COMMUNITY Season Four: A Shaky Start

COMMUNITY Season Four: A Shaky Start

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It used to be hard to tell if Community was a particularly turbulent show, or if its voracious fans plus a rather public cast and crew combined to give the sense that it had a great deal of behind-the-scenes drama. That question resolved itself last summer, when the shocking firing of showrunner Dan Harmon, as well as other long-time creative forces, made it clear that, yes, Community was a mess.

While many fans and critics, adopting an auteur theory of television, were convinced that this was the end of Community, it actually made me slightly more curious about the fourth season. I enjoy seeing and analyzing a show in creative flux, and Community's always manifested a chaotic creative process. But I also noticed a notable step down from the brilliant second season, thanks largely to the third season's self-indulgence—Community had become a show about itself. A kick in the pants seemed warranted, although the steel-toed boots used for this particular kick may have been excessive. Still, many of the writers and all of the stellar cast remained, giving me some hope.

The Season Four premiere of Community, “History 101,”opened with an inspired concept: the show reimagined as a multi-camera sitcom, complete with laugh track. There were enough layers here to be worthy of the show in its prime. As a single-camera, formally daring sitcom, Community is theoretically in the vanguard of television comedy, fighting against the multi-cam, a format (probably unfairly) decried as stodgy, old-fashioned, or even outright bad. (A fake Twitter profile set up in the name of the new showrunners, David Guarascio and Moses Port, invited fans to be part of the “live studio audience”–a joke within a joke, perhaps?)

nullThis season's premiere was also very much like the third season premiere, opening with a big happy musical number in the style of Glee (a show Community had mocked mercilessly), before the characters immediately dropped back down to earth. Finally, “History 101” made sense from a character perspective: of course Abed Nadir, resident pop culture obsessive, would find solace in an old-fashioned sitcom form labeled AbedTV. In short, the deliberately confrontational/mocking style, the formal experimentation, and the connection with the characters made it seem like it was exactly what Community should be.

The problem was that it didn't work.

AbedTV was just one part of the story among many—four and half, to be precise. That's a lot of storylines for a serialized hour-long drama, let alone a 20-minute sitcom. “Overstuffed” would be an understatement.

None of those storylines really worked, either. Pierce's throwaway joke was essentially nonexistent, which was fine, but Annie and Shirley seemed to be off in a storyline that went nowhere. The biggest problem was Britta. Even at Community's worst, like Season Three's wince-inducing “Advanced Gay,” Gillian Jacobs' defiant certainty in the face of being wrong about everything could salvage an episode. Yet in “History 101” Britta wasn't defiant, because she'd become attached to Troy in a relationship. She could mess up his tradition, but it turned into a gentle-hearted romp. A soft Britta is no Britta at all, and she's long been the best part of the show.

What was perhaps most frustrating about this turn of events is that Community has always explicitly rejected turning into a show about its characters' romantic relationships. Its first season was premised on hooking Jeff and Britta up, but episodes like “Modern Warfare” and “Contemporary American Poultry” indicated that it wanted to play around with stories apart from the romantic comedy. After a disastrous first season finale that was nothing but romantic entanglements, the second season occasionally used the actors' chemistry for comedy, but turned against romance as the show's driving force. In its mock clip show, “Paradigms of Human Memory,” Community attacked character romance directly, as Jeff dismissed his supposed will they/won't they with Annie by saying “it's called chemistry, I have it with everyone.” In that same episode, his secret affair with Britta was revealed—the show's initial premise was subverted to the point where it coming to fruition is a throwaway line.

This is not to say that the Troy and Britta romance came out of the blue. It was obviously slowly developing over the course of the third season, just as Jeff and Annie's will they/won't they hardly disappeared after it was mocked. Rather, it's that the show always deliberately steered clear of entangling its characters in such a way. Seeing its best character compromised by sweetness, it was easy to see why romance was treated with such skepticism.

nullThe one storyline that came  anywhere near working was the Dean's Hunger Games bit, largely thanks to Jim Rash. His emergence—or perhaps the acknowledgment of his emergence—as one of the show's most important characters was one of the best parts of Community's third season, and that continued in “History 101.” The scene where he and Jeff dance the tango should have been good enough to find a place in Community lore, and maybe it will eventually. But that storyline was squished by all the others, preventing it from being more than an amusing diversion.

It would have been easy, after that episode, to say that without Harmon, Community had lost its soul/moorings/quality, and that it was now “Community” or "Zombie Community" or "not canon" or the like. The thought certainly crossed my mind. But as I was watching “History 101,” I had a gut feeling of discomfort that reminded me of something else I'd recently watched. An hour or two later, I realized that it was the same feeling I got when I watched the season three episode “Regional Holiday Music,” or rather, “that Glee episode of Community.”

Both episodes gave me the feeling that what I was watching was simply wrong. That feeling of wrongness derive from the show's being mean. I know Community has a sort of cultivated “too cool for school” reputation, but when I've watched it and loved it, it's been because it joyously immerses itself in the history of pop culture. From action movies to Dungeons & Dragons to “everyone goes to a bar!” sitcom plots, Community wanted to be everything. But in “Regional Holiday Music,” it spent an entire half-hour attacking its more popular cohort, Glee. In “History 101,” Community focused on making fun of multi-cam sitcoms (a set that perhaps coincidentally includes another rival, The Big Bang Theory). A mean-spirited Community is an unpleasant Community.

If there was any hope for the fourth season of Community, it was going to manifest in its second episode, not its premiere. Season premieres of any show are often hit-or-mess, especially sitcoms. On the other hand, the second episode, “Paranormal Parentage,” had a very promising premise. First, it was a Halloween episode, which always works well for a show that loves having its characters play roles—the first-season Halloween episode, “Introduction To Statistics,” was its first great episode.

Second, “Paranormal Parentage” was penned by Megan Ganz, a writer who quickly came to prominence with four superb episodes (the bottle episode, the two documentary episodes, and the Law & Order episode) in the second and third seasons. In each of these, Ganz showed the darkest, weirdest parts of the characters while making them more, not less, sympathetic, while also twisting the form in stunning and hilarious fashion (a combination that reminds me of The XFiles' great Darin Morgan). Her continuing presence in the writers' room was a ray of hope for fans—although her recent defection to Modern Family means that next season, worries will start anew.

“Paranormal Parentage” was a massive improvement over “History 101.” While not quite in the top tier of Community episodes, it was continuously funny and structurally clever.

nullThe costumes may have been the best part of “Paranormal Parentage,” possibly the best of any of Community's Halloween episodes. You can earn a lot of good will by putting Shirley in a Princess Leia outfit and Annie in a Ringu costume. Every time they appeared on-screen, I got a slight thrill of novelty. But more importantly, Britta in her canned ham costume went a huge way toward salvaging her character after the disastrous premiere. Gillian Jacobs' gifts for physical comedy were on full display: every time she had to move in costume, she made it funny; every time she spoke in costume, she managed to accent the ridiculousness. Her therapist dance, done to get Jeff to open up, was the highlight of the episode.

Yet for all the laughs I got in “Paranormal Parentage,” the episode didn't quite succeed, in part because it seemed detached from its history. When I called Community's third season self-indulgent, that was, in part, because it delved too deeply into its characters' internal turmoil. While Season Three struggled with that through its run, it did successfully tie the characters' arcs together by the end, making it appear as though they'd grown up—almost all of them had a major breakthrough in the finale.

Meanwhile, in “Paranormal Parentage,” most of the characters reverted back to their initial type. Jeff was particularly frustrating, turning into the selfish, contrarian asshole that he was at his worst early on in the show's run. Annie and Troy were right behind him in this respect, their youth and naivete a throwback both to early Community episodes as well as the Season Four premiere. This may be the legacy of the turmoil at the end of Season Three—the seeming inevitability of the show's cancellation may have forced the writers to bring the show's character arcs to a close. Alternately, the removal of Dan Harmon may have removed the show's instincts to have the characters change and then maintain those changes.

