Category Archives: television

Saturday Night Live Season 43, Episode 3: Kumail Najiani stands above a bizarrely muddled episode

How’s the Cold Open?

Look, I’ve said everything I can say about these at this point. Baldwin’s Trump is limp at this point, any hint of vitality just totally drained through repetition and the fact that he was definitely never supposed to be playing the character this long. They’ve tried to move into the idea that this is just what it is now, think every other Presidential impersonator, but Baldwin’s not got a quite deep enough take for that.

The stuff with Pence is kind of funny even if the timing feels really off. I wish we could go a little deeper into Bennett’s Pence, just as kind of unnerving and creepy as the real thing.

SNL has got to find a way to inject a new energy into these, they’ve got four years and they’re already running out of steam with a character more ripe for mockery than ever.

Who’s Hosting?

Kumail Nanjiani is one of comedy’s brightest lights, a guy with movie star presence, character actor specificity, and podcaster endearingness and openness and weirdness. His turn in The Big Sick shows his potential as a leading man and I hope getting his chance here makes him into a star.

He’s great in this show, even when the material around him isn’t. His great underplaying and connection with the performers around him shows an old hand and the kind of guy who VERY clearly could have been a cast member. If the show had given him more to do, he would have made a much clearer place as the best of this season so far. He still is, but it could have been clearer.

What Sketches Are Worth Watching?

“Kellywise”

Something of a sequel to the Kellyanne Conway/Fatal Attraction sketch, this time placing McKinnon’s Conway into IT as a clown dredging the media into the sewers with her (a surprisingly apt metaphor). McKinnon’s Conway has definitely evolved as a character since the early days of the “put-upon babysitter” and crossing that more sinister interpretation with McKinnon’s surprisingly apt impression of Skarsgard’s Pennywise to create a character that’s surprisingly unnerving and pulls off laughs and a couple startles. The cinematography here is also just great, how good has the craft gotten on these pre-written sketches as of late? A smarter core and some great performances make for a great sketch.

“Bank Breakers”

While my sympathies towards game show sketches may be different than most (I love ’em), this is still a seriously solid one. The great situation it puts Kumail’s character in is really elevated by his perfect exasperation at the whole situation. Strong underplays really well and while I wish there had been a twist here, I do love this thing’s slow pushing in of the knife.

“Customer Service”

Julio Torres is one of this show’s most quiet all-stars, a writer of sweet and bizarre and quiet sketches that get laughs and pull on the heartstrings in just the right way. After being the Gosling episode MVP for “Papyrus,” “Customer Service” comes along and becomes something quiet and lovely in an episode that didn’t tend towards those things. Strong’s Melania as a prisoner of Donald feels more accurate than those choices for any other woman and the connection between her and Kumail’s character really does feel genuine. Give this man a TV show/movie/whatever and I’ll be there.

“Kumail Nanjiani Standup Monologue”

For those of you who aren’t all-in on podcasts or haven’t had the pleasure, Kumail Nanjiani is a truly phenomenal stand-up and I’m thrilled to see him get a chance to show that on such a national stage. A unique and deeply funny voice, Nanjiani’s speaking on Islamophobia is a bold routine and I hope this motivates to get out and watch his stand-up.

What?

This week, I don’t know if the stuff so much didn’t work as just left me sitting there baffled.

“Nursing Home”

There’s one really solid joke here. McKinnon’s bizarre wordless grandma versus the description of her sexual proclivities to her shocked descendants. Nanjiani’s very cavalier doctor gives an extra layer of absurdity that never quite covers it all. But there was a bizarre looseness to the sketch and a problem with endings that seemed to carry through the whole night. Just couldn’t ever quite get off the ground rather than crashing.

“Hotel Check-In”

As a piece of writing, a less-good version of the far more specific and bizarre version of this sketch that Louis C.K. did a couple years back. As a piece of performance, Nanjiani basically doing his recurring character from Portlandia carried this through really strongly. And at least it had an actual ending, even if it just felt like a lesser version of what we’ve seen.

“Film Panel”

Ehh, I’m not quite sure we should have another Debette Goldry. As much fun as McKinnon has with the character, the writing and the reaction just feels too muted to work at this point and this is a character that can’t be coming in with expectations, it only works when unexpected. It’s smart to use this for the Weinstein stuff, but it feels like the point of the sketch (it’s nothing compared to the old days) feels tone-deaf when the details of Weinstein’s harassment rings loudly in everyone’s ears right now. It’s showing how little change there has been, a sketch like this misses the point. I know the show feels the need to address it, but this wasn’t the best way.

“Office Halloween Party”

A sketch with bizarre energy for its placement in the show. This is a 10-to-1 that was up at the top, maybe the first thing that really derailed this show’s momentum. I really like the low-key reactions and the monotone work, but the premise just never finds its twist or its timing and it ends up just feeling like a trip than a strut.

Weekend Update!

The continuing evolution of Che and Jost into clapter machines moves along unabated here. They go after Weinstein pretty hard here, getting a few fairly solid shots off (Jost’s joke about the alternative to a cushy sex rehab “Yeah it’s a prison” is particularly strong) and Che’s later rant about Trump’s use of the Christmas culture wars is on-point. While SNL has always had a weirdly mushy politics to avoid pissing anyone off, Trump is such an easy target that it’s focused these anchors in a way they’ve really needed. Che’s sloppiness feels passionate, Jost’s blandness feels deliberate.

One correspondent tonight, Strong bringing in new character Ivana Trump, Donald’s wife from back in his 80s-heyday (*sigh* well, first heyday). Strong’s character work is really strong here, carving out a different take than Jan Hooks’, and plenty of great details even if Ivana is a minor player right now. Strong is maybe one of the better character players on the show right now, and considering they lost two of their best, it’s needed.

Did You Actually Watch The Musical Guest?

I did!

P!nk puts on a good show!

MVPs!

Between her great work in the Bank Breakers sketch, her Ivana Trump character, and her ability to play along better than anyone else tonight, it’s Cecily for the MVP tonight. One of the show’s best actors and one of its most important assets, it’s gonna be harder to lose her than we would think.

Kate McKinnon – 1
Aidy Bryant – 1
Cecily Strong – 1

Final Thoughts!

