May 27th, 2012
“The worst ones always live.”
The discourse around this week’s episode of Game of Thrones has been fascinating to watch. For fans of the series, particularly those with familiarity with George R. R. Martin’s novels, “Blackwater” was always going to be the season’s high point: scripted by Martin himself, and focusing on a large-scale battle central to A Clash of Kings (and A Song of Ice and Fire as a whole), no fan of the series needed to be convinced to tune into this particular hour.
And yet HBO has very much promoted the episode as though people needed convincing. Press were alerted to an extended promo in advance of last week’s episode, an interview with producers Benioff and Weiss hit Entertainment Weekly as soon as “The Prince of Winterfell” concluded, and the Game of Thrones twitter account has been pushing the “#Blackwater” hashtag throughout the week, retweeting responses from those anticipating the episode.
I’ve found all of this fascinating because this feels strange when promoting the ninth episode of the second season of a television show. While this promotion serves the show’s fanbase, building further anticipation and increasing engagement and attachment to the series among those fans (as the Twitter account aims to do every week), it seems hard to imagine that the expanded discourse around this episode would convince anyone who hasn’t seen the previous eighteen episodes to tune into this one. HBO’s promotions have positioned “Blackwater” as “Event Television”—or perhaps “Event NOT Television” if we want to get take their slogan at its word—rather than simply an eventful episode of Game of Thrones, placing further expectation on an episode that was already burdened with both fan anticipation and the narrative pressure of serving as the season’s penultimate hour.
“Blackwater” answers these expectations by steering away from most of them. Isolating Stannis’ attack on King’s Landing and the storylines found within the city, the series tells a contained story about a war and the people who fight it. It would be a dangerous move if the episode had disappointed on that front, abandoning the other half-dozen narrative threads left hanging at the end of last week’s hour, but “Blackwater” is a tense, thrilling hour of television that lives up to its event billing and delays—rather than interrupting—the narrative climaxes which will now carry into next week’s finale.
June 12th, 2011
“I learned how to die a long time ago.”
It has been a bit of an adventure tiptoeing around the events of “Baelor” over the past eight weeks.
It’s been a bit of a game, honestly – from the moment the show was announced, people who had read the books were well aware that this episode was going to come as a shock to many viewers. This was the moment when the show was going to be fully transformed from a story about action to a story about consequences, and the point at which the series would serve notice to new viewers that this is truly a no holds barred narrative.
On some level, I don’t know if I have anything significant to add to this discussion: as someone who read the books, I knew every beat this episode was going to play out, and can really only speak to execution as opposed to conception. The real interest for me is in how those without knowledge of the books respond to this particular development, and how it alters their conception of the series. While I don’t want to speak for them, I am willing to say that “Baelor” was very elegant in its formation, rightly framing the episode as a sort of memorial to that which we lose at episode’s end.
And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll save my other thoughts for after the break so that I can finally talk about this without fear of spoiling anyone.
February 9th, 2011
I actually have no idea if I’ve blogged about Top Chef All Stars yet, but it’s been pretty great, no? The show has bounced back from its weakest season to return to being incredibly enjoyable, introducing interesting challenges and avoiding mediocrity at nearly every turn. Even moments that I thought would negatively impact the series (like Jennifer being sent home so early) proved to be mere bumps in the road, as other contestants emerged to play their part in bringing the season together. The food has been pretty uniformly impressive, and when it hasn’t been those people have faced the music in the bottom. Outside of the lengthy period where Jamie remained in the competition despite her failures of execution, the show has just been about great chefs cooking in great challenges, which is what the show is all about.
Generally, I’ve been content to just enjoy the season on its own merits, but I want to focus on tonight’s episode because I have a nicely balanced pair of points I want to make about it. The first is an intellectual question about spoiler culture and Jimmy Fallon’s presence in the episode; the other, meanwhile, is just outright giddiness at one of the contestants in particular.
January 12th, 2011
Thanks to a particularly busy schedule and some difficulties getting access to the episodes in question, Friday Night Lights’ fifth season has been mostly absent from Cultural Learnings. And yet, this is about to change, both because of greater access and because there is a growing sense of urgency.
