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Stranger Things is a spooky summer delight

At first my biggest complaint about Stranger Things is that I almost wish it had come out closer to Halloween. Three years ago Over the Garden Wall came out in September and the timing, coupled with that show’s sense of nostalgia, made it feel like I was watching something that was already an Autumn tradition.

But I think Summer was right for this show. There is something about summer that has a spooky vibe all its own. Perhaps its the coupling of freedom from school and lazy days with nothing to do but dream whatever one is compelled to dream that makes trees seem more sinister and full moons like beacons for things unthinkable.

Reviews of Stranger Things tend to talk about its nostalgia for the 1980s up front, so I’m going to veer away from that; my frame of reference is a bit too late to appreciate all the homages and nods, though there are undoubtedly many (enough for me to pick up on quite a few). Besides, nostalgia alone has never once been the difference between a good and a bad show, and Stranger Things is a very good one.

Showrunners Matt and Ross Duffer are deft storytellers. They begin with a story that could be a one-shot fable: a young boy named Will goes missing in the woods in his small hometown in Indiana. From there, they mix in elements both familiar and fresh, creating a cocktail of plotlines that feels like it truly ought to be muddled. A monosyllabic girl with a buzzcut and the number 11 tattooed to her forearm appears out of nowhere. A government agent with white hair pursues her, flanked by a neverending stream of lackeys. A strange creature keeps popping up in shadows and on the edges of photographs. There’s even a John Hughes nod with a romantic triangle involving three teenagers. That plot is pretty disposable, though I credit the Duffers for resolving it in a way that is as surprising as it is entertaining.

Much credit goes to the cast. Every major character is splendidly cast. Good chemistry can bring perfunctory scenes to life. Consider the opening of the show, when we see a group of four boys, all about 11 or 12, playing Dungeons and Dragons. This is an establishing scene, yes, but the dialogue sounds perfectly authentic and the young actors bring these characters to life. Right away we get a sense of their personalities, the emotional weights and balances in this group. A scene that was likely purely expository in the script becomes a window into the bond these characters have; a bond that is crucial for the show to make the leap from silly entertainment into realm of pop delight that it reaches. It’s not enough to simply get to know these characters. We need to feel like they know each other.

This group of friends who form the show’s heart. Will (Noah Schnapp) is quiet and kind-hearted. Mike (Finn Wolfhard) is the Elliot to the show’s E.T., his reserved nerdiness masking a deep well of resolve. Lucas (Caleb McLaughlan) is righteous to a fault, but the sort of person who you know from the start will rise to the occasion when needed. Dustin (Gaten Mararazzo) is the jolliest, most unabashedly nerdy of the group. Like any good summer tale, all of them will get a turn in the sun. Dustin’s moment to shine was the most entertaining for me, as he talks a science teacher and mentor into helping MacGyver a sensory deprivation tank when they need one (and yes, they very need one, very badly).

After that first scene, Will goes missing in the woods. His mother Joyce (Winona Ryder, God it’s good to see her again) becomes convinced that his disappearance is not as simple as it seems. However, the town’s sheriff, Jim Hopper (David Harbour) is refreshingly aware of his surroundings. Far from a stock bureaucrat, Hopper searches relentlessly for answers until he finds them, no matter where that search takes him. He begins to see the shape of the patterns that Joyce insists are there. Part of that pattern is the emergence of a monosyllabic girl (Millie Brown) with a buzzcut and a trail of bodies in her wake. The girl, nicknamed Eleven because the number is tattooed on her arm, eventually runs into Mike, Lucas, and Dustin as they launch their own search for Will.

Ryder has always been a whirlwind of an actress, balancing between scenery chewing and a sort of heightened brilliance. She gets to play a very short role here, and at times I think she was the only actress alive who could pull this material off. Joyce is a difficult character. We need to believe in her completely while understanding why everyone else thinks she’s losing her mind.

But my highest praise goes to Millie Brown. Eleven could so easily have become a cross between a MacGuffin and a walking Deus Ex Machina. But time and time again Brown, often speaking only a handful of words at a time, makes her into the show’s most fascinating character. To watch her perform is to understand how much an actor is responsible for a character being “shrouded in mystery”. We don’t need her to talk much to see the confusion and horror and power and fleeting moments of joy and discovery in Eleven’s face throughout the show.

The Duffers never lose control of the story. The plot never feels bloated. One storyline might spin its wheels for an episode or two, but no plot is ignored or left to flounder entirely in cliche. Even the show’s most generally disposable plot- a love triangle involving Mike’s sister Nancy (Natalia Dyer), Will’s brother Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), and the town’s stock charming bad boy Steve (Joe Keery)- takes a turn right when I was ready to zip through it that is as satisfying as it is unexpected. Much of Stranger Things alludes to its inspirations, but the Duffers are not here simply to praise their idols. This is their story and they tell it well. It is much more than a barrage of homages. Its roots are not just in movies and books, but in hot summer nights, when the shadows of trees are tall and the dark seems full of mystery and possibility.