Boy this show feels limp transitioning back from a big season, doesn’t it? It always tends to be weak coming back from an election, having had all the attention focused on them and having blown through a whole lot of ideas because of that. Plus as the show moves into the transition to its next cast (McKinnon is the center and it’s clear we’re hitting the time for most of the cast to make their move), the show’s obviously got a lot ahead of it.

So maybe that’s why this one feels so sloppy. No one quite knows what’s happening, the cast is enthusiastic if messy. A lot of talent is flying around and it doesn’t feel focused. Nanjiani is a great host, but would have been even better with a more energized cast. Hopefully the break can whip them into shape and Larry David can bring them some good shit.

Season Rankings (Shamelessly stolen from SNL Scorecard)

  1. Kumail Nanjiani
  2. Gal Gadot
  3. Ryan Gosling
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Saturday Night Live Season 43, Episode 2: Gal Gadot plays the straight woman all night

How’s the Cold Open?

The SNL after a tragedy is always a weird thing, something so visible and so of its moment is always gonna feel the need to address what’s happened and yet it’s never not gonna feel weird for something so goofy (which will have a sketch about tiny mice mocking a lady for being poor later on) to be addressing a mass shooting like this. Yet it’s what we live in now, where you just have to learn how to talk about these things and move on.

This is a relatively classy way, letting Jason Alden perform and retake some narrative around him and also pay tribute to the late, great Tom Petty. A solid, kind, and evocative way to deal with a tragic event.

Who’s Hosting?

Gal Gadot has been a charming screen presence ever since she first popped up in the Fast and Furious franchise, but she’s the kind of actress who can have issues on SNL. Game and eager, but more adept at the physical parts of acting than wrapping around the dialogue. Gadot also has little live acting experience and the accent could have made things tricky.

Gadot is certainly eager and game, which is most of hosting, but the show honestly doesn’t give her much to do. Unlike most hosts, Gadot is never given the chance to really cut loose or play the comic character. She’s the reaction or the straight woman in every sketch and when she does get to be the comic character, she’s really low-key (such as in her Jenner performance).

What Sketches Are Worth Watching?

“First Date:

This is definitely one of those sketches that feels like a weird premise being held back from the 90s, but with OJ in the news, I guess now is as good a time as any to use it. This one is sold entirely on Kenan’s skillful comic underplaying of OJ here and the great little comedy of errors stacking that the writing does here. A solid premise and performance that uses OJ as a shortcut rather than a whole joke, the kind of sketch that tends to be rare.

“Safelite”

Honestly, if we’re gonna do these heavy product placement sketches, let’s make the companies regret doing ’em. Beck does great work with his bald goateed creep and the steady escalation honestly feels almost too real to be funny, tipping just past into the point of absurdity. This is a dark sketch, like the White Castle one from last season, and I’m all for it.

“Themyscira”

A thin premise (and what appears to be an apology to Kate McKinnon for all those Last Call sketches) is pretty much buoyed by Aidy Bryant and McKinnon’s delightful energy here. It has the same weird “Fellow Kids” quality that applies every time they do a sketch using some popular genre series, but again, Bryant and McKinnon are just having so much goshdarned fun I can’t help but enjoy this one.

“E! New Lineup”

I’m actually a sucker for these fake show sketches (Powerful Sluts of Miami is such a great title) and this is a fairly solid one, some solid easy pitches the show manages to hit. Gadot’s Kendall Jenner is surprisingly accurate and Chris Redd’s Kanye impression that doesn’t say a thing feels more dead-on than Pharaoh’s vocalized Kanye. Doesn’t overstay its welcome either.  New cast member Luke Null actually getting a chance to show off too.

“The Chosen One”

Pete Davidson’s recurring character, the moron teen that everyone has big plans for (may not be the actual name), is one of the most low-key successful recurring characters on this show. Even if it’s pretty much the same joke every time, there’s something that feels infinitely malleable about the performance and everyone’s reactions to him that get funnier the bigger this gets. Suffice to say, the very serious and big fantasy world being reliant on this idiot is pretty funny.

What Didn’t Work?

“Mirage”

Kind of a silly sketch, but really just hammers home the same joke without ever finding another angle to mine something fresh out of it. Just too thin to be really that great.

“The Maiden and The Mice”

Like a more innocent version of those sex fiend elf sketches, this one has pretty much the same amount of laughs that like…the 5th or 6th version of that sketch did. It doesn’t know what the joke is, doesn’t know what it’s mocking, just not sure at all what’s really happening outside of the fact that they know how to do this shrinky effect.

“Espionage”

A lesser version of the Surveillance sketch from Wonder Woman co-star Chris Pine’s episode, this one didn’t have the same goofy innocence that one did, this one ended up more like an attempt to connect two disparate sketch ideas, forcing the events that they’re seeing to do more work than just their reactions to it.

“The Naomi Show”

This one ends up kinda feeling like a lesser version of a sketch that a lot of different shows have tried at one point or another, the “Maury” parody with an excessively strange character. The host is not usually the straight-woman, it’s weird to slot Gadot in here. But while Gardner is certainly going for it here and Bryant is giving just as much oomph to her performance, this one just feels like a fizzle.

“Gal Gadot Monologue”

There’s just not much to say here, cute concept, doesn’t amount to much.

Weekend Update!

This was an Update that went for a lot of Clapter (applause for truth-telling over comic punch) as Che and Jost largely spent their joke segments going for gun control. It’s passionate for sure and the raw confidence and attitude is certainly a different look for them. Jost and Che might consider seeing how they could turn it into a different tone as they found some stronger jokes in going bold and direct and avoiding the muddled politics that SNL is often rightfully accused of.

Two old standbys round out Weekend Update. I’ll confess that I don’t much cared for McKinnon’s Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who’s the sort of broad comic character that McKinnon can do better than and feels way more like an early ’00s piece than of the modern era. There was something delightful post-election, but outside of that it feels bland. Here, you know the joke, there’s not much more to it.

Davidson makes a pretty bold admission on air (his Borderline diagnosis), Davidson as the show’s open and honest presence has been a good niche for him and he gets some solid jokes here.

Did You Actually Watch The Musical Guest?

Nah.