Not really within the show itself: while there is certainly plenty of tension on the series right now, it continues to follow the slow burn mentality it always has. And yet my relationship with the series has taken on a certain tension, as it is becoming more and more clear that this is a show which is about to come to its end. I could have waited until the NBC airings to cover the show, but this is going to be the real ending: this is when critics will write their posts on the series’ legacy, this will be when the fans will respond to the fond (or, who knows, potentially tragic) farewells, and this is when I want to say goodbye.
And so I’ll likely be checking in with the series weekly from now until the finale – for now, a few brief thoughts on the season as a whole and a more detailed review of “Gut Check” after the jump.
“The Beautiful Girls”
September 19th, 2010
Based on its title and a number of the discussions which emerged within the episode, “The Beautiful Girls” feels like a particular gesture towards the women who are often central to the series. And yet, because the episode was so fractured, it doesn’t present itself as a sustained glimpse into any of the female characters central to this story. While Joan, Peggy, Faye, and Sally all face down challenges put before them, all of them end up back where they began: trapped in a loveless marriage, apolitical in a political world, face-to-face with tough choices, and a sad little girl living a life she no longer wants to live.
Regardless of the episode’s argument regarding each character’s struggles, the fact remains that the female characters are the heart of this series, and “The Beautiful Girls” comes together as a sustained statement on their centrality if not a substantial step forward in their individual storylines.
“Parents Weekend – Part One”
August 23rd, 2010
In “Letters Home,” which was, like “Parents Weekend – Part One,” scripted by Gayle Abrams, we ‘met’ the parents.
Sure, we only met each camper’s parents through letters they wrote to them, but we got a sense of how each of them related with their parents. Trent, instead of writing to his father, writes to his deceased mother, while Will writes a scathing letter to her parents which she promptly rips up when she realizes it’s too honest for her standards. We didn’t actually meet their parents, but we saw enough to understand that family relationships play an enormous role in the larger psychological issues at play in the series.
Over the weekend, I watched the pilot to Winnie Holzman’s My So-Called Life, which is available on Hulu and which was pretty fantastic. That series was similarly interested in the relationship between teenagers and their parents, but what sets Huge apart for me is how many diverse scenarios its camp setting allows it to present. Whereas more dramas would be content to follow a few pairings, the sheer depth of this cast means that there are a good half dozen parental scenarios which unfold in the span of the episode, each connecting to the same basic themes while presenting an entirely different set of circumstances.
It doesn’t exactly have as much of a cliffhanger as it thinks it has, and treads water in a few too many areas, but there’s some really great subtlety here which continues the series’ trend towards greatness.
June 30th, 2010
You can follow along with the Cultural Catchup Project by following me on Twitter (@Memles), by subscribing to the category’s feed, or by bookmarking the Cultural Catchup Project page where I’ll be posting a link to each installment.
“Something Blue” is one of those episodes of Buffy that is inherently playful, a quality that I think defines many of television’s finest series. While some shows grow content and refuse to “mess with a good thing,” other shows go out of their way to play with expectations to see how things might be different. When a show like How I Met Your Mother tries out a new narrative device, or when Glee gives “Bohemian Rhapsody” an entire act, the shows aren’t clinically experimenting with different structures: rather, they’re playing with their respective narratives, netting results which help define each series as unique within the television landscape (even if the results are at times divisive).
And play is not necessarily a strictly comic notion, either: shows like Breaking Bad and Mad Men do not spring to mind when I use the word “playful,” and yet what is “Fly” if not a playful depiction of Walt’s growing psychological struggle, and isn’t “Shut the Door. Have a Seat” a merging of heist film structures with Mad Men’s historical fiction? Sometimes I think people presume that you can’t spell serialized without serious, but these sorts of dramas rely on characters like Saul Goodman or Roger Sterling who make the light observations without damaging the tension within their respective series. – they’re serious dramas, but that doesn’t mean they’re serious all the time, willing to play with our expectations for the sake of dramatic or comic effect.
