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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Firefly: A Perfect Cult Series

Taking a look at a personal favourite show…

Having fallen behind on my TV watching habit thanks to a rather large amount of work at Uni, I thought I’d fall back on talking about another cult series that I love dearly, Joss Whedon’s Firefly. This is a fantastic series that was criminally cut short after only the first season and has since gained a large cult following. I also recently finished watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and you’re probably wondering why I’m not reviewing that instead, but Firefly is conveniently much shorter and so much quicker to go through, which fits perfectly with my limited time! Spoilers ahead.

Firefly is a blend of genres: part western, part space adventure, part drama, and it, like most of Whedon’s work manages to balance each genre superbly. The mixture of tones and style lead to a very unique feeling world which really lives and breathes. Most of Joss Whedon’s fiction is set in modern day earth, so it is interesting to see what he does with a world set far in the future. The characters use Chinese expressions, as it is the most common language besides English, the costumes are a mixture of modern business attire for the wealthy part of the Alliance of Planets, and more old-timey frontier clothes for the outlying planets. The series is full of little details which create an incredible atmosphere.

Set in the aftermath of a planetary civil war between the Brown-coats and the Alliance, the story follows Captain Malcolm Reynolds and his crew as they pilot the ship serenity into deep space, always on the lookout for their next job, and avoiding Alliance authorities every step of the way. The premise alone was enough to convince me to watch it. It really is a niche, you have to love both the western genre and the space exploration genre, which fortunately I do! The combination of styles enhances both, and the feeling both of familiarity with the setting and newness with the story and concepts makes for a very enjoyable experience. As the show progresses each of the characters gets explored in more detail and the way that this new world works is unpacked. If the show had gone on more could have been introduced, but what is already there is great fun.

The acting across the board is superb. I won’t be able to only talk about a few choice performances here as the cast are just too damn good. Nathan Fillion is alternately brooding and lovably charming as Captain Reynolds, Alan Tudyk is fantastic as the slightly more comical Wash, although he is also one of the more moral characters. Gina Torres is excellent as a very protective and loyal Zoe, the second in command. Morena Baccarin is calm and gentle, with an often sharp tongue and a very winning smile, playing the lovely Inara. My personal favourite character is Jayne, played by Adam Baldwin. The classic mercenary, Jayne could easily have been a simple thug, but thanks to Baldwins excellent comic timing, which can be seen better in Chuck, Jayne has plenty of funny moments and witty lines. His character is also very endearing. He is blunt and threatening, but deep down cares immensely for his crew, especially Kaylee. Speaking of, Jewel Staithe is a ray of sunshine, her portrayal of Kaylee is uplifting and heart-warming and her character is the most adorable person you will ever see. Sean Maher is perhaps the weakest actor. He has moments, but on the whole, when surrounded by such interesting characters, he has a tendency to get side-lined. Summer Glau is much more memorable. She plays River, an exceptional girl who has been experimented on by a shadowy part of the Alliance and spends a lot of the series adjusting to her life on the ship, and trying to come to terms with her abilities. As such she is very unstable. Finally, Ron Glass plays Booker, the resident preacher on the ship. Rather than being a self-righteous character, Booker is the moral centre of the group and often doles out advice to the rest of the crew. I enjoyed seeing a positive portrayal of a religious character, especially a Christian, as they tend to come off as pushy.

Of course, the show isn’t perfect. Despite the realism of the exterior scenes in space being shot in silence, the effect is unsettling and takes me out of the experience a little. As well as this the limited budget means that the space craft, while looking fantastically designed are very dated. The CGI doesn’t hold up well to scrutiny. The budget also means that many of the Terra-formed planets we visit on the far reaches of space just happen to have very similar environments. Sand and grass. It would’ve been nice to visit a few more diverse planets. However, none of these things are too distracting for me to not recommend the show, in fact I find them quite charming. The visual style of the show is strong enough to overcome bad CGI. The costume design alone is gorgeous, and the sets and props are all very cool and blend frontier cowboy style clothing with grungy Red Dwarf style technology.

However, the costume and characters aren’t all Firefly has to offer. I haven’t talked before about Joss Whedon, but he is a rarely talented writer. His TV shows in particular always appeal to me. He is a master of writing witty back and forth dialogue and making potentially boring exposition sound weighty and important. The characters are written so well, they seem like living breathing people, not stale archetypes, which is always a risk when writing genre fiction. Whedon has a flair for dialogue, but also a knack for organic world-building; he knows when to give the audience more backstory, and also when to ease off and let the characters chat. It’s always a pleasure to watch his work.