 

 

 

 

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Game of Thrones, Orange is the New Black, and earned tragedy

Major spoilers for Game of Thrones season 5 and Orange is the New Black season 3 ahead

On last week’s episode of Game of Thrones, a young girl was burned at the stake. Unsurprisingly, as is often the case with this show, there was a sizable negative reaction to this turn of events. If nothing, Game of Thrones is a reliable delivery system for shock. The death of Shireen Baratheon by flaming filicide (her murder was given on the order of her father, Stannis, on the recommendation of the priestess Melisandre) might have been the most disturbing moment yet on a show rife with them.

And yes, the scene delivered its intended impact. It deeply disturbed me. Although the show had good taste enough not to show Shireen burning, her screams of agony were enough to make to turn off my TV and not finish the episode. But when that feeling of disgust faded, there was nothing left. I’ve made this complaint before. The show has become too reliant on shock without substance.

I was not alone in being critical of this scene as wallowing in nihilism without having anything to say. But I also think that talk of how much the scene disturbed us overshadowed how awkward and contrived it was. Although the scope of Game of Thrones sometimes necessitates telling the story in broad, unsubtle strokes, the circumstances leading to Shireen’s death were too stilted for me not to notice.

In the waning minutes of the previous week’s episode, Ramsey Bolton suggested to his father Roose that he take 20 men to raid the invading Stannis Baratheon’s camp. It seemed to be a setup for something significant, something meaningful in its own right; perhaps a showdown between Stannis (a character who had come to life this season after having little to do before but look dour) and Ramsey (who has assumed the late King Joffrey’s mantle as the most vile character on the show).

Instead, Ramsey’s raid was portrayed as almost an afterthought; some shots of a few burning tents. We are told after the fact that the raid was actually incredibly damaging, wiping out much of Stannis’s food supply. Now, he is told that his only option if he wishes to defeat the Boltons is to sacrifice his daughter to the god R’hllor. With nary any true hesitation, he does so. Shireen dies horribly soon thereafter.

The plot bent over backwards to create a situation where Shireen died. It came across like a child improvising a story on the fly, spackling gaps in logic as they go along. I have not read a convincing argument that Shireen’s death adds anything to the plot but shock value. There was more than setup enough to create ample drama, with the brilliant general Stannis preparing to do battle with the ruthless and wily Boltons for control of the North of Westeros. As the flames rose the message seemed clear: Shireen had to die to shock us.

Worse yet, this revelation that we only got to know Shireen so she could die horribly rendered many of her previous scenes during the season trite. Earlier in the season, there was a wonderful scene between Shireen and Stannis where he told her the story of how he refused to let her die when she was inflicted with a horrific disease as a baby. It was the sort of character-driven storytelling Game of Thrones almost never seems to have the time for. Now, the scene comes off as a cheap trick, some sentimental foreshadowing designed solely to build Stannis up as a good father in one scene simply to tear him down later. A great character moment is ground up in the gears of cheap plotting.

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A few hours ago Orange is the New Black debuted its third season on Netflix. It’s late as hell and yet what I just watched compelled me to write about it. In the third episode of the show, Nicky Nichols (Natasha Lyonne) is pinned for dealing heroin. She is shipped off to a supermax prison, which is the closest the show usually comes to a significant character death (I’ll never forget you, Miss Claudette).

As Big Moments go, this was one of the most heartbreaking Orange is the New Black has ever delivered. I’m still reeling from it. And that’s because there is no shock to this moment, only earnest sadness. Nicky Nichols is self-destructive. A former drug addict, she seems to be in perpetual search of ways to get high without narcotics. This season, her plan was to try to sell a supply of heroin that ended up in her possession. It felt like a ticking time bomb. It felt completely in character. I did not know where the story was going with this plot, only that it was in keeping with a character incapable of helping herself, who knows that about herself, and is heartbroken by it as she once again crashes and burns.

The show’s cruel twist of the knife was not screams of physical agony. It was that the drugs that Nicky got sent away for didn’t belong to her, but rather to the sleazy prison electrician who she’d made a business partner on the drug deal. She had gotten away with her plan. It didn’t matter.

I don’t know if this is the end for Nicky Nichols on this show. I’d be deeply saddened if we were to lose Natasha Lyonne’s splendid performance so early into the season. But at the very least, this turn in the plot is effective storytelling. Tragedy is less effective when it is assumed that misery is inherently meaningful. True tragedy is when a character cannot kill the demons in their nature. We don’t know how their story will end, only that they will almost certainly undo themselves.

