Game of Thrones Season Six stops building its world and starts tearing it down

WARNING: This review of Season Six of Game of Thrones is full of SPOILERS! Lots of them! Note that I have not read the books, but after the end of season five, have spent a fair amount of time on A Wiki of Ice and Fire because I’m impatient.

By its own high standards, the last season of Game of Thrones (Season Five) was an utter disaster. It was also the first season where the show went decidedly off-book, combining elements of two apparently scattershot sources into one while making up its own shortcuts along the way. It gave us the infuriatingly bland Dorne storyline, an increased focus on Ramsay Bolton’s uninteresting brand of sadism, the faceless Sons of the Harpy, and a dragon ride that looked like something out of The Neverending Story. It wasn’t all a waste; Stannis’ arc was dark but fantastic, and the battle of Hardhome is likely the single best sequence the show has ever done. However, every attempt to expand the word (except perhaps Arya’s) fell completely flat. Given that Season Six was now completely off-book, it would be reasonable to assume it would only get worse from here. However, it course-corrects by collapsing the world instead of continually expanding it, both setting up Season Seven wonderfully and standing as the most satisfying season the show has ever had. It’s a comfortable season in a way, only once really throwing caution to the wind, but even if the narrative is no longer as daring as it once was, Thrones earns its position as must-see TV.

Game of Thrones can be a difficult show to discuss broadly, simply because there are so many characters spread out over such a large distance, both narratively and physically. Season Six corrects much of this almost immediately, bringing together Brienne, Davos, Melisandre, Jon, and Sansa by the fourth episode. Two of the Starks reuniting at last is particularly satisfying, and while the Jon/Sansa story ends with a beautiful if nonsensical battle sequence, having the two characters together again is magnificent (and inspired; Jon/Arya, Sansa/Arya, or even Jon/Theon are the more obvious reunions to stage, but Jon/Sansa allows us a character pairing that was never really explored before but still harkens back to the beginning of the show). In perhaps the weakest point of the season, a carryover from the last, Dany remains separated from Mereen, where Tyrion, Varys, Missandei, and Grey Worm sit in big rooms and talk about nothing. Varys gets one fantastic scene where he attempts to rebuild his network, but otherwise there is no air left in the Mereen scenes. Dany’s reunion with the Dothraki, on the other hand, works by bringing in familiar things, and when the whole gang gets together at the end (along with some others), it leads to an incredibly satisfying ending, even if its a season-and-a-half overdue.

Even when characters are sent off, its not usually to meet new ones, but to bring together old combinations. Jamie repopulates Cersei’s circle for a while, but is sent off to Riverrun to break a Tully siege. This brings the long-abandoned characters of Walder Frey, Edmure Tully, and the Blackfish back into the fold at last, and also gives us Jamie/Brienne and Bronn/Podrick reunion. We return to Bran north of the wall, where his warging ability is used to fill in gaps in our knowledge about the realm (only slightly more elegantly than outright flashbacks), and another long-lost character re-emerges. Most dramatically, the Hound re-appears with a group of new characters, who are lent credence by the presence of Ian McShane and the fact that they link into Cersei’s current struggle by showing another side of the Seven. And, once again, they quickly dovetail into abandoned parts of the narrative by bringing back the Brotherhood Without Banners, led by Beric Dondarrion. Relatively few new arcs are created, but old arcs are allowed to pay off and loose ends tied off. Some of these are unsatisfying; the ends of the Blackfish and Osha the wildling are rather unfortunately tossed off, despite the two being interesting characters anchored by charismatic performances. But by-and-large the contraction of the world is propels the narrative forward, which is very preferable to the meandering of the last couple seasons. Even Dorne benefits from this; the storyline only appears twice, once to necessarily close a few dangling threads, and a second time to ally them with more interesting characters and bring them into a storyline that actually might be interesting.

It’s hard to overstate how great it is to have The Hound back. In his second episode, when he calls a generic bad guy out for being “shit at dying”, Thrones operates on a darkly humorous level it occasionally reaches elsewhere in the season with Zombie Mountain and WunWun the Giant. The Hound and The Mountain and violent and, in the latter case especially, reprehensible characters, but The Hound’s pragmatic violence stands in stark contrast to the brutal sadism of characters like Ramsay Bolton. Violence on Thrones is, for lack of a better word, fun again.

Ramsay gets to be the worst again for the first half of the season, but thankfully disappears until the Battle of Winterfell, aka the Battle of the Bastards, which is perhaps the worst of the major battle episodes Thrones has done (ranking: Hardhome, Blackwater, Watchers on the Wall, Bastards). Even the Knights of Vale’s last minute arrival feels exactly like Blackwater four seasons ago. The Starks face great losses, but triumph over Ramsay, and while its great to see “good” get a win, its a Pyrrhic one made to look clean in post. A lot could be made of Jon’s strategical blunders, which get a lot of men killed, but its swept under the table swiftly. When the Northerners proclaim him King in the North, the rah-rah moment is deflated not only because of Sansa’s potential claim, but because he had just proven himself a great warrior but not a particularly even-headed leader. That being said, Ramsay’s sadism pays off a bit with his treatment of Rickon, even if its a bit unbelievable that Jon would fall for this trick there, and it has some beautiful images from director Miguel Sapochnik.