Firefly is one of those shows that feels so unique and interesting that you must watch every episode. It was a crying shame when it was cancelled in 2002 after only one season. However, Whedon since went on to make a film wrapping up the story, and I would rather watch a short-lived show I can love, than 20 seasons of a mediocre series. If anything about the show has intrigued you I urge you to give it a watch and discover how awesome it is for yourself.

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.

Rick and Morty’s Toxic Fan-base…

The problem with fan-bases…

This week I thought I would stray away from a particular format, and tackle a topic that has bothered me for quite a while about films and TV, the people who watch them. In case this entire blog isn’t evidence enough, I watch a lot of both, and of course I would define myself as a fan of many franchises, particularly television. For the most part, a fandom is a good thing; a group of grateful people showing appreciation for a piece of media that has brought them a lot of joy. However, I’ve encountered another sort of fan over the course of my viewership; the toxic fan.

Whilst most fans are lovely people who sincerely enjoy something just for it’s merits and are thrilled when more people watch the thing they enjoy, there are those who feel entitled to be the only ones watching. These toxic fans delight in exclusivity and much like the traditional image of a hipster, can’t stand anyone else knowing about the thing they love, as it diminishes their own importance. Never mind that lots of people have discovered something they enjoy, never mind that the creators will now get more money and be able to make their product better, no it’s all about you. A good example of a fan-base that has been tainted by a toxic minority is the Rick and Morty fans.

For those few of you who haven’t heard, Rick and Morty started off as a parody of Back to the Future before evolving into a biting satire and wickedly funny sitcom, created by Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland. It straddles the line between being crass and silly and yet clever and nihilistic. I resisted watching it for a long time, partly because of the huge pressure from friends to start watching it, and when I finally did, I found it was a hugely fun series. Then I noticed that some the throwaway silly jokes, such as Rick’s pointless catchphrases kept getting latched onto by fans. But no big deal, right? So what if some people like to repeat stupid phrases on the internet, why does it matter? I’m glad you asked. I bring it up to illustrate a lack of understanding of the joke. The catchphrases keep changing to mock the idea of a character having a single phrase to hook viewers. It’s not a sincere phrase, yet it is taken as such, and this creates problems, because it shows a blind emulation of things in the show without understanding them.

Recently, the show made a joke about Rick being motivated only at getting McDonald’s Szechuan dipping sauce, which was a temporary promotional item for the film Mulan. The joke is that we don’t know Rick’s true motivation and never will, so it could be the sauce for all we know. However, this spawned a desperation amongst fans to get hold of this sauce, to emulate their beloved Rick. This was fuelled by McDonald’s cashing in on the free publicity and selling the sauce in a limited run last week. The problem was that the fans were too many and McDonald’s couldn’t meet the demand, leading to actual riots. Over sauce. Sauce which can be bought in Asda or Walmart by the way. The problem is clear, a need to try and be Rick. The character of Rick is intentionally a horrible person. He’s grumpy arrogant, nihilistic and selfish and the comedy arrives from his complete lack of normal social restrictions, thanks to his overwhelming intellect. The character is flawed and interesting, and leave it to a few desperate fans to completely miss the point. A small vocal minority of fans think that because the show has clever writing, only very smart people can truly appreciate it. Never mind all the lowbrow fart jokes and visual gags that make it accessible to almost everyone. Never mind the fact that a lot of people love it, only true genii can understand this 20-minute cartoon.

I don’t say this to disparage the series, if anything it’s part of what I love about it. It’s clever and yet has something for everyone. But to suggest that the show is off limits, to have the arrogance to actually create a secret Facebook group for clever people who truly “get” the show (yes this really happened) is very toxic. It creates an exclusive atmosphere which turns off newcomers to the show, which could ironically hurt the very show you claim to love. People shouldn’t try to be emulating Rick. The point is that we aren’t him. We are more likely Jerry, or Morty, the normal people in the show, and it should be clear that someone who is willing to commit massive genocide when drunk, isn’t meant to be a role model.

However, the toxicity of the fan-base also applies to bigots. When some the third season episodes didn’t quite meet expectations, sexist fans immediately blamed the new female writers on the show and started harassing them online, despite the fact that each episode is collaboratively written. This immediate assumption that the smelly girls have dirtied your treasured TV show is as immature and possessive as it is pathetic. And don’t get me wrong, the majority of Rick and Morty fans are fine humans beings, but it’s always the loud minority which spoils things for the rest of us. In Rick and Morty’s case the minority has evolved from slightly annoying, to dangerously toxic, and unlike in the show, we should consider cutting our toxic side loose. These immature, misogynistic, whiny babies are giving the show and other fans a bad name, and I know I speak for all of us when I tell those who riot over sauce or harass women for daring to write on a TV show, to grow up, and just like a TV show for being good. Is that too much to ask?