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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!

Game of Thrones Season 7, Episode 4: The Spoils of War

Where Is Everybody?

  • Winterfell
    • Bran makes Littlefinger shit himself and is a dick to Meera. Arya and Sansa reunite and Arya sword fights like a motherfucker.
  • Dragonstone
    • Jon and Dany uncover some ancient drawings that prove Jon Snow knows something. There’s a disagreement over the next step to take.
  • King’s Landing
    • A Lannister pays her debts.
  • Roseroad
    • SHIT. GETS. REAL. AND. ON. FIRE.

What Worked?

It’s hard to top this almost immediate reaction. When a show is this consistently strong and pushing the limits of scope and scale on TV action and genre conventions, it’s rare to feel like anything but an event episode can take you off-guard or really and truly thrill you.

I have a feeling that this will become a cliché over the increasingly high budgets of these last episodes, but the final battle sequence ranks among the show’s best. It’s rare to be able to make such a thrilling sequence out of such a brutal beat-down but my god if director Matt Shakman doesn’t pull it off. The ominous beating of the hooves turning into the terrifying whooping of the Dothraki soldiers descending down on the Lannisters, facing a kind of enemy they never have before. Christendom being beaten by the Mongol Hordes. That sheer terror you see on the trembling soldiers, the prepping for a battle is so well-done and the tension gets ratcheted so high.

Then the dragon comes screaming over the hill and Dany speaks “Dracarys” and the whole thing jumps to the next level. We’ve seen what the dragons can do and heard tale of their warfare. But Game of Thrones pays off that build-up in the most spectacular of ways, showing us exactly what all this lore actually is. The dragon is TERRIFYING here, the touch of seeing the soldiers turned to ash and blown away is one of the best touches I’ve ever seen in a battle, an image up there with Jon facing down the Bolton Cavalry.

But what especially makes this sequence work is a point the creators made in the behind the scenes feature at the end. This is the first time we’ve seen two main “hero” characters face off against each other. Dany vs. Jaime, we’ve got our attachments to both and the emotions are swirling. Tyrion watching his brother charge into near-certain death is exactly what works about this, that sickening feeling of how these powers are going to push against each other. The stakes are high, even if we know nobody can die, because our characters are now forcing each other to suffer setbacks, the people we’ve been rooting for can win or lose by each other’s hands.

But let me not solely praise this episode for its final battle, though it’s the easiest to remember. This episode stages some truly great drama that deserves recognition.

The Starks slowly begin to congregate back at Winterfell with Bran still acting weird after his trip abroad (because he’s functionally no longer human). The dynamic they’re playing here is interesting, with Bran acting like an asshole because it’s becoming increasingly clear that he’s functionally no longer Bran. Along with Arya’s shapeshifting, the idea that the Stark’s reunion has come at the cost of them all losing some part of their Stark identity (minus Sansa, Bran is the three-eyed Raven, Arya is No One, and Jon is a Targaryen) provides that melancholy undercurrent to what has largely played as the show’s happier storyline as of late.

Oh yeah, Arya is back at Winterfell. This continues the play with Arya’s storyline turning from one of its most brutal to one of its most joyous and oddly comedic. Her mocking the guards is certainly a fun sequence. But the undoubted highlight is the sword fight between her and Brienne. Not only some of the show’s best fight choreography in some time, but it’s rare to see these character just get to show off. Maise Williams definitely has a future in action roles, just a thrill to watch her go for it.

Outside of a brief sojourn to King’s Landing, the other main event of this episode is at Dragonstone, as Jon and Dany get closer and Jon reveals the ancient drawings of the Night’s King and his forces. The impasse between them is frustrating, but deliberately so, there’s a slowly developing dynamic between the two of them pushing and pulling against each other. Clarke and Harrington are not often this show’s most dynamic actors, but there’s an increasing chemistry between them that works.

A chemistry that Davos comments on. This is a great episode for Davos, one of the show’s more understated characters. His role as Jon’s advisor has been a consistent delight and he does so much with even just a few lines.

What Didn’t?

The show’s shortcuts still show through the seams from time to time (how’d the Dothraki get there? How many ships are still left?) but this is an undoubtedly strong episode of television.

Who Got A Win?

  1. Dany
    • Injured dragon aside, this was a brutal and decisive victory against the Lannister forces. The Field of Fire 2.0 harmed their siege capacity and made it clear that the Lannisters only have so much they can do against the forces Dany has assembled, how much what she brings is foreign to Westeros. A win for a character who hasn’t had many.
  2. Bronn
    • Dude knocked a dragon out of the air. Once in a lifetime.
  3. Jon
    • Serious progress on getting Dany to work with him and growing towards actually maybe getting someone to fight the Night’s King.