Arya’s Braavos and Dany’s Mereen storyline also come to a close in satisfying ways. It’s arguable whether Arya gained much as a character after the past two seasons, but I’d argue she has grown incredibly, and the moments in Braavos are so well filmed and so engaging that I wouldn’t want to see them shortened. A lot has been made of the disappointing dispatching of The Waif, but the final moment of imply-don’t-show worked perfectly for me, and Arya’s time spent watching a dramatic re-interpretation of Season One was hilarious and one of the only world-building steps of the season. Meanwhile, its fantastic to have Dany finally converging on the mainland, and it even manages to bring the Iron Islanders back in as well. The Kingsmoot storyline was relatively engaging as well, as Yara is a great presence and Theon works as a character outside of Ramsay’s control, even though Euron’s weird Donald Trump-esque performance was a bit odd.

If we’re talking satisfying resolutions though, Cersei’s storyline in King’s Landing is the end-all-be-all, and the season finale, The Winds of Winter, is one of the best episodes the show has ever done. It’s opening thirty minutes are thrilling, beautiful, and explosive, and the most shocking the show has been since the Red Wedding. It clears the table in a dramatic way, and while some great characters bite the bullet, in retrospect its the only way forward for this storyline, given that winter is coming. A lot of the conversation around Game of Thrones revolves around deaths, which is always a bad sign about a show. There should always be things to get invested in with characters other than death, and while Thrones isn’t the worst offender of DeathWatch culture, it traffics in it a fair amount. But the two major deaths this season, one in the Sept and one at the door, are both given the necessary dramatic weight and long-term ramifications to rise above pure shock value.

Before closing, its worth noting the emphasis on women in this season. Thrones has justifiably come under fire before for its treatment of women as objects, whether through sexposition or killing them left-right-and-centre (or, in Roz’s case, both!). It really came to a head last season with Sansa’s Ramsay storyline, which I think was a reasonable storyline decision told horribly due to important parts being given through Theon’s point of view. In this season, women take control, and outside of potentially Jon Snow, every character who gains power this season is a woman. Theon rejects his title and acts as a supporter to his sister Yara, Dany brings fire-and-blood spectacle back, Cersei takes over King’s Landing, the Dornish women and the Queen of Thorns find a feminine monarch to stand behind, and Sansa gets her revenge and retakes her childhood home (and sets up conflict with Jon when the people overlook her as Queen in the North). Even Margaery, who ends up in a not-so-great place, goes down swinging, a victim of playing the long game against Cersei’s willingness to flip the board over violently. Additionally, while the show doesn’t shy away from nudity, its much less reliant on the gratuitous nudity it so frequently employed before. A lot of what came before can be somewhat understood as reflective of the real conditions for women in medieval settings, but having the climax depend so strongly on the actions of the female characters is a refreshing change of pace.

In short, stuff happens, and the show is finally using the world it has built rather than trying to stack its deck further and further. However, the show is less-and-less able to enjoy anything not directly related to the plot. Travel becomes a bit funky (some characters seem to be able to teleport as needed), and the show stops taking its time in the journey. In a way, we’ve already seen a lot of what Westeros has to offer, and it is nice that things are a bit brisker. That being said, a bit of emphasis on the journey would be nice, and the side-scenes that used to take place on the road (remember Arya and the Hound?) now seem to be confined to palaces, with such awful scenes as Tyrion, Missandei, and Grey Worm figuring out the essence of humour. Putting plot ahead of character and world has made for a very satisfying season, but not the very best the show has ever done. It’s drawbacks are a necessary evil, and set up an exciting final two seasons, but the journey was more involving than the destination.

B+

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Individual Storyline Ratings:

  • Jon and Sansa retake Winterfell: B
  • Tyrion waits around for Dany: D+
  • Dany brings the Dothraki on the wooden horses: B
  • The Iron Islanders face a Kingsmoot: B-
  • Cersei faces the Faith: A-
  • A siege at Riverrun: B-
  • Bran sees all: B
  • A girl is Arya Stark: B+
  • Samwell Tarly takes a trip: C
  • The Hound looks for peace, briefly: B+

MVPs: Cersei, Sansa, Tormund, Davos, Yara, Lyanna Mormont, The Hound, Olenna Tyrell
Least Valuable Players: Tyrion, Ramsay, Sam, Littlefinger, Euron