I’m still mad at Sam Smith for winning that Oscar. Such bullshit.

MVPs!

Tonight, Aidy Bryant by and away runs away with the show. In a show that leans towards the low-key, she manages to buoy a couple sketches with some very loud, very strong energy and is just an all-out delight to watch in this episode.

Kate McKinnon – 1
Aidy Bryant – 1

Final Thoughts!

Honestly, I think putting Gadot in all straight-woman roles tonight was a mistake. It made for a show that didn’t feel anywhere near goofy enough and kept its energy too low to lift off the ground. It’s a benefit for that energy that the show was more about weird premises than anything else as it suited a lot of that listless energy. But a few strong ones don’t take away from how sleepy this one was.

Season Rankings (Shamelessly stolen from SNL Scorecard)

  1. Gal Gadot
  2. Ryan Gosling

Saturday Night Live Season 43, Episode 1: Ryan Gosling giggles as the cast shakes the rust off

And we’re back! After a summer that was funny in only a dark “Hahahaha the nuclear blast is coming right for us” sort of way, can SNL make us laugh? Can Ryan Gosling’s ridiculously handsome face giggling at everything make us smile? Can Alec Baldwin’s Trump find something interesting?

How’s the Cold Open?

Well…maybe not.

Look, I’m on record as of last season that whatever was enjoyable about Alec Baldwin playing President Trump early on in the season has been sucked out of the room as SNL turns him into every other recurring character, a cheap set of point scoring parodies of the most difficult man to parody in the country.

And this sketch didn’t necessarily prove me wrong.

A summer of bizarre choices and decisions and statements provided plenty of ripe ground for the direct mockery and psychological examination that the Trump administration requires. I mean, The Mooch alone.

But this one never managed to find the energy. Trump’s feud with the San Juan mayor (Melissa Villasenor) is played with an air of “Can you believe this?” that seems to undersell the more general reaction and lose a pointedness to the comedy. The cavalcade of firings largely exists as a throwaway line. Not a whole lot of laugh lines, just a lot of limp jokes.

McKinnon’s Sessions injects a little extra energy into the sketch, a bizarre Little Rascals-esque take on everyone’s least favorite Alabamian. With her weird drawl and possibly monster teeth, it’s at least more off-kilter.

Overall, a bit of a blunder to start the season off.

Season Premiere Update!

Who’s in? Who’s out?

Who’s out this season are two long-timers and a short-timer who never got served like she should have. Announced was Bobby Moynihan and Vanessa Bayer leaving, both invaluable show presences and both definitely missed in this season’s premiere. Moynihan was a relentless presence, an out-sized performer who had little dignity in the best of ways. Bayer honed in hard on her characters, was one of the few who could bring a character back and wring the same laughs out of them each time. Unfortunately, departing alongside them was Sasheer Zamata, an actress with a gift for reaction on par with Kenan Thompson, and who never got her due on the show.

Who’s in? Well, for once, SNL took three out and put three back in. The most notable of the three is Chris Redd, who turned a memorable supporting role as Hunter the Hungry in Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, and is the kind of committed and consummate performer who could do great here when he finds his groove (and was already getting some laughs from me). Also joining the cast is Heidi Gardner, a Groundlings graduate and voice actress, and Luke Null, an iO Theater mainstay known for his musical comedy.

Who’s Hosting?

Ryan Gosling is a fun sort of host, the host whose entire appeal seems to be how an actor who’s famous for being as stoic and serious as he is (to be fair, the man can indulge in light-heart and comedy with the best of them) is being so goofy and so unable to keep his shit together. There’s a certain level of endearing to how much time Gosling spends breaking in these sketches, never mugging, but earnestly so amused by what’s going on around him that he can’t stop laughing.

And on a related note, he’s also such a great actor that he’s the kind of guy who can really mine laughs out of performance, even with thin premises.

What Sketches Are Worth Watching?

“Papyrus”

Case in point. Of course, for true comic effect, it really helps to put him in a sketch where he’s not live.

Basically a sketch where one small Tweets-worth of joke (literally) is pulled out to its emotional conclusion, Gosling really sells his extended breakdown over the font of the logo for Avatar. The heightened drama of it is hilarious and the moody filmmaking really helps to tie a bow on the best sketch of the night.

“The Fliplets”

I don’t know who else this one was for, but I loved the hell out of it. Day and Moffat have become a very strong asset for SNL, especially as a pair, so their weird “we could probably be siblings” chemistry has been a surprising delight. This one takes it and ratchets up the insanity just a bit, producing this weird bit of sibling disaffection. It’s also a chance for Gosling to really show off his comedy acting chops, leaning hard into the intensity in a fantastic little dark monologue there at the end.

Kinda?

“Dive Bar”

I don’t know how much this one has what one might call a point. Just seems like a weird costumes and weird voices sketch with a refrain that breaks up the acts, but I laughed! It’s so go-for-broke bizarre and all that great specificity (Kenan’s constant refrain about his good jeans) finds something enjoyable even if it isn’t anything but a series of non-sequitur.

“Another Close Encounter”

Look, it was one thing when they brought her back as a recurring character for other hosts, the magic was that Gosling’s cracking up was so unexpected and McKinnon seemed to be deliberately encouraging it. This is SNL trying to make lightning strike twice and I don’t know if it’s a great idea. Sure they do it and McKinnon is never more a comic tour de force than in sketches like this (being a sketch center of gravity works better for her than someone like Wiig), but it just feels lazy to do the repeat.

“Ryan Gosling’s Jazz Monologue”

Look, if we’re gonna do musical sketches, this is my kind of musical sketch. I don’t know if it really is a funny joke, but Gosling’s ridiculous commitment ends up really selling the whole bit.

“N’Erlins.”

What Didn’t Work?

“Italian Restaurant”

Again, we’re retreading ground (this is basically the Chris Farley coffee commercial or the Blue River Dog Food) but it just feels a little too sloppy to match up to those. Besides Gosling’s horrible cue-card face in this one, the product placement nature of the sketch ends up leaving a bad taste in the mouth.

“Henrietta & The Fugitive”

I’m gonna be real…I’m not totally sure what this is. Way too long, seemingly totally dramatic except for that angle of “She’s a big chicken,” and just too slack to ever really sell the premise in the right way. A weird sketch that feels like they were just out of ideas is never a great thing for a show this early in the season.