Is it unfair to compare an epic fantasy to a character-driven prison dramady?

No. It’s not. Game of Thrones used to know this aspect of tragedy. Ned Stark’s tunnel-visioned nobility was his undoing in season 1. Robb Stark’s inability to be pragmatic while keeping less-than-savory allies happy led directly to the Red Wedding. These two moments, perhaps the high standards for Game of Thrones shocks before this season, were not intricately developed, but they were absolutely character-driven. They seemed to spring from nowhere because the plot didn’t have to twist into knots to make them happen. They were fires finally erupting after the characters had been unknowingly piling on the wood.

Orange is the New Black has mastered this form of storytelling. The lives of dozens of characters weave together, forming a cohesive narrative with almost no overarching plot. It finds the tragedy in human flaws, and turns that into moments of truly crushing sadness, usually without anyone dying horribly.

Game of Thrones is at its best when it does more or less the same thing. The throne is a MacGuffin, something for characters to focus on, to give the story some form. When the plot takes over, and begins to dictate the actions of the characters, the spell the show casts on us comes undone. The characters cease to be people; they becomes a means to a miserable end.

Lessons every fantasy writer could learn from Avatar: The Last Airbender

(Spoilers ahead)

As Avatar: The Last Airbender nears the 10th anniversary of its debut, I finally got around to watching it. I was not disappointed; what begins as a lively and engaging fantasy tale rapidly spins into a gripping epic. All the while, Avatar had to tailor its subject matter to a 12-and-under target audience: children had to be able to understand its plot, and its violence could never exceed a TV Y7 level. And yet by the end of the series I was more invested in it, and more moved by its Big Moments than I ever have been by Game of Thrones (which I love).

I thought about this a lot as I watched the show: how did Avatar find so much creative energy despite these limitations?

And then it occurred to me: they weren’t limitations. Fantasy stories are usually told in broad strokes whether they’re aimed squarely at kids, adults, or everyone in between. There’s no time for ennui in the genre, whether you’re in Middle Earth, Westeros, or Ba Sing Se.

But Avatar has so much fun with its material. It doesn’t talk down to its target audience; it just speaks at a register that doesn’t block them out. The show knows that a reveling in its own creation once in a while is not mutually exclusive with having a high stakes plot. And being able to revel in the world in one of the joys of fantasy.

As I was watching Avatar, I asked my younger sister (who was seven when the show debuted) how as a child she managed handle a show that so often went for the emotional jugular. Her answer struck a chord with me: the writers; Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino (known affectionately by fans as Bryke); know what kids can handle. Children can grasp strong character arcs, and pick up on subtle nuances as characters grow and evolve. They are attuned to big emotions, and the grand sweep of fantasy is almost ideally attuned to a child’s wavelength. For the most part, Game of Thrones isn’t too complex for children, which can make its unrelenting sense of despair a bit tiring for me. It sometimes mistakes misery for depth, and resembles a gory game of whack-a-mole.

Avatar is a rare case of a fantasy recognizing that children are more than capable of appreciating a story that is still equally entertaining for adults. It’s a formula that writers have labored over since the dawn of motion pictures. Few have nailed it so successfully as Bryke.

I’m not saying that having to tone content down for children is why Avatar is such a good show. I’m saying that DiMartino and Konietzko had such a strong creative vision for the show, and it was one that was malleable to requirements of Nickelodeon. Where other writers have regularly run into hurdles, Avatar never skipped a beat. For example, I was struck by one episode late into the show’s run that grappled with Aang’s (the titular Avatar) desire not to kill the show’s primary antagonist (the monstrous Ozai, leader of the Fire Nation). It seemed clear that the show couldn’t depict Aang killing Ozai on screen without committing to a more mature rating. But this episode was not about waffling on content; it was thinking long and hard about what it would do to Aang, who is still just a child, to take a life. So few stories linger on that. Death is usually taken for granted as a means to an end. It is lingered on only when good guys die. When Katniss Everdeen kills career tributes, we’re supposed to be happy she’s taken them down. We don’t really get a sense that she has lost something for having to turn to killing in order to survive.

Avatar regularly displays uncommon thoughtfulness about its own material. It eschews story morals for character growth. When Katara, a water bender whose mother was murdered by the fire nation, goes on a mission to track down her mother’s killer, we understand her anger completely. And when she backs down from her vengeance, to let the man live, the scene is not constructed as a morality tale, but as moment of growth for her as a character. For children, it is far more instructive a method of teaching the virtue of mercy over vengeance than a more didactic approach would require, because it never once loses the episode’s narrative beat.

