Game of Thrones might be too familiar, too expansive, to have the same force it once did. When a show’s been on the air for five years, it’s harder for it to surprise you. The characters are well-established; you know most of the series’s tricks, and you also know a great deal about what the show’s good and bad at. Game of Thrones is good at a lot of things–humorous asides, daring rescues, and moving character moments–so that even when it’s simply chugging along, it’s still a very enjoyable show. But for a season premiere, “The Red Woman” was a bit underwhelming.
It wasn’t bad, mind you. There were plenty of exciting moments, surprising twists, and interesting developments. But there was little to make you sit up and take notice of a series at the height of its powers moving toward its end game, save for perhaps one scene.
Posted in Television
Tagged Alliser Thorne, Brienne of Tarth, Cersei Lannister, Daenerys Targaryen, Davos Seaworth, Episode Reviews, Game of Thrones, Game of Thrones S06E01, Game of Thrones Season 6, Jamie Lannister, Melisandre, Podrick Payne, Sansa Stark, The Sand Snakes, Theon Greyjoy, Tyrion Lannister, Varys
I’ve written about The Citizen Kane Effect — the idea that sometimes a work hailed as a classic can do something so innovative and so essential within the medium, that its techniques become woven into the fabric of how later works present themselves. As a result, modern audiences may consume the original work and walk away unimpressed because the great strides of the past have become commonplace in the present day.
But there’s another, similar phenomenon that can prove challenging to the appreciation of great art. Works within any medium or genre can become such classics that they ascend almost into myth, becoming iconic to the point that even critics and devoted fans forget about the real, warts-and-all work that once earned the lavish praise and became the fodder for that myth-making.
CAUTION: This review contains major spoilers for Batman v. Superman.
There are some good ideas and good intentions behind Batman v. Superman. If you want to make a superhero film, there are worse comic books to crib from than Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, and the Doomsday arc. If you’re trying to create a film that owns its four-color roots while also aiming to make some kind of grand statement, there are worse ideas than trying to examine the social and political repercussions of god-like aliens coming to Earth. If you want to add your own bit of shading to a set of time-honored icons, there are worse ways to do it than showing each of them struggling with the legacies of their parents.
But trying to do this all at once requires a deft hand. Trying to do it all with the added requirements of the expected big-budget action sequences, the need to launch a new cinematic universe, and an effort correct for the perceived missteps of a prior film, would take a miracle-worker. If the balance of all of these disparate elements isn’t just right, instead of the intended depth and complexity, you get a well-meaning, but ultimately incoherent muddle. That’s what the cumbersomely titled Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice amounts to — a boldly ambitious, hopelessly flawed, overextended mess of a film.
There’s a scene in The Simpsons episode “Lisa’s Substitute” that I’ve always loved. In it, Lisa is smarting from the unexpected loss of her mentor, Homer had acted boorishly insensitive about it, and the two of them try to make peace after Lisa is clearly devastated at losing one male figure in her life who inspired her and not terribly pleased with the one she’s been left with.
Despite Homer’s clumsy attempts to start the conversation, a funny thing happens as the two of them find their groove. Homer admits, in a roundabout way, that he doesn’t really get Lisa. He admits, in a surprising bit of self-awareness from the Simpsons patriarch, that he is a pretty provincial guy. Homer realizes that his daughter is different and bright and has a future ahead of her that will take her to places he can’t even imagine. Despite that, he loves her, he supports her, and he wants that future for her, even if he’s not sure what he can do to help her get there. It gives the two of them a connection at an emotional level, even if Homer and Lisa may never connect on an intellectual level. There’s support even when there’s not understanding, and that means a great deal to a young woman struggling with what to do.
There’s a similar scene between Bob and Tina in “The Hormone-iums,” that stands out in a show that’s proved to be one of The Simpsons’s great inheritors. When Tina is struggling with whether to follow her dreams of becoming a soloist in the Hormone-iums (Wagstaff School’s preteen issues-based music group), despite the fact that it would cement her as the poster child for an idea she doesn’t believe in–that kissing is wrong and dangerous–Bob is there to listen. And like Homer, one of Bob’s trademark qualities (and the one that makes him a good dad even if he occasionally, by dint of narrative necessity, brings his kids along on some pretty dangerous adventures) is that he loves and supports his kids, even when he doesn’t really understand them.
