Game of Thrones – Season eight review

Spoilers for eight seasons of television.

A lot of people didn’t like season seven of Game of Thrones. I was not one of them. For many the sped-up pace and seemingly too fast travel made everything feel less realistic, and because quite a few plot-lines were streamlined and wrapped up it felt to many like the show was rushing. I however defended this choice. To me it was simply the ramping up of pace that the penultimate season needed. I could forgive cutting out journeys and other unnecessary scenes in order to focus on the important stuff. In retrospect, I should probably have spotted the warning signs; the willingness to rush to plot points. But season seven was giving me so many moments I had longed for: Daenerys meeting Jon Snow, Dragons in battle for the first time, the Dothraki fighting in an open field, Jon Snow as king in the north. Having so many brilliant scenes completely won over my inner fanboy.

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Don’t mistake me, I still think that season seven was a good series of television. It has flaws, but they are outweighed, at least to me by the fantastic production. However, if I had looked a little harder I might have seen a bad trend in the writing. A tendency towards sacrificing logic and set up in order to surprise the audience, or make sure characters headed a certain way. I was more than happy not to notice when the writers were making great scenes that pleased me as a fan, but now that those flaws have come home to roost, I’m forced to admit that the problems with the final season of Game of Thrones come from the last few seasons just as much.

Season eight has been baffling to watch. I was looking forward to it, honestly more than Avengers Endgame, as I am a much bigger fan of fantasy than comic books. I was confident that the writers would have some brilliant last-minute plot to throw at us before the conclusion. And as creators David Benioff & Dan Weiss had met with G.R.R Martin to discuss the ending, I was sure it would at least be broadly satisfying, even if there might be differences. Things started off very well. The first two episodes Winterfell and A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms were fantastic pieces of television, artfully reintroducing us to the predicament of all these characters after the long hiatus. They gave each character a lot of good interactions with one another that developed many of them in interesting ways. There were some really good moments in the build up to the assault from the White Walkers, romances coming together after years, reunions and emotional conclusions to long time characters arcs. There was also some great set up for Jon Snow in particular, finally revealing to him his true parentage, something fans have been waiting for ever since it was little more than a theory.

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And then, The Long Night happened. When I first saw it, I couldn’t help but feel a little cheated. It was a very exciting battle, but with a sudden and overly simple ending. The fact that Arya came out of nowhere to stab the Night King should have felt amazing, but the show simply hadn’t earned it. The fact that they introduced the idea that the entire army of the dead could be killed by destroying the leader was something I worried about last season when it was brought up. They found this out by killing a white walker general, which killed the wights around him. At the time I hoped this was a red herring because writing in a fail-safe where all the enemy forces are destroyed by killing the leader is a tired cliché at this point. It felt really anticlimactic after so many seasons of build-up, not to mention that this happens halfway through the season. It also robbed Jon Snow of anything to do for the entire season. He mostly just stood around while other people drove the plot on.

So, I ended the third episode slightly nervous about what could be in the finale, if the main antagonist had been destroyed three episodes early. It turns out, not much happened. Cersei barely put up a fight, and many of the characters we know and love are given lame endings. Daenerys turns evil, which was always set up as a possibility, but struck me as a poor move, especially as it basically just repeats what happened with her father. Jon doesn’t become king, but kills Dany and re-joins the Nights Watch, essentially meaning that his whole story ends up nowhere. It also renders the big twist of his parentage basically meaningless, not to mention the slightly sexist trope of a women going mad with power and a man being forced to kill her. Bran becomes king, which is even cheaper when you consider that he did nothing for the last two seasons of the show. Some of the characters end the show in a positive way, Sansa becomes queen in the north, Arya goes west to explore, and Tyrion becomes Hand of the King yet again. But for me, after the battle at Winterfell, everything that happened next felt like a let-down. Nothing felt momentous or important, I felt like I was just wading through the rest of the show to get some closure that never came.

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The finale was not the worst piece of TV I have ever watched. There are shows that jump the shark far worse than Game of Thrones. Dexter is almost unrecognisable after season four. But for a show which has received such acclaim to finish with such a lacklustre finale is a shame. There was so much potential in the show, much more potential plot to use and yet it felt like the writers were rushing all the way through the final season. They tried to subvert everyone’s expectations at every turn, but didn’t stop to think if that would make a compelling story. Not everything has to be unpredictable. Sometimes people want to see a show end how they expect, as long as it is satisfying. Game of Thrones managed neither. There were so many elements set up and foreshadowed in earlier seasons that don’t pay off now, and it makes me wonder what the point of them all was. Not all foreshadowing needs to turn out true, but if none of it does, why was it even there?