Regardless, the crucial distinction between Season Three and Season Four of Community is that now the characters are treated as types, whose various histories are less important than what can be mined from them. In the season premiere, Jeff's actions were those of someone desperate to demonstrate that working for himself could also work toward his group's benefit. But he was back to selfish here. Troy's “becoming a man” process, demonstrated in some of the show's best episodes, was ignored so that he could be treated like a child in order to make (poor) jokes about his relationship with Britta—a relationship's being treated as a marker on a storyboard rather than a necessary character development.

In short, Community seems to be mining its history for plot developments, but it's failing at understanding its character developments, even when it's of a much higher quality. This is probably a necessary stage for most comedies, to be honest. But coming after the ambitious, largely character-based Harmon era, this could lead to a major, likely negative change for the show. Still, this is only the second episode of the season. If Community stabilizes at the level of “Paranormal Parentage,” it can still be a good, occasionally great, show. Or this could be the last gasp of the old guard, struggling to do their best with a show that's spun out of control.

Rowan Kaiser is a freelance pop culture critic currently living in the Bay Area. He is a staff writer at The A.V. Club, covering television and literature. He also writes about video games for several different publications, including Joystiq and Paste Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @rowankaiser for unimportant musings on media and extremely important kitten photographs.

Apocalypse TV: Between the Reality and the Dream

Apocalypse TV: Between the Reality and the Dream

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Right now, the apocalypse is hip. Revolution and The Walking Dead are two of television's biggest success stories this season. The former is a surprise success for NBC, which is struggling otherwise, while the latter is breaking cable records on AMC. But the settings of these shows have more in common than their apocalyptic nature. The quality of their apocalypses, the drama they're attempting to mine, and the aspects of modern society they choose to discuss reveal a great deal about modern anxieties about population,  morality, and climate change. But they don't necessarily confront these issues, head-on. Instead, they offer a “do-over.”

nullSpeculative fiction has often examined contemporary anxieties, either consciously or not. In the 1990s, the fall of the Soviet Union led to a world quite different from the bilateral world most American TV writers and viewers of that time had grown up with. This world was characterized by a distrust of American governments, or governments similar to ours. The X-Files is the most famous example of this conspiracy-theory mindset, but it was joined by Star Trek: Deep Space 9—a relatively cynical take on the future compared to its utopian Star Trek predecessors—and Babylon 5, in which an American-style government called EarthGov was corrupted into dictatorship. The terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001 pushed SF TV in a still more different direction. Shows like Battlestar Galactica, Firefly, Angel, and the literally and figuratively more realistic 24 all dealt with the moral issues and compromises of being a leader in a fight against evil.

nullWhile both Revolution and The Walking Dead are clearly descended from these previous stories (imagine Rick, Shane, and Dale as Adama, Tigh, and Roslin from BSG during some of their ethical arguments, for example), their settings focus their cultural anxieties. The shows both take place on Earth, in a semi-recognizable America, after or during a massive population apocalypse caused by something that, at least at the beginning, is unknown. On Revolution, it's the end of electricity and modern technology; on The Walking Dead, it's a zombie plague. In both cases, it's a new, harsh world, where characters used to the amenities of modern life like the video game Portal or their iPhone have to cope with facts of day-to-day reality instead of the contrivances of society. And in both cases, civilization itself may have been the cause of the apocalypse. Both shows revolve around debates of how civilization is being reborn, whether it deserves to be reborn, and whether American ideals of rights and justice can work in apocalyptic settings.

nullThe core anxiety is straightforward: there are too many people for civilization to be sustainable. This is a common worry. For some people, the concern is that high-population areas are immoral, breeding grounds for sex and violence; for others, the thinking is that too many people consume too many resources, which leads to climate change. In both cases, there's a general belief that there are too many people whether they be sinning via sexuality or via energy consumption. The former attitude exists to a certain extent on both shows. Revolution's post-apocalyptic setting opens on a pastoral farming community whose peace is shattered by people who want to bring the worst of civilization back. Meanwhile, The Walking Dead moves out of the dangerous city to Herschel's farm, a seemingly safe chance for the characters to regroup and survive the apocalypse.

But it's the latter issue, that of climate change, that drives the recent popularity of the population apocalypses. Rapid climate change could be seen to indicate that we're undergoing a slow-motion apocalypse; it's something that affects us at a personal level, and it is both uncontrollable and unstoppable. Finally, it's something that, at its worst, will force Earth’s residents to focus on the facts of existence on the planet, like extreme weather events, food and water shortages, mass extinction, and potential political destabilization, while our social and technological focuses (including television!) are already often derided as distractions preventing the masses from pushing to make the world a better place. These two apocalypse-based shows thus function as allegories for climate change's worst-case scenarios; the grittier, more violent cable drama The Walking Dead portrays a world without hope while Revolution is notably brighter in tone, though not exactly uplifting. But they only function as allegories, manifesting an anxiety—will the world go to hell?—without actually engaging with it.

nullThese two shows clearly blame the apocalypse on the flaws of civilization, but they're not alone. 2011's short-lived Terra Nova—the Revolution of its Fall television season—was entirely explicit about this role. The show was set on normal Earth, hundreds of years after a slow environmental apocalypse, with the sky covered by pollution and society governed by rigidly enforced population controls. But a magical discovery led to the chance to travel back in time, and build the colony of “Terra Nova.” This was an idyllic colony set on dinosaur-dominated Pangaea millions of years in the past, with its name's translation, “New World,” demonstrating the show's focus. The characters even state that this colony offers a chance for them to rebuild civilization without making the mistakes, technological and moral, that forced humanity down a dark road. Terra Nova was a second chance, a do-over.

Both Revolution and The Walking Dead engage with the idea of the do-over. The institutions and leaders who failed or are failing to protect society from collapse are gone, but so too are the real-world effects of their failures. Global warming is irrelevant. These shows may use some of the symbolism and anxiety of a climate apocalypse, but they avoid dealing with it head-on, inadvertently promoting the idea that something almost magical will prevent us from having to deal with the excesses of civilization. This isn't necessarily just a component of current broadcast television: a 1990s version of Terra Nova and Revolution, SeaQuest DSV, was premised on overpopulation, resource exhaustion, and rising oceans from climate change.

But you don't even have to go back in time to see impending, uncontrollable societal collapse due to both climate change and immorality in a speculative fiction TV series. HBO's Game Of Thrones provides a mirror image to the apocalypses on Revolution and The Walking Dead. It takes place in a world unrelated to modern Earth, yet this just makes its allegory stronger. From the very beginning, the idea that “winter is coming” pervades the series, but the “is coming” shows that the apocalypse is on its way, instead of having happened already. And the “winter” exists in the literal sense, allegorical sense, and a magical sense. The season lasts for years in the world of Game Of Thrones, and this particular winter is expected to be harsh. The “winter” also refers to the brutal civil war that envelops the Seven Kingdoms and beyond. Additionally, there's a supernatural threat of dark, uncontrollable magic returning to the world.

nullGame Of Thrones' allegorical examination of climate change ties in directly with its concept of leadership. Almost all of its characters all ignore the impending climate and supernatural disaster. These men and women making crucial decisions in Westeros are small-minded and petty, or ambitious and self-serving, or in the best case, good people who are forced by honor or obligation to do the wrong thing. The latter is true even of the heroic Robb Stark, whose decision to march south for his family's honor and to attempt to repair the Seven Kingdoms is described as a mistake by Osha, a “wildling” whose time north of “The Wall” gave her direct experience of the impending apocalypse in the south. She says he should have turned his army north, toward winter and the supernatural invasion instead of south to fulfill the obligations of his political system.

Robb's (and others') inability to break the cycle of civil war and violence is a clear commentary on the failures of real-world political leaders to see beyond smaller, short-term political considerations in order to solve larger problems, such as the failure of the Copenhagen Summit in 2009.  Perhaps most importantly, Game Of Thrones is built on the idea that the sins of the past destroy the hope of the future. The civil war of 15 years prior is a direct cause of the contemporary battles of the show, and the mistakes the characters make in the present, like Ned Stark's attempts at honor proving his downfall in the first season. The world of Game Of Thrones neither forgives nor forgets, and a do-over? Unthinkable.