Who Made A Mistake?

  1. The Lannisters
    • Dany beat their ass down. They’ll be fine, but DAMN that’s a morale shaker.
  2. Littlefinger
    • Bran made it clear that he know what Littlefinger has done. That plus the return of Arya who takes no shit means that Littlefinger loses the backing role he plays and has the vices closing in on him.
  3. Bran
    • Gotta stop alienating people around you. I get you’re the Three-Eyed Raven but damn dude.

Game of Thrones Season 7, Episode 2: Stormborn

Week 2 of Game of Thrones got straight up gratuitous. All the murder, sex, and gross body stuff you could ever imagine, as well as plenty of the Great Game that keeps you coming back week after week.

Where Is Everybody?

  • Dragonstone
    • Varys gets cleared. Tyrion and Dany reveal their plans to their backers in the Houses of Tyrell, Sand, and Greyjoy and Dany gets some advice. Grey Worm and Missandei finally reveal their feelings and consummate their relationship over the course of a century.
  • King’s Landing
    • Cersei and Jaime try to get some kingdoms back on the Lannisters’ side. It also turns out you can hurt a dragon…ominous.
  • Winterfell
    • Sansa and Jon hopefully learn the value of having a meeting before your meetings as Jon decides to go meet Dany and Tyrion. Later, Jon has an incredibly satisfying moment with Littlefinger.
  • Riverlands
    • Arya learns from Hot Pie that she can go home again and meets up with an old friend who is a Direwolf.
  • Oldtown
    • Sam rules and managed to figure out how to cure Jorah. It’s real gross though.
  • Narrow Sea
    • Euron kills the Sand Snakes in a big-ass sea battle and finds his way into our hearts.

What Worked?

Before we get into all else, let’s focus on the most surface level pleasure of this episode. “Stormborn” ended on a massive naval battle that ranks among the best action sequences of this show (minus the season-climax battles that always stand above). Euron’s ship sailing ominously through the dark, the flickering sparks through the air illuminating the battle by burning fire, Euron’s wild-eyed gaze as he brutally tears through Yara’s forces. It’s a scene tense and pulse-pounding and well-composed, a reminder of the particular thrills of a show like Game of Thrones that does manage to pull off such large scale action week by week.

But there’s also an emotional portion of this scene I really love. At the end of the battle, Euron has taken Yara hostage and is taunting Theon with her. Given the chance to return the good she once did for him, he runs and jumps overboard, leaving Yara in the clutches of their sadistic uncle.

It’s an incredibly moving moment, for the sort of sadness this show really can evoke. The trauma done to Theon doesn’t just leave, he’s not just going to be okay. He’s not ready to be a hero and this show isn’t interested in pat blazes of glory or resolutions that tug the heartstrings. Theon is broken and he leaves the carnage behind him as someone stronger tries to take power, the sorrow at his cowardice and at Yara’s feeling of betrayal is never said, but it hangs heavy in the air. A seriously great choice on the part of this episode’s writers.

As Game of Thrones continues down the path to the end HBO doesn’t want to see coming (seriously, HBO has nothing on this scale and they are terrified of when it ends), our storylines are increasingly converging. Last season was about setting up the endgame, this one appears to be about putting all the pieces in place, including pushing the characters into their final alliances.

“Stormborn” shows us just how fun seeing these characters we’ve spent 6 other seasons getting to know in new combinations can be. Strong personalities with seasons of history bouncing off new walls is an absolute delight. Yara and Ellaria’s ribald fliration (interrupted by Euron’s terrifying attack) is worth the watch of the episode alone. Seeing Jon throw Littlefinger up against the wall is amazing. Sam getting to do the right thing for the son of Mormont and Dany consulting with Olenna Tyrell and dressing down Varys are things that only work this late in the game, with such a clear idea of who these people are and what’s happening to them.

It’s important to note just how good an endgame has been for this show. As it focuses, the tightness of the narrative makes everything feel urgent. Everything is now pointing to a future, all the fat has been trimmed off the story’s movement.

From a totally petty perspective, I’m also just glad we saw the Dorne portion of the story cut off. The show’s completely bungled its handling of it, and the death of (2 of) the Sand Snakes was a great way to close off the story and reestablish Euron’s threat. I mean, we knew they would die, these are not fan-favorite characters.

What Didn’t?