Empathy can pull us in strange directions. When we see someone who has been wronged, we want justice for them. We want the people who have perpetrated that wrong to pay for their crimes. We share in the victim’s anger and root for their revenge. But show us someone suffering and we will empathize with them just as strongly. We pity the person in pain, and want their suffering to end.
What makes these impulses peculiar is that sometimes they conflict. Sometimes the person suffering is the same perpetrator of the original wrong, and yet we still feel for them in their anguish. Show us someone being broken, physically, mentally, or spiritually, and we cannot help but feel sorry for them, even if the ills they’re enduring are wholly deserved and well-earned.
Sometimes you have to cross a line. Sometimes you do everything right; you do everything exactly the way you think it ought to be done, and despite all that, you still lose. Your discipline, your good deeds, your extra effort to do the right thing even when it isn’t necessarily easy, only enabled the bad guys, only let them profit from their bad behavior. So you have to make compromises. You have to break some of those same rules. You have to sully yourself by playing their game. You have to be like the bad guys to beat the bad guys, for the greater good.
These are the thoughts that motivate Mike Ehrmantraut as he wraps his hands around the rifle he’d previously shied away from. But they’re the same thoughts going through Chuck McGill’s head as he tricks his brother into incriminating himself on tape.
I’ve heard gripes from some people who like Better Call Saul, but think that it can sometimes feel like two different shows hot-glued together. There’s something to the thought. Season 2 has featured one storyline focused on Jimmy’s trials and travails with Kim and Chuck as he struggles to fit into his new surroundings, and another centered on Mike getting mixed up with Salamancas. While the leads of those stories may bump into one another from time to time, there’s not a strong plot-based connection between the two arcs.
Despite that, in episodes like “Nailed,” there’s a strong thematic connection between them that helps to solidify Better Call Saul as one unified show. In the episode, both Jimmy and Mike have pulled a con of sorts, in the hopes of protecting someone they care about, in a way that also directly benefits them. Jimmy’s adventures at the copy center in “Fifi” leads to Kim winning Mesa Verde back as a client, but it also helps ensure that Jimmy doesn’t have to carry her half of their shared expenses. By the same token, Mike’s makeshift road hazard is intended to draw the cops’ attention to Hector Salamanca, thus keeping him too otherwise occupied to threaten Mike’s family again, but it also leads to Mike pocketing a nice quarter-mil for his troubles.
Better Call Saul, like its forebear, is full of impressive, creative sequences. Whether it’s last week’s inflatable-man montage, or Kim’s cold-calling routine in “Rebecca”, or the breadstick snaps that convey Jimmy’s unease after his run-in with Tuco, the show isn’t shy about using the various tricks in its visual toolbox to propel the show’s narrative forward. “Fifi” offers two of these sequences, and the two serve distinct, but no less important, purposes.
One of the interesting things about The Walking Dead under showrunner Scott Gimple’s influence is that it has, more or less, eschewed the traditional narrative structure for a season of television. The storyline of the prison and The Governor seemed to be building to a finale at the end of Season 3, but then it didn’t really end until several episodes into Season 4. Afterward, the show embarked on its Wandering in the Wilderness/Terminus storyline that stretched from roughly the midpoint of Season 4 until the beginning of the Alexandria storyline in Season 5. Then that plotline, about our heroes discovering a new community and gradually integrating into it, reached its natural conclusion with this year’s mid-season premiere, where the Rick’s group and the town came together to defeat the zombies at the gates as a whole. Only then, did the current arc begin in earnest.
Which is to say that as Season 6 draws to a close, we’re not at either the end or the beginning of the Negan storyline; we’re in the middle. That’s admittedly a little strange. It’s a departure from the annual Big Bad structure that Buffy the Vampire Slayer established and many other shows adopted. And it’s even distinct from the trend started by The Wire and The Sopranos, where the real fireworks happen in the penultimate episode of a season, with the finale reserved for aftermath and reflection.
What I love about Better Call Saul are the little things, the subtle touches that communicate something powerful about who a character is or what they’re thinking in a clear but artful way. When Jimmy returns to his nail salon beginnings and goes to record his voicemail, he starts off with his faux-British secretary routine. Then he stops and tries it again in his regular speaking voice, not as James M. McGill Esquire, but as Jimmy McGill, attorney at law. It’s a small distinction, but a big difference, and that’s the quiet ethos of the show on display in “Inflatable”.