This is not to say that the creators or fans of these shows view them as being explicitly about issues of population, climate change, or morality—that would be an especially difficult claim to make given that both The Walking Dead and Game Of Thrones are adaptations of older, already popular works. Rather, the point is that the popularity of certain kinds of apocalypse shows, both with the executives who greenlight them through the difficult pitch process and with the fans who support them, illustrates a need for these stories. The need comes from a feeling that something has gone horribly wrong with our political systems, with our societies, with our world, and with civilization itself. Television shows like The Walking Dead and Revolution draw power from the tension between our society's apocalypse anxiety and an allegory that trades complicated real issues for simple, if horrifying, escapism.

Rowan Kaiser is a freelance pop culture critic currently living in the Bay Area. He is a staff writer at The A.V. Club, covering television and literature. He also writes about video games for several different publications, including Joystiq and Paste Magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @rowankaiser for unimportant musings on media and extremely important kitten photographs.

LONGMIRE RECAP 5: THE WORST KIND OF HUNTER

LONGMIRE RECAP 5: THE WORST KIND OF HUNTER

Last week’s shift of morality, from goodness invested in the law and its enforcers to something more complex, appears to have opened the gates for Longmire to grow as a show. In “The Worst Kind Of Hunter,” Longmire continues muddying its moral waters by separating justice from law. The victim, Ed Crawley, is a convicted murderer, out on parole after 25 years and suddenly found dead, apparently mauled by a bear. Many of the people Walt interviews are delighted that Crawley’s dead, to the point of casting disdain on our protagonist for even bothering to investigate the murder.

nullThis is the flip side of the revelation from last week: if the law is insufficient to provide justice, people desperate for justice will go outside the law. Nobody in the episode questions whether Crawley was a murderer. In fact, there’s not even a significant argument as to whether Crawley committed the murder he went to prison for, or whether he deserved to die for it. But there was a crime, and Walt and the rest of his office are investigating.

The officers, after all, merely make up one cog in the system of justice. Even if the courts or prisons don’t work out every time, the cops can’t stop doing their job. That’s the whole point: there are checks and balances, different people making different judgments, all based on different considerations. Regardless of how just one may believe one’s self to be, it’s still the job of the police to accurately figure out who committed crimes. Justice is an abstract concept, created in practice through the interactions of flawed people and institutions.

But you won’t get that from Longmire. The idea that the police need to investigate the crime regardless of whether it’s justified or not is treated as inherently true in “The Worst Kind Of Hunter.” But the lack of examination of justice proves disappointing this week. At the end of the episode, Walt confronts the killer, Crawley’s former warden, and threatens him into admitting the murder. Walt gets his confession . . . and then the episode ends.

That abrupt ending of the policing section of the case has become normal for Longmire, but for the first time here, it’s a severe detriment to the episode as a whole–partly from the editing of the final scene itself. Walt meets with the culprit, accuses him, and threatens him by dumping beef and its juices and smells on the warden, then Walt threatens to release the bear who was used for the initial murder, its senses apparently inflamed by the beef. Walt gets his confession, and then . . . he releases the bear, “Waffles,” anyway.

I can’t tell exactly what’s going in this scene, which is a major part of the problem. Walt, with the gate to the bear's cage almost open, gets his confession. Then Longmire holds the lock. The warden winces. Walt pushes the latch down, maintaining the lock, and turns his attention to the bear (and we don’t see the warden again). He then gives a brief speech to the bear, used as a tool in the initial murder, asking it to stay away from the town, and lets it go. The bear calmly wanders off. It’s a touching scene, but utterly confusing. It doesn’t appear that Walt has actually departed from the place where he confronted the warden, but the warden is gone. The entire point of the threat—that the bear, with its new taste for human flesh, might attack the warden—is lost. On the other hand, the lighting and background seems slightly different. It’s impossible to tell if Walt had been bluffing or if he was in some totally different geographic region when he released the bear.

This directly ties in to Longmire’s apparent distaste for dealing with the consequences of its investigations. Once the warden confesses his crimes, according to the visual logic of the show, he is literally removed from the world. All that matters is Walt’s victory, and his emotional response to the victory, the release of Waffles. There’s no ethical dilemma. There’s no discussion of how right or wrong the warden might have been. No discussion of how his bail would be set, no trial, no regret, nothing. To put it in television terms, we got “Law” but no “Order.”  This is important because without consequence, it’s very difficult to discuss thematic depth. (It’s also unfortunate that it lacks the intensity of last week’s wonderful confession scene.)

It’s a bit of a shame, because some of the ideas brought up by “The Worst Kind Of Hunter” were especially interesting. In the first few episodes, “foreign” influences were portrayed as leading to a kind of corruption in the rural Wyoming town and county. Here, the villain explicitly wants to represent a traditionalist point of view, making it a point to support Walt in the election as an old guy being forced out by a new guy (before his crime is revealed, of course). There’s also a comic subplot in which one of Walt’s predecessors gives unwelcome, overly old-fashioned advice to hammer the point home.

Yet this this tension of change versus traditionalism is nothing more than window dressing here. It’s an aspect of social complication in theory, but almost irrelevant in practice. Without consequences, the mysteries are just puzzles to be solved, nothing more.

 

Rowan Kaiser is a freelance pop culture critic currently living in the Bay Area. He is a staff writer at The A.V. Club, covering television and literature. He also writes about video games for several different publications, including Joystiq and Paste Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @rowankaiser for unimportant musings on media and extremely important kitten photographs.

LONGMIRE RECAP 4: DOG SOLDIER

LONGMIRE RECAP 4: DOG SOLDIER

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There’s an important development in this week’s Longmire, though it’s not immediately apparent. For the first time, Walt Longmire hits the barriers of what the law can do, and he is willing to work outside the law for justice. Not only that, but he's doing so because of specific corruption focused on the Cheyenne. Given the show’s previous focus on Walt’s heroism for upholding the law in the face of (justified, but difficult) bitterness from the Cheyenne, that’s an improvement.

null“Dog Soldier” is built around the kidnapping—no murders this week, initially—of some Cheyenne boys who’ve been committed to foster care. There’s possible evidence of corruption in Social Services, of pedophilia, of corruption within the reservation, child abuse, or more. As the loose threads are connected or removed, the reasons for the kidnappings become more and more clear: the children were “kidnapped” in revenge for their removal, on false premises, from the reservation.

This culminates in arguably the show’s best scene, in which Walt confronts the Social Services worker involved, Crystal Shoemaker, at the end of the episode. He carefully explains what happened, and why he knows she’s involved. She lays out her points—all of the evidence is circumstantial, she can talk a mean game about doing what’s best for the children, and oh yes, she’s white. She’ll get away, even if she is corrupt, and a kidnapper and murderer. And here’s where Walt lays down the lack of law. She’s right, of course. The system is tilted entirely toward her. The government has designed a mechanism by which the adoption/foster care system benefits—and corrupt utilizers of that system personally benefit—from making the Cheyenne on the reservation look worse and removing their children. This is an accurate depiction of both issues with child service agencies and legally enshrined bias against Native Americans.

And Walt knows it. So he doesn’t try to use the power of the state to do the right thing. He acknowledges what the Cheyenne characters have been telling him throughout the episode—that the system is unfairly and presently irredeemably working against them. They have their own extra-legal ways of achieving justice, through an enforcer named Hector who gets paid by the tooth. Hector, and the other members of the Cheyenne community, have clearly figured out the scam by which Shoemaker and her former partners have profited from taking Cheyenne from their home. And they will come for her, possibly out of control, possibly overtaken by the spirit of vengeance: “I believe in transformation. I believe we become vessels for forces we cannot control or understand.”

Walt can’t win as a lawman. So he wins as a person. This is, I think, what separates a competent show from an interesting, potentially great show. Veronica Mars had slick, entertaining mysteries each week with equal parts comedy and drama, but what made it special was its examination of class. The powerful had the law and institutions on their side, while the powerless and poor generally had only less savory options to them, and the main character was caught in the middle. That’s the case here, and it leads to more drama than previous episodes have possessed.