The show’s primary gang of four; Aang, Katara, Sokka (Katara’s older brother), and Toph (a young noble girl and an earthbending prodigy) fulfill one of the prime mechanics of fantasy storytelling: the fellowship. Like any fellowship, they have conflicts, and like characters on any Nickelodeon show they resolve those conflicts by the episode’s end. But Avatar is not concerned with imparting morals; it lets us get to know these characters deeply. There is a splendid little moment in one episode where Toph has a heart to heart with Katara. Toph, who is blind, has just been ridiculed for her appearance by a group of older girls. Her usually tough exterior falters. She tries to tell Katara that she enjoys not having to care what people think of how she looks, but (in a splendid moment of voice acting by Jessie Flower) her voice falters just a bit. We know she’s hurt. It’s not a necessary moment to the plot. Rather, it is one of many splendid moments of character building that the show features, simply by letting characters interact with each other in ways not dictated by the plot.

One of the show’s most impressive traits is its grasp on its antagonists. It goes through a series of them, all of them members of the totalitarian Fire Nation. The first antagonist we meet is Zuko, a teenage former-prince, Ozai’s son. Ozai burned his face and banished him for daring to speak up against him during a military meeting. Now Zuko searches for the Avatar, hoping that capturing Aang will restore his honor in Ozai’s eyes. Zuko’s motives are clear and simple. His path is anything but, and the simplicity and sincerity of his motives allow Zuko tremendous room for growth. His arc takes him from being a primary antagonist in the first season to one of Aang’s closest allies in the third, and it’s a transition that is as earned as it is satisfying.

The strength of Zuko’s arc is largely due to how well DiMartino and Konietzko constructed the world of the Fire Nation. One of my biggest gripes with Harry Potter is how conveniently evil Slytherin is. The overwhelming bulk of villains in the book are Slytherins. Snape takes some heroic actions, yes, but he is an utter dick toward Harry for most of the books. Draco Malfoy has some interesting turns as a character, but for the most part he’s a not quite evil jerk. Let me put it this way: JK Rowling would often throw all Slytherins under the bus (the reawarding of the House Cup at the end of Philosopher’s Stone; the summary arrest of all Slytherins before the battle of Hogwarts in Deathly Hallows) and we are expected to take it for granted. Slytherin is there to provide an easy source of anatagonism; Rowling saw little need for nuance beyond that purpose.

Avatar allows the Fire Nation ample room to become something far more than a conveyor belt of villainy. Its imagery is rooted in totalitarianism, an age-old source that fantasy and sci-fi alike have mined for decades. However, beneath the surface is very deep sea. Zuko’s sister Azula is the show’s functional primary antagonist from season 2 on. She is a coiled ball of menace, but watch carefully and you’ll see a human being there driving every moment. A key scene shows Azula (ordered by Ozai to find the Avatar after Zuko begins having second thoughts) recruiting a childhood friend of hers to join her team. The friend, named Ty Lee, is a circus acrobat. Azula’s recruitment is subtle and brutally manipulative. In a few minutes we see years of a toxic friendship laid bare, ready to continue for as long as Ty Lee is willing to fool herself that Azula is really her friend. Yes, Azula is a terrifying villain, but the show lets her be a character. She is not defined simply by her ability to impede Aang.

Her relationship with Zuko is similarly poisonous, helping to deepen Zuko’s arc that much more. When he interacts with Azula, who is more openly cruel and manipulative to him than she is with her friends, we can see clearly the sort of environment he grew up in. Additionally, both Azula and Zuko help to build up Ozai’s villainy before we even properly meet him. After all, he is the sort of man who would maim his own son, who would encourage vicious antagonism between his children, and who would raise and encourage Azula to be as cruel as possible. And that inevitably leads to us empathizing with Azula; she is still just a teenager, after all, and it becomes clear that she is as much a product of her father’s upbringing as Zuko is. They are different forks splitting from the same path.

This is deep and superb world building. Antagonists are rarely so acutely rendered in genre storytelling.

I would be remiss to not talk a bit more about the main characters. Aang is someone rare in fantasy, an unwaveringly noble protagonist who is perhaps the show’s most interesting character. Most fantasies start from a moral position than unwavering morality is either a character flaw or evidence of denial. The irony of that position is that it works best when the story’s antagonist is unremittingly evil, and the audience gives the writers leeway to deny them mercy. The moment in Deathly Hallows when Harry Potter uses the Cruciatus Curse on a Death Eater struck me as a bit too flippant; that Harry could successfully use the curse should say something about how the horror of the world he inhabits has chipped away at him. Instead, it’s something of a bravura moment; we’re supposed to cheer because the recipient of the curse a) is a Death Eater and b) has just spat on the beloved Professor McGonagall.