At this point (don’t @ me) Game of Thrones pretty much has figured out what works and what doesn’t. Missteps are on the basis of miscalculation rather than blatant mistake.

Let’s take Missandei and Grey Worm. The scene was a long-time coming and honestly the idea and set-up was truly spectacular. But it went on just a hair too long, just past the necessary point. It felt like a moment of the show grinding to a halt when it doesn’t have the time to waste.

Also, how did Grey Worm learn how to go down on a woman? Is there a bard going around singing about the glories of cunnilingus who’ll teach you how for a copper?

Who Got A Win?

  • Euron
    • Euron basically decimated the Greyjoy opposition and struck a major blow to impress the Lannisters and get them back on his side for a claim to the Iron Islands.
  • Arya
    • Arya again gets a nice, sweet moment of grace and learns that she does indeed have friends. I’m just so happy for her.
  • Jorah Mormont
    • It looks like he’s got that greyscale fixed. Yay!

Who Made A Mistake?

  • Jon and Sansa
    • CAN THEY NOT HAVE ONE FUCKING FIVE MINUTE MEETING BEFORE THEY ACTUALLY HAVE THESE BIG DECLARATIONS. Jon sucks ass at actual politics and Sansa needs to figure out how to guide better. Littlefinger is creeping into that growing divide.
  • Tyrion
    • Olenna’s words are ominous and the current alliance worries me if Dany decides to turn back on Tyrion’s frankly fantastic plan.
  • Theon and Yara
    • Their forces were decimated, Theon ran, and Yara’s in Euron’s hands. About as bad as it could get for them.

Saturday Night Live Season 42: Final Thoughts

It was a season for the books. The sort of big record-setter that only ever comes to SNL at cost to the whole country. With the Trumpian parade and his loud screeds against the show, more eyeballs were tuned than ever. I’ll discuss a little bit about all of that later on, but I just want to give some shout-outs and jeers for a season of solid performing and writing buoyed by an intense up and down schedule with a darker world around them.

The Good

Best Cold Open

“VP Debate Cold Open” – Lin Manuel-Miranda

While I must admit that over the course of this season, Baldwin’s Trump began to tire me, this is the Cold Open where he still held the most power and seemed the most lively as a performer and as a piece of satire. Focused before he became overly focused and tired out, this is about as good as Baldwin’s Trump impression ever got.

Plus, this material was perhaps the most potent of the whole electoral season. God, remember when we thought this was the end of Trump’s campaign? How sad and naive we were. Cecily Strong’s anchor here is such a great straight woman, her dawning horror is just pitched so damned well, the audio gags well put together. This is solid sketch work, which can be all too rare in the Cold Opens.

Top 5 Sketches Worth Watching

5) “Wells for Boys” – Emma Stone

To be honest, this sketch is 90% here for Emma Stone’s “Everything is for you. And this ONE THING is for him” line reading. She deserved the Oscar for that one, let’s be real.

But also because this is just a great and sweet little sketch. Actually kind of nuanced and sensitive in its portrayals of sensitive and thoughtful kids, it also mines those specific things for laughs. This is just an enjoyable and kind sketch, a little too rare.

4) “Birthday Clown” – Louis C.K.

Plagiarism accusations aside, this one just feels so specific to C.K.’s sensibilities in a way that really works for SNL. Moynihan’s awkward birthday clown interacting with C.K.’s sadsack feels real without ever losing the humor underneath. It’s such a bizarre escalation and the delivery from everyone is just perfect. Plus, any sketch that ends on a joke this dark should absolutely be recognized.

3) “Black Jeopardy with Tom Hanks” – Tom Hanks

I was tempted to put this in the Politics category, but honestly, that feels like underselling how strong of a piece of satire this is, how well-pitched it is as both a piece of comedy and a piece of commentary.

Essentially a sketch on how the divisions between people aren’t quite as clear as we might make them, how class may mean more than we give it credit for for the groups that it puts people in, and how we have more common ground than we think. Plus, there’s simply some amazing comedic timing and writing and Hanks’ performance is pitched so perfectly on the high-wire that it’s much of what sells the sketch from being either preachy or misguided.

2) “Totino’s with Kristen Stewart” – Kristen Stewart

The Super Bowl Totino’s commercials have quietly become the show’s best recurring sketch, an annual frame around which to stretch whatever conceptual weirdness they can put onto Vanessa Bayer’s nameless wife (realizing now that she’ll be gone, and this is perhaps the best ending for the Trilogy of Totino’s).