It also connects Longmire more directly to its setting. “The west” in American mythology—largely gone in as much as it ever existed, though rural Wyoming is as close as anything gets— exists in an odd conceptual place. On one hand, pioneers are supposed to represent the ideals of American self-perception. They’re hardy, pragmatic, pure of heart, and self-reliant. They built society, the story goes, instead of having it imposed on them. “The government” is a corrupting force, bringing laws and rules and regulations and, in the case of “Dog Soldier,” financial incentives for corruption and treating people wrong. Walt represents that frontier ideal, doing the right thing for people, regardless of whose people they are, or whether it’s part of the law or not (a far cry from previous episodes explicitly connecting him with the power of the state.)

Yet there’s an inherent tension within that mythology. Those western pioneers achieved most of what they did over the objections, sometimes violent and violently put down, of the natives of that region. The Cheyenne in Longmire have regularly complained about their treatment at the hands of white Americans, but for the first time, in “Dog Soldier,” those complaints are justified. Likewise, the socially conservative voting patterns of the western states make the idea that individual liberty is the dominant feature of western American society too simplistic. Longmire’s titular character may embody western stoicism and self-reliance in many ways, but to the show’s credit, he’s also demonstrating the complications of the western mythology.

One of the ways that Longmire does that is by continuing its overt serialization about Walt’s past. We’ve seen the flashbacks about him getting healed with Henry watching before. In this episode, a letter from the Denver PD triggers further flashbacks, but still very little information. While I generally dislike the manipulation of having the main character know about something the audience doesn’t, in order to maintain a mystery and keep viewers, I do like the way it was used in this episode. Walt’s apparent willingness to move outside the law in his past, and memory of this during the events of this episode, make his motivations more transparent to us. Likewise, the events of “Dog Soldier” work retroactively to make whatever Walt happened to do previously more understandable, when we understand them.

And I remain impressed with Longmire’s ability to construct a mystery. While it became increasingly obvious that something in the corrupt Social Services structure helped trigger the kidnapping case, who and why was still a mystery up until the very end. The revelation made sense—we had the same information Walt did—but still has some level of surprise. This is definitely not a show where a random guest star appearance clearly indicates who the likely culprit is. If Longmire manages to add effective serialization to the examination of the American west it demonstrates here, as well as keeping its episodes impressively constructed, it could get a lot more exciting.

Rowan Kaiser is a freelance pop culture critic currently living in the Bay Area. He is a staff writer at The A.V. Club, covering television and literature. He also writes about video games for several different publications, including Joystiq and Paste Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @rowankaiser for unimportant musings on media and extremely important kitten photographs.

LONGMIRE RECAP 3: THE CANCER

LONGMIRE RECAP 3: THE CANCER

Longmire’s specific focus on its main character can yield some tense results, as last week’s episode demonstrated effectively. But this approach also leads to difficulties when the scope of the episode is wider. Drugs, Mexican cartels, and veterans of the Afghan war are all big issues, with far more relevance to American viewers than the Mennonites or mobsters of the last two episodes. “The Cancer” opens the door to having larger discussions, but nothing comes through except Walt discussing how the drug trade is a “cancer” that’s usually progressed too far by the time it gets noticed.

nullAnd yet in one scene where Walt meets the local pizza/weed delivery man who also works as a confidential informant, Jamie, the dealer, opens the conversation by describing how sorry he is about Walt’s wife’s death. The two men both note that Jamie helped Walt’s wife as she was sick, presumably by selling her marijuana as a painkiller for cancer and treatment. Yet despite this subjectively valuable (to Walt) use of pot, he doesn’t even consider a possible connection to the weed dealers he’s hunting over the course of the episode. What they’re doing is against the law and a cancer, but what he and his wife did was okay.

Part of the reason for this is that Longmire is Walt Longmire’s show, and it depicts a man who’s a platonic ideal of the manly western hero: all action and expertise, no self-examination or doubt. We know from the pilot that his wife’s death pushed him into a serious depression, but we haven’t seen that. We’ve only seen Walt Longmire, Sympathetic Hero. The show is directed and edited to back up this depiction of Walt. Individual shots are fast, getting to the action and then moving quickly. Instant understanding is assumed for many scenes, which occasionally leaves me disoriented—much like Walt’s deputies, who can mostly follow along, but occasionally get annoyed at being left behind while he’s proceeding with a case.

At times, this makes the show feel crisp and smart. The problems arise when Longmire brings up more complicated subjects that uncomplicated Walt Longmire doesn’t want to deal with—so it doesn’t deal with them. In doing so, it doesn’t just ignore wider potential issues, it justifies Walt’s reaction to those issues. It would obviously be too much of a stretch, for example, to have Walt turn against the Drug War and set up a Hamsterdam or the like, but calling fresh, quality pot a “cancer” when he used it to treat his wife’s illness demands some kind of resolution for the dissonance. And it’s not forthcoming.

The implicit justification of Walt’s worldview points at deeper trends in the show’s world-view, though. “I remember when I could count the number of murders in this county on one hand. Two at most,” says Walt, recalling a simpler time, before his peaceful county was corrupted by “cancerous” outside influences. Every episode so far has had a dead body, two this time. Every single one of those deaths can be traced to influences outside Walt's immediate community: underaged reservation girls as kidnapped sex workers, Mennonites oppressing their women, mobsters from the big city, or Mexican drug cartels.

Meanwhile, the tension between the white people at the center of the show is being resolved respectfully and peacefully via an election—that’s the American way. There are oblique references to the white Americans not being perfect—“When Cheyenne get into business with outsiders . . . never ends well,” says the reservation police chief—but again, this is only a source of drama on the show when he stonewalls the heroes in their attempts to do good for the world.

The number of bodies are also an issue. Not every mystery needs to be a murder, and the darker, grittier tone set by murder mysteries can become repetitious. Why not have an episode of Walt investigating an embarrassing theft? Saving a kitten from a tree? As a small-town sheriff, presumably he’s used to a wider variety of cases, and the show has interesting enough characters to pull off a lighter episode. Longmire could stand a little bit more Veronica Mars and a bit less CSI.

With all that, though, “The Cancer” still worked as a mystery on its own. It did a good job of encouraging suspicion on characters who were red herrings: the reservation chief, and the oddly-behaving woman whose property the bodies was found on. That suspicion seemed just a bit too obvious at first, but when the culprit was revealed to be the park ranger, it made sense without having been obvious. The ranger initially attempts to threaten Walt to gain his freedom, but ends up disarmed by Vic’s sudden appearance. What happens to him? Moreover, what happens to the Mennonite boy who killed his sister a few episodes ago? These things lead to more complex ethical (if not also legal) questions, and go unanswered.

This is my central frustration with Longmire so far. It has the ability to use its setting and characters to examine interesting, difficult questions. But it’s so enamored with the straight-shooting point-of-view of its hero that it doesn’t take that step. Sure, it’s early yet, but we’re almost halfway done with the short, 10-episode season. That’s not much time for it to fulfill its potential.

Rowan Kaiser is a freelance pop culture critic currently living in the Bay Area. He is a staff writer at The A.V. Club, covering television and literature. He also writes about video games for several different publications, including Joystiq and Paste Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @rowankaiser for unimportant musings on media and extremely important kitten photographs.

LONGMIRE RECAP 2: A DAMN SHAME

LONGMIRE RECAP 2: A DAMN SHAME

Only two scenes in “A Damn Shame”  don’t depict Walt Longmire. The opening scene depicts a fire in a barn, with horses panicking, dying, and trying to break free. It’s interwoven with Walt in a sweat lodge, in a deliberately artistic style that pays off well here, making it clear that though Walt’s not in the scene, it’s still his story. The threat to the horses also ties the audience and the show’s characters to the case emotionally. (Click on the video above to view this scene.)

nullThe second scene without Walt takes place in the middle of the investigation, when a man claiming to be an FBI agent shows up at the station with the three main cops from the office. The most junior deputy, the bumbling Ferg, attempts to calm the agent, and in so doing, gives him the location of the family he’s looking for as well as the sheriff’s location. This is necessary to the plot, but we haven’t spent much time with Ferg yet at all, and “A Damn Shame” hasn’t given much previous indication that he’s going to get this much attention. More notably, the absence of Walt, Vic, or Branch at the office makes it clear just how dependent the show is on those characters, and how much stronger the narrative is for Walt's presence.

