Archive | Television RSS feed for this section

Fleabag: sex, sisterhood and that stepmother

2 Jun


You hear the hype about a certain show, and you go in cynical: surely this can’t be that good. The show is British: are people in love with it because of widespread Anglophilia? And yet, brisk 25-minute episode after brisk 25-minute episode,  I saw why Fleabag has garnered so much attention. It is often hard to watch because of the emotional honesty of the nameless protagonist, played by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the creator/writer of the show. Fleabag, as she is referred to in the credits, walks around with grief- her mother died a few years ago, and her best friend committed suicide in the near past. Her sister is awful, her brother-in-law is repulsive, and her stepmother delights in insulting her stepdaughters with a smile and a barb. I am of thinking of season one, which introduces us to this world, a bleak one punctuated by the wit of the main character. Humor is the coping mechanism in her chaotic life, and she frequently breaks the fourth wall with a wink, eye roll, or smirk. We end up coping along with her.

Season two is decidedly brighter, following the events of season one a year later. Fleabag announces to the audience at the beginning: This is a love story. And we see two parallel love stories play out: one, between the main character and an endearing, lonely Catholic priest, and two, between Fleabag and her sister, Claire. First, falling in love with the priest, the ultimate unavailable man. Both he and Fleabag lead unconventional lives, with tenuous grasps on how to embrace (or reject) their sexuality. The priest flirts with Fleabag, not seeming entirely comfortable with his vow of celibacy, whereas she admitted in the previous season that sex is more interesting to her as pursuit than act. Both characters open up to each other, and Fleabag is vulnerable in scene after scene with the priest, culminating in a tearful monologue in the confessional. Twitter user Ellen O’Connell Whittet shares an interesting theory about what foxes symbolize throughout the season and especially in the last scene (spoiler alert: only click if you’ve already watched the show). The writing is at its most insightful when both of these characters talk to each other, though there is also a memorable rant delivered by the still-luminous Kristin Scott Thomas on the pain of womanhood that reminded me of the cool girl observations from Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl”.

And the other love story at the heart of season 2 of Fleabag, the one that shows its protagonists’s evolution as much as, if not more than, her affection for the priest: her sister Claire. Brittle and unsmiling, she couldn’t be more different from her sister, an open book who can’t help but blurt out what’s on her mind, especially to her rude stepmother (wonderfully played by Olivia Colman). And yet the sisters push each other to be better throughout the season, with Fleabag supporting her on several occasions, defending her from the smarmy brother-in-law from hell and providing a united front against nasty stepmom. One of the sweetest moments of the show is when the reserved Claire tells her sister that she’d only run through an airport for one person- for her.

There are so many aspects of the show to delve into. I’d love to explore the writing,  the feminism, the spirituality. Each season lasts just over 2 hours. This is two evenings, or one cold Sunday, at home. Watch the show if you haven’t already, and if you have, let me know what you think, or if you’ve bought the Fleabag jumpsuit.

A Post of Ice and Fire: The Dragon and the Wolf

28 Aug

Although I had some complaints about last week’s episode, “Beyond the Wall”, I was completely satisfied with the season 7 finale, “The Dragon and the Wolf”. The three main plot points of the season- the Lannisters, the Starks and the White Walker menac,- featured great action pieces, compelling character development, or some combination thereof. I shrieked, I cheered, I was thrilled. And now I am just disappointed that there may be a wait of 18 long months until season 8.

Lena Headey deserves all the acting awards for her portrayal of Cersei Lannister. She had two scenes in this episode where she showed her fine acting skills, one with Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister, and one with Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as her brother Jaime. She digs her feet in and becomes more ruthless, and more isolated, than ever, to the point where her brother/lover Jaime is finally repelled by her duplicity and the callousness with which she orders Sandor Clegane to kill him. Jaime walking out on Cersei wasa relief, showing one character’s long evolution from servility at his sister’s side to honoring his knightly ideals of nobility and honesty. One of many things I’m looking forward to in the final season is seeing how he meshes with the Northern/Targaryen alliance, and with his brother Tyrion.

