June 9th, 2013
“Here only the family name matters.”
As Varys explains this fact to Shae, he’s being pragmatic: he’s trying to help someone whose very existence at King’s Landing threatens her own life and the life of the man she loves. Varys acknowledges that she has made Tyrion better. Varys acknowledges that hers is a true love. And yet Varys also gives her a collection of diamonds, telling her to sail to Pentos and start a new life for herself so that her love can do something good for Westeros without the threat of a single-named woman hanging over him.
It’s dark advice, advice that Shae refuses to take. Despite the fact that we just saw both Robb Stark and Talisa die for following true love over pragmatism, and despite the fact that Jon Snow just took three arrows from the woman he loves, Shae proves what many other characters have learned as well: there is still power in love even when all signs would suggest that trusting in such power will be your undoing.
“Mhysa” is about this love, which may seem strange in light of the fact that last week ended on such a foreboding sendoff for Robb and Catelyn Stark. And yet Game of Thrones needed a new motivation beyond ascending to the throne, a sense of purpose that could evolve beyond the War of the Five Kings and the deaths of Robert Baratheon and Ned Stark which set it off. What “Mhysa” seeks to accomplish is reframe the actions of its characters not as part of a larger power struggle, but rather as actions designed to protect their families or to protect the realm. This is not to say that we are to support the Lannisters’ cruelty or to endorse Melisandre’s sorcery, but rather that we can shift our understanding of their actions away from a part in a larger plot and instead toward what motivated them to take those steps in the first place.
It’s an enriching move that works to build a strong foundation for future seasons, although one that has some issues retroactively making some of the season’s storylines resonate in the way intended. “Mhysa” concludes a third season that was only retroactively revealed—for non-readers, at least—to be the season where Game of Thrones could no longer be simplified to a battle between the Starks of Winterfell and the Lannisters of Casterly Rock, one that did its job without necessarily connecting in the process.
Going “Across the Sea” with Critics
May 12th, 2010
Writing about Lost on a weekly basis has been consistently challenging this year not in terms of having anything to talk about but rather in terms of tempering one’s response. We all know that the show is close to reaching its conclusion, so we’re all thinking in the back of our minds that the success of the sixth season’s episodes may well depend on where things end up. We can evaluate how much we enjoyed the episode, and how it connects with the show’s characters, but we can’t really evaluate where it fits into the big picture.
However, an episode like “Across the Sea” desperately wants us to think about the big picture, and I think the reaction to the episode is a reflection of the repressed theorizing regarding the finale that people have been building up inside. “Ab Aeterno” provided a release, a chance to consider the island’s past, but we’ve spent the rest of the season withholding our opinion about the Flash Sideways story until we see where it’s going, just as we’ve spent the last six seasons withholding final judgment on the island mysteries.
It makes perfect sense why outright Lost skeptics would respond to this episode in such a divisive fashion, as they’ve been waiting for an opportunity to tear apart the show’s science fiction and this episode gave them plenty of lines rife for parody. However, even the most patient of fans have reached the point where they can’t keep withholding their opinions, and “Across the Sea” has everyone expressing their concerns about whether this is all going to come together and whether this was how the show should be spending its time.
And perhaps the point of it all was to bring our skepticism to the surface, to force us as viewers (or as critics) to put our cards on the table and take a stance regarding the season and the series thus far. “Across the Sea” seems designed to provoke viewers, but perhaps it does so because it knows that it’s better audiences ask these questions (or angrily revolt against the series) now rather than after the finale. Perhaps it’s all a fiendish trick to place us on one side or another heading into the finale whether we have a choice in the matter or not, revealing which of us are men (or women) of science (desiring a more concrete explanation for events) and which of us are men (or women) of faith, who even through a somewhat ridiculous metaphor are still believers of what Lindelof and Cuse are trying to accomplish here.
Either way, the showdown is already beginning, and the crosstalk between critics is as interesting as it’s ever been, so I’m going to at least consider “Across the Sea” a success in that regard as I try to capture some of that discussion (although don’t pretend I capture the depth of each individual review with these comments, and do click through).
“Across the Sea”
May 11th, 2010
[For more discussion of the episode, check out my breakdown and analysis of critical responses to “Across the Sea.” Also, for a review of the series’ penultimate episode, What They Died For, click here]
Do metaphors count as answers?