Once that brief break with Walt’s perspective occurs, it becomes much more apparent how much the episode is built around him. Though he’s not the main character, every shot in "A Damn Shame" focuses intently on Walt, or takes his perspective, or both. (Click on the video below to view the scene.)

As the story and characters converge on a ranch house, the most dramatic moments occur. Walt and Vic start to walk towards the house, shots are fired, they take cover behind the police truck. The camera appears to take cover behind them. When new characters show up, he’s shown arriving in the distance, then he moves to the center of the shot. There are some brief wider shots, but the bulk of them are right alongside the show’s protagonist.

The tight focus on Walt and his perception here helps Walt’s tension become our tension. This can be claustrophobic at times, but in a good way. Were this a few seasons down the road, when Longmire has a larger cast of characters and more story threads to deal with, it might seem like a gimmick or worse, a waste of time. But we’re not at that point. Right now, the show really does seem like it’s just Walt’s show, and for the moment it works.

This tight focus also helps build the tension and set the stage for the solving of the mystery. Longmire, quite effectively, gives Walt as much information as the audience has, so when we’re suspicious, he's suspicious. If the audience is smarter than the main characters, a mystery show starts attracting disdain. On the other hand, if the characters are too much smarter than the audience, then the characters start seeming inhuman or the mystery begins to seem gimmicky. This show's respect for its audience’s patience shows up early in the episode, when a note from the apparently dead man in the barn fire appears. Each of the characters reads it, their reactions showing that the most likely reason for the note—suicide—is also what the note seems to indicate. Yet Longmire lets the reactions take precedence over the text, only substantiating those reactions later.

Through impressive technical competence, surprising for a show so early in its run, “A Damn Shame” maintains a down-to-earth tone in the story it tells, the characters’ reaction to the story, the way the story is shot, and the way the story is constructed. 

Yet all that competence is put into the service of a story that, well, doesn’t actually say all that much. A local man, Ray, appears to have committed suicide. But there’s just enough oddness in his pre-death behavior and the forensic investigation that Walt gets suspicious. Ray is eventually revealed to have been a mobster who bailed on his family and went on the run, and who then faked his death when he was discovered by the mob. Walt discovers Ray hiding in a basement, and confronts him on his cowardice for hiding while his family has been taken hostage, and refuses to believe otherwise based on his murder of the horses. Ray swears he’s not a coward, and wants the chance to redeem himself. Walt cuffs him, but Ray calls attention to himself anyway, helping Walt save Ray’s family, even as Ray himself ends up dead. It’s a conventional, dull redemption story, and sidelines his wife and son, who had been more interesting in the first part of the episode.

I’m much more impressed by Longmire’s ability to tell a story well than I am disappointed by any lack of creativity in its storylines. That sort of depth should come with time, character development, and world-building. Having a stand-out technical core makes the idea that the show will turn special more likely, and even if not, it should still remain high-quality.

Rowan Kaiser is a freelance pop culture critic currently living in the Bay Area. He is a staff writer at The A.V. Club, covering television and literature. He also writes about video games for several different publications, including Joystiq and Paste Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @rowankaiser for unimportant musings on media and extremely important kitten photographs.

LONGMIRE RECAP 1: THE LONG ROAD

LONGMIRE RECAP 1: THE LONG ROAD

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While a mystery procedural isn’t the most revolutionary premise for a television series, there were several aspects of the Longmire pilot that indicated that it might be particularly interesting. First, it had a distinct visual style. The opening scene of the pilot, with Longmire in the shower, the camera bouncing around, and messages left on the answering machine conveys character and tone superbly—and simply—through style.

The show’s setting is also compelling, though not in such a positive way. The rural county in Wyoming is not a common location for a TV show, and Longmire effectively conveys how small and interconnected Absaroka County is. The placement of a Cheyenne reservation nearby also adds specificity, but tensions between the reservation police and the protagonist create an uncomfortable dynamic. The heroic white man, unfairly vilified for exposing native corruption, ends up a hero after reuniting a lost Cheyenne girl with her mother. It’s very White-Man’s-Burden, and quite awkward because of it. I’m hopeful that the show will grow more nuanced in its portrayal of the Cheyenne. Given its competence elsewhere, this seems likely, but the focus on the whites as the primary cast members is less promising.

The show’s use of an election as its main hook for long-form serialization mosyt appealed to the part of me that enjoys analyzing structure. Walt Longmire is the show’s hero, the character it’s named for, but he’s a mess. Branch Connally, his deputy, has recognized that Longmire is a mess, and decided to run against him. Connally’s reasons seem entirely valid—Longmire’s been an absentee sherriff since his wife died, a year ago, and has left the running of the station to the deputies. Had you framed most of the scenes from Connally’s perspective, he would have looked like the hero of this story. “Quality television” is often based on male anti-heroes, but Longmire’s not quite there. He’s more of a broken hero, teetering on the edge of failure. And his failure comes from inaction, not from making the wrong choices—at least, that's the show’s premise.

For better or mostly worse, not many of these qualities are on display in the second episode, “The Dark Road.” Second episodes of dramas are usually weak, to be fair. They’re produced well after the pilot, and they generally serve to reintroduce the characters and world for people who are theoretically tuning in based on word-of-mouth after the first episode. This tends to make second episodes feel watered-down, which describes “The Dark Road.”

The biggest component of the pilot missing here is any mention of the election. Branch Connally is shown as a somewhat cocky member of the department; the only visible tension between him and Longmire is a slight young pup-old dog dynamic. This makes the revelation at the end of the episode—that Connally is sleeping with Walt’s daughter Cady—lose most of its impact.

Instead,  a flashback represents the show’s serialization. Walt is having a scar on his back sewn up, as he talks to his friend Henry, saying that his daughter must never know. That’s the entirety of the scene. This is far less auspicious than the election as a hook for viewers. I tend to be quite wary about overarching mysteries like these. Here, the characters have information that the audience lacks. By not allowing us to see it, the show is essentially taunting us, and that’s not a great way to start a relationship.

This episode also doesn’t deal with the Cheyenne, either, choosing instead to focus on another group of people more common in the rural west than most other places in America: Mennonites. One of their teenagers, a girl on her “rumspringa” outside of the community, has ended up dead. She’s also a stripper, which Sheriff Longmire figures out because the show uses the TV shorthand of saying she’s covered in glitter (because as everyone knows, married men who go to strip clubs love coming home with glitter on them, as it spares them even needing to bother discussing where they’ve been).

The Mennonites come across worse here than the Cheyenne did. The only family we see in any detail is ruled by a patriarchal iron fist, which ends up being the cause of the girl’s death. Her father, knowing she was a stripper, doesn’t care about her death. Her mother is more sympathetic, but paralyzed by the fear of the patriarch. And the mystery’s resolution is that the girl’s brother accidentally killed her while chasing her, because he saw her drifting away from the culture by becoming a stripper, and he had been told that he couldn’t go back unless he returned her as well. This is also a traditionally American argument—that secular laws allowing freedom are superior to religious fundamentalism. The show strongly implies that this is intentional, showing the state flag immediately after the scene where the Mennonite mother admits she wanted her daughter to escape the household tyranny.

There’s an essential conservatism to mystery shows, especially those based around law enforcement. Longmire’s focus on “lost girls” as the victims of the first two episodes—helpless, threatened, needing rescue, or dying—instead of telling their stories shows a fear of girls doing sex work. This may be an entirely valid anxiety, but the decision to talk about the sex workers in both episodes, without actually letting them tell their story, says a lot about Longmire. It’s too early to see if that conservatism is a core feature, and I’m not sure if Longmire intends for it to be. But where the pilot involved an examination of those concepts through the struggles of the characters, “The Dark Road” plays it entirely straight, which is a shame.