“Levi’s Wokes”

I just can’t for the life of me tell what the direction of this sketch is. Who is it mocking? Is it making fun of social justice terminology? Is it making fun of brands co-opting that terminology to sell products? Who’s the point here? It’s possibly a sketch SNL really shouldn’t be doing, it’s possibly a great piece of satire. But it’s too unpointed to work.

Weekend Update!

Jost and Che are perhaps the least out of practice in this whole cast, having done Weekend Update over the summer. So they’re already in normal form, though the partnership felt a little unbalanced tonight. Jost was fine, but none of the material ever really punched hard. Che on the other hand was on fire. Though neither got off a great joke, Che unleashed a pretty nice angry rant and there’s something cathartic about hearing him whip off “You cheap cracker” at Trump.

Our correspondents were both solid if unspectacular. McKinnon’s Merkel seems to have lost some of her luster as a character under Trump, less the outsider but not quite leaning into the terrified change in the world order. So it’s mostly shoehorning in the older jokes. Moffat’s Guy Who Just Bought a Boat is an older concept (Mr. Subliminal) but it’s so dead-on and well-performed that it’s watching, even if this is maybe the last time it’ll be funny.

Did You Actually Watch The Musical Guest?

I did!

Jay-Z gave a solid set of performances, the confessional rawness of the second one something you just don’t see on SNL very often.

MVPs!

Let’s just let this one go to Kate McKinnon. No one else was so consistently enjoyable to watch, and her centerpiece in the Alien Abduction sketch is still a reminder of how good she is. Her becoming the center of the sketch never feels selfish, just an anchored assurance that everyone around her can play off.

Final Thoughts!

A rough start. I get it, that’s pretty normal. Shaking the rust off is needed, but there was a little more rust than normal. Gosling is an enjoyable performer, but one not ready enough for live TV to anchor a show like this. More misses than hits, let’s see how that continues.

Season Rankings (Shamelessly stolen from SNL Scorecard)

  1. Ryan Gosling

Bojack Horseman season 4 is the best season of one of television’s most surprising achievements

We’re gonna do things a little differently. I tried and struggled to write a full season review and everything sounded kind of hollow. So I’m gonna do deep down what I want to do and write a review of two episodes. This is going to be Episode 2 and Episode 11 of this season, the ones that most heavily feature the storyline revolving around Beatrice (Wendie Malick), Bojack’s mother, and her slide into dementia. 

Let me just go ahead and endorse every other aspect of this show. This season is wickedly funny, emotionally brilliant, and one of the best pieces of animation running on television right now. But for now, we’re going to focus on the most striking part of it.

When are you doomed?

Perhaps more precisely, when can you never go back? When have the circumstances of your birth and decisions made that you never had a hand in kept you from ever being what you want to be?

It’s easy to say that we never are. That we are the masters of our own fates and there’s no point where the sins of the father are insurmountable. But how often is that true? Deep down, there’s some imprint on us that we’ll never really understand and that we can only hope won’t fuck us up too deeply.

And now we bring in the funny talking animal cartoon about Horse Bob Saget.

I don’t mean to be flippant to Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s creation, but there’s a part of me that will never not be amused that a show that started so ridiculously has become so deeply wounding and identifiable. Five episodes of animal puns before it took a quick dive into one celebrity horse and his desperate desire to be a good person and quit making the same mistakes.

All while still making the same animal puns and wacky schemes and generally being willing to indulge in parody just as often.

That’s not what we’re gonna end up focusing on here. We’re going to specifically focus on season 4’s richest dramatic vein on the two episodes that center around it. That would be the story of Beatrice (Wendy Malick), Bojack’s (Will Arnett) mother, and the history she can barely remember.

Beatrice has always been something of a background character, the sort of figure there to give a very basic explanation. “Oh, that’s why he is the way he is.” Her denial of affection there to basically make it clear that Bojack is just seeking some kind of love or connection in anyway. A stock that normally wouldn’t be filled out.

Bojack’s secret weapon this season is understanding that people aren’t just their stock. To understand the nuance lying at the core of despair, you have to get into the roots. In other words, for Bojack Horseman, it’s not simply enough to understand that Beatrice denied affection. It’s understanding why she decided to deny it, why she never felt it herself.

We get the first inklings in episode 2. Bojack escapes from LA to the family home in Michigan that he used to spend summers in. The house, falling apart, seems to have a memory that lets us peek into the past.

Beatrice comes from the Sugarman family, wealthy owners of a sugarcube company headed by Joseph Sugarman (Matthew Broderick). Honey (Jane Krakowski), her mother, keeps a tight ship as her brother Crackerjack (Lin Manuel-Miranda) is about to go off to war. It’s as idyllic a 40s life as you could imagine. Sure Joseph is a little backwards, but who wasn’t?

And then Crackerjack is killed in war. Honey loses her oldest son and loses her grip. We see flashes. As Bojack breaks down reliving his personal tragedy, Honey is living hers. Any attempt to make it better, any attempt to rewrite what happened. Honey goes wild in public and crashes a car. Joseph has her lobotomized, as one would do at the time. The fiery, sassy woman is gone, replaced with a zombie.

It’s almost worse than losing your parent. At least when they die, they’re gone. For a parent to be there, but to be a shell? It’s like being reminded every day that they’re not there.

There’s some really brilliant animation work here connecting the timelines. The show blurs the lines between them, allowing for something that almost appears to be interaction, connecting that past to the present and helping the understanding of how these things reverberate.

The next time we see young Beatrice, in episode 11, it’s through the dementia-riddled recollections of her older self. Disconnected from reality, she seems to try desperately to recall her life, most of the faces blurred, some forcibly removed from her thoughts. The narrative is there, but the associations are more powerful, pulling her through her life.

She’s a young girl, sick with scarlet fever. She’s a young woman, finally debuting at her ball when a roguish young horse sweeps her off her feet and gives her a son. She’s moved to San Francisco, barely able to take care of her child. She’s older now, her husband finally quitting his dream and giving her what she wants, some semblance of stability. No love, all of her dreams out the window for mistakes made and pain inflicted on people who can’t understand it. Betrayal by her husband and the hope that someone else won’t do what she did. A flashback to her father taking everything and holding the spectre of her mother over her.

