Daenerys from her place on the Iron Throne, the other would-be Kings are equally unable to directly and openly lay claim to the title.

And yet they keep moving. Indeed, outside of those who remain at King’s Landing, nearly every character or group of characters are on the move, although it’s not always clear where they’re moving to precisely. “Valar Dohaeris” might reintroduce us to a collection of the show’s characters, but it’s an introduction that mostly finds characters exactly where they were before. The result is a premiere that lacks excitement not because things don’t happen, but rather because there’s little new information to hint toward what will happen next, relying on more general anticipation—often, to Sansa’s game above, of the viewer’s invention—as the narrative moves at its own pace.

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Season Premiere: Homeland – “The Smile”

“The Smile”

September 30th, 2012

Carrie’s life is just getting back on track when we rejoin her narrative. She’s living in her sister’s house, spending time with the family and teaching English as a Second Language. And so when the CIA comes calling, asking her to fly to Lebanon and engage a former contact, it asks her to return to the life she’s been trying to avoid.

Similarly, Brody is moving forward with his life as a congressman hoping that his relationship with Abu Nazir won’t become an active part in his life. He wants to believe that his subtle influence of policy is his role in the larger game, that his way of protecting Isa’s memory is to find ways to keep the same kind of attack from happening again. And so when he is contacted by one of Abu Nazir’s people to play a role in the planned attack in retaliation for the Israeli strikes on Iran, he’s forced back to that moment when he almost pulled the trigger. There, he was killing men responsible for the killing of innocents; now, he’s being asked to play a role in the killing of innocents in response.

“The Smile” asks us who these characters are in light of these new circumstances, testing their new identities based on their old lives. Does Brody still believe what he used to believe? Does Carrie still desire to live on the edge even once she’s spent time on stable ground? By combining the introduction of the season’s over-arching plot with this character study, “The Smile” serves as the perfect reintroduction to this world and the characters operating within it.

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Nickel and Dimed: Two Cents on HBO’s The Newsroom [Review]

“We Just Decided To”

June 24th, 2012

I saw all of the tweets about The Newsroom leading up to its debut. I saw them build with excitement around its beginnings, and then I saw them increase in volume while splintering off into numerous factions in the months leading up to its premiere. With some shows, screeners go out and very little is said about them within the critical community, with any chatter confined to backchannels. With The Newsroom, though, the conversation couldn’t help but spill out into public, and it became almost a rite of passage for critics to announce their opinion of the show so as to line up into certain camps.

This isn’t abnormal, precisely: whenever critics write a review, they are stating their opinion and implicitly entering into a particular group of critics who felt a particular way about a particular series. However, everything about the critical discourse around The Newsroom has been explicit, at least following it on Twitter: this is partly because of the show itself (which is divisive), and partly because of creator Aaron Sorkin (who has a divisive history), and partly because of the show’s would-be relationship to the sociopolitical. Without suggesting that Aaron Sorkin has actually made a television show that will change the news media and those who bear witness to it (which he has not, just so we’re entirely clear), the fact that he wants to renders critical evaluations into sociopolitical evaluations for some, with the rejection or acceptance of Sorkin’s worldview becoming a reflection of the critic’s own.

I don’t believe this to be true, of course, and have not read into—or read, actually—any of those critics’ reviews. When I realized that I would be going into The Newsroom tonight with the rest of the viewing public, I chose not to read the various intelligent, well-reasoned, divisive reviews of the series in advance; I knew I was going to watch it, and Twitter had already told me that the show is a case of “Your Mileage May Vary,” and part of me wanted to escape the discourse of Sorkin, and the media, and worldviews in favor of a more simple question.

Is The Newsroom an effective television pilot? A recent Facebook thread featuringprofessors/grad students discussing potential pilots to screen for students in a Television class got me thinking about this. On one level, you want to show students something great, something that grabs their attention and potentially sends them off to watch the rest of the series: we had a number of students do this with Friday Night Lights this past semester, for example. However, you could also show them a failed pilot (like David E. Kelley’s Wonder Woman, which I know the folks at the Good TVeets Con recently watched) and ask them where they think it went wrong.

While both strategies have merit, and are probably easier ways to communicate how pilots are intended to work, part of me wants to show them The Newsroom, which manages to succeed and fail in the same moments. Everything that works about The Newsroom is also everything that doesn’t, as Sorkin’s powerful use of momentum means we never have time to stop and connect to something more than a feeling that may not last as long as the show might like. I am aware that too much ink has probably been spent on the show already, and I’m likely repeating things many others have said, but I can’t deny that answering even this simply question left me plenty to say about The Newsroom.

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Mad Men – “A Little Kiss” & “Tea Leaves”

“A Little Kiss” & “Tea Leaves”

March 25th/April 1st, 2012

When James Poniewozik announced a few weeks ago that he wouldn’t be reviewing Mad Men’s fifth season week-to-week, I quietly made plans to follow suit given a busy semester with a whole lot of Monday deadlines. The idea of covering Mad Men without screeners in addition to covering Game of Thrones (for which I have screeners), all on the night before my busiest day of the week academically-speaking, was simply inconceivable until at least the end of May.

However, a few people sent emails and tweets wondering where my coverage was, at which point I realized that I had never exactly made these plans public. While I’m sad to be in a position where writing about the show weekly isn’t a feasible option, I’m also a little bit glad, if we’re being honest. I didn’t get to watch “A Little Kiss” until Wednesday night, but there was something freeing about watching it without a computer on my lap.

This doesn’t mean that I didn’t have opinions, and I want to share a few reflections on the first two episodes after the jump, but there’s a point at which the exhaustive writeup becomes, well, exhausting. As has become clear this year in particular, I no longer have the time to write post-air reviews of every show I watch, but I also think that with time I lose the inclination. Between the long hiatus and the weight of writing 2000+ words per episode for four seasons, Mad Men has simply transitioned into a show I enjoy more when I don’t feel the need to stake my authority over each episode in the hours after it airs.

However, as noted, I do want to offer some thoughts on the season’s beginnings, and would like to write with more regularity (if not necessarily on a weekly basis) once the semester ends and the season moves into its final episodes.

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