Essays, Film, Game of Thrones, Marvel Cinematic Universe, The Sopranos

Death Wish: When did death become the journey?

The end of April saw two of the biggest pop-culture entertainment events of the decade in one weekend, and something strange has become apparent through the other side of them: we have become obsessed with death.

In the wake of arguably the biggest episode in Game of Thrones’ history, The Long Night, which saw the long-awaited, titanic battle between the living and the dead, a great deal of complaints flew around in the ether that we hadn’t seen enough major character meet the Lord of Light (or insert substitute maker). Why didn’t Jaime Lannister go down fighting? How come Sansa Stark wasn’t mauled alive in the crypts? Surely Sam Tarly would never have survived in the savage, undead melee? Fans and commentators seemed fixated on the outcome of the battle for Winterfell being significant loss, as opposed to victory or defeat for the collected good guys.

Equally, in the run up to Avengers: Endgame, Marvel’s culmination to the first decade of their cinematic universe, all bets were on one of two deaths: Tony ‘Iron Man’ Stark or Steve ‘Captain America’ Rogers. Both played by actors who publically stated they were done, both playing characters who have reached the logical end of their ten-year story arcs. In a narrative choice earned and logical, it’s Tony who takes the bullet (alright, gauntlet) and shuffles off to superhero immortality, but what was the state of conversation in the wake of this? That everyone saw this coming. Tony’s death was too predictable. For some, it even clouded the entire film. Endgame, to certain audience members, was about who died, who wouldn’t make it out into the next phase.

When did this become what long-form storytelling was about? Why is the death of characters we are so attached to the destination, the only destination, that matters?

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Essays, Essays, Film, Game of Thrones, Marvel Cinematic Universe, Star Trek: Discovery, TV

End Game of Treks: Is Time-Travel Becoming a Storytelling Crutch?

In one of the busiest few months in science-fiction and fantasy popular-culture, the beginning of 2019 has seen three major franchises in cinema and on television become embroiled in what could be rapidly becoming a narrative crutch.

Time-travel.

The lacklustre Season 2 of Star Trek: Discovery (I really promise to stop talking about this soon) saw the crew of the Starfleet ship launch themselves almost 1000 into the distant Federation future to prevent a universe-destroying, rampant AI from wiping out all life. The gigantic conclusion to the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first era, Avengers: Endgame, saw our superheroes enter the Quantum Realm and zip backwards across time to recover the universe-shattering Infinity Stones before the Mad Titan, Thanos, can snap his fingers again and wipe out half of all sentient life. And just this week, Game of Thrones saw the ultimate battle with the Night King and his army of the dead, coming to wipe out the living, which all hung on the fate of Bran Stark, a time-travelling tree-wizard.

Anyone noticing a pattern here? Three legendary franchises. Three titanic threats to the fabric of the entire universe. And in each case, the resolution of the paradox has the potential to lie in the bending of time.

We’re in danger of death by temporal mechanics if we’re not careful.

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Episode Reviews, Game of Thrones, TV

GAME OF THRONES 1×10: ‘Fire and Blood’ (TV Review)

The first season finale of Game of Thrones starts with the sight of blood, and ends in a vision of fire. Living up to its title, Fire and Blood sees the culmination of the beginning of A Song of Ice and Fire on screen. The scene is set. The players have been introduced, at least the initial core who will carry through until the very final season – Jon Snow, Daenerys Targaryen, Arya Stark, Bran Stark, Sansa Stark, Cersei Lannister, Jaime Lannister and Tyrion Lannister – and Game of Thrones has fully established itself as a TV phenomenon in the making.

What these final two episodes of the first season, both directed by Alan Taylor, establish is that Game of Thrones also will not cleve to a traditional TV narrative structure. Besides only running for ten episodes a season, a trend show runners David Benioff & D.B. Weiss would set off across the burgeoning range of cable networks and streaming services over the next decades, Game of Thrones’ final episodes of a season are always structured much like epilogues. Traditionally, the finale has been where the biggest shocks take place in television, where character’s fates are decided, and often cliffhanger endings (hence the colloquial TV term which slipped into popular-culture) which will be resolved in the premiere of the following season. 

This structure feels like a hold-over from continuing drama or soap opera, whereas Game of Thrones always, appropriately, structured its seasons like a novel. Fire and Blood ends where George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones ends, with the world established and the characters all heading down roads that will define them next season and beyond. Baelor contained the biggest jaw dropping moments – Ned Stark’s execution, the Battle of the Green Fork (even if we never saw it), the death of Khal Drogo – whereas Fire and Blood is about consolidating these points of no return and placing the chess pieces in this broad game in place for Season 2, and the show’s adaptation of Martin’s A Clash of Kings.