Another character who had a truly satisfying transformation was poor Theon Greyjoy. In a scene reminiscent of “Fight Club”, he received blow after blow, but as he kept rising to his feet after each one, he left fearful Reek behind and finally reclaimed his identity as Theon. We also haven’t seen Alfie Allen flex his acting muscles in a while, since he’s been playing a scared, tortured soul for a while now, but when he finally learned to be brave for the first time in a long time, he reminded us why this minor character can still be compelling. I hope he succeeds in rescuing his sister Yara from the prison under the Red Keep.

I previously wondered why Sansa and Arya seemed to be acting uncharacteristically throughout the season, with Sansa distrusting Petyr Baelish one moment then trusting him the next, and Arya going from brave, cheerful girl to cruel, distrusting sister killer in the blink of an eye. It didn’t make sense. And yet we learned in one well-crafted trial scene that it was all a ruse to manipulate the master manipulator. I thought Bran had been spending his time at Winterfell just being morose and sulking, but no, he was sharing his visions with his sisters. It is especially satisfying that Littlefinger, former brothel keeper, who murdered Lysa Stark and sold Sansa to Ramsey Bolton, got his comeuppance from two formidable women whom he underestimated. I told friends I didn’t want to see him die because he is so deliciously diabolical and fun to watch. Well, I didn’t realize how delightful it would be to see Arya murder him with one expert slice of her blade.

Perhaps most enjoyable seeing the King in the North, Jon Snow and the Khaleesi, Daenerys Targaryen, consummate their growing love for one another. New York Magazine noted that season 7 has not only featured fewer sex scenes than in the past, but rather than be gratuitous and only serve to titillate the audience, the sex scenes were infused with tenderness, first with Missandei and Grey Worm, and then with Jon and Dany. I was not disgusted by the incestuous nature of the scene. They don’t know they’re related, which is important. But I foresee a future where Jon, always bound by honor and never hungry for power, cedes the throne to his wife Daenerys, who has become quite a good leader over time. And actor Kit Harington looks a-okay in his birthday suit!

So what threats loom in season 8? Dany and Jon finding out that their budding romance is with a family member (ick); Dany finding out that Jon has a more legitimate claim to the throne than she does; Cersei unleashing the Iron Fleet and the Golden Company on southern Westeros; Theon’s rescue mission to King’s Landing; Jaime integrating himself with the Northern forces; the Stark children running Winterfell, and of course learning if Beric Dondarrion (he of the mellifluous speaking voice) and Tormund survived the wall’s collapse. Oh yes, the wall collapsed when the Night King breathed icy blue fire on it, sending it crashing to the ground. It was scary. Either Dany will need to incinerate the army of the dead with her remaining two dragons, or the dragonglass mining operation at Dragonstone needs to speed up significantly. The monsters are within reach. “The Dragon and the Wolf” was a thrilling conclusion to a thrilling season. I can’t wait for season 8.

A Post of Ice and Fire: Beyond the Wall

21 Aug

After last week’s promise of a mission beyond the wall with a “Seven Samurai”-like gang of heroes, I began watching “Beyond the Wall” with trepidation. I figured men would die, I figured there would be a death or two, but not that Jon Snow would perish. I certainly wasn’t prepared for the terrifying conclusion of the adventure beyond the wall: an ice dragon created by the Night King.

Just like in last week’s “Eastwatch”, the episode featured banter between the different men joining Jon as he treks further and further into the frozen north. Ever since Game of Thrones has strayed from George R.R. Martin’s books, show creators Dan Weiss and David Benioff have created dialogue that more closely resembles our current time and place than the mythical medieval fantasy world of Westeros. Sometimes it comes across as stilted and off-putting, but in this episode it was rather charming, and added color to some of the show’s saltier characters. Tormund debating the the right word to use for male anatomy with The Hound (“Dick”. “No, cock.”) doesn’t strike me as dialogue that we would have heard in the early seasons of the show. But letting fan favorites like Tormund and The Hound use be modern-day slang- I thought Tormund’s pride in being a ginger was VERY modern- wasn’t jarring. It gave us some great light moments before the thrilling part of the hour began.