The show draws these connections to weave the tapestry. She’s the withholding mother, yes. But she withholds because the decisions that were made for her took everything from her. The love of her mother taken by some far away war. Her father is a product of the times which made everything he did acceptable. Her dreams taken by some one night fling. Even her marriage’s sanctity taken by another. She may have done unforgivable things, but did she ever really have a chance to feel the love she needed? Did Bojack? Was that family doomed from the moment Crackerjack went off to war?

The brilliance of Bojack Horseman lies in a lot of things. But chiefly, it lies in a storyline like this, that understand why people do the things they do, why the decisions they make stick and reverberate through lives and generations. That try as we might, the traumas of our parents will be ours and will be our childrens, even if we never understand why. People are bad, but people are broken just as often.

That’s why the final moment of episode 11 is so important. Beatrice gets a moment of lucidity, realizing that Bojack is with her. She asks where she is and rather than getting the tell-off he wanted, Bojack simply offers her one final comforting delusion.

She’s back home. With all her family. In the house she was in before everything went wrong. And everything is okay. Bojack hates her, but he can’t give her that pain, because in the end she was just as doomed as he is.

 

Game of Thrones Season 7, Episode 7: The Wolf and the Dragon

Where Is Everybody?

  • King’s Landing
    • The Targaryen-Stark team finally meets with the Lannisters to prove Climate Change the forces of the Night King are real. Cersei “agrees” to help. Jaime finds out she won’t and FINALLY tells her to fuck off.
  • Dragonstone
    • Theon goes on a journey to find his sister.
  • Winterfell
    • Arya and Sansa finally get their shit together and get on the same page. Littlefinger can finally no longer talk.
  • Narrow Sea
    • BOATSEX.
  • Eastwatch
    • And down comes the Wall.

What Worked?

For a finale to a show that spent so much time in the throws and thralls of intense action and breathless forward momentum, it seemed shocking that the finale would be undoubtedly the season’s slowest episode. Focused on a few bigger interactions and operating by and away as the chattiest episode of the season so far, this was an episode moving its final relationships and plot points into place and focusing on the drama that’s pushed these people into this situation.

To be frank we haven’t had a real talky episode in a while. Especially in the last couple seasons, more focused on a traditional fantasy operation, the show has lost its sense of the politics, of how to persuade with words rather than with action. While no worse, it’s certainly a different show, so I was curious to see what would be of an episode that focused on the earlier diplomatic mode.

So, keeping that in mind, “The Wolf and the Dragon” is a show that has transformed those discussions and dialogues into essentially a form of action, something direct and driving. It’s not always brilliant plotting, but the show is so clear about its characters and how to sell their performance and their needs that it ends up working regardless.

I think specifically here of the scene between Tyrion and Cersei, their first confrontation since Tyrion fled King’s Landing at the end of Season 4. It’s Emmy-worthy work from both Dinklage and Headey, Dinklage’s open and raw pain and sadness and the way he twists and holds every line like a weapon impacting just the right way clashing against the seething rage that Headey barely holds underneath her dagger eyes and strugglingly-stiff upper lip.

Beyond just the performance, it’s the negotiation within the scene. Admittedly, it’s blunt, this part of the show is going to be blunt basically no matter what. But the two dance and prod and push back against each other, Tyrion laying out and breaking down defenses and Cersei throwing them back up. It’s exciting and direct drama that pushes the momentum forward even without the more immediate adrenaline thrills of a huge battle sequence.

This episode’s willingness to take the time is an asset, executing a lot of important things in the little time they’ve had this whole season (an extra long episode is still making up for 3 missing hours) in ways that are largely satisfying to see.

I’m of course speaking about the resolution to “Littlefinger tries to put one last wedge in the Stark Family.” Whether you like the way it’s been doled out this season or not, the finale here is a remarkably cathartic moment of television. I nearly lept out of my seat when “Lord Baelish” came out of Sansa’s mouth and seeing someone like Littlefinger finally punished for every wrong he’s visited is exactly the kind of win the show ended up needing.

Finally, the sequence at the Wall easily explained the rest of the episode’s relative low cost. The Wall coming down was a huge moment that had to be done right and done right it definitely was. The Night King riding in on the Ice Dragon is just one of the coolest images this show’s ever had.

This is an episode of completion, resolving the threads to pull onto two sides for the final showdown. It worked, it did that, and it did that with a lot of strong and impressive character work.

 

What Didn’t?

This season’s tendency for circumventing the A to B paths never stood out worse than in this episode. Twice, we essentially saw the results of something the show had never set up, Cersei deciding to pledge her help and Sansa/Arya’s final collaboration. While it never feels false to the moment, the show’s expedience is feeling more like slack than a need to rush through.

Your mileage will definitely vary on seeing Jon and Dany get it on, especially being here underscored as an act of incest. The reveal? Cool. The incest? Not as palatable per se.

 

Who Got A Win?

  1. The Night King
    • Brought down the wall with a sweet-ass Ice Dragon pretty much accomplishing his main thing. Westeros is fucked.
  2. Arya and Sansa
    • Finally learned to trust each other and got the sower of dissent out of their midst.
  3. Jon and Dany
    • Made some pretty important alliances and solidified their power structure, we’ll see how well that goes.

Who Made A Mistake?

  1. Littlefinger
    • Overplayed his hand with Arya and Sansa and he’s dead now.
  2. Cersei
    • Lost Jaime, her last real thinking ally. Sycophants and zombies are all she has, which isn’t good for holding on to power.
  3. Jon and Dany
    • Probably fell into a trap with Cersei. Got into incest. Oops.

SEASON OVERALL

Episode Ranking

  1. The Spoils of War
  2. The Dragon and the Wolf
  3. The Queen’s Justice
  4. Dragonstone
  5. Stormborn
  6. Eastwatch
  7. Beyond the Wall

Season MVPs

The Season MVPs aren’t necessarily the most important parts or the consistently best parts of the show. Emilia Clarke or Kit Harrington wouldn’t necessarily be the best contender for a spot like this, nor would Lena Headey or Peter Dinklage or supporting actors like Liam Cunningham or Gwendoline Christie or Kristofer Hivju.