It’s the question I found myself returning to throughout “Across the Sea,” a story which feels so designed to discover answers that it never quite achieves a narrative in its own right, although I don’t necessarily mean that as a slight to its effectiveness. However, while you could argue we get some facts and details that help us piece together previous events, there is very little of what one would call “clear” answers in the hour. What we get are extended metaphors meant to give meaning, rather than clarity, to that which has happened before and that which will happen in the future.
Considering the breadth of questions we as an audience have at this stage in the show’s run, there is no chance that the show will ever be able to make everything perfectly clear, and when tonight’s episode actually tried to provide “answers” it often felt unnatural, inorganic. Where the episode worked best is in using metaphors and abstract ideas to solidify human emotions and character motivations: this is the story of Jacob and his nameless twin brother (who we’ll call Esau for the sake of the Biblical connection, even if their mother’s name makes it less than perfect), but it both implicitly and explicitly gestures to what we’ve seen unfold on the island for six seasons, and in doing so gives greater meaning to that journey even if the “why” question remains unanswered.
I don’t think “Across the Sea” is by any means perfect, but I think it did a most admirable job at crafting a story which crystallizes the show’s journey thus far, worrying less about the big picture and more about establishing where the individual portraits the show has created fit into the mysteries of the island (which may remain unsolved).
“The Maternal Congruence”
December 14th, 2009
When running through the Big Bang Theory’s first and second seasons, there is no question that Christine Baranski’s appearance as Leonard’s mother was a highlight for me. I like Baranski in general, and I thought that the idea that Leonard grew up with this level of psycho-analysis was a nice bit of back story for his character, and seeing her interact with Leonard, Penny and perhaps more importantly Sheldon (who she clearly connects with more than her own son) was a lot of fun.
However, these kinds of characters don’t always work when you bring them back again. With the novelty factor gone, the jokes can become stale even if the actress is as good as Baranski (or as good as Elaine Stritch, whose Colleen Donaghy has seen diminishing returns on 30 Rock with every appearance). And parts of “The Maternal Congruence” act as if Beverly Hofstadter’s return is funny because it unearths the same jokes, like Penny’s father issues or Raj and Howard’s latent homosexual feelings, which is the sort of repetition that does the show no favours.
The episode seems smart, however, in how it plays up the ramifications of Sheldon and Beverly’s relationship, allowing it to evolve beyond a single observation (that Sheldon is more like Leonard’s Mother than Leonard) to its psychological impact, allowing Leonard to actually get angry rather than just annoyed with the way his mother treats him. But as opposed to stretching its characters to allow the ramifications of their relationship to really come to the surface, the episode goes down an entirely different path, getting everyone drunk and making fools of themselves to provide a raucous conclusion.
Like many good guest stars, Baranski elevates the material, but forgive me if I can’t help but have a case of Big Bang Theory Weltschmerz: I look at the ideal episode in my head, and then at what we’re actually given, and I can’t help but be a bit saddened (especially considering how the show ended its Christmas episode last year).
“The Creepy Candy Coating Corollary”
October 19th, 2009
In the cold open to this week’s episode, we get an interesting display of the show’s comic sensibilities. When the scene starts, Wolowitz and Raj are playing a game of Mystic Warlords of Ka’ah, a Magic the Gathering-like card game. The transition of jokes is like a crescendo. We start at the bottom with the audience laughing at a funny card name that wasn’t actually funny, but is funny because “they’re nerds, doing nerdy things!” Then, we find Penny playing the game and not knowing what to do, something that’s a bit more legitimate but still a bit straightforward. And then, we have Sheldon’s eidetic memory ruining the game for everyone by (simply through listening to the game) analyzing what’s left in the deck like a card counter. It’s only then that the humour feels particularly interesting, and that I’m finally really paying attention.
As the cold open, and the remainder of the episode, move on, it’s basically an instance of Sheldon driving the comedy, his eidetic memory rescuing uninteresting storylines revolving around Leonard, Penny and Wolowitz and serving as the foundation for a storyline of his own with Raj and Wil Wheaton. I actually thought the episode did a better job with one setup than I had expected, and not as much as it could have with the other, which made for an interesting if uneven episode that didn’t rile me up but didn’t really impress me either.
October 14th, 2009
This is going to see like a really weird connection, but one of the things that I found really interesting about The CW’s Privileged was how quickly it dealt with its built-in back story. The show was dealing with an estranged mother and a distant father in its central protagonist, and it got both out of the way quickly…in fact, perhaps too quickly. The show never quite felt as purposeful when it moved past those interesting dynamics, and while they were important parts of its early identity it seemed like they could have been burned off more slowly to heighten their impact.