It is very much a prelude for the war to come.

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Episode Reviews, Game of Thrones, TV

GAME OF THRONES 1×09: ‘Baelor’ (TV Review)

Numerous precedents are set by Game of Thrones with Baelor. It is the first episode to be directed by Alan Taylor, who would make his name as one of the key, signature directors of the first two seasons. It is the first penultimate episode of the series to establish the show’s unique narrative style of delivering a blockbuster climactic tale just before the season finale. And it is the episode which killed off not only the biggest name actor in the series, but the character everyone began watching Game of Thrones convinced was the protagonist. By now we knew Game of Thrones had its own set of rules. Baelor confirms it.

As I’ve discussed in my breakdowns of the previous episodes this season, Ned Stark has been heading for the chopping block since the moment he arrived in Kings Landing, and there has always been a sense in Sean Bean’s weight-of-the-world performance that Ned knew it. This was a noble character in a world without nobility, a feudal system which may ostensibly be ridden with stories of dashing, daring, brave heroes, but is shot through with a realistic, cynical modern day sensibility in George R.R. Martin’s world-building which often heaps scorn on the kind of characters who would try and live by rules of courtly, honourable behaviour.

Cersei Lannister told Ned just a few episodes that you either win at “the game” or you die, but Ned never really knew how to play that game at all. He was a character straight out of a different world, which was precisely the point; the moment he concedes he may have to start playing, not to win but rather to survive, his life is quite ceremoniously cut short. It’s just one of the stark (pun intended) ironies of Game of Thrones.

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Episode Reviews, Game of Thrones, TV

GAME OF THRONES 1×08: ‘The Pointy End’ (TV Review)

One of the interesting aspects of You Win or You Die, which I failed to mention in my analysis of that episode, was how the children were completely eliminated from view, at least the younger children who will prove so crucial to the central narrative of Game of Thrones.

The Pointy End redresses this balance by re-framing the episode from the perspective of a future generation who will shape the future of Westeros, so it is perhaps quite appropriate this is the first script to be written by George R. R. Martin.

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Episode Reviews, Game of Thrones, TV

GAME OF THRONES 1×07: ‘You Win or You Die’ (TV Review)

If ever you wanted to point to an early episode of Game of Thrones which would serve as a mission statement for the iconic series to come, outside of Winter Is Coming, you could do worse than point to You Win or You Die. It is, in many senses of the word, a game-changer. The episode firmly establishes the key, central ideological concept at the very heart of George R.R. Martin’s opus, and it’s one we may already have strongly suspected: we are watching a very powerful and very deadly game in progress.

Though it contains a number of extra elements, You Win or You Die can be seen as a clearer successor to The Wolf and the Lion than A Golden Crown was to the developing narrative. It takes many of the political and Machiavellian ideas established in the fifth episode and builds on them, moving the season firmly toward what would constitute a climactic end game which will play out over the final three episodes, depicting in broad strokes the ending of the book A Game of Thrones and leading very clearly into the adaptation of sequel A Clash of Kings, which will form the basis of the second season.

Fates are sealed in this episode with more certainty than they have been for some time, yet the majority of what happens feels inevitable. David Benioff & D.B. Weiss’ script simply brings into focus many more thematic concepts that have been gestating since the season began.

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Episode Reviews, Game of Thrones, TV

GAME OF THRONES 1×06: ‘A Golden Crown’ (TV Review)

As we move into the second half of Game of Thrones’ debut season, two of the most central concepts of George R.R. Martin’s saga begin to assert themselves in deeper ways: children and lineage. A Golden Crown is an episode filled with the lingering shadows of lost childhood and assumptions, or presumptions, of birthright.

David Benioff & D.B. Weiss present, of course, probably Game of Thrones’ first true watershed, “OMG they just did that!” moment with the horrendous death of Viserys Targaryen, given the titular ‘golden crown’ by Khal Drogo when he finally pushes his luck a little too far with the Dothraki, who take his demands just a touch too literally.

Game of Thrones would of course top this many times over – Ned Stark’s shocking execution in Baelor at the end of the first season would be the next, and the one the series will forever be immortalised for is the so-called ‘Red Wedding’ in the third season’s penultimate episode The Rains of Castamere – both examples of which cement the idea of the penultimate episodes of Game of Thrones always provide the biggest shock events or battles, before a calmer, scene-setting finale.

We’re some way from that yet. Right now, Game of Thrones just pulled a flanker in the sixth episode.