And it began with a bear that turned out to be rabid and, well, a zombie. From there, the immensity of the white walker threat became apparent, as the zombies alternately attacked, surrounded, and laid siege to the mortals. The elements alone that the men faced were terrifying, with whipping winds that turned their skin ashen. The clash with the white walkers (I confess: I don’t understand the difference between white walkers and wights) was filmed in a confusing way, so that it was often hard to tell who was being attacked, and who was being helped. The men’s weapons- Beric Dondarrion’s flaming sword, Gendry’s hammer- helped to distinguish them. And it was The Hound’s act of foolishness (or bravado), throwing rocks at the zombies as they faced off across a chasm of ice, that led to the final clash. Defying the laws of time and raven travel, Gendry raced to Eastwatch, sent a raven to Daenerys for help, and Dany, in her most resplendent white winter coat, flew all three of her dragons north to help out. Though she did help and managed to bring all the men back, including the coveted white walker, she lost one crucial tool in this trade: her dragon Viserion, who slipped under the icy water and was reanimated by the Night King in the final moment of the episode.

Back at Winterfell, Arya and Sansa continue to verbally spar with one another. Find it all a bit unbelievable? So do I. Sansa has become wise to the manipulations of others, especially Littlefinger, so I find it hard to believe that she would all of a sudden confide in him- even listening to his advice about Brienne. Poor Brienne of Tarth, caught in the middle of a sisterly conflict and object of Tormund’s intense affections. Sadly, I think things don’t augur well for the owner of Oathkeeper. But back to the Stark girls: both girls are suspicious of each other. Arya is deeply wary of Sansa’s loyalties; Sansa seems to fear her newly fierce sister. And yet neither suspects that Petyr Baelish is behind it all.

The Atlantic has good criticism of the show that echoes my own recent observations. Is Game of Thrones like Lost, lurching towards a final season that tries to please everyone and ends up pleasing no one, not tying up loose ends, moving too fast, having beloved characters do uncharacteristic things, having every conflict resolved with a deus ex machina, for example? The latter is a trend I have noticed recently: battles don’t resolve themselves, but rather are won by the arrival of the Knights of the Vale, or Jaime is saved from a fiery death by Bronn at the last minute, or, as in the case of “Beyond the Wall”, Uncle Benjen rides in to save Jon Snow from certain death (the man has more lives than Beric Dondarrion). Overall, there have been some flaws emerging in the show, such as leaps in time (the speedy ravens, Varys darting across the continent), and logic, as well as the near certainty that heroic characters, such as Jon Snow, won’t be killed off. It wasn’t always this way (see: the Red Wedding). As it enters its last season, Game of Thrones will certainly enter the pantheon of all-time great television shows. But it has to get the ending right.

A Post of Ice and Fire: Eastwatch

16 Aug

Episode 5 of season 7, “Eastwatch”, was not the most exciting episode by far- and this is after I watched it a second time tonight. Some Game of Thrones episodes advance the plot and are filled with action (like last week’s thrilling “The Spoils of War”). This was what I call a “putting the pieces in place” episode, moving the characters across the map of Westeros, setting up final showdowns that will take place over the next two weeks. It wasn’t thrilling, but it was necessary.

Littlefinger is climbing the ladder of chaos in Winterfell, sowing the seeds of suspicion between Sansa and Arya. A confrontation between Arya and Littlefinger seems inevitable, as the Lord of the Vale seems to be outmaneuvering her, setting up a scene that will force Sansa to defend her letter urging brother Robb to swear loyalty to King Joffrey. Will Bran step in to tell his sisters how their squabbling will end up? I think Sansa is now shrewd enough that she would react to any accusal from her sister by tracing it to Littlefinger. She’ll heed his advice to trust no one and be deeply suspicious. That advice applies, presumably, to him.

Jaime and Cersei also appear to be headed for a face-off, just as they have been for a while. I have predicted that he would inch away from her the madder she got. In this episode, he warns her that she doesn’t stand a chance against the Dothraki hordes and Danaerys’ three dragons. What’s worse, he met with Tyrion, whom Cersei loathes. To whom is the Kingslayer most loyal- the kid brother he always protected who killed his father, or his twin sister, who tells him that she is pregnant (I am very suspicious)? I still think that Jaime will step away from his sister at some point. The cards are stacked against her, and he knows. But what will it take after all this time, after everything she has put him through? Perhaps her further descent into madness is what it will finally take.