Season ranking thus far: 2, 1, 3, 6, 4, 5

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Game of Thrones Season Six stops building its world and starts tearing it down

Review Roundup: The return of Saul Goodman, M. Night Shyamalan, Baumbach/Gerwig, and Ethan Hunt

The Visit (2015)
Dir. M. Night Shyamalan
Starring Olivia deJonge, Ed Oxenbould, Deanna Dunagan, and Peter McRobbie

The Visit has been hailed as a minor return to form for M. Night Shyamalan. I’ll agree, in that for once the faults with the movie have absolutely nothing to do with the writing or story, which is actually quite great for relatively disposable horror (more along the lines of 2010’s Devil, a fun little movie that he was involved with but didn’t direct). The setup, where two kids stay with the grandparents they never met and find that they’re dangerously out of sorts, is workable, and the twists the story takes are legitimately fantastic. It even finds a believable, narratively satisfying, and often funny use of the found footage conceit, by making granddaughter Becca a budding documentarian. However, its far from scary, its scares often literally arising from an old lady jumping in front of the camera and growling. It doesn’t take itself seriously and doesn’t need to, but there’s potential for some very unnerving work here. M. Night picked a bad time to attempt to develop a sense of humour.

Grade: D+

Mistress America (2015)
Dir. Noah Baumbach
Starring Lola Kirke, Greta Gerwig, Matthew Shear, and Heather Lind

Stories about aimless twenty-somethings in New York are a dime a dozen, but Noah Baumbach proved that he had an eye for it with 2014’s Frances Ha. As if trying to top that film, Greta Gerwig’s character in Mistress America is the cartoonish epitome of self-actualizing success-or-bust entitled go-getter culture, known in all the clubs, claims to have numerous writing ideas, and has big ideas of opening a earthy restaurant in downtown Manhattan. If the American dream was once comfort, Gerwig’s Brooke instead treats it as a whirlwind checklist. It’s utterly unreal, and the fascination she inspires in her college student soon-to-be-sister played by Lola Kirke is earned. When the two of them embark on a quest to save the restaurant, Mistress America’s second half plays as a giant single-stage comedy, with characters zipping in and out in hilarious fashions (looking at you, Karen). It has a distinctive rhythm to it, especially in its dialogue which sounds very staged but gives the movie its own voice. It’s a highly enjoyable, endlessly quotable romp, and I look forward to watching it again when not on an airplane.

Grade: B+

Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation (2015)
Dir. Christopher McQuarrie
Starring Tom Cruise, Rebecca Ferguson, Simon Pegg, and Jeremy Renner

The Mission Impossible movies as of late seem to be reliable critical and commercial performers that I’m unable to really get into, despite appreciating the fantastic stunt work. Rogue Nation is no exception, and even the stunts aren’t as impressive as they have been in the past. An underwater sequence that was supposedly very difficult to shoot never inspires a level of thrill to match the effort, although a subdued high-wire act at the Vienna Opera works quite well. The subplot involving the dissolution of the IMF is tired, as is Alec Baldwin’s haughty CIA boss stock character. The main villain is forgettable, ineffectual, and cliched, ringing too many familiar beats from Spectre-style organized supervillainy without having any fun with it. Most despressingly, Tom Cruise is finally starting to show some age. Thankfully, Simon Pegg remains a fantastic secondary presence, and newcomer Rebecca Ferguson has astounding screen presence as Cruise’s British undercover counterpart. Scenes with her come alive in a way the rest of the movie just doesn’t. Maybe give the franchise to Ferguson and Pegg, and put the rest of it back in the stable.

Grade: C

Better Call Saul, Season Two (2016)
Showrunners Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould
Starring Bob Odenkirk, Rhea Seehorn, Michael McKean, and Jonathan Banks

Better Call Saul obviously had big shoes to fill, and has established itself throughout two seasons as less reliant on action and big climaxes than its parent. It mostly succeeds in this, thanks to maintaining Breaking Bad’s habit of inventive cinematography and crafting some slow-building greatness in some of its main characters, namely Rhea Seehorn’s Kim Wexler and Michael McKean’s Chuck McGill, both of whom have a much more interesting presence here than in Season One. However, Better Call Saul seems to behaving a problem creating memorable characters in its supporting roles. While the odd supporter makes an impression, such as Jimmy’s film student lackies or Chuck’s gopher Ernesto, it still relies very heavily on bringing in familiar faces from Breaking Bad to fill its world, particularly in Mike Ehrmantraut’s side story. Mike’s story is generally a problem despite being interesting, as it stubbornly refuses to integrate into the main action. But even Jimmy/Saul’s story in season two has its faults. It opens by effectively undoing the end of the previous season, only to spend a half-season building to the same point (in an admittedly more natural way). Odenkirk is still fantastic, and the camera work and family-based storyline make Better Call Saul a very worthwhile watch. Check out Polite Fight over at The AV Club for some great in-depth analysis of the shot construction of the show, while only occasional devolving into conspiracy theory.