Rowan Kaiser is a freelance pop culture critic currently living in the Bay Area. He is a staff writer at The A.V. Club, covering television and literature. He also writes about video games for several different publications, including Joystiq and Paste Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @rowankaiser for unimportant musings on media and extremely important kitten photographs.

GAME OF THRONES RECAP 10: VALAR MORGHULIS

GAME OF THRONES RECAP 10: VALAR MORGHULIS

nullOne of the key questions facing Game Of Thrones the series, as well as its source material, is: “What’s this about?” And by this I mean: “What is this story? How is it being told? Where is this leading?” Certainly there’s drama, and characters change, grow, collapse, or die, but it’s difficult to see a clear structure at times. “Valar Morghulis,” as a season finale, did provide appropriate resolutions for most of the characters’ stories this season. But it struggled to collect them—it’s just a bunch of stuff that happens, in the words of Homer Simpson. Still, it’s a compelling bunch of stuff that happens.

nullThe Hero’s Journey is the default reading of most fantasy stories, and Game Of Thrones gives that opportunity with two of its characters: Jon Snow and Danaerys Targaryen. Both are born of noble blood, but are also outsiders. Both are young, and they are undergoing journeys of self-improvement as well as quests of external improvements. Both are also dealing with the most magic of any of the characters. Dany has her dragons, and Jon has fought one of the White Walkers, while the threat of more wraiths hangs over the Night’s Watch.

I’m not sold on this interpretation—Game Of Thrones seems too delighted to subvert fantasy tropes to fully follow through on the monomyth—but each character continues their journey in “Valar Morghulis.” Danaerys has had a bad season, sounding increasingly shrill over the course of her time in the unfriendly city of Qarth, but the climax of the episode finally justifies the time spent on her this year. Heading into the home of the warlocks led by Pyat Pree, she finally has the chance to demonstrate in action what she’s been shouting about all season, burning the magician and regaining her power. Yet her most important action isn’t her connection with her dragons, inciting them to violence. It’s rejecting the illusion of her dead husband and child. Her more youthful dream of a happy life with Khal Drogo is gone, and the steely Emilia Clarke realizes this quickly, giving her agency over her life again.

On the other hand, Jon Snow’s climactic act, a duel with the veteran ranger Qhorin Halfhand, represents arguably Game Of Thrones biggest failure this entire season. There is a reason for the duel—Qhorin mentioned it in a quick whisper two episodes ago—but if you can’t remember and extrapolate from “I hope you can do what you need to do” followed by a series of louder insults, I can’t blame you. We’re supposed to understand that Qhorin is doing this so that the wildlings will accept Jon, which will make him a more effective spy. But that relies on a single whispered line from two episodes ago. So, for all appearances, Jon is just a dupe, on multiple levels. For a character who could easily be described as the most traditional hero in the series, this is a serious problem.

A second interpretation of the overall story of Game Of Thrones is that it’s the story of the Stark family in a complicated civil war. Our main characters, after all, are Cat, Jon, Arya, Sansa, Bran, Robb, and formerly Ned (also little Rickon, attached to Bran). Dany and Tyrion are major as well, but under this theory, they exist largely to flesh out the story.

Sansa, for example, is our Stark gateway in King’s Landing. We see the new alliance between the Tyrells and the Lannisters both as the political intrigue that won the biggest battle of the civil war so far, but we also see it through Sansa’s eyes. Sophie Turner demonstrates her embarrassment at being publicly humiliated, yes, but also her joy at being free of her betrothal to the sociopathic Joffrey (though this is negated when the increasingly creepy Littlefinger promises to “help” her).

Her older brother Robb has a simpler story—he’s in love with Talisa, and decides to marry her. Cat, still under arrest for freeing Jaime Lannister, tries to talk him out of doing anything foolish, but she has no ground to stand on. Robb both follows his heart and his honor, marrying the woman he had sex with. It’s a sweet scene, and it parallels other loving scenes the episode surrounds it with, but it lacks depth.

Arya Stark has a similar issue, resolving her story with Jaqen H’ghar, but little else. I’ve complimented the child actors on the show before, but there are some issues here. Jaqen invites Arya to learn his killing strengths, but Arya says no, remembering her family. This is all good, but the struggle to remember her sister Sansa is a bit too obvious. It’s still amusing from a character perspective, but it’s quite transparently “television” in a way that Game Of Thrones, and HBO house style, tend to avoid.

A third response to the “What does it mean?” question is the most complex, subtle, and in my opinion rewarding: Game Of Thrones is about war and its effects. One of the things that has disappointed me about this season of the series, compared to the novels, is the lack of portrayal of the war’s effects. The best scene of “Valar Morghulis” finally depicts the brutality of the war, as well as the complexity of morality during civil war: Brienne of Tarth is still escorting the ever-snarky/charming Jaime Lannister to the capital, when she comes across a set of corpses.

They’re three women, hung with a sign saying that “They lay with lions.” The single image conveys brutality: we’re supposed to believe the Starks are good and the Lannister (lions) are evil. Yet here are three women killed for the crime of supposedly having slept with members of the Lannister army. The men who show up to confront Brienne—and explain the deaths—show the issues of civil war. They don’t take initial credit for the killings. They’re not dressed in uniform. They ask Brienne who she serves, but only after mocking her. And they are cruel men, quickly and violently dispatched.

Despite the initial thrill of seeing Brienne—the insulted woman—succeed in her violence, the scene is still discomfiting. The northerners are supposed to be, at the least, more heroic than their southern counterparts. These men are rapists and murderers. But worse than that: Are they even evil than Jaime Lannister, the charmingly sarcastic prisoner being saved by Brienne? Jaime is handsome, clever, and in the main credits, but he’s also Ned Stark’s rival, a man who tried to kill a 10-year-old boy, and he's conducting an incestuous, adulterous affair with the queen. Jaime survives because he’s important. These men die because they’re not. This is the war of Game Of Thrones, and it’s a difficult and bloody war at that.

The episode’s other most powerful scenes also avoid the heroes and Starks. Tyrion Lannister is surviving his wounds from the battle of Blackwater, yes. But his exploits in the battle have been ignored. His father Tywin receives the accolades while Tyrion gets moved to more modest quarters. His only ally is Lord Varys, the eunuch whom the show depicts as having been outmanuevered by Littlefinger’s successful arrangement of the Tyrell-Lannister alliance. Varys brings Tyrion his mistress Shae, leading the to the most affecting scene of the episode, wherein Shae professes her loyalty to the scarred Imp. Both Kekilli and especially Dinklage act the hell out of this scene, providing a stellar emotional core to “Valar Morghulis.”

Finally, the most complete part of the episode occurs in Winterfell. Theon Greyjoy is surrounded by the Bastard of Bolton and his troops, with 500 men against 20. Maester Luwin provides Theon with council, and Theon (and Alfie Allen) lay his entire life, his motivations, and his insecurities out for the viewers and the Maester to see. Here, Theon turns from a ridiculous figure into a tragic one. He has no home and no one to trust, so he relies on his masculinity and ambition to give his pathetic life some meaning. This urge manifests itself in a speech he gives to his men, wonderful both for its position within Theon’s narrative and because it's a joke: he's cut short by his men, who just want to use Theon’s body as leverage to get home. At every point, Theon has been given chances to be better. He has wasted them, trying to gain the respect of men who never would have respected him anyway. This may be Game Of Thrones at its smartest: Theon is trapped by his attempts to be as masculine and powerful as possible. He’s not. Maybe he never has been. Everyone, including him, recognizes this. But he feels that he has no choice but to continue.

Add these stories all up, and what is the sum? I don’t think there is one, other than that the third season, ten months away, can’t arrive soon enough in plot terms. The final two episodes have demonstrated the dynamism that Game Of Thrones’ tight serialization can provide, like no other show on television right now. On the other hand, there are serious issues with Game Of Thrones’ structure. They can certainly be masked by momentum, but the connection—or lack thereof—of the myriad of stories has to be a constant concern for the series’ fans and creators.