It’s a mix of both importance and quality confined to this specific season, the people who’s work in Season 7 made it particularly special or interesting. Whether it’s in front of the camera or behind the scenes, Season 7 wouldn’t fit together without what this MVP did.

  1. Nikolaj Coster-Waldeau
    • Jaime has definitely been a character that fluctuates with the season and how interested any given set of writers is in him, but Season 7 has almost certainly been Coster-Waldeau’s finest hour. Partially because it took him out of the sidequest hole and partially because it took him out of the hole of only ever really being involved with Cersei, Coster-Waldeau did some of his best work this season, including his confrontation with Olenna, his reunion with Tyrion, and (I know I just shit-talked this) his final scene with Cersei.Coster-Waldeau gives Jaime a principled nobility that’s rare, a man of his times blinded by a thousand allegiances and willing to do what he thinks is right at the end of the day. It’s a compelling character to watch and rarely has that mattered as much as in Season 7.
  2. Matt Shakman
    • Director of “The Spoils of War” and “Eastwatch,” Shakman is probably the best large setpiece crafter not named Sapochnik the show has. His direction on “The Spoils of War” made for a strong and well-crafted piece of television up until its final battle, which kicked it over the top. Field of Fire 2.0 is one of the most thrilling bits of televised warfare ever from the arrival of the Dothraki to Jaime plummeting into the lake and it is Shakman’s direction that made it so exciting.
  3. Sophie Turner
    • Sansa is done being kicked around. Turner’s performance this season was the transformation fans have been waiting for. Even with her uneven decision making, Turner pulls off a calculating and icy-cold performance as much Stark as it is Lannister and Baelish. The moments of warmth only amplify how good it is to finally see Sansa take control of things for once.
  4. The Night King
    • This one is going to the character rather than the incredibly able performer behind the makeup and effects. The Night King provides the show a thematic and narrative focus that it’s never quite had, moving towards an existential threat of evil that overrides the pettier human concerns. The menace he conveys in a few short moments is what Game of Thrones needs in these last moments, a common enemy to bring these warring factions together.
  5. The Special Effects Team
    • This was an expensive and fucking MASSIVE season to pull together, near unprecedented in television. So kudos to the hardworking Visual and Special Effects teams that had to make demon kings and dragons and wolves and massive hordes and collapsing walls all real and all convincing.

What’s Worked on the Whole?

On the whole, the buzzword of this season was “forward momentum.” The show has long left its political drama roots behind in favor of a high fantasy narrative, a show about struggle between kingdoms and the ultimate defeat of an evil at the root of our souls.

Yet, Game of Thrones really has ultimately shone under that lens. The show feels fun and propulsive in a way it never has and feels epic and grandiose on a scale no television show has. The reason this show has such a hold on the zeitgeist is how impressively it has clasped to our imaginations, how much it wonders and amazes with the images it can show us.

This is a show now of legacies and mythologies, a show letting a deep well of history show all of its excitement before us. The sense of this season of Game of Thrones is that almost nothing has been like it and that it’ll be hard to imagine anything will be quite the same after.

All the stuff that has worked throughout the run of this show still works here. This is still a cast, though no one pulls all the focus, that is an impressive and endlessly remixable ensemble. Everyone works together, feels natural together. No one’s work is incredible, but everyone’s work is strong. Watching Dinklage in concert with Clarke and Harrington and Headey and whoever else come along is a rare delight and every permutation this show has pulled off remains worth watching.

This is an action show now, defined by its move towards the end. Even when it’s slow, you feel the machine churning everything towards an ultimate end. That works, that’s compelling. That’s the stories that need to be told and they way it need to be told.

What Needs To Get Fixed?

I’ve been remarkably positive about this season, so let it not shock you too much that I do have criticisms and misgivings. Things that have worked on an individual basis about Season 7 are troubling trends when pulled to a larger whole.

I think much of the negativity towards this season (what’s been out there in at least my critical bubble) is directed towards this show going towards a more traditional high fantasy direction. The show has become decidedly less Martin and Tolkien going more towards Peter Jackson or Dungeons and Dragons.

While the bones of that change I’m in favor of (and also believe it was the only way this story could actually end), it’s definitely meant a lot of writing and narrative decisions that have altered the storytelling qualities of the show.

The dialogue has definitely suffered. Without the Martin material to pull from, this show has definitely moved towards functionality and lost its grace and intelligence in speaking. Characters used to weave wars with words, now they beat each other down. It’s a change reflecting a more functional storytelling style and a greater sense of momentum, but it’s a change I am sad to see.

More concerning is the narrative convenience this show has become too quick to indulge in. While the timeline stuff mostly feels like the concern of continuity geeks and internet commenters seeking clicks, the show’s lack of connective tissue is a bigger problem.

It felt like a lot of stuff just…happens in this show. Characters make decisions to justify narrative choices, narrative choices are made without set-up or follow-through, and point D is reached from point A. It’s lazy, frankly. The show has a lot to get through, I understand, but it needs to get there.

Tyrion can’t make mistakes just because the show needs him to. Jon can’t almost die and get saved just because the show needs him to. Sansa and Arya can’t fight just to trick the audience. This show needs justification and purpose and what’s been happening threatens to make for an unsatisfying ending.

At its best, Game of Thrones peers into a world. At its worst, Game of Thrones reveals the strings manipulating it. In the books, it’s every side quest and artificial reason that Martin has taken to prevent getting to its end. In the show, it’s every artful dodge and slight of hand that Benioff and Weiss have taken to speed to its end.

A show written without an ending needs to avoid the missteps when it’s finally there. Let’s hope there’s some time taken, or at least some though, with the last season.

Where’s This Going?

We’re in the final stretch, so what has this all been about?

For me, Game of Thrones is a show about power and how badly human nature fucks it up. That we’re trapped in these petty struggles that function as a cycle. Power cannot change, power can only put new people wielding it. Breaking the wheel, as Dany often says she will do, requires a fundamental altering of the system, not just a different hand guiding it.

