How ‘Game Of Thrones’ got (most of) its groove back

It was hailed as Games of Thrones‘ best Season ever. Last year’s Season 6 however, was merely the show’s first, unavoidable attempt to reinvent itself unbound from its literary source – G. R. R. Martin’s A Song Of Ice and Fire series of books. It was a more or less successful attempt, about to be eclipsed by (at least) the current, trimmed, seven Season. This is how and why.

The… three-year itch

The lean, mean, head splitting and heart scorching first Season rocked the pop culture, geeks and non geeks alike, collectively and simultaneously on a very deep, personal level. The second Season lacked the novelty, but kept the stakes high for its persistently grey, main characters. It also retained its commanding, cinematic in scope production and direction standards. So, unlike other pop phenomena that boldly went where no part of their in print source has gone before (see Daryl and Rick’s and Michonne’s coupling in The Walking Dead for example), David Benioff’s and D.B. Weiss’s creation was making TV history, while remaining meticulously faithful to Martin’s literary saga.

But then occurred the almost… catatonic Season 3, where very few things actually happened. At some point around midseason, Sam Tarly faced and defeated a single White Walker even though we were promised an army of them in the – jaw dropping – last scene in the Season 2 finale. Daenerys continued her liberating march by finally letting her dragons loose to punish her enemies. Both Jon Snow and Jamie Lannister were stripped to the bone, immersed into some sort of pool and underwent a kind of baptism/redefinition of character by two extraordinary women (Ygritte and Brienne of Tarth respectively). Meanwhile, Theon Greyjoy was relentlessly, interminably tortured by Ramsey Bolton in every other episode. And of course the (unnecessarily) brutal, infamous Red Wedding came to pass in Episode 9. Apart from these, easily fitting in three, maybe four episodes, significant developments, we were treated firstly with a lot of very long walks, a lot of very long talks. Secondly, with Podrick’s… sexcapades! Plus some new, secondary characters’ abrupt comings and goings – Yara Greyjoy’s more surprisingly, who we haven’t seen since last season. Yet, in Episode 10, she decides to set sail and go rescue her brother, even though she vehemently scorned him till then.

The long lasting shock-waves Red Wedding (in the marvel of a TV episode The Rains Of Castamere) send through any kind of public discussion were an inescapable distraction. So the fact that for a whole season of 10 incoherently paced episodes we were only given crumbs of character and story progression were more or less overlooked, with The New York Times’ Mike Hale being one of the very few unflappable enough to take notice. Benioff and Weiss had seemingly lost their magic touch. Their story telling was now drawn out, blubbering and uninspired. Stuck in an unfitting to TV, book-reading rhythm, as if they were no longer able to translate literature to motion pictures. It was as if they were waiting for something.

The remaining Stark kids

The never-ending (off screen) story

Season 4, covering the second part of the humongous, third book of Martin’s saga, exhibited signs of improvement early on as Joffrey’s fatal wedding took place in Episode 2– another fascinating, masterful TV hour. It also revealed that the show’s creators do possess the will and ability to productively veer off their source material after all, by choosing not to reincarnate Catelyn Stark as the vengeful Lady Stoneheart (in that instant at least). Yet, it soon became clear that the pacing of the series remained problematic. Substantial story highlights, like Tyrion’s trial or his and Cercei’s champions’ duel, were sporadic and far apart. Daenerys’ march began to lug, so much so that its aim was by now easily forgotten. The newcomers, including Margaery Tyrell, Stannis Baratheon and especially Oberyn Martell and Ellaria Sand, were not given enough space or time to be anything more than plot devices motivating some of the main characters actions and reactions. As a result we cared little for their fate. And questions for the show’s attitude towards women were raised again, (accusations of unnecessary nakedness and sexualisation of the female body had followed it from the very beginning), and this time with a vengeance due to Cercei’s virtual rape by Jamie at their son’s funeral.

At the same time, off screen, the drama of Martin’s inability to complete and deliver the long overdue, last two (6th and 7th) books of his Song was peaking, with no end/due date in sight. The show’s home, HBO, its creators and the fans started to realise that soon they would have to venture into the unknown. The former would have to continue the story beyond the point that the conclusion of the 5th book had brought it. The latter would have to accept or find their way around the fact that in due course the series will inevitably start spoiling the books. And all had to come to terms with the reality that no amount of televised… stalling could make Martin write. Some bold, risky and fearless decisions had to be made.