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Episode Reviews, Game of Thrones, TV

GAME OF THRONES 1×05: ‘The Wolf and the Lion’ (TV Review)

Halfway into the first season of Game of Thrones and establishment is beginning to give way to narrative momentum. The Wolf and the Lion may not, on the face of it, be as action-packed as some of the previous episodes, and certainly not many of those to come, but in many respects it serves as the lynchpin of the first season and the core of David Benioff & D.B. Weiss’ adaptation so far. Once again, the title says it all. Wolf and Lion. Stark and Lannister. The Dragon will form the culmination of this triptych, but not yet. We don’t see any sign of a Targaryen at any point in this episode.

That doesn’t mean, of course, they are not central and crucial to the conversations and conspiracies swirling around King’s Landing. We spend more time in the Westeros capital in this episode than we have in any other, principally because Benioff & Weiss are beginning to pull the threads of George R.R. Martin’s novel A Game of Thrones which lead directly to his next book, A Clash of Kings, which would form the basis of the second season of the show.

At this stage, their adaptation is faithful. The majority of beats are being followed, characters being established, and storylines being developed, with the odd exception of creative license for television purposes; Littlefinger & Varys’ sparring, the much lauded scene between Robert Baratheon & Cersei Lannister for example, or bulking out the homosexual relationship between Ser Loras Tyrell & Renly Baratheon, more suggested in Martin’s novels.

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Episode Reviews, Game of Thrones, TV

GAME OF THRONES 1×04: ‘Cripples, Bastards and Broken Things’ (TV Review)

To understand Game of Thrones’ fourth episode, you need only to consider the title, for Cripples, Bastards and Broken Things quite adequately sums up the focus David Benioff & D.B. Weiss’ series lends as the world building continues to manifest.

This is, of course, the first episode of the show not written by the show-runners themselves, rather Bryan Cogman, who will go on to be one of their most signature collaborators outside of, naturally, George RR Martin. Surprisingly, Cogman has stated the central theme which the title alludes to, the idea of outsiders and those rejected by their families and circumstances, wasn’t in the forefront of his mind when he was adapting material from A Game of Thrones that would comprise the episode. Given how successfully the piece ties together in a thematic context this is almost difficult to believe.

Cogman manages to zero in on the central characters who fit the titular templates in a manner the series simply hasn’t had time to yet accomplish, while still forwarding all of the natural, serialised story arcs the show is constructing.It is quite telling that Cogman chooses to begin proceedings at Winterfell, the setting that most encapsulates the concept of bastards across the run of the series, and digs into three very different characters. Bran has his first true vision here of the Three-Eyed Raven, who naturally serves as a primary presaging of his entire character arc across the run of the series, but it comes in the form of a Crow which leads him, walking through Winterfell, to the strange, at this stage unnerving creature. Bran also continues to deny his status as a ‘cripple’ (unkind word as that of course is), particularly when the other signature ‘broken’ character in the story, Tyrion, as a parting gift chooses to bestow upon Bran technology which would allow him to ride a horse, even without the means to walk.

When Bran declares he’s not a cripple, Tyrion replies with “and I’m not a dwarf”. Tyrion has accepted who he is at this stage, forged through years of experience. Bran, as yet, has not.

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Episode Reviews, Game of Thrones, TV

GAME OF THRONES 1×03: ‘Lord Snow’ (TV Review)

If the first two episodes of Game of Thrones established the core characters and concepts the saga will pursue, Lord Snow makes us keenly aware not just of the underpinning geo-politics, but the deliberate level of fractious perception which makes up the realm of the Seven Kingdoms.

Though we have visited the city in previous episodes, King’s Landing is explored in greater detail, with the introduction of Littlefinger and his houses of ill-repute, and characters such as Lord Varys and Grand Maester Pycelle, all of them the kind of elite noblemen and courtiers you would have found in ancient Rome or the round tables of English Kings, part of a city which feels akin to a fusion of Roman architecture and the pulse of Tudor London. For the first time, we see the symbol of power many will come to desire in Game of Thrones – the Iron Throne, a seat constructed of the swords of past Kings, which with the greatest level of irony we’re introduced to as Jaime Lannister perches at the foot of it.

Jaime, being a Lannister, often goes out of his way to reinforce his own narrative about events of the past and present regarding his family. Even though he earned his soubriquet ‘Kingslayer’ for the fact he slaughtered Aerys ‘the Mad King’ Targaryen at the foot of the Throne, Jaime nonetheless blames the will of the people and realm for his murderous actions to Ned Stark, incumbent Hand of the King, taunting the man not only over his position “they say the King shits, and the Hand wipes” but that the noblemen of the realm stood by and did nothing when Ned’s father & brother were murdered in the Throne Room during Robert’s Rebellion. In one conversation, barbed with an undercurrent of hatred, the enmity of the Lannister’s and Stark’s is clear.

One family values truth, the other values their truth.

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