Time and time again, this show has been about the mistakes of legacy. Of people repeating the same mistakes of their mentors, their parents, their ancestors, and their predecessors. Of seeing the same patterns and doing nothing to stop it. Tyrion seeks to prevent a Mad Queen as Dany teeters towards burning those who will not submit, Jon seeks to not become Ned again as he makes the same honorably foolhardy decisions, Cersei seeks to prevent her family falling apart as she pushes the last members of it away.

Power corrupts and institutions are no match for those who seek to use them. The only thing that can interrupt is understanding the larger threats the world faces. The existential threat of the Night King, something more insurmountable than any individual one of them. Game of Thrones’ ultimate question is “Can humanity put their nature aside and work for a collective good? Or are we doomed to repeat our mistakes again and again until we all die together?”

The Night King is climate change, The Night King is nuclear warfare. The Night is anything and everything that has ever threatened us as a whole and asks whether our politics will ultimately be enough to save us.

So where does this show go? How does this show do that?

I don’t know for sure is the honest answer. Game of Thrones is undeniably pessimistic and unsure that we can escape that cycle. A few standing up loudly is not enough to overwhelm the forces who would do nothing but their own interest. There’s a part of me that suspects any broken wheel would lead to the creation of a new one. That Dany retaking power and creating a society free from the Lannister control would lead to her own tyranny. That the show ultimately wants power itself to be broken.

But perhaps that’s the show’s aim. The Song of Ice and Fire, Jon and Dany, is what can finally end all of this. The pain and the suffering and the terror from beyond the world. I think there’s a chance this show ends in something better, in a look at a world that breaks the power structures that put them in this place and can defeat the threats that face it.

Will it require sacrifice? Probably. The remnants of the old (Jaime and Cersei) will probably have to go and the new will have to give something up (Jon). There’s no chance everyone makes it to see the New World.

But Game of Thrones is now in its final moments. The moment where the Wheel spins the fastest. Whatever stops its, breaks it, keeps it moving on is still to come.

Game of Thrones Season 7, Episode 6: Beyond the Wall

Where Is Everybody?

  • Beyond the Wall
    • The Westerosi Suicide Squad goes to capture a wight. Shit gets real.
  • Winterfell
    • Arya and Sansa’s division over the letter Arya found explodes. Sansa is never sending anyone abroad ever again.
  • Dragonstone
    • Dany and Tyrion have issues.
  • On a Boat
    • So, Jon and Dany are gonna do it, right?

What Worked?

Look, I get this was a messy one. We’ll get to a lot of the reasoning for that later, and I want to be clear than I can and do want to criticize this show when it’s gotten to it. Trust me, had I been writing these during Season 5, we would have had a lot more shit to talk.

But at this point, we’re in the third act of a story that was never really designed with an ending and a show that’s attempting a scope and scale of event that’s limited to largely the most expensive of Hollywood filmmaking and almost impossible on television up until this point. Even when it doesn’t work, there’s a sort of magic in the fact that what’s happening is happening at all.

All this is to say that even if it never quite comes together like a lot of this season has, “Beyond the Wall” is still a hell of a time, still working thematically and visually even if its narrative issues are a little more lain bare.

The centerpiece sequence of this episode, the journey beyond the Wall to capture a wight to prove to the Seven Kingdoms that the threat of the Night King is real, is not necessarily the best the show has ever done, but it’s still an absolute nail-biter bit of tension.

Visually, the show has perhaps never been more apt at conjuring up its fantasy imagery. Flaming swords battling armies of the dead led by demon kings. Dragons swooping in from on-high with hell-fire. In addition, the plotting of the show has never been more unabashedly fantasy. Soap opera with wizards, high-strung turning on each other not through machinations but through emotional revelation. The final act of Game of Thrones is perhaps its most nakedly high fantasy moments and for those on board with that, it’s an absolute delight.

For all the talk of deus ex machina driving this episode (and I certainly have some issues with it), there’s a centerpiece ex machina that really is a smart move for this show.

That, is of course, Dany swooping to save the day with her dragons and getting Viserion murdered. Yet again, Jon has to be saved by an outside army, I understand the frustration and there was certainly a more graceful way to handle it.

But the show is getting its narrative and thematic ducks in a row for a later. Honestly, it’s one of the smarter bits of writing the show has done. From a narrative perspective, it answers the two big questions of any final war this show could undertake.

Namely, “how do you handle the dragons vs. the Night King” and “How do you handle the Night King vs. the dragons.”

The show has posited the dragons as essentially an unstoppable force. The atomic bomb of Westeros, the way when fully unbound to end any war in an instant. Cersei could not stand up to them, neither could the Wights and Walkers handle dragon’s fire. The justification with all three dragons of extending any battle would be squeezing blood from a stone.

Establishing the power of the Night King to kill them gives the dragons a threat (and therefore a stake to increase tension) and his resurrection of Viserion evens out the forces (the Night                           King now has a weapon on the same scale). It’s a bit of short-term sacrifice for long-term gain and Game of Thrones is certainly no stranger to that decision.

But what it also does is give Dany a personal stake in the fight and slide her in with the rest of this show’s thematics. Game of Thrones is, in a large part, about the short-sighted nature of the ruling class, how power so narrowly focuses your aims that kingdoms fall around a honed look at only your own gain. The Night King is a massive existential threat and everyone but Jon is ignoring it or denying it for their own petty struggles that won’t last to an army unprepared for something as powerful and all-consuming as the Army of the Dead.

Dany having issue taking part in the fight until she saw it with her own eyes and saw the destruction it could cause lines her right in with that conception of power, as a sort of moral blinder. Ripping it off her puts her in the fight, even if it is after the Night King has grown even more powerful.

What Didn’t?

Even in the positive section I alluded to this multiple times, but this is a surprisingly messy episode in terms of its logistical and narrative construction. Season 7 is a season that really could benefit from more episodes because the rapid pace means some narrative threads are being frayed rather than unraveled.

I’m thinking specifically of Arya and Sansa at Winterfell. It’s easy to understand what’s being put into place here, a conflict to eliminate any other conflicts to the Stark power as they come together to take out an enemy that would seek to have both of them out of Winterfell. But the show’s had to move through it so rapidly that every beat feels off. Arya quickly believes the worst of Sansa, Sansa has no idea how to address. What the Faceless Men did to Arya is brought up without warning and will likely be resolved with little address.