This one works almost because it’s played so straight. The cinematography is legitimately gorgeous, pulling on French cinema techniques, and the music is beautiful. The chemistry between Bayer and Stewart is real and the joke isn’t “lesbians” but the juxtaposition between the passionate scene and the mundanity going on right next to it, plus the use of Totino’s Pizza Rolls in lovemaking. It’s just an incredibly clever concept put together very well, a sort of audacious weirdness with heart.

1) “Haunted Elevator (ft. David S. Pumpkins)” – Tom Hanks

If you’re surprised I’m putting this here, you’ve not been paying attention to my reviews.

The Haunted Elevator and its bizarre denizen David S. Pumpkins is everything I love in comedy. A bizarre character that forces a meta examination of the premise. Specific detail that continually escalates. A deadpan confrontation with an increasingly strange world. All wrapped up in that weird-ass Spirit Halloween Pumpkin suit. I don’t think I’ve had any sketch this year pop into my head quite as often, and for that, David S. Pumpkins and his B-Boy skeletons take the top spot.

Any questions?

Best Political Sketch

“Sean Spicer Press Conference” – Kristen Stewart

While Baldwin’s Trump may have loomed a little larger in the zeitgeist, no one captured the spirit of the Trump administration better than Melissa McCarthy’s anarchic and riotously funny performance as Press Secretary Sean Spicer. Equal parts aggressive and stupid, McCarthy’s Spicer occupies this weird place of incompetence and insanity that seems such a perfect fit for ripping this Administration. Spicer seems more indicative of the bizarre zone we live in since the beginning of Year Zero. Plus, McCarthy gets more laughs out of this sketch than some whole episodes, it’s a truly dazzling feat of comedic performance.

Best Weirdo Sketch

“Sectionals” – Louis C.K.

The best weirdo sketches should feel like you can’t imagine who the hell thought of this, and you can’t imagine why they put it out there, but you’re glad they did.

“Sectionals” is precisely that, such a weird concept that you can barely imagine the thought process that led to a sketch like this and performed with such an anti-comedy bent that it feels more Adult Swim than SNL. Just a fun and truly bizarre piece of comedy.

Best Mood Piece

“Love and Leslie” – Dave Chappelle

My favorite recurring “Not quite comedy” bit this season was the romance between Leslie Jones and Kyle Mooney, so it only feels fitting to recognize where it all began.

The reason this recurring bit has worked is because Mooney and Jones feel like they have a legitimate chemistry, like their romance is actually real, just exaggerated. The bits have a great continuity, weaving the story together slowly and elaborately, and they usually manage to pull at least one great punchline out of the surprisingly sweet proceedings. Again, I’d like to put all three here, but this is the one that kicked it off, and the one that showed what Leslie Jones could do for the show.

Best Weekend Update Correspondent

Bruce Chandling (Kyle Mooney)

We can never have enough Bruce Chandling. Mooney’s bizarre, sad stand-up comic is a character that almost no one else has ever gone to well of before, something that hews very close to the alt-comedy circles many of the new performers are coming up through.

The Bad

Worst Sketch

“Honda Robotics”  – Emily Blunt

Holy fuck is this bad.

I’m a defender of this show (obviously) but this is the sketch that I imagine every parody is playing on and that most of the detractors think of when they think SNL. Just painfully lame and unbearably long and pointless and confusing and just an awful few minutes to watch. Is this a product placement sketch? They should ask for their money back.

Recurring Sketch We Should Never See Again

“Celebrity Family Feud”

This sketch just doesn’t work any time they’ve done it. An attempt to replicate “Celebrity Jeopardy” is admirable, but that sketch had jokes and ideas beyond the impressions. This one is always just a parade of impressions, some good and some very much not. I get that it’s here because people love those impressions, but my god it’s such a drag to see pulled out time and time again.

Worst Cold Open

“Hallelujah Cold Open” – Dwayne Johnson

Just…uhhh…what?

The Cast

Cast MVP

Beck Bennett

While Kate McKinnon is still the most talented performer on this cast, it’s becoming increasingly clear that Beck Bennett is right on her heels, becoming an increasingly powerful presence both as a comedic actor and as a sheer raw generator of laughs, playing utility in almost every sketch he can show up in and doing amazing things with the lead when he can. While he’s not quite gifted with a breakout character yet, Bennett stands to have a tenure like Bill Hader’s, always useful and always funny.

Host MVP

Kristen Stewart

I really honestly didn’t expect Stewart to be my favorite host of this season. But her bizarre energy took the whole show off-kilter in the best way, made for a looser stranger show and one rather unlike the other ones last season. Great hosts run with the flow, but some of the most memorable alter it, and that’s certainly what Stewart did here.