However, Modern Family makes an enormously compelling argument for getting back story out of the way, or at the very least the value of back story in the early stages of a sitcom’s development in particular. While the show is essentially checking off a list of recurring character we’ve yet to see (Benjamin Bratt was just cast as Gloria’s ex, for example), the seamless integration of Long into the cast only brings out more of our characters, and the way the episode depicts a past “Incident” is a hilarious piece of back story that does nothing to diminish what could be introduced with time. On a drama, a character like Long evokes the same kind of emotions each time she returns, and the show can only go there so many times. On a sitcom, however, as long as things remain funny and as long as a diverse set of characters are involved, you can keep on bringing her back with minimal loss of comic value.
And considering where this episode starts off at on that front, DeDe could be a funny recurring player on the show for seasons to come.
September 22nd, 2009
Considering that I’m almost a day late, and so many other critics have weighed in on the show and had largely positive opinions, I hadn’t really intended on sitting down to talk about The Good Wife, which I’ve always considered to be the one CBS pilot from this year that sounded legitimately interesting. A new NCIS (the original doing nothing for me, if nothing against me) isn’t going to get me excited, Three Rivers’ premise has enormously limited potential, and Accidentally on Purpose was strained from the start. But there was something both topical and intriguing about a show which took an aspect of a shockingly prevalent political phenomenon (the disgraced politician resigning as a result of a sex scandal) and asked itself a question: what happens to the wife?
And while more recent events would answer with “Go on a ridiculous summer reality show on your husband’s behalf,” The Good Wife fast forwards six months into the future to a position where Alicia (Julianna Margulies) is re-entering the work force as an underddog whose fellow juniour associates at her law firm were pre-teens when she last practiced. What results is logically two separate shows, one where Alicia struggles to raise her kids and live her life in the wake of her husband’s betrayal, and the other as she has to overcome years of rust to regain her composure as a lawyer.
But why the show is so effective is that rather than attempting to demonstrate how challenging it is to balance these two parts of her life, turning her into a harried disappointment to her children or a fundamental less of an attorney, the pilot is more interested in demonstrating that in some ways she’s meant for this. In some ways, what she has gone through in her personal life has made her a far more effective litigator, and has given her a new perspective on her family which keeps her priorities firmly in check. Alicia is a woman who has taken control of her own life, and by marrying her two worlds as largely harmonious as opposed to a constant conflict, it allows us to relate to Alicia on multiple levels – combine with a pretty great cast and an intriguing opening case, and you’ve got yourself a legal procedural I’ll stick with for a while.
April 29th, 2009
I will admit right now that I feel sort of like a low rent Daniel Faraday right now, my attempts to put myself on a different sleep schedule in a way not that different from Daniel’s attempt to realign himself with another time. This means that while I had planned on writing this review about five hours ago when I woke up from a short nap designed to prepare me for an eight-hour night shift this evening, instead I’m writing it after six hours of sleep and will have to skip Thursday night television in order to try to find some nap time.
I share this story not just because of my recent tweet about potentially mixing more personal anecdotes with blog posts, but also because it’s an example of providing some greater context to events, which is essentially the point of “The Variable.” The episode really only has two functions: it serves as an escalation of the “plot” (remember that thing?) that has been mostly dormant since our cast ended up in the 1970s, giving us a sense of how the end of the season is going to develop, and it serves as an answer to the question of what Daniel Faraday has been up to since we last saw him trapped in 1974 with everyone else and nobody is really talking about him.
Perhaps it’s the weird sleep schedule, or that I wasn’t feeling great when I watched the episode, but I was kind of disappointed by this, the show’s 100th episode, at least on the latter point. At times feeling like another drop in the “parental neglect” bucket for the show, the tragic journey of Daniel Faraday was strong in isolation and yet when applied to the rest of the episode and the rest of the series felt too inorganic. Yes, I empathize with Daniel, primarily thanks to Jeremy Davies’ strong performance, but at the end of the day it felt as if Faraday’s storyline was tied so closely to the island that his individuality, and its connection to our other characters, was lost in the plot.
I understand that this is the entire “point” of the episode, but I found it a little bit clumsy in its execution even if I feel they’re ramping things up at the right pace as we march towards the finale.