Jon Snow, meanwhile, is as resolute as ever, ready to head off on a fool’s mission north of the wall with a ragtag band of misfits (including Baratheon bastard Gendry and his blacksmithing skill) to capture a White Walker which will then be brought back to Queen Cersei to prove to her the severity of the menace to the north. Is it crazy? Yes. Needless to say, not all of those men will be coming back south of the wall. It’s a dangerous mission, and I doubt the sight of an ice zombie corpse will sway Cersei to give up the crown or enter into some sort of power-sharing agreement with Daenerys (remember when she could barely stand to share the Red Keep with Margaery Terrell? She doesn’t deal well with rival blonde beauties). Will this new Tyrion-hatched plan work? What wrench will be thrown in the path of these brave, foolhardy men? Their task won’t be easy, that’s for sure. I for one can’t wait for next week’s penultimate episode of the season.


A Post of Fire and Ice: The Spoils of War

7 Aug

“The Spoils of War”, the fourth episode in this abbreviated seventh season of Game of Thrones, was the first episode yet where I felt that my expectations and the show I watched didn’t quite match up. My friends and I heard that the episode would be epic, one of the best ever, and while it showed us some things we had never seen before, like the Dothraki in battle, I didn’t feel that it lived up to the hype. The Dothraki and Dany’s dragon roared into battle to ambush the Lannister army as they were heading back to King’s Landing. Sure, the element of surprise was the point. Jon Snow told Daenerys earlier on that she needs to show the people why she is unlike every other ruler they’ve known. Perhaps Daenerys flew in to attack the Lannisters knowing full well that, while the display she put on had little strategic importance, this was largely for public relations. The common people will talk and rally to her side. And word will get back to Queen Cersei.

But let’s rewind and revisit the second reunion of Stark siblings in two weeks: last week it was Bran and Sansa, this week it was Arya and Sansa. The sisters talked to each other with stilted language, and it’s good to remember that this may not just be the awkwardness of separating as girls and reuniting as women. Back in season 1, when they were last together, they were as different as night and day. The princess who wanted to marry a prince and the tomboy who wanted to learn to fight. In their own ways, they’ve matured- Sansa is a jaded survivor, wise to the manipulations of others, while Arya has taken her fierce independence and desire to be controlled by no one to an extreme. They both, along with their brother Bran/The Three-Eyed Raven, must learn to band together and be a family again. There is a reason the Stark family sigil is a wolf. They only succeed as a pack, not alone. There is a reason they are under the same roof again as winter closes in.

Sibling loyalty is also on display as Tyrion catches sight of Jaime for the first time since fleeing Westeros in late season 4. Tyrion’s loyalties may be tested soon, since I predict that the ambush in The Reach ends not with Jaime drowning in a surprisingly deep lake alongside Bronn, but will result in his being taken captive by Daenerys (not the first time Jaime has been taken hostage after a battle. He spent nearly all of season 2 as a Stark bargaining chip). The final moments of this episode, when Jaime charges at Daenerys with an improvised spear, prompt dread in his brother Tyrion, who still feels some affection for the older brother who freed him so long ago, to whom he owes so much. We also see, in that final, panicked charge towards the enemy, a glimpse into what makes Jaime tick: an instinct to kill an enemy, to defend the realm, with no regard to his own likely injury or death, if it is for the greater good. It may be noble or it may be foolish (Tyrion certainly thinks the latter), but Jaime is a warrior at heart choosing to fight rather than observe from the sidelines as Bronn urged him to do. I doubt that Game of Thrones is done with him yet. I believe that Jaime, along with Bran, Arya, Samwell, the Hound and others will all play an important role in the war to come. Soon.

Also, it must be noted that every time poor Dickon Tarly’s name is mentioned, I laugh. I was glad to know that, in the universe of the show, it is considered a pretty ridiculous name (Bronn sure thinks so). I wrote about the show’s approach to humor more when writing about “The Queen’s Justice”.

A Post of Fire and Ice: The Queen’s Justice

1 Aug

Halfway through season 3, “The Queen’s Justice” provided some real satisfaction to the fan who has become invested in the Game of Thrones universe. After “Stormborn”, Daenerys and Jon Snow met- the fire and ice that give the series its title. Sansa reunited with her brother Bran, whom she hadn’t seen since he was a child. And Olenna Tyrell had a truly good death.