Most Improved Cast Member

Leslie Jones

Jones was (perhaps unfairly) maligned in the first days of her time on SNL. She didn’t come up through much of a performance background, so her sketch work was undeniably sloppy, often stopping sketches cold for flubbed line readings or missed cues.

But this year, Jones has become a force to be reckoned with on the show. While the writers still don’t quite know what to do with her, she’s certainly come into her own, making the most out of her stage sketches and then killing it in the filmed ones, where she really gets to show off her talents. It’s become a pleasure to see Jones feature in a filmed sketch, where you know at the very least, she’s gonna do something interesting.

Most Likely To Succeed (on SNL)

Mikey Day

Day is the one new cast member that made his utility known from Day One, an easy transition given that he was a writer and already performing for the Martin Short/Maya Rudolph variety show. He’s easily slotted into the role that Taran Killam had on the show, as the sort of ur-generic white guy. He’ll be here for a while.

Best Impression

Vladimir Putin – Beck Bennett

I wanted to avoid doing any impressions of non cast-members, so sorry Melissa McCarthy.

I chose Bennett’s Putin because as an impression, it seems like the fullest character, the one most accurate to the spirit of the original person. Bennett’s Putin is just kind of a crazy idea (poor guy must miss carbs), and Bennett is clearly having so much fun with him, that’s it’s just infectious to watch. It gets at some central sinister nature just barely cloaked beneath a layer of performative masculinity.

Final Thoughts

Season Ranking:

  1. Tom Hanks
  2. Dave Chappelle
  3. Kristen Stewart
  4. Lin-Manuel Miranda
  5. Louis C.K.
  6. Dwayne Johnson
  7. Emma Stone
  8. Aziz Ansari
  9. Chris Pine
  10. Melissa McCarthy
  11. Scarlett Johansson
  12. Alec Baldwin
  13. Kristen Wiig
  14. Margot Robbie
  15. Casey Affleck
  16. Benedict Cumberbatch
  17. John Cena
  18. Felicity Jones
  19. Octavia Spencer
  20. Emily Blunt
  21. Jimmy Fallon

Reflection:

This season of SNL, when it goes down in the next edition of Live From New York, is going to be defined by two things.

One is being weirdly on the forefront of the Trump era. Our Man-Child-Sultanate is particularly obsessed with both his media perception and his rejection by the wealthy institutions of New York. Given that SNL is a wealthy media institution of New York, it’s ripe for him to give SO many fucks about what it thinks of him, especially as something he once thought was his friend (remember that controversial hosting gig? Yeah).

So, his early attacks on the show and on Baldwin’s impression, as well as the continued attacks on the rest of his administration (including apparently making Spicer and Bannon’s jobs just a little bit harder), put the show weirdly on the forefront of #TheResistance in a way that it was never comfortable with.

I hashtag because the particular attachment to SNL is part of the performatively liberal resistance, the resistance that’s about cultural signifiers and lame jokes over political action. SNL slides in alongside RT’d memes and Drumpf jokes, surface level and never digging underneath to the root issues. About appearing resistant without the engagement with systems, without the real rage or resistance.

Which is not an attack on SNL. Actual political satire has never been SNL‘s function, it became a part of the show because young angry comics love to make fun of the Powers That Be, and that’s what this show started out as and has always been. That surface level engagement has been the point, making a show of it without ever going below. It engages with politics insofar as they can make them funny.

Part of why Baldwin’s Trump hasn’t worked and why the satire and their engagement with the broader world around them can misfire is because we’re getting to the point where politics are funnier than the jokes we can make. Trump is a rolling comedy routine, The Stupidest Man in America is now President, what joke can you make that he won’t top, what thing can you have him do that he won’t do sillier the next day? For the love of god, this picture exists:

orb-1495396537-compressed
I DO NOT BLASPHEME THE ORB. ALL GLORY TO THE ORB.

What the fuck can Baldwin do that’s weirder? SNL can’t top reality, and it’s why they’ve done better and better this season with they choose to disengage from it.

The other thing that has defined this season is the choice to move towards virality, taking of the former all-eyes-on-me. That stands to be a problem for the purpose of SNL because what it’s meant is trotting out the celebrity impressionists at every opportunity.

Right now, Donald Trump, Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner, and Sean Spicer, key satirical figures, are being played by non-cast members. Trump and Spicer have sketches revolve around them. We’re supposed to be incubating the cast members, and yet the cast members are not important to the show.