The season as a whole, even with its pace, has needed more time to pull things out. The relationships that have been set up and the storylines put in place work, but any new dynamics have had to be run through a little too fast.

Jon and Dany’s relationship, Tyrion and Dany’s splitting apart, Sansa and Arya’s issues, all of these things would have really been helped by an extra episode or two driving the wedges or pulling them together. It’s the more important part of the convenience this season has been accused of.

The quick movement through the continent is just fantasy rules. The deus ex machinas are annoying (Benjen came from nowhere legitimately. No set-up, no pay-off, just a way to get Jon out of a situation he probably shouldn’t have been in) but they’re not breaking the show. What hurts the show is when you don’t have time to play your characters and play your relationships and some of those wobbly foundations are really showing in this episode.

Also, this episode should have honestly been all Beyond the Wall and in a longer season it would have been. It feels like breaking up a climax with first act exposition to go anywhere else.

Who Got A Win?

  1. The Night King
    • He got a dragon. A Zombie Ice Dragon. That’s pretty sick.
  2. Littlefinger
    • Actually managed to pull it off, pitting Arya and Sansa against each other. I don’t think that’ll go well for him, but good for now.
  3. Jon
    • He got his wight and Dany’s help in the fight against the Night King.

Who Made A Mistake?

  1. Arya and Sansa
    • Fell for Littlefinger’s shit. Guys, Stark in-fighting is dumb and don’t do it.
  2. Tyrion
    • Dany is really gonna cast him out if he doesn’t get it the fuck together.
  3. The Redshirts
    • If you’re not important, don’t go on the obvious suicide mission. Lesson 1 of living in a genre world.

Game of Thrones Season 7, Episode 5: Eastwatch

Where Is Everybody?

  • Roseroad
    • Jaime and Bronn managed to survive the lake. The Tarlys don’t manage to survive dragonfire.
  • Winterfell
    • Arya has a few issues with how Sansa is running things around here. Littlefinger keeps an eye on that.
  • Oldtown
    • Sam is really just not enjoying his internship. Gilly makes the biggest discovery of the whole show and no one cares.
  • Dragonstone
    • Jon pets a big lizard and has a big idea. Tyrion is getting concerned about all this.
  • King’s Landing
    • Cersei has some big news for Jaime. Gendry finally stops rowing and joins Davos.
  • Eastwatch
    • Some kinda…Suicide Squad…takes a mission to get a wight.

What Worked?

After three episodes in a row ending on an adrenaline-racing, pulse-pounding spectacle of a battle, I actually do have to admit that it’s nice to get a bit of a breather. There’s surely a lot to come in the supersized last two episodes of this season (71 and 81 minutes) and so it’s really nice to get a second to just put the pieces in place, move a few things around, and let these character combos breathe and operate dramatically for a second.

Which is by no means a bad thing when a show is as dramatically and narratively en pointe as this season of Game of Thrones has been. I’ve said it enough, but the shuffling of characters and the steady drawing together of them all has been the biggest shot in the arm for this season. These actors have had years to dig in and letting them bounce off each other in a story that is now almost entirely forward momentum is a rare delight.

Some of those are the reunions that are now happening. Coster-Waldeau and Dinklage have always really pulled the best out of each other (Dinklage’s best moments are with the Lannisters, Coster-Waldeau best moments are with anyone who isn’t Cersei) and even the brief scene they share is just truly heartbreaking to watch. The betrayal on Coster-Waldeau’s face, the desperation of Dinklage trying to reconnect and get something out of his brother. Just good stuff.

But it’s also the fresh combinations the show is managing to create and how those build on the ideas and themes already made.

Let’s take, for example, the new folks Jon Snow is about to deal with. This episode’s fan-favorite highlight was the return of Gendry, Robert Baratheon’s bastard son. Joining up with Jon lets the show recreate season 1’s relationship between Robert and Ned (even directly calling back to Ned point out Robert’s weight) with the power dynamics shifting. It was a short scene, but I’m hoping to see more out of Young Christian Bale in the show to come.

The other set of new folks is Jon Snow’s Magnificent Seven riding off to capture a wight to prove to Westeros that the threat is real. It’s an undoubtedly exciting dynamic, time-tested, to put a group of people who have good reasons to hate each other (Mormont v. Tormund, The Hound v. Other People) but need to come together to face a bigger threat. This whole thing works so so well because we’ve had the time to see these fault lines grow and to make the existential threat known. This is a story that works based on seasons of growth and an impressive amount of charisma and forward momentum, and it’s a delight to see the new things it can unveil.

Speaking of unveiling, I will comment on the boldness of the show dropping what is almost certainly the single biggest plot revelation so far so casually. For those of you who didn’t notice, Gilly’s reading included mention of an annulment by Prince Rhaegar and his marriage to someone else. This is almost certainly Lyanna Stark, which would make Jon Snow the true-born son of a Targaryen-Stark household and would give Jon the strongest claim to the throne, completely rewriting the dynamics of the show so far. Sam hears it, doesn’t much care, and moves on. But sending Sam back North seems important.

On a general note for the whole episode, director Matt Shakman (returning from the gangbusters previous episode) does some really strong work here. The moment between Jon and Drogon is a moment of mythic grace the show doesn’t indulge in near as often as it should, and Arya’s stalking of Littlefinger and its quick reverse is just a wonderful little bit of staging.

 

What Didn’t?

The temporality of this show is definitely something that can and should rightfully drive folks insane. It never necessarily breaks the show’s own reality (no inherent contradictions in the narrative) but how does any of this shit work?

 

Who Got A Win?

  1. Gendry
    • He got out of King’s Landing and made some new friends. Good for him.
  2. Sam
    • Said “Fuck it” and left his terrible internship. Good for him.
  3. Jaime and Bronn
    • They didn’t drown in a lake. Good for them.

Who Made A Mistake?

  1. The Tarlys.
    • Burned alive by a dragon and basically ended their whole line.
  2. Those Gold Cloaks
    • Got greedy and got a hammer to the face.
  3. Arya and Sansa
    • Littlefinger’s exploiting them new Stark dynamics. Don’t fall for it Arya!