At the end of the day, this show was still an amazing ride, and one that I’m glad I followed from start to finish. But I won’t be able to summon the same level of enthusiasm for it again, sadly. The final season of Game of Thrones is like watching a chef cook a fantastic smelling meal, adding vibrant ingredients one by one while you look on with anticipation, only to realise once you finally eat it that a lot of them don’t go together, it tastes quite bland and the chef wasn’t actually following a recipe at all.

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Westworld – Season 1 review

Taking a look at the successor to Game of Thrones…

HBO seems to be on a winning streak with it’s shows. It seems like every few years they release the next big influential tv drama. From Boardwalk Empire to The Sopranos, they have a high bar to set. With incredible shows like The Wire to their name and with no other big breakout drama, many were worried that HBO were going to face problems finding another success once Game of Thrones finished. Then along came Westworld. While some label this show as a copy of Thrones set in the wild west, a closer look at the show reveals not only some astonishingly clever writing, but a consistent and carefully planned narrative.

Summing up, Westworld is a resort set in the distant future in which robotics have advanced to point where the machines can now pass the Turing test and are incredibly life-like. The Park is a place in which the guests can interact with these Host robots in a wild west setting, engaging in layered stories, or just killing and shagging the hosts as they please. We follow a variety of characters, some hosts, some human players and the staff of the Delos corporation who create and control the hosts throughout the season. As the story unfolds we learn more about the origins of the Park as well as the possibility that the hosts are becoming sentient. This show is every bit as entertaining as Game of Thrones, and possibly just a bit cleverer. Be warned, potential spoilers from this point onwards.

The first thing to mention about the show is the incredible cinematography. Huge sprawling landscapes and beautiful scenery are shot with aplomb and the wide shots of the land contrast well with the foreboding sense of entrapment, as the hosts are forced to repeat dialogue and actions without once realising it. The transitions between different characters point of view, and as we find out later, different time periods are perfectly chosen and create amazing foreshadowing. For instance, William, a newcomer to the Park nearly always is cut to after or before a scene with the ominous Man in black, who is revealed later to be an older version of William. The shots are well executed and the costume and set design are on point. Every character exudes personality just from their outfit, from rich tourist guests wearing the most gaudy, silly cowboy outfits, to Robert Ford, the Parks creator, wearing western getup almost all season, subtly showing his sympathies lie with the hosts more than with humans. My personal favourite is the Man in black, whose costume is a superb example of style. It toes the line between affectation and intimidation, with a dark hat, leather gloves and boots, and a cravat. And yet it is a simple outfit, almost utilitarian. Apart from the characterisation, the outfit is a nice call-back to the original gunslinger from the 1973 film.

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Apart from the visuals, the story is phenomenal. Whilst it is easy early in the season to find yourself confused, with quite a few characters and unexplained backstories, it doesn’t take long to pick up on things without the characters throwing a bunch of exposition around. I won’t go into too much detail here, or this post would be the size of a small novel, but the way in which Jonathon Nolan and Lisa Joy weave so many plot threads into a compelling and tightly focused narrative is frankly astounding. It would be so easy to lose track of one or two story elements and make a complete mess, but no part of these episodes feels wasted, every single scene feels in some way important, impactful. This makes for a very engaging viewing experience. Nolan of course has helped write almost every film made by Christopher Nolan, and it is easy to see why. But as ambitious as the narrative is, the fact that the characters and setting serve as a metaphor for fiction writing as well is very impressive. For instance, take a look at this scene with Ford, as he talks about why people come back to the Park. What he says can be applied word for word to any story creator.