A similar moment involving Katara is given much more weight. She resorts to a rare and brutal tactic called bloodbending (manipulating the water in a human body) to subdue an adversary. Afterwards, Katara breaks down sobbing as her friends and brother comfort her. She did what had to be done, but the show recognizes the toll it takes on her. Avatar’s always allows character to dictate action. It is unwavering in its recognition of everyone’s humanity.

 

Over the Garden Wall: an autumnal masterpiece from Cartoon Network

Over the Garden Wall is so good, so successful at everything it sets out to accomplish, that it is something of a miracle. I cannot fathom a better TV show debuting this year.

Over the Garden Wall tells the story of two brothers- the teenage Wirt and the much younger Greg- who have gotten lost in a forest. They are trying to find their way home. Early on, they run into a talking bluebird named Beatrice. Yes, this all sounds familiar. This show’s roots are in the fables and folklore that we seem to absorb through osmosis as children. This is a show with singing, magic, talking animals, witches, and more than the occasional sinister creature in the shadows. It contains elements that will be familiar to anyone who was a child. It’s how it uses those elements that makes it so special.

Many reviewers have given in to the temptation to describe Over the Garden Wall as whimsical, but it rarely struck me as such. Yes, Wirt is inexplicably dressed like a gnome, and Greg has a teapot on his head, and yes Beatrice is a talking bluebird. But Wirt’s and Greg’s costumes are given rational explanations in due time and Beatrice is neither a friendly Disney-style sidekick nor a snarky Shrek knockoff. She’s blunt and critical in a big sisterly sort of way and we grow to like her because her story is as compelling as any in the show. And it never stops telling compelling stories.

There is precious little exposition in this show, both for the plot at large and episode to episode. Each episode is largely contained to a single-serving of a new setting. In the first episode, the brothers end up in the home of a strange man living in the woods, warning them of a sinister creature he calls the Beast. Other settings include a town populated by sapient pumpkins; a sprawling, apparently haunted mansion owned by a tea mogul; and a steamboat transporting some very well-dressed frogs to their annual mud hibernation. This narrative approach is extremely engaging, giving the plot a constant sense of headlong momentum, even as it takes it sweet time exploring each world in detail.

And lord, what detail.

Over the Garden Wall looks so good that you could choose just about any still and want to frame it. It is autumnal in the best ways, alive with color and character.

The show frequently uses old-fashioned motifs, but they rarely seem to be calling attention to themselves. Techniques like the iris lens above are a callback to silent movies, but it also gives the opening sequence of the show a dreamlike quality that sets the tone before the story starts.

Before each episode, I found myself looking forward to simply seeing where Wirt, Greg, and Beatrice would go next. Each location is cool on the surface, and only get cooler as their layers peel back. In one episode, they end up in a creepy cottage where a teenage girl is held captive by her fearsome Auntie Whispers. Auntie Whispers looks like how Yubaba from Spirited Away might appear after spending a few years bathing in formaldehyde. But she is not simply a grotesque. Auntie Whispers ends up being one of the most interesting of the show’s vast roster of side characters, and the episode’s story takes a turn that is surprising, scary, and incredibly satisfying.

Another episode features a schoolhouse full of animals, being taught by a lovelorn human schoolmarm. In this show’s style, there is almost no setup preparing us for this setting, but eventually there is an explanation for it that somehow ends up making sense. One of the show’s delights is how heedlessly it explores its settings, and how thorough that exploration is.

There are plenty of musical sequences in Over the Garden Wall, and they are just about all delightful. Well, if not delightful, then excellent. This scene is the sort that would have haunted my dreams a kid:

That is a gloriously creepy 30 seconds. I don’t intend to show too much more of this show out of context, but here’s another, completely different song from another episode:

Over the Garden Wall uses music to set the tone its episodes beautifully. The first song is as jarring and disturbing as the second is jolly and fun. The first song creates a sense of deep unease. It’s downright trippy. The second helps define Greg as a character: infectiously optimistic and fond of nonsensical, improvised wordplay. The show navigates between these tones (and many more in between) effortlessly. At times it is pure delight and others genuinely frightening and all the while we get to know its characters a little more at a time until we are completely invested in their journey.

For all the rightful plaudits Over the Garden Wall receives for its animation and music, it is as good as it is in the same ways that any good show succeeds: strong characters, quality writing, excellent performances. The show’s creator, Patrick McHale, is yet another graduate of the Adventure Time/Misadventures of Flapjack school of animators who continually churn out outstanding shows (see also: Gravity Falls, Steven Universe, and Bee and Puppycat). Over the Garden Wall’s writing team includes a number of the best Adventure Time alums, including AT creator Pendleton Ward and alums Natasha Allegri and Cole Sanchez.