Adaptation:

Most of the stories portrayed in “Valar Morghulis” are significantly different from those in the book, yet most of these still point to an endpoint of the later books, used as major reference. The Bastard Of Bolton may not have made his appearance here, but the ambiguity about the sack of Winterfell leaves room for interpretation. Likewise, Jon Snow’s arc as an idiot may have been painful, but it leaves him in a position to be less terrible in the future.

My biggest disappointment with the episode—apart from the lack of redemption for Arya’s story mistakes two weeks ago—comes from the Cat—Robb interaction. In the novels, both Cat and Robb discover each others’ crimes at the same time. Robb gets married in the west, then returns to discover that Cat has freed Jaime. His forgiveness for her act based on love is a defense of his own act of love, a manipulation which both impresses and frightens Cat. We only get a tiny part of that in a conversation where an ineffectual Cat attempts to persuade Robb of the virtue of arranged marriage, which Robb can dismiss thanks to her release of the Kingslayer. It’s good—but the scene in the book was great.

A final word has to be given to the cliffhanger at the end of “Valar Morghulis.” The White Walkers have been an ominous threat since the cold open of Game Of Thrones’  first episode, but have rarely been physically threatening. Now, we see an army. And while in story terms, the army of wraiths attacking the Night’s Watch is certainly ominous, the CGI used to depict the supernatural threat just can’t quite manage it. The pseudo-zombies shown are just a bit too cartoonish, and some of the horde that follows are all too obviously just topless actors’ backs staggering in front of a bluescreen. But this is the way the novels’ story goes, so some depiction is necessary. We have to see the undead threat, even if that threat, treated literally on-screen, is insufficient compared to the danger on the page. The episode’s other most powerful scenes also avoid the heroes and Starks, focusing instead on the effects of the war on two of this season's most dynamic characters, Tyrion and Theon.

Rowan Kaiser is a freelance pop culture critic currently living in the Bay Area. He is a staff writer at The A.V. Club, covering television and literature. He also writes about video games for several different publications, including Joystiq and Paste Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @rowankaiser for unimportant musings on media and extremely important kitten photographs.

GAME OF THRONES RECAP 9: BLACKWATER

GAME OF THRONES RECAP 9: BLACKWATER

We know what we’re getting when we watch a Game Of Thrones episode, right? We’re getting some beautifully shot scenes, certainly; this has been one of the best-looking shows on television since its premiere. We know that the actors will be good, if not great. We know that we’ll see a wide variety of different, possibly intersecting plots, divided by geography. And we know that while there might be some action, it’ll be parceled out for more drama, more cliffhangers, but probably not catharsis. It’s a decent structure. It’s served the show well, as well as working for other HBO shows like The Wire, Treme, and Boardwalk Empire.

Except that’s not what happened in “Blackwater.”

It takes confidence to alter the formal structure of a television show, but it’s also often the best thing a show can do. Shows like The Sopranos and Buffy The Vampire Slayer changed television dramatically while relying on a series of formal experiments: “College” and “Pine Barrens” from The Sopranos, or “Band Candy” and “The Body” from Buffy. The way you think the show should work, the way television normally works? That’s not what happens. If done competently, these experiments can be fun episodes. If done well? They’re among the best television can do.

“Blackwater” was an experiment done well.

I was partially wrong about last week’s episode. I assumed that everything was leading up to a climactic ninth episode of the season. We’d see Theon defending Winterfell; we’d see Dany chasing her dragons; we’d see a culmination of Robb’s romance; we’d see Jon trying to survive his capture by the wildlings; we’d see Arya, having escaped into the wilderness; we’d see the battle of Blackwater, with Stannis’ forces attacking Tyrion and the Lannisters at King’s Landing.

What we got was only the last of those. The climactic battle of the season turned out to be the entirety of the episode. Stannis attacks King’s Landing, and Tyrion defends it. Nothing else happens this episode. It is, unlike any other of the 18 episodes preceding it, entirely focused on a single story, focused only on the characters in one specific locale.

And that’s just what Game Of Thrones needed.

There are still issues. My complaints about Arya and Cat losing agency last week are still valid. There’s still a great deal of ground to cover next week. I don’t know that there’s going to be enough time left to tie it all together. The season has had issues of thematic coherence roughly equivalent to the difficulties with coherence in the novel A Clash Of Kings. Yet, while those things can be argued about the season as a whole, they don’t take away from the achievement of “Blackwater.”

“Blackwater” derives its power from its relative simplicity. It removes the extra plots, focusing on the overarching climax of the Clash Of Kings that gave the story its name in book form. Stannis, with the former Targaryen lands plus the Baratheon vassals, attacks King Joffrey in King’s Landing, with the power of the capital and the Lannisters behind him. As presented, these are the two most powerful forces in the southlands (with Robb Stark leading an equally powerful army from the north).

Yet while that simplicity increases the drama of the episode for the characters we care about—Tyrion primarily—it also demonstrates one of the biggest problems of the season: in the Stannis versus Joffrey confrontation, we have many reasons to cheer against Joff, but no particular reason to cheer for Stannis. That makes it necessary for “Blackwater” to build that drama via the few characters who will be affected. This means Davos and his son, preparing for the battle. This means the Hound and Bronn, whose stress makes them competitors, while battle makes them friends. This means Tyrion with Varys, with Sansa, with Joffrey, and with Shae. This means Sansa Stark, who finally gets the chance to shine, first by sarcastically undermining Joffrey, then by cleaning up the mess left by a drunken Cersei Lannister.

The action in “Blackwater” is very good. It’s fantastic, given the constraints of television. I, along with many other online commenters, compared it to the attack on Helm’s Deep from Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers. Some of the individual pieces of action aren’t quite film-level, but in terms of building then releasing tension, the episode is great.

First, Stannis has an overwhelming advantage in numbers, which Tyrion lessens with his wildfire attack. This is a loaded sequence for a variety of reasons. First, there’s the simple technology of it: this is what HBO has been saving their CGI for, and it’s worth it. The green fire and the explosion look great. Beyond that, the number of extras involved in the action sequences give an epic feeling beyond the computer technology.

Tyrion’s surprise fire attack also links him to great strategists in literary history as well. His plan, to me, is reminiscent of the Zhou Yu/Zhuge Liang plot in the Three Kingdoms novel, most recently portrayed visually in John Woo’s uneven but fascinating 2008 film Red Cliff. The idea that a lone brilliant man can use surprise and the elements, particularly fire, in order to even out incredibly uneven odds is a common conceit of literature. Tyrion here is Odysseus, creating the Trojan Horse, or Caesar at Pharsalus, surprising Pompey’s cavalry, as well as Zhuge Liang, the near-deified strategist of the Three Kingdoms. Lord Varys even makes this clear early in the episode, saying that Stannis has allied with dark forces, and Tyrion is “the only man who can stop him.” There’s also the straightforward historical precedent of Byzantine “Greek fire,” the secret weapon of that famous fleet.

Yet Tyrion’s (and Peter Dinklage’s) greatest triumph isn’t his strategy, it’s that when the battle hangs in the balance, he builds his courage and makes a speech to save King’s Landing. His speech isn’t an appeal to the ideals of the Seven Kingdoms. Instead, it’s an appeal to the darkness of the series. He specifically tells his men not to fight for honor. He tells them to fight for their own survival, and for the survival of the people they care about. I don’t know that there’s a better encapsulation of the series’ themes than this speech.

Who is the bad guy here? Tyrion is defending Cersei and Joffrey, the biggest villains of the show so far, but we want him to survive. We want his people to survive. We want King’s Landing to avoid being sacked; we want the noble ladies not to be raped. We want Westeros to not go to hell, despite the “honorable” intentions of its leaders. There’s no good resolution here. There’s only survival. Tyrion gets that. And Dinklage nails the speech where he demonstrates that. “Those are brave men knocking on our door. Let’s go kill them!”