 

Finally, we come to characters. There is not a single actor who does a bad job on this show, and far too many to cover here, so I will focus on the ones which stood out most to me. Ed Harris plays the Man in black, and from the number of stunts and fighting gives an impressive physical performance on its own. However, he captures the mindset and feelings of a gamer who has played so long that not much surprises him anymore. He is simultaneously jaded and cynical and yet oddly hopeful that his pursuit of a deeper meaning within the Park will satisfy him. Ed Harris was born to play characters like this. Another stand out to me was Jimmi Simpson as William, who I only knew through a handful of comedies, playing mostly weaselly cowards and rather nasty individuals. Seeing him play a traditional heroic type, albeit a thoughtful and nervous one was quite unusual. However, he pulls it off so well, and in fact is much more engaging than other, better looking actors could probably have been. That said, these two are not my favourite character. That prize goes to Dr Robert Ford played by Anthony Hopkins. This may be the best performance from Hopkins I have seen since Silence of the Lambs, and certainly a much subtler one. Hopkins is such a natural actor that I am convinced there is no line of dialogue he can’t make sound convincing. In Ford he weaves an incredible tapestry of different small facial cues and slight expressions, never once going too far and yet creating such a wealth of feeling and character that I swear Ford must be a real person. Honestly, in the wrong hands this role could have seemed so cliché, but with Hopkins playing him, he is the most interesting and complicated character within the whole of the first season.

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So, to finish, this show is a brilliantly written, fantastically shot, perfectly acted masterpiece of Science fiction. I would recommend this to everyone, and I am eagerly awaiting season 2 in April. Until then, you’ll have to excuse me, I’m off to watch the trailer for season 2 again and again.

Making A Scene: The Spoils of War…

Breaking down a truly spectacular Battle…

I was hoping to write another movie review, but I haven’t had a chance to actually get out to the cinema, so none of the films I could review would be very recent. I have on the other hand been keeping up with the latest summer TV, in particular Game of Thrones. The latest episode The Spoils of War was a high point for the entire series and I thoroughly enjoyed the jaw dropping battle sequence. However, since I don’t want to spend forever writing long episode recaps about every episode in a season, I’ve come up with a new segment called “Making a scene” in which I will look at specific scenes from films and television episodes. And this week, I will be looking at the “Field of Fire” sequence from Game of Thrones Season 7 episode 4. As I’ll be talking about a scene from season 7 of Game of Thrones, be warned, there will be spoilers!

This episode has many amazing and well-crafted scenes. It may well be one of the best episodes the series has ever produced, and the gob-smacking ending is what captivated me most. To recap, after spending three episodes holding back, Daenerys Targaryen finally has enough and decides to attack the vulnerable Lannister army as they transport food and supplies to King’s Landing. Caught on the road unready for battle, the Lannisters are decimated by the horde of Dothraki screamers and literally burned to cinders by Drogon’s fire. By the end of the episode the entire army is routed and although Bronn manages to wound the dragon, the day definitely belongs to Daenerys.

The scene is masterfully directed and the director Matt Shakman should be extremely proud. His shots make the battle feel the way it does, and in terms of emotion, if not scale, I would say this sequence eclipses the Battle of the Bastards by miles. To be fair, it was always going to be hard to compete with a dragon. The camera-work is balanced between sweeping views of the action from up high as we fly with Drogon, to claustrophobic shaky cam and tracking shots, as we follow Jaime Lannister and Bronn through the fiery battlefield.

The tracking shots keep us close to the characters, allowing us to see the approaching army as they see it, and it is terrifying. The landscape shots of Drogon let us know what is happening and are immensely beautiful. Fans are calling this scene the Field of Fire after another battle from Westeros history. It’s easy to see why. The fire engulfs soldiers and explodes wagons, creating enough smoke to blot out the sun. the CG work with the dragon and the flames are extraordinary, especially for a TV show, and blend seamlessly with the live action. The practical makeup and props are also incredible, and the shots of men burning alive in agony are enough to make us wonder if Daenerys is really the good guy here!

The pace of the battle is quick and tension building. Rather than the slow slog of the Battle of the Bastards, where two armies pushed at each other until one gave way, this battle is decided fast. The pace keeps us from relaxing, creating tension, especially as we are unsure who to route for here. After all, both sets of characters are important to the viewer. All of this gives us a sense of dread as the Dothraki charge at us, and everything in this scene is tailored to increase that dread. From the moment we first hear the horde coming, we feel awestruck. The thunder of hooves, the eerie shriek of the Dothraki before we see them, and the roar of a dragon all feel bowel-loosening. The stunt work by the horsemen is sheer brilliance; the men stand on the back of the horse and shoot bows. Now we can see why many advise never to face the Dothraki in an open field.

There are many elements that can make part of a battle scene memorable, but rarely do all these elements come together so perfectly. Each aspect of the scene is honed to the highest standard, and I caught myself actually sitting on the edge of my seat as it went on. I can give Matt Shakman no greater praise than that this scene has affected me in a profound way, and it’ll be long while before I see anything so good again.