“Something Blue” is an episode about Willow’s struggle to overcome tremendous grief, and while the episode is inherently comical and wistfully playful at times, there is no point at which Willow’s emotional pain feels as if it is being mocked or disrespected. While Willow’s attempts to overcome her own pain result in a series of humorous events, the playfulness of the consequences always remains connected to Willow’s feelings, allowing for the episode to capture a character’s fragile state of mind and have some fun at the same time, a feat worthy of some discussion.
May 29th, 2010
I didn’t have a whole lot to say about last week’s “The Hungry Earth,” both because I wanted to talk more about the two episodes which preceded it and because it isn’t actually really important. While “The Time of Angels” was also the first part of a two-part story, it seemed like it had a narrative of its own: actions were undertaken, and the tension built during the first hour felt carried over into the second. This time around, meanwhile, there was no transfer of tension, as “Cold Blood” more or less takes the basic facts and situations created in the previous episodes and gives them consequence the first part was lacking.
This isn’t to say that “The Hungry Earth”/”Cold Blood” is entirely dissatisfying – rather, I simply want to note that this is a much less intriguing way to do a two-part episode, a scenario where the first part can be pretty easily summed up in a brief one-minute synopsis and the rest filled in through a few bits of dialogue here and there. However, luckily for the series, this episode packs both an emotional and intellectual wallop, delivering some key clues to the “endgame” of the series while also creating a substantial bit of narrative gymnastic which adds a new layer of complexity to our understanding of Amy Pond. Throw in a compelling glimpse at the Doctor’s love for humanity mirrored by a race with absolute disdain for them, and you’ve got an hour that does a better job at giving some hints at the big picture than it pays off the hour we spent last week.
And considering its position at this late stage in the series, that’s probably okay – the standalone story might have needed some work, but the ramifications of the story on the Doctor, his companion, and the series as a whole are a nice bit of momentum heading into the final act of the series.
May 9th, 2010
Serialized television is more or less defined by consequences: while all television series feature actions and reactions, what defines a series as serialized is when those actions have consequences which extend into the following episodes. We’re meant to remember what happened in the past because it will affect what happens in the future, and the show revels in the ironies or tragedies which result from these remembrances.
The Pacific is effectively a meditation on the serialization of life, or the ways in which war erases one’s memory of anything but the drudgery these soldiers experienced in battles like Iwo Jima or Okinawa; we remember that Eugene Sledge started out as an innocent child because we’ve seen his story in a serialized form, but Sledge himself has forgotten his former self in ways that human beings are not supposed to. At the same time, though, “Part Nine” plays out like a terrifying series of actions and consequences, trapping these characters within an environment where one small mistake leads to a chain reaction of events that leaves men dead and dying.
The only way you can cope, perhaps, is to forget about what came before, to ignore the decisions that brought you to this point and focus solely on the nature of survival. However, as much as you might want to shut off the man you were before as you fight your way through a battlefield more terrible than you can imagine, you can’t help but remain haunted by who you used to be, and “Part Nine” presents a horrifying image of that futility which stands as a series highlight.
May 2nd, 2010
On AMC Canada, Breaking Bad tends to run about thirty seconds long, and due to some scheduling conflicts I have to record the encore rather than the original airing – as a result (yes, there’s a reason I’m explaining this), my recording always begins with the last thirty seconds of the episode I’m about to watch. Usually I’m pretty quick at catching this particular problem, but other times I’m not so lucky; sometimes I get quick glances of what’s to come, which are often pretty innocuous and easily forgotten or ignored as the episode begins.
At this point in the review, anyone who has seen “One Minute” is hoping that this was one of those times where that didn’t happen, where I was intelligent enough to remember the potential spoilers and immediately close my eyes and fast-forward until it was safe to open them again. Unfortunately, I did see a brief moment from the stunning final sequence of this week’s episode, but in a testament to the ludicrous quality of this hour of television I didn’t even remember it by the time we came to the scene in question. “One Minute” has no complicated narrative nor does it rely exclusively on the sort of jaw-dropping scenes with which it concludes: rather, it tells the story of two men who face important decisions, in the process delivering the greatest Emmy duel since Michael Emerson and Terry O’Quinn.