Grade: B

Review Roundup: The return of Saul Goodman, M. Night Shyamalan, Baumbach/Gerwig, and Ethan Hunt

Netflix’s Love is a complicated portrayal of one unlikable character, and an insipid portrayal of another

Netflix’s model of releasing all episodes at once is a major problem for many shows, which pad their lengths to seasons-long arcs with a movie’s worth of ideas yet lacking any episodic satisfaction. That same problem though can be a huge boon to hang-out shows, allowing us to get deeply invested in the characters without needing to worry about time constraints for narrative thrust and plenty of natural pauses. It worked well for Master of None, which I didn’t adore but liked a fair amount. It also works very well for half of Love, Judd Apatow, Leslie Arfin, and Paul Rust’s show that bears a significant resemblance to Apatow productions like Knocked Up. It allows the humor to flow while also letting the tragedy set in without an oversaturation of melodrama. Unfortunately, it crashes and burns for the other half, where one of the characters is just not that much fun to hang out with. It becomes an odd amalgamation of the hate-watch and the legitimate, which got me through the entire season but not without constant complaining.

Love concerns the star-crossed trajectories of (on paper) free-spirit Mickey (Gillian Jacobs) and nerdy Gus (Paul Rust). Those on-paper descriptions falter pretty quickly, where Mickey’s free-spiritedness and Gus’ nebbishness are shown to be a front for deep-seated interpersonal issues and all-encompassing selfishness. Mickey’s character treats other people terribly, has no direction in life, and is a generally miserable presence; she’s also a complete character who is actively trying to understand and better herself, which makes her fascinating and sympathetic. Gus, on the other hand, is the least self-aware character in existence, another subversion of the Nice Guy trope who denies culpability in his wrongdoings and escapes relatively unscathed and uneducated. He’s an uninteresting and static character who we learn almost nothing about really over the course of the series, aside from it being continually confirmed that he’s a selfish prick with occasional moments of awkward charm who abuses any small amount of power handed to him. Gus is an interesting character, but not a particularly novel one, and definitely not a particularly sympathetic one.

His half of the show is the hate-watch, whereas Mickey’s is the legitimately fantastic show. She’s a subversion of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, which has been done before (500 Days of Summer, Eternal Sunshine, Master of None to an extent) but rarely from the female perspective. When she abuses her roommate, trashes a party, or lies at an AA meeting, its certainly not portrayed favourably, but the humanity behind it is not lost. We consistently want better from and for Mickey because she wants better from and for herself. Jacobs is stellar in the role, and a bit of a revelation as a dramatic actress. Perhaps her greatest trick is convincing us that she would be interested in Gus, not because he actually is any better but because we know she has white-knighted the Nice Guy on the surface. There’s a weird reversal of the norms at work where Mickey is the one putting Gus on a pedestal, with the dark side of the Nice Guy trope playing as a complete surprise to her. It’s a testament to Jacobs and the Mickey character that this oversight plays as completely natural, and it almost makes the whole thing work.

But then Gus has to ruin the whole thing again. We’re sold on Mickey being into Gus, despite it falling into the Ugly Guy/Hot Girl trope, but Gus is also getting into threesomes with co-eds and spurring the attention of actresses, which stretches credulity. This trope runs a bit deeper even. Mickey’s roommate, Bertie (Claudia O’Doherty), is the best person who ever lived, and is sold as someone people like. But even Bertie, who really is The Best, winds up with a awkward, smiley man-child at the end of the season. Bertie gonna be Bertie I suppose, but it betrays the dark streak hinted in her character in episodes like “Party In The Hills”. The supporting cast as a whole help sell the show, particularly the always reliable Brett Gelman as Mickey’s boss, Iris Apatow as child actress Arya, Chris Witaske as Gus’ toaster-stupified friend, and Jordan Rock as self-aware minority best friend Kevin, but for a ten-episode season the bench doesn’t run especially deep.

I hated a lot of Love, but its hang-out vibe did work and Mickey and Bertie are fantastic (cut out Gus next season and I’m back in). It didn’t hurt to finish the season, but its counterpart Master of None is so clearly superior that its hard to recommend despite its positive qualities. This could be the kind of show that improves in its already-confirmed second season, so I’ll check it out again then depending on the reviews. As it stands, its a fun show to argue about but a bit of nuisance to actually watch.

C+

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Best Episodes: It Begins, The Date, The Table Read

Love: Season One (2016)
Created by Judd Apatow, Leslie Arfin, and Paul Rust
Starring Gillian Jacobs, Paul Rust, and Claudia O’Doherty
On Netflix

Netflix’s Love is a complicated portrayal of one unlikable character, and an insipid portrayal of another