This is gonna be a problem. As this cast starts to cycle out after being relatively stable, you’re facing a deep bench with no real stars. McKinnon will eliminate most of the starpower in this cast when she leaves, and I’m struggling to find (even among people I really like) who will take the center of gravity in the show.

SNL is at a moment where it needs to be building its reserves, and it’s focusing on its splashy cameos. This misses the scrappy nature of SNL and it’s frankly boring. I know these famous people are talented, surprise me with new talent.

The cast should be the center and when the sitting Presidential Impersonator isn’t a cast member, that’s a problem.

This show has never had more raw talent and never had more eyeballs on it. I really hope I can see that be used, and I hope it can shed the mantle put onto it.

See you all at Season 43.

If we’re all still around.

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Saturday Night Live Season 42, Episode 21: Dwayne Johnson gives a strong ending to an eventful year

So…yeah, all that happened.

Perhaps no season of SNL since the season of Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin has felt so relevant and so unsure of its place in the firm, huge spotlight. More thoughts are to come, but this is a season of big questions and big transitions, and a season that’ll likely go on the books as one of its most important.

How’s the Cold Open?

Though perhaps this sketch stands in one of the weirdest moments of that importance nexus.

Look, it’s not a funny sketch. It’s deliberately not set up with jokes. I don’t even know if I like the concept, this seems like a weird angle to take, the show just kind of throwing up an equal time shrug of the shoulders. But it’s designed for everyone to see.

Maybe it’s just a remembering how weird all of this was? The administration that launched SNL back into relevance taking stock of the whole moment? I mean, not that I ever need to hear anyone but Jeff Buckley do “Hallelujah” again, but maybe that’s the purpose.

This is unfocused mostly because this whole bit just confuses me. Is it a goodbye to Baldwin’s Trump? He’s been rumored to leave, which I think would be good for the show, ultimately. He’s become more of a recitation than a performance lately, a new guy might give the show a kick in the pants satirically.

I wish I had more to say but I just earnestly can’t fathom the intentions here.

Who’s Hosting?

The third person to join the Five-Timers Club, Dwayne Johnson is one of those guys who increasingly seems like a totally natural fit for SNL. A consummate performer who throws himself 100% into anything he does, he’s a natural fit for a show as big as SNL. Combine that with a gift for comedic underplaying (see: This whole show) and Johnson is exactly up my alley for an SNL host.

What Sketches Are Worth Watching?

“World’s Most Evil Invention”

Like its most direct predecessor “Canteen Boy Goes Camping,” I kind of have to imagine this isn’t a sketch for everyone. As in, not for people who have anything resembling good comedic taste.

(Un)Luckily, I don’t. A dark central joke played masterfully by everyone here, with Johnson’s muted performance against everyone else’s exasperated shock, gets huge laughs for those who will take them. This sketch may also feature one of the darkest jokes in SNL‘s history. I don’t want to give it away if you haven’t already seen it, so know that the center of the sketch is a “child molesting robot” and just let it go from there.

“Enhancement Drug”

If Dwayne Johnson was a host made for me, then the writers knew appropriately enough to write sketches seemingly made just for me. “Enhancement Drug” is one of those sketches with an increasingly unhinged world being built and a totally deadpan explanation of that world. You know, think “Welcome to Night Vale.” Put together well and the slow-build through Johnson’s delivery and the cutting is awesome.

Hail Satan.

“WWE Promo Shoot 2”

A sequel to this work of beauty from a couple years back (and part of this show’s heavy featuring of departing Bobby Moynihan and Vanessa Bayer tonight), it’s basically the same sketch as the first time around, just new increasingly embarrassing or unnerving details revealed about his life. While nothing is quite as dark or insane as the first one, the sheer psychological terror Koko unleashes on Mutt is well-tuned for our amusement. Again, it’s the underplaying, the idea that Johnson seemingly has no idea the insanity he’s spewing, that makes it so funny.

“Rap Song”

A short, solid “Parade of Weirdoes” sketch that is almost entirely here for …

DAVID

S.

PIMPKINS

We need nothing else.

“Cartier Ad”

Vanessa Bayer’s specialty has always been digging into very specific archetypes. Not creating characters (though she can do that), but understanding types of people and blowing them up to proper comedic proportions. She digs into the trophy girlfriend of privilege here perfectly, turning her character into the center of the commercial gag here. There’s such a specific character here that it really works.

“Wingman”

Just a great little weird, quick performance piece that I like more than thing is actually good. Kinda rapid-fire with Beck Bennett’s dumb guy charisma really selling the verbal loops of the sketch.