Wirt, Greg, and Beatrice are brought to life with outstanding voice acting by Elijah Wood, Collin Dean, and Melanie Lynskey. Wood’s voice has a constant tremble of harried anxiety, warm towards his brother, defensive towards Beatrice, and always at his wits end. Dean is charming as Greg, who is one of the best written child characters I’ve seen on TV in a good long time. It’s difficult for adults to write convincing children. Greg is not simply a fount of energy. Like many young children, he is endlessly curious about the world around him and equally lost in his own imagination. \

Beatrice is the show’s biggest scene-stealer, a slightly amoral bluebird (I did enjoy writing that phrase) whose clashes with Wirt slowly evolve into the sort of affection that comes with deep mutual empathy. Lynskey’s performance is warm but not fuzzy. Beatrice is the show’s most conflicted character, and Lynskey’s voice seems naturally laden with gravity, buoyant as it can be.

Each character is quietly dynamic in their own ways. The show has no use for preachy moralizing; its characters’ revelations are deeply personal, rooted in their relationships with each other and how far they realize they are willing to go for each others’ sakes. And I was just as invested in them by the end.

Over the Garden Wall billed itself as a “5-night Mystery Adventure”, and that’s apt. The show’s sense of mystery is not a parlor crime novel, but something more childlike. It reminded me very much of Spirited Away, a film that observed a fantasy world from a outsider, child’s eye view, with every new and amazing sight raising a new set of mysteries. With 10, 11-minute episodes, you can easily watch this show in its entirety over the course of the week in 22 minute chunks. Or you can take it all in at once (since all the episodes add up to less than two hours), and have the best fantasy movie experience of the year. You can buy the whole show on iTunes for ten bucks, and it is worth every penny and then some. If you have cable, you can find it On Demand. However you watch Over the Garden Wall, just make damn sure you watch it.

Edit: While looking for other reviews of this show I realized that I gave this post almost the exact same title as this article on Bloody Disgusting. It was a coincidence, but something still worth rectifying as that article came out before I posted mine. I have now changed the title.

Game of Thrones and the trouble with brutality

Spoilers for the episode “The Mountain and the Viper” ahead.

Watching Oberyn Martell dance victoriously around a hamstrung Gregor Clegane last night, I had no doubts about the outcome. This is Game of Thrones. I know better than to be optimistic about this. And besides, there are two episodes to go: the finale would have far more juice to work with if Tyrion was facing execution than if he once again was saved via trial by combat.

No, with all of Oberyn’s bluster and demands for full, unmitigated justice, I fully expected the Mountain to spring up and strike him down. I didn’t expect said strike to be perhaps the most gruesome thing I’ve ever witnessed in fictional media.

And when Oberyn’s head had been reduced to salsa in the Mountain’s hands, I did feel sick. I know I wasn’t alone in that, and I know that that was probably the show’s intention. But the sickness was a visceral reaction to something disgusting. There’s nothing mutually exclusive between the grotesque and good drama. I’ve seen more than my share of stomach-churning cinematic violence. The point is, once you down some Pepto and settle your stomach, good drama demands that something else remain behind, lest the scene be little more than an side show act.

That feeling for me wasn’t the surprise at the narrative boldness that I felt when Ned Stark died, or the awe at the sheer audacity of the Red Wedding. It was weariness.

Grantland TV critic Andy Greenwald summed it up nicely in his review of last night’s episode: “I am growing slightly weary of being taught the same merciless lesson again and again.”

That lesson is, of course, that there are no happy endings. Only constant fighting for survival and swift, brutal death for those who lose that fight.

I’m not giving up on Game of Thrones by any means. I’m looking forward to the last two episodes of the season. But I’m also increasingly weary of the idea that nihilism and cynicism are substitutes for good storytelling.

Last night, in my upset haze I posted “At this point, a story that ended with everyone making out on horseback would be the plot twist of the century.” Greenwald said more or less the same thing in his review: “At this point, the most radical thing Game of Thrones could do is to make the audience exhale in relief.”

Game of Thrones needn’t turn down the body count meter to work. Moments of abject misery can make for a dramatically satisfying conclusion to a plot, but you have to work for it. The Red Wedding was a spectacular moment of TV because there was an inevitability to it, a sense all season long that Robb Stark was a prone to fatal foibles as his father. It was, like Ned Starks execution, the culmination of a season’s worth of miscalculations. The death of Oberyn Martell was a misstep the like of which the show has made a few times this season, mistaking wallowing in misery for storytelling nuance. Ramsey Snow’s appearances, rife with torture and misery, have regularly brought the show’s storytelling momentum to a screeching halt. A moment like Karl Tanner’s astonishing explosion of verbal venom (don’t watch that around the kids) was salvaged by the ferocity of Burn Gorman’s performance. The spotlight shone on him so intensely that it almost cauterized the whole sequence, one that risked being a 5-minute detour into a cesspool just to remind us where the sewage goes. And then you have a moment like Jaime’s rape of Cersei, which was horrific, tone deaf and indefensible.