To keep Bran Stark completely off Season 5 was the first of them.  just when  But it did seem like a bad omen, since on one hand he had just, finally met the Three Eyed Raven (and his destiny). And on the other, the pacing of the narration remained persistently and familiarly awkward in the first few episodes. New high profiled supporting characters like the High Sparrow, Tommen Lanister and the unholy trinity of Ellaria daughters, also known as the Sand Snakes predictably proved inconsequential in themselves. Simultaneously the cries lamenting female characters’ mistreatment intensified as Sansa suffered abuse on her wedding day to Theon’s torturer, Ramsey Bolton, Stannis’ teenage daughter was sacrificed to the Lord of Light, the most innocent of the Lanister brood, Myrcelaa was poisoned, and Cercei endured an extremely long, viciously humiliating walk of shame.

Yet, concurrently, midway through its 10 episodes run, this Season clearly picked up the pace, finding every so often the lean, mean, awe provoking rhythm of the show’s good old days. From Episode 6 onward in particular something… head splitting, heart scorching or outright spectacular happened. Systematicaly, usually at the concluding moments of each hour. Apart from the above female tragedies, there were Jon Snow’s and the wildling’s unexpected battle with the Night King and his ever expanding army of White Walkers, Daeny being rescued/kidnapped by one of her dragons, and of course the most socking and effective season finale the whole series had ever come up with: a gradual close up to Jon’s face as he lies dying on the snow, betrayed by the Night Watch .

Cercei and Jaime debating their future

A new hope… for spring

Jon’s death rattled the pop culture more and for much longer (all the way to the EMMYS, where Game Of Thrones finally won Best Drama) than the Stark patriarch’s beheading or the Red Wedding. Understandably, as Jon was a beloved character and since there was no more tales in print his fate was now uncertain. Again, some expressed anger, this time for the show’s choice to kill off one of their favourites, even though it was just adhering to the books. For others (myself included) however, Jon’s untimely and painful demise triggered an intrigued reinvestment to it. Even if the theory of Jon’s resurrection, heavily circulated by the hard core fans, proved right, spoiling some of our excitement. Because finally, all bets were off. How would the narrative evolve with only notes and suggestions by Martin? And how would Benioff and Weiss deal with the fact that – apart from a remaining bit of Bran’s story – from now on they would do the spoiling? An inevitability they only recently admitted.

Season 6 was not the revelation we had hoped for but it came very close to Game Of Thrones’ perfection during its inaugural year. Most of the supporting characters remained inconsequential in themselves, while now and then the show seemed to repeat itself, especially with Daeny’s another ordeal by and fiery triumph over the Drothaki. But from its first hour to its last, this was a journey full of emotional highs (Jon’s foretold resurrection, Hodor’s self-sacrifice holding the door), heady disclosures (Melisandre’s vulnerable, ancient true self, Cercei’s ruthless vengeance and accession to the throne) and bloody brilliant spectacles (The Battle Of The Bastards). Television greatness could be achieved without blindly following the literary original after all – a lesson Game Of Thrones should have learned sooner.

Better late than ever though, particularly if this protracted, uneven route was what it took to reach the clarity of pace, temperament and spirit of the current, penultimate, only seven episodes long, Season Seven. Where, sure, Ellaria’s and her Sand Snakes’ utter uselessness and expendability were at long last – quickly and precisely – exposed. And where Theon has yet to really prove himself, along with the necessity of his punishingly stretched out torture back in Season 3. Never the less, there is no more stalling, no more waiting. Fire/ Daeny and Ice/Jon have finally met. The former’s rebirth as a reluctant, humble leader who campaigns for togetherness and understanding has become abundantly clear. Most of the remaining Stark children found each other again. The outcast Tyrion remained front and center in almost every episode, quietly but substantially advocating belief in diversity and inclusiveness. Daeny already led her horsemen and one of her dragons in battle once. The series substantiated its feminism by audaciously completing its portrayal of a varied array of strong, complex, anything but simply wives, mothers, lovers or daughters, female movers and shakers: from Queens Cercei, Daeny, old lady Tyrell and (very) young lady Mormont, to honorable soldiers Arya and Brienne, and a-force-to-recon-with in the making, Sansa. And all these in only four episodes. Yes, Season 6 and quite possibly Season 1 are about to eat dust.

Daeny is coming.

 

 

 

 

This is not my ‘Twin Peaks’, and you are not my Cooper

I was hooked, I remember vividly, to Twin Peaks from its first ever episode. As Twin Peaks: The Return is about to reach its midseason point (at next week’s part 9), I find myself far from being hooked.

This is personal. As was the relation the legendary and groundbreaking original series built (for life) with its viewers/fans/cult followers. It drew us in by an – anything but farfetched – tragic event: the recovery of the body of Laura Palmer, a beautiful, promising young adult. Her strange demise stirred the secrets, lies and dysfunctionalities of her close-knit community and attracted oddball but endearing FBI Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) to her small, rural town.