“Scorpio”

This one just makes me giggle in a way I can’t quite explain. I think it’s his totally earnest flattery at being told how good his work is and how much they seem to honestly like it. There’s just something kind of nice about this one, and hey, that costume does actually look pretty dope.

“RKO Movie Set”

Why the fuck not? This is just so earnest and bizarre and goofy that the fact that it’s an extended fart joke fades into the background pretty quickly. I was laughing.

“Dwayne Johnson Five-Timers Monologue”

I won’t get political here, but we must radicalize Dwayne Johnson to Leftist politics for the good of this country.

What Didn’t Work?

“Gemma w/ Dwayne Johnson 2”

I’ll give this Gemma sketch props since it’s the only one since the first that gets that this sketch was written for a guy like Dwayne Johnson, and uses him. The gag still pretty much ran out the first time, so not much positive to report here.

“Senior Video”

Apparently the goodbye sketch for Moynihan and Bayer (though their Weekend Update appearances did that much more effectively), it’s a shame they got such a lame one to send them off. Kind of an abruptly ended fizzle of a sketch that built to no joke and said almost nothing.

Weekend Update!

There’s a degree to which Jost and Che just kind of have to throw their hands in the air this week. No joke is more insane than this week’s actual twelve-ring-fuckery-pile-up, no jab more cutting than things that people actually did. A few good punches (“President-for-now Trump”) were given and it appears that Update has pretty much found its line on attacking Trump, pulling above him for mockery. It works, and the groove that Jost and Che have settled into really does work.

But Update this week really wasn’t about the anchors. It was a wave good-bye to the two long-time performers.

Bayer got to do a character introduced last week, Dawn Lazarus, that reminded us how talented she is on the technical side. That barrelling through barely legible spoken-English is brilliant work and her ability to play anything with a straight face is gonna be sorely missed.

Moynihan brought back Drunk Uncle, his most famous creation. A few good malapropisms, some non-PC ranting, just like old times. It’s a reminder of the sheer commanding force Moynihan was on this show and how much he can get a laugh out of just a look.

Did You Actually Watch The Musical Guest?

Nah.

MVPs!

I’m giving Moynihan and Bayer an MVP point to wave goodbye to two of the quiet pillars of this cast over the last few years. They’d deserve it even without them saying goodbye, as both nailed their performances across a series of sketches, with Bayer killing it in the Cartier ad and Moynihan turning out great gags in the Wingman and WWE Promo Shoot ads.

Also a point for Zamata, who got shafted by this show for the whole time and then didn’t even get a chance to actually say goodbye.

Beck Bennett – 4
Cecily Strong – 3

Bobby Moynihan – 3
Kate McKinnon – 2
Mikey Day – 2
Vanessa Bayer – 2
Jost and Che – 1
Leslie Jones – 1
Kyle Mooney – 1
Kenan Thompson – 1
Melissa Villaseñor – 1
Sasheer Zamata – 1
Ensemble – 1

Final Thoughts!

At the end of the season, they’re fortunate enough to end on one I really like. Johnson’s talent blended with a lot of Bayer and Moynihan’s to produce a rippingly funny, deadpan, and goofy show. A solid note to end on for a season that’s had a long journey to take us through.

Season Rankings (Shamelessly stolen from SNL Scorecard)

  1. Dave Chappelle
  2. Tom Hanks
  3. Kristen Stewart
  4. Lin-Manuel Miranda
  5. Louis C.K.
  6. Dwayne Johnson
  7. Emma Stone
  8. Aziz Ansari
  9. Chris Pine
  10. Melissa McCarthy
  11. Scarlett Johansson
  12. Alec Baldwin
  13. Kristen Wiig
  14. Margot Robbie
  15. Casey Affleck
  16. Benedict Cumberbatch
  17. John Cena
  18. Felicity Jones
  19. Octavia Spencer
  20. Emily Blunt
  21. Jimmy Fallon

Tomorrow: A Season 42 wrap-up with the Best and Worst!

Saturday Night Live Season 42, Episode 19: Chris Pine Sings!

How’s the Cold Open?

It’s actually pretty standard for the Cold Open to feel a little out of step with the rest of the episode. It’s attacking different subjects, usually political ones, at a totally different clip.

Still, in such an episode that was so bizarre and exuberant and off-kilter as this one, this one still felt a little off comparatively. Now, fortunately, it wasn’t just wheeling out Baldwin in the Trump makeup and calling it done. He was here, but the focus was on Moffat and McKinnon as the recently announced-to-be-engaged hosts of the MSNBC show Morning Joe. Their lovey-dovey physical comedy here is plenty amusing, and at least a welcome change from talking into the camera during the Cold Open.