Game of Thrones works best when all the machinations of the story lead to unpredictable but satisfying conclusions. Whether a conclusion is happy or miserable, the key is that the story has to earn it. Misery for the sake of it becomes as predictable as happily-ever-after. And a few too many times now, Game of Thrones has shoved shoved grotesque meals into my face, and they’re starting to taste undercooked.

Goodbye, Community

For a show that embraced absurdity like conventional structure didn’t exist, few shows struck chords of familiarity quite like Community. At its best, it understood the nuances of every level of adulthood, be it just coming of age or looking back and wondering where the years have gone.

It is with a heavy heart that I write those words in the past tense. Community, the show that defied death time and time again, has finally succumbed to its perpetually low ratings. Its yearly dance with cancellation has gone on for so long that it feels shocking that it actually happened. It’s easy to forget that shows only dance with death if there’s a real chance that it’s their last dance.

It’s not a surprise that Community never found a mass audience. It was never a punchline generator, a show you could keep on in the background and glance up every once in a while to chuckle. Even its simpler, “low-concept episodes” (ie. the ones that actually focused on the characters’ college lives) required audiences to pay attention to the stories, to get invested in these characters. The show worked best when we knew these people well. Not many people got to know them in the first place.

And that’s a shame. Whether it was doing spot-on imitations of Ken Burns documentaries and Law & Order, or just quietly letting the characters linger on their deepest anxieties, Community was uncommonly insightful for any show.

Every Community fan no doubt has a moment when they realized how special this show really was. Common choices I’ve seen include Troy and Abed’s wonderful rendition of “Somewhere Out There” in “Environmental Science” or the still mind-blowing brilliance of “Modern Warfare”. My choice is a bit different. About midway through season 2 we knew Community was one of the best comedies on TV, as capable of delivering on a straight sitcom premise as it was taking the most out-there concept and running with it as far as it could go.

But it was the one-two punch of “Mixology Certification” and “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” that showed me that this show wasn’t just something special, but something honestly, earnestly great. “Mixology Certification” was a sad little number, showing these characters wrestling with their personal demons in ways that comedies rarely address without either a snarky reminder that they don’t really care or a pleasant resolution where everyone’s problems are resolved in 22 minutes. Every character faces some of their biggest anxieties in this episode, and only Troy emerges with any significant resolution. It ends on a sweet note, Troy offering Annie some support as she grapples with her crippling self-doubt, but that’s just hint this side of the bittersweetness that comprises the rest of the episode.

“Mixology Certification” reminded us that comedy comes from painful places sometimes, and that knowing the other side of what makes characters funny doesn’t kill the joke. Instead, it makes the entire experience richer.

It also served as a prep for what might be Community’s best episode, the beautiful “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas”. I’ve written at length about that episode already. It is the show’s greatest marriage of character exploration (of its most beloved character) and high-concept hijinks. There were many moments before these episodes that showed that this was a great show. But these two episodes showcased how Community was as good as anything else on TV.

There have been some sublime episodes since then, including in its final season. The show’s farewell to Troy brought tears to my eyes, and “Basic Intergluteal Numismatics” reminded me how side-splittingly funny this show is when it goes straight for laughs. There were stories yet to be told in Greendale Community College. Sadly, we might have seen last of them. But it was a hell of run, for a show that had no business surviving this long.

I’m going to miss Community immeasurably. I’m going to miss Abed’s pop culture philosophizing, Annie’s indignant gasps, and Britta being the best (because she really was, damn it). I’m going to miss Dean Pelton, Jeff’s abs, and Magnitude (especially Magnitude). I’m going to miss its most bombastic excesses. I’m going to miss its poignant moments of reflection. I’ll even miss Pierce simply by proxy, even if he was already long gone.

Goodbye, Community. I could not have asked for anything more from you.

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Game of Thrones and the art of the monologue

Spoilers for Game of Thrones ahead.

Thinking back on the last two seasons of Game of Thrones, some of the most memorable scenes have been monologues. Monologues, hypothetically, are all tell and no show. To be effective, a monologue relies on both the writer and the actor for the speech to be more than just information to move the plot forward; they must tell us something about the person delivering the monologue, or shed new light on previous events, or otherwise do more than just pass the time. Done wrong, as The Walking Dead has done far too often, monologues become a lazy substitute for character building and drama, pretending that two characters engaging in extended whisper fights constitutes drama. But done right, as Game of Thrones does time and time again, a monologue can be as brutal or heartbreaking as any wordless action.

I’ve singled out three monologues from the show, each one delivered by a Lannister sibling, each telling a story about their father that ends up being much, much more than a simple tale.