This episode was notable for how funny it was. Usually, as Vulture noted, humor on Game of Thrones has been a quip or a vulgar comment, but rarely has it made me laugh out loud. However, there were moments in this otherwise tense episode, full of poison lips and stymied military plans, that were clever- a testament to the writing of David Benioff and Dan Weiss. When Daenerys is announced by all of her powerful titles by Missandei, Ser Davos Seaworth triumphantly introduces Jon Snow thusly: “This is Jon Snow. He’s King in the North”.  Later on in the episode, Tyrion- always a source of wit and wisdom- tries to pass off an observation of his own as ancient wisdom, and Daenery catches him.

The humor in the episode underscores the strength of the writing. When Jon Snow and Daenerys meet, the scene isn’t hurried- rather, we see how these two very different, very unlikely rulers have assumed the mantle of leadership. Daenerys is haughty, presuming her titles and Jon’s ancestral oath to her house. Jon speaks to her of White Walkers and armies of the dead. We see that neither of them has learned how to politick, how to use rhetoric to convince a sceptic of their course of action, despite blunders in Meereen and Castle Black, respectively. As battles are lost across the continent, Daenerys will surely rethink her reliance on Tyrion- perhaps she’ll heed the words of the Queen of Highgarden, who told her to be a dragon. Jon Snow, meanwhile, needs to tread carefully. He’s a Northerner in a precarious position in the south, still too concerned with what’s noble than with what will work.

Sansa and Bran’s reunion was brief, but touching. One of my hopes as the series winds down, and I think may fans share it, is to see a reunion of surviving Stark children. Once Jon returns from Dragonstone- assuming he returns- all but Arya will be at Winterfell again. But will the Stark children become a family once again, or have their varying paths lead them so far from home that they won’t be able to relate to each other any more? Bran and Sansa already see a huge difference in one another. Arya is now a cold-blooded assassin. Bran has one mission to accomplish- tell Jon Snow about his true parentage. It is most likely this reason, and not homesickness, that brought him home.

The final scene of “The Queen’s Justice” is, again, a master class in acting, writing and directing. Diana Rigg as Olenna Tyrell communicates so much with a single look, such as the satisfaction of using her final moments alive to tell Jaime Lannister that she murdered Joffrey. And Nikolai Coster-Waldau, just as he did in the season 6 finale with his sister Cersei, conveys anger and disappointment in one withering stare. Olenna’s final scene was the ultimate mic drop. What a way to go.


A Post of Fire and Ice: Stormborn

24 Jul

The second episode of season 7 of Game of Thrones, “Stormborn”, takes us right where we left off after “Dragonstone“.  Daenerys Targaryen is a far cry from the meek bride married off to Khal Drogo in season 1; after amassing wealth and an army, breaking chains across Slaver’s Bay and instilling fear across Essos, she has developed into a fierce leader, learning to suss out the true motives of those around her, though still leaning on the counsel of a trusted few, such as Tyrion Lannister and, in this episode, Olenna Tyrell. Daenerys is certainly my pick to sit on the Iron Throne by series’ end, though we are seeing what kind of ruler she may be, and again, whether she will be fair and just or inherit the mad tendencies of her father (note that she told Varys, who seems to be moving up in the dead pool after his tense standoff with the Khaleesi, that she would burn him alive if he betrayed her). This is also the first season, perhaps since season 2 in Qarth, that Danerys is without the moderating influence of a lover. Recall that she left Dario Naaharis in Meereen. Without a lover to confide in, she harder, less soft. For better or worse.

Similarly, Cersei is more ruthless without three children to love. She seems to overestimate the loyalty of her subjects and underestimates the severity of what she is up against (Using a crossbow to fight dragons? Marrying the usurping king of the unimportant Iron Islands?). Cersei betrays no fear, but her position seems rather weak moving forward. She seems to have no allies and a weak military advantage faced with Khaleesi’s formidable forces. Also, notably, she has no one shrewd- no Tywin, no Varys, no Littlefinger- advising her. Only her brother Jaime is left to entreaty his sister to think through her actions and plead the Lannister case within Westeros.