Yet all this doesn’t work without the formal changes of the episode. Only a handful of cast members are present, but almost every single one of them has some of their best moments. Sophie Turner gets many of her best moments as the rapidly maturing Sansa Stark, yes, but she’s matched by Sibel Kekilli, as Shae, whose fiery personality has been increasingly prominent recently. Lena Headey is also making a strong claim for “most improved” actress—her increasing desperation, combined with her rigid control over her emotions, makes her scenes some of the best of an already fantastic episode. Finally Sandor Clegane, Joffrey’s Hound, has been a background character for so long that his scenes here are something of a surprise, and a welcome one at that. It’s an odd thing for Joffrey’s right hand to say, straight up, “fuck the king,” but Rory McCann takes this, his most important line, and makes it sting.

Because Game Of Thrones focuses on the climactic event of the season, it can do this. It can make most of the characters at their most interesting. It can slowly build up the battle, and then get the battle right. I worry that this intense focus on the battle of the Blackwater will make the finale too busy. But for now, I think it’s worth basking in the glory that a single change in structure can achieve. There are many great moments to come in Game Of Thrones. An intense focus on them can break up the show’s rhythm in a remarkably positive way.

Adaptation:

George R.R. Martin wrote this episode, so even if I wanted to, it would be hard to say that “Blackwater” got anything in particular wrong. The lack of specificity to the Tyrell army's inclusion in the Lannister reinforcements is a bit of an issue—Loras in Tywin’s entourage could be missed easily, in part because it’s a surprise—but I assume this will be cleared up next week. While this season has had many issues of adaptation, “Blackwater”  is as ideal as any fan could expect.

Rowan Kaiser is a freelance pop culture critic currently living in the Bay Area. He is a staff writer at The A.V. Club, covering television and literature. He also writes about video games for several different publications, including Joystiq and Paste Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @rowankaiser for unimportant musings on media and extremely important kitten photographs.

GAME OF THRONES RECAP 8: THE PRINCE OF WINTERFELL

GAME OF THRONES RECAP 8: THE PRINCE OF WINTERFELL

One of the recurring discussions about this second season of Game Of Thrones concerns how much the television show is changed from the novels. While the merits of the specific changes are debatable, a running theme of both my reviews and those of other critics is that the show is more confident in its adaptation, becoming its own entity.

nullAs obvious as it might sound, we should remember that entity is a television show, and a particular form of a television show, at that: highly serialized with multiple interweaving plots, much like many of the great dramas of the last decade-plus. But the TV show-ness of Game Of Thrones works against it slightly in “The Prince Of Winterfell.” This episode leads towards the climax of the season, so it’s almost all build-up. Episodes like this are traditional in television, but they don't work so well for Game Of Thrones.

The two series associated most with the “build-up” episode are two of the most important for the current form of serialization, Buffy The Vampire Slayer and The Wire. Buffy helped develop a model of the standalone episode, with clues in each week's show leading towards a larger finale each season. After a few seasons, the overarching plot became such an important part of the show that the last batch of episodes became a string of heavily serialized “mythology” episodes, barely working by themselves. The Buffy episode “The Prince Of Winterfell” reminded me most of is “The Weight Of The World,” the fifth season's penultimate episode, in which Buffy, having lost all hope and motivation, has to be emotionally wrestled back into heroic shape for the season’s climax—the emotions before the storm. While both of these episodes may be competent, they’re fairly unmemorable out of context.

Game Of Thrones is significantly more complicated than Buffy, though, taking place across multiple geographic regions, with exponentially more major characters; in this sense, it’s more similar to The Wire. The Wire’s serialization was even more focused than Buffy’s, or any other show, really. Each of its seasons was 10-13 episodes, focused generally on a component of the society of Baltimore, and specifically on a drug case worked by the main characters. Most of the season would be build-up, the second-to-last episode would contain the climax of the investigation, and then would come the finale, the denouement. Game Of Thrones mostly followed that model in the first season, and is certainly following it here: several different plotlines are leading to what should be an explosive conclusion.

Here’s the problem: Games Of Thrones is even more scattered and geographically disjointed than The Wire. While The Wire had almost as many characters and motivations to keep track of as this show, all the events were working towards the same climax: the conclusion of the drug investigation, and then the rippling effects of that climax (although, to be fair, the fourth season deviated from this specific form). In Game Of Thrones, each smaller story seems to be moving towards a different climax.

The chief upcoming event we hear discussed is Stannis’ attack on King’s Landing, the capital. This would be the biggest battle of the war so far, and a total Stannis victory might even end that war altogether. Preparing for it makes sense. Jon Snow, now captured by wildlings and being led to their king, is also clearly moving toward a climax of some kind, as is Dany, desperate to get her dragons back. And the tension is clearly escalating in Winterfell, as Theon refuses to leave with his sister, even as a northerner army approaches.

But that’s only half of the show’s stories, maybe fewer. Robb Stark’s romance may be climaxing, but its effects are unclear, as are the actions of his mother, who has released Jaime Lannister in exchange for her children, escorted by Brienne of Tarth. This is a new story thread and an interesting choice for the show to make (these events happened relatively later in the novels than they do here). Samwell Tarly and the rest of the Night’s Watch haven’t been mentioned in several episodes, but their discovery of a cache of obsidian weapons is deemed important enough to show up here. Yes, the show is moving towards something, but the important ones can’t help but be  diluted among all the other events taking place.

Three different things make the lack of action in this episode disappointing. First, last week’s episode was also relationship-heavy and event-light. It was so good that this episode pales in comparison, though of course two high points in a row isn’t always wise structurally. Second, the eighth episode of the first season, “The Pointy End,” managed to contain several different momentous events: the death of Arya’s dancing instructor; the undead attack at the Night’s Watch, Robb Stark summoning his bannermen and gaining their respect. Meanwhile, “The Prince Of Winterfell” seems intentionally non-momentous.

Why “intentionally”? The most dramatic moment of the episode occurs when Arya and her friends leave Harrenhal by walking past a bevy of dead men, all killed off-screen by Arya’s murder genie, Jaqen H’ghar. There is craft here: the build-up to this moment involves the Stark girl's desperation and cleverness, telling Jaqen to kill himself, or aid her. When he says, “A girl lacks honor,” Arya gives a quick shrug. Honor is meaningless to her. She’s trying to survive, and win. This is all good.

There’s just one tiny problem with the resolution, though: it’s not what happened in the novels. The changes the show made from the novel end up removing Arya’s agency, the importance of her actions, the intensity of the actions themselves, and not one but two of her most badass moments. There’s still some time for the show to make it up to her, I suppose, but I simply cannot fathom why it would remove arguably the best scenes of the second book . . . unless it was to deliberately rearrange events to fit a Wire-like structural framework. It doesn’t have to work that way. Game Of Thrones has so many different characters, working on a complex enough narrative, that it could have action and preparation in each episode.

Despite a disappointing lack of events and warping of Arya’s story, there was still a lot to like about “The Prince Of Winterfell.” Its theme of finding romance and comfort in the midst of war and intrigue successfully built the emotional tension in advance of the impending climax. Robb Stark’s scene with his new crush Talisa was a major step forward for this storyline. And Peter Dinklage acted the hell out of his romantic scene with Shae, showing a vulnerability only hinted at before. Additionally, Tyrion’s scenes with Varys are among the best the show has done, filled with wit, danger, foreshadowing, and charm. (“We could throw books at his men.” “We don’t have that many books.”) This demonstrates that Game Of Thrones is telling its multiple stories well. The issue is how it’s editing those stories together into a story, and into a series.

Adaptation:

In addition to the tremendously disappointing changes in the Arya Stark story, another Stark is ill-served by the adaptation. Arya's mother Cat Stark has had her agency largely removed as well, due to a couple of changes. When Littlefinger made the offer to exchange Jaime for her daughters, her decision to free Jaime was changed from one she made on her own to one she merely accepted. In the novels, Cat also made that decision after receiving the “news” of Bran and Rickon’s death; here, she’s pushed into it by the Karstarks demanding Jaime’s death after his failed escape last week. Cat Stark’s strength made her arguably my favorite character in the novels, but the show regularly weakens her.

Rowan Kaiser is a freelance pop culture critic currently living in the Bay Area. He is a staff writer at The A.V. Club, covering television and literature. He also writes about video games for several different publications, including Joystiq and Paste Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @rowankaiser for unimportant musings on media and extremely important kitten photographs.