Immediately we cared for Twin Peaks population. Either because we were wide-eyed, rebellious, and more or less troubled youth, much like Laura, or any of her friends and schoolmates.  Or as we were “responsible” adults/parents struggling to cope with both our life choices and our dues to the younger, demanding generation. Thus, the people Laura left behind became our people, their pains and tribulations, our pains and tribulations.  And as they were gradually sucked into the uncanny, the Other place, the Black Lodge, so were we.

This was always David Lynch’s genius: to lure us in his bizarre, mysterious, irrational and often nightmarish universes via unexpectedly, yet effortlessly relatable characters. We instinctively saw ourselves in the mirror of the glorious imperfections, desires, plights and dreams of Blue Velvet’s Dorothy and Jeffrey, of Wild At Heart’s Sailor and Lula, of Mulholland Drive’s Betty/Diane and Rita, and, yes, of Twin Peaks’ Dale, Laura, Shelly, Harry, Dona, Audrey and James (to name just a few). Along with them we partook in all the weird, which consequently became familiar. Intimate.

Dale Cooper lost in the Black Lodge

Akin to all of Lynch’s work (even to his rare… straight stories) Twin Peaks existed on unsettled borders, the in between… Reality and unreality. Realism and surrealism. Natural and supernatural. Consciousness and sub-consciousness. Sweet dream and nightmare. Hope and fear. (Greek) Tragedy and soap opera. Crime drama and fantasy thriller. Comedy and melodrama. Rom com and horror! Motion pictures and video art. Linear was only the course of their perception. They were first received emotionally, by the heart and then rationally by the mind, ultimately expanding both. Being experienced, rather than simply watched.

This is not the case with the… über hyped Return. From the initial moments of its first episode the uncanny is front and centre with scarcely any relatable character in sight. Instead we are faced with a mysterious glass box, a gruesome killing of a love-making couple in front of it, Special Agent Cooper still trapped in the Black Lodge, his vicious, inhabited by Bob doppelgänger still out and about among us, a horrific, mysterious murder in South Dakota, and only some sporadic glimpses of the people we know and love.

As the two parts opener ends at the bar where Shelly (Mädchen Amick) and her friends discuss the realities of their adult everyday life over drinks however, and soon after “good” Cooper seems to find his way out of the Other place, expectations bloom and the heart drums. Is the Return about to become real? Alas, no. Due to “bad” Cooper’s nefarious (and quite disgusting) plots, “good” Cooper is not fully back. He returns far from Twin Peaks, as – a suddenly slim – Dougie Jones, a (former) cheater husband, absentee father and useless both as an employee and a small time crook, who currently walks around helpless as an infant, constantly spaced out and virtually mute.

Simultaneously the forays back to Twin Peaks are rare, fleeting and far between. Worse, when they do occur, little of substance is disclosed of what happened to our people in the last 25 years. Sure, Tommy “Hawk” is still the deputy Sheriff, Benjamin (Richard Beymer) still runs the hotel and argues with his brother, Margaret (Catherine E. Coulson) still listens to and relays messages from her log, Shelly still works at Norma’s (Peggy Lipton) diner and Lucy (Kimmy Robertson) remains the goofy receptionist of the Sheriff’s office. But how and why? And beyond these persisting norms, what? In the place of answers we get a couple of hasty introductions to the latter two’s offspring: Becky (as a somewhat younger version of Lula, tripping in her desperately immature and irresponsible boyfriend’s convertible) and Wally (as a – meant to be – hilarious homage to Marlon Brandon’s The Wild One), incarnated by Amanda Seyfried and Michael Cera, respectively.

To the above, more or less blink and you missed them… celebrity sightings add those of Naomi Watts (as Dougie’s wife), Ashley Judd (as Benjamin’s secretary), Laura Dern (as one of Special Agent Cooper’s former partners) Jenifer Jason Lee (as one of “bad” Cooper’s minions), Harry Dean Stanton (as Carl, who witnesses a freak automobile accident and the subsequent ascendance of a little boy’s soul to heaven), James Belushi (as a casino executive) and  Richard Chamberlein (as David Duchovny’s FBI Chief Denise Bryson)! Who are all these people apart from their well-known performers (so infatuated with their director that they will do even… nothing for him)? And why should we care? … Silencio.

This is Dougie. Who?

This Return commits all the sins the quite lamented 2nd season of the original series committed, and then some. It “babbles” its story on throughout doubled in numbers episodes than its initial conception (the first ever season was 8, while the current one was first announced as a 9 parts one). It introduces an array of new characters and plot-lines that come off minimum relevant to and end up annoyingly distracting from its core story and heroes. It deliberately forgoes its precious balance on the borders, abruptly veering towards the one or the other direction – usually the extremely bizarre. Case in point the mostly abstract, black & white latest episode 8, which nevertheless seemed as a wacky explanation of Bob’s and Laura Palmer’s origins! And whereas 25 years ago we had our beloved people to carry us through and keep us hooked, now we are afforded no such comfort.