Elsewhere, the prospect of Arya reuniting with her sister Sansa and Jon Snow meeting Daenerys is very real, and imminent. We are, remarkably, already one third of the way through this short season, which means that every character is featured for a reason. Samwell Tarly must be curing Jorah Mormont of his greyscale for some reason (both characters are the most loyal followers of Jon Snow and Khaleesi, respectively). Theon must have jumped ship, literally, for some reason, so he could serve some greater purpose elsewhere in the plot, other than just to serve as a living cautionary tale against betrayal and cowardice. Missandei and Grey Worm, though not important movers of the greater plot, are both humble servants of the Mother of Dragons. Their growing love has been satisfying to watch, and Grey Worm’s speech about Missandei being his weakness was a highlight of the episode.

The pieces are still being laid on the grand chess board (as comedian Kumail Nanjiani pointed out on Twitter, the manufacturers of the game pieces moved around on these massive maps must be the wealthiest house in Westeros). Things are moving fast, and characters from disparate parts of the realm are meeting and clashing and partnering already. Next week’s episode promises to be even more satisfying (Stark reunion!).


A Post of Fire and Ice: Dragonstone

17 Jul

“Dragonstone”, the first episode of the penultimate season of Game of Thrones, moves slowly, putting the chess pieces in place for what promises to be a fast-moving, shortened season. Yes, it was a bit slow, but we witnessed a spectacular opening scene that saw Arya, as Walder Frey, poison the extended Frey clan. I have found Arya’s subplot among the least interesting throughout the series, from her travels with the Hound across Westeros to her long stint at the House of Black and White. But her winding storyline looks like it will finally pay off, as she emerges as one of the many strong female characters forging her own destiny at this point in Game of Thrones. More on that later.

I watched “Dragonstone” with both enjoyment and apprehension, because we got to spend unhurried time with minor characters who have become fan favorites- Samwell Tarly furtively studying up on dragonglass at the Citadel, the Hound discovering his mystic powers in the Riverlands, even a quick reminder that loyal Jorah Mormont is alive and still pining after his Khaleesi. But the apprehension comes from knowing that goodness is not rewarded in the Game of Thrones universe. You either win, or you die. Cruelty is met with revenge, as we saw in Arya’s deadly opening scene, doubt and suspicion are sown among siblings, as seen with Sansa and Jon Snow in Winterfell, and Queen Cersei seeks to crush all opponents in King’s Landing. Virtue, when not paired with cunning, leads to death. I believe this is why the farmer and his young daughter, a fleeting presence from season 4, were brought back in skeletal form in this episode- to remind us that when you trust strangers in Westeros, you pay. Sandor Clegane is a changed man since he stole their silver and left them vulnerable so long ago, remorseful enough to bury them to make amends. He is an example of a character who is coupling steeliness and kindness, generosity and strength. Another character learning to stiffen her spine and not be so naive? Sansa Stark, on a collision course with her brother Jon, who, though wiser to the ways of the world, still extends forgiveness where Sansa believes he should show firmer resolve. We are witnessing a wedge growing between the two, as is Petyr Baelish, who is still lurking in the shadows.

And of course the episode ends where the previous season ended- with Daenarys Targaryen, sailing onward to conquer an ancestral homeland that she does not know. She has already sent shockwaves through the Red Keep, with her massive army, wealth, and shrewd adviser, Tyrion Lannister (I wondered how the information about Daenarys and her crew got back to Cersei so fast. Is Varys still sending secrets to the capital?). The question remains not only if she will take the Iron Throne, but if she would rule as the Breaker of Chains with an eye to meting out justice and righting wrongs, or if she has inherited some of the madness and ruthlessness of her Targaryen blood.

The Sydney Morning Herald had an interesting piece on the evolving gender dynamics of Game of Thrones. I’ve noticed that the show has relied less on brothel scenes and gore and more and character and plot over the years; one other way that the show has matured is that women seem to be ascendant, leaving men quivering in their wake (see: Daenerys and Tyrion, Yara and Theon, Cersei and Jaime, even little Lyanna Mormont urging the Lords of the North to send their daughters to defend their land). When Game of Thrones began, the female characters were victims of fates that were decided by the men around them. However, over the course of six seasons, women like Arya and Sansa have learned to take control of their destinies and not depend on men to defend them. The showdown this season appears to be between two queens: Cersei, with Jamie Lannister at her side, and Daenerys Stormborn, with Tyrion Lannister at her side. This promises to be a short yet thoroughly entertaining season.