The first is from the season one episode “Baelor”, the scene that likely won Peter Dinklage his well-deserved Emmy.

The information conveyed in this scene is important, yes. It tells us a cruel story from Tyrion’s childhood that helps us understand why he has embraced a sort of detached playboy mentality, and why he has such loathing for his father. One of the main criticisms of The Walking Dead is that it devotes so much dialogue, walls and walls of dialogue, to characters fighting about things we already know about without shedding new light on anything.

Here, in just a few minutes, a poisonous relationship is laid bare. It’s crucial for the show to establish just how far Tywin’s heartlessness extends. He is not just a bitter old man. He has no love lost for his own children, and the extent of his cruelty is frightening to imagine. This scene is a heartbreaking moment for Tyrion, but it also quietly establishes Tywin as an even more fearsome force than we could have known before. As expository dialogue goes, it’s hard to get more multi-purpose than this.

The second monologue is delivered by Jaime Lannister to Brienne of Tarth, his unlikely travelling companion with whom he develops an even more unlikely bond as she tries to deliver him back to the safety of King’s Landing.

In this scene, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau delivers perhaps the single best-acted moment in season 3, which is saying something. The show has become a murderer’s row of strong performers. Emilia Clarke earned a well-deserved Emmy nod this year, joining previous winner Dinklage, and nearly a dozen other actors in the show have an argument for consideration (Coster-Waldau, Michelle Fairley, Lena Headey, Charles Dance, and Natalie Dormer would be at the top of my personal list).

But his performance here tops all others, as I see it. Like Dinklage, Coster-Waldau delivers a personal anecdote, this one the first full account of the incident that gave him the title that haunts him to this day: Kingslayer.

There is a lot of history to parse through in this monologue. But Coster-Waldau delivers it with so much bitterness and regret that it feels like we’re intruding on his most deeply private thoughts, not listening to history lecture. This scene is heavy with catharsis: We’ve seen aloof Jaime, incestuous Jaime, attempted child-murderer Jaime, badass swordfighter Jaime, and most recently before this scene, suddenly one-handed Jaime.

But this scene peers a little deeper into the past of a man who has lived his whole life branded a traitor and coward. It finds that the act that defines him (to Westeros, at least; the viewers still know he tried to murder Bran Stark) is one that many others, perhaps almost all others, would have done in his situation; trading the life of a mad king for that of his father and an entire city.

Jaime is many things, and here we find that his devotion to his family exceeds most anything else. His glib line, “the things I’ll do for love,” when he pushed Bran out of a window seems less flippant now; here is a man who would kill a king and be branded a traitor rather than betray his own father. It doesn’t make Jaime a good man, but it makes him a much more complex one.

The third monologue is a quiet scene, so quiet that it could easily be lost in the chaos that surrounded it in season 3. The monologue is part of a conversation between Natalie Dormer’s Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey’s Cersei Lannister. Margaery has been slowly making inroads within the royal family leading to her marriage to Joffrey Baratheon. She has been a cunning, delightful character to watch, and the scene in which she flirts with her sadistic, psychopathic fiancee by feigning an interest in crossbows and hunting was one of the most nerve-wracking scenes of the season, and ultimately triumphant for her, as she won the most unstable character in Westeros to her side.

In this scene, she is trying to make sweet small talk with her future mother-in-law and sister-in-law (oh Tywin, you and your heartless marriage arrangements). Cersei replies with a story about the origins of the Lannister family’s signature song: “The Rains of Castamere”.

This is a brutal little verbal beatdown by Cersei. Functionally, she makes it clear that she wants nothing to do with Margaery, and will always view her as an adversary. It’s a setback for Margaery, who had seemingly been effortlessly charming over her new family. And yes, reminding us of this song in such a vivid way ends up being a nice bit of foreshadowing for its truly memorable use in the next episode, when a performance of the song directly precedes the now legendary “Red Wedding”.

But consider how deliberate this show is. A warning this sinister does not apply to just the Tyrells; look at how the Starks were reeling all season after Rob lost the support of the Karstarks and was forced to go grovelling to Walder Frey. Even if you didn’t see the Red Wedding coming, this scene sets it up beautifully. “Game of Thrones” tends to use its largest plot upheavals in its 9th, penultimate episodes; this scene comes at the end of the 8th. For those who didn’t know the Red Wedding was coming, this scene is like a warning written in stone.

It’s a beautifully efficient use of about 90 seconds of dialogue. Like The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones is a very talky show. Unlike The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones’s dialogue is rich, evocative, and constantly moves the story forward. It’s aided by the very, very good cast, of course, and writers who know that the right choice of words, delivered perfectly, can alter the mood and change the course of a story as vividly as any other scene.

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