Hence the course of our perception is disrupted. Our emotion lies dormant. And without it logic cannot accept the uncanny. So it stays unfamiliar and alien. Void, inane and pretentious. Not an experience, just a conceited visual brain-teaser.

What is left to say? Kudos to Showtime for giving David Lynch and his co-creator Mark Frost free rein to experiment with the conventions of the TV procedural drama. Kudos also to Lynch himself for writing, directing and producing the whole series, while also staring as the always oddly charming FBI Deputy Director Gordon Cole. Kudos lastly to the passionate fan in me that even now hopes beyond hope that the next 9 parts of this Return will be more of the series I know and love. Thus far however, this is not my town. These are not my people. This is not my weird. And sure as hell this is not my Dale Cooper.

 

 

 

 

Has ‘Legion’ blown your mind yet?

Last Thursday, 30/03, the much-lauded by critics and fans alike Legion reached the end of its eight episodes first season, having already been renewed for a second one. Revisiting the interview* I took from one of its stars – the up and coming Rachel Keller – at its starting point, I close the circle. With some thoughts on this fiercely extraordinary superhero – within the Marvel universe – series.

When I met Rachel in London last January, a few weeks before Legion‘s premiere on FOX UK, I only had the experience of its trailer. So, the first thing I did was to ask her to elaborate on her character, Syd Barrett (!) who was introduced in said trailer in a rather intriguing, quirky and… messy way: “She took my place and I took hers” declares the series – misdiagnosed as schizophrenic – hero, David (Dan Stevens of Beauty & The Beasts and Downton Abbey‘s fame). But neither this introduction, nor the generally strange vibe of the trailer or, moreover, Rachel’s cool and mindful words could prepare us for what was about to be unleashed on our small screens.

Nearly impossible to describe or categorise, Legion eliminated any distinctive lines between genres, times, places, dreams and realities.

Genres, as it ingeniously oscillates between psychological and horror thriller, real and surreal drama, action and adventure, with a dash of musical and science fiction. Most of this occur inside David’s mind, where almost half of the series takes place. In there unfold many weird and wonderful things. The reminiscent of grant Bollywood numbers dance in the asylum expressing David’s happiness having met Syd. The many faces of David’s stowaway, Lenny, –  some (of the angry, black & white boy, with the giant, cardboard head and of the fat, yellow eyed devil)  appropriately scary, others (of a childhood dog and of an ever-present friend – the latter brilliantly incarnated by the multifaceted Aubrey Plaza) deceivingly benign. The immense ice-cube that Dr. Bird’s comatose husband, Oliver, has conjured up in his mind, converted into a loft and locked his consciousness away from the awaking world. The in true… The Matrix form “bullet time” filming method, whenever David moves around or blow things up and pauses time with his mind. The demented, creepy interpretation of Edward Scissorhands in one of Lenny’s final representations. And the unexpected, grounding emotional moments, like the one of an awaken Oliver finally remembering his wife just before he falls victim to Lenny.

None of these however seems unfitting or out-of-place. On the contrary. They interact, interrelate and combine perfectly to achieve a highly original and astonishingly humane composition, which is unlike any other, based on a comic, super-hero story you have ever experienced.

Times, since it makes it impossible for us to ascertain with absolute certainty when exactly everything takes place. There is a sneaky retro quality to everything from clothes to technology, as the vivid, primary colours that dominate most of the mise en scène make their ostensibly 60s quality more prominent. In the comics David is the son of The X-Men‘s Professor Charles Xavier. This fact is never clearly stated throughout Legion‘s first season (although fleeting images of Xs, even one on a wheelchair, often appear on screen), but even so complicates the show’s (era) identity further, putting in question both father’s and son’s actual age and possible lifespan, while at once wreaking havoc to the The X-Men universe (including the 8 so far films) chronology. Add to the above the similar, persistent lack of locality (we never learn where everything happens) and the sense of disorientation and uneasiness becomes tangible and ever growing.

Thus… we become David and David become us. Highly intelligent and sensitive beings besieged by a more and more intolerant, cruel world, struggling to trust our own conscience as we attempt to distinguish our hopes, dreams and fears within from reality without. And then, reconcile the former with the latter, again and again, keeping at bay our darker, powerful and absolutely dangerous self.

 

*On behalf of FOX Greece for www.freecinema.com, hence the Greek subtitles.