And when Baldwin’s Trump returns, it’s got more energy than it’s had in multiple sketches, perhaps because all Baldwin has to do is the voice. While Anthony Atamanuik is currently spanking Baldwin’s impression weekly over on The President Show, this one is at least better than normal, giving Baldwin a chance to indulge in the weirder parts of the persona by playing as John Miller, Trump’s fake publicist.

But overall, the sketch just feels out of step with the rest of the episode, a bit of normality on a weird one. Nothing too strange, just physical comedy and some fill-in-the-blank jokes.

Who’s Hosting? 

I certainly know that no one would have expected as much musical comedy out of Chris Pine, a guy who’s talented and handsome and desperately trying to differentiate himself from the other talented and handsome actors named Chris that are filling out the ranks of our Genre franchises.

Though, perhaps his SNL appearance shows that differentiation. Besides his go-for-broke goofiness, there’s a real talent there, an acting through the whole body through every bit of weirdness. Pine is the most actorly of the Chrises, but he’s the one who disappears into goofiness the quickest. Also, I can’t reiterate this enough…he just keeps singing. So much singing. It’s kind of great.

What Sketches Are Worth Watching?

“SWAT Recon”

The theme of this night is “Holy shit, this is a weird one, and I LOVE it.”

Perhaps the biggest case in point is this one. A sketch that starts with going for broke, a premise that makes no sense but in the best way, and just keeps spiraling upwards and upwards until its end. Entirely too much fun (Cotton Candy Dance Party actually sounds like a good Saturday night) and reasonably well-structured, this was the sort of bizarre exuberance that made the whole night work.

“World Peace Rap”

I’m still not entirely sure what’s happening here, and I love it. I like that Pine seems to jibe so well with Bennett’s weirder sensibilities tonight, and he plays at each turn. This is definitely a bizarre sketch (that Tommy Wiseau wig) that must be based on SOMETHING, and holy hell I’m just glad to have seen it happen.

“The Handmaid’s Tale”

This seems to be a sketch with an obvious direction, so when it takes the turn it does, I’m all the more appreciative. The angle of “men ignorant of women’s problems” is incredibly well-played and the delivery between the actors here is A+, a smarter tear of satire that the standard Trump stuff.

“Star Trek Lost Episode”

Just another big, goofy one that strikes me as one of those sketches that makes it hard to believe anyone managed to come up with it. It’s also a sketch that makes you realize that you’re probably gonna miss Bobby Moynihan when he leaves, there’s a level of sheer fun and interplay with any member of the cast that nobody else does even half as well. No one outside of Kenan can get so much with one bug-eyed look.

Also, fun fact, Leo Yoshimura, SNL’s longtime set designer, is the man playing Sulu, reprising his role from the first Star Trek sketch in 1976.

“Where In The World Is Kellyanne Conway?”

I’m a big fan of “deflater” sketches, where there’s a HUGE wind-up for a deliberately hilarious thud. So this one totally works for me, pulling off a pretty well-done recreation of Where in the World is Carmen San Diego, including a pretty good impression of The Chief (though not as hilarious as the one Carl Tart has been doing over at Comedy Bang! Bang!), and then ending in about 15 seconds. Short sketches really do benefit SNL.

“The House w/ Chris Pine”

I’ve missed these Good Neighbor sketches, these chances for SNL to hew closer to anti-comedy and Tim and Eric-esque sketch making, so I’ll praise any time they come back around. The stilted delivery is always a special kind of brilliant, especially out of sketch actors as good as Bennett and Mooney, and the way this one chugs forward is just such a delight to watch.

“Chris Pine Monologue”

Our first signal for how much singing was gonna happen, and also how much fun Chris Pine would end up be in this episode. I kind of love him leaning into the Chris dilemma (by the way, Chris Evans is the only one who hasn’t hosted yet, get on that), and it’s the one time the musical monologue feels of a piece with the rest of the episode. So, points.

What Didn’t Work?

“Couples Game Night”

Cute idea, weird punchline, but it kind of just takes too long to get there and doesn’t find quite enough laughs along the way to justify the length of the sketch.

“Auto Shop”

Again, cute premise, and that lip sync battle at the end is amazing, but the sketch tips its hand too early. You know where it’s gonna go and the pivot doesn’t function like it needs to at all.

Weekend Update!

   Anchors

Che and Jost were in reasonably fine form this week, going in on a week of fairly supreme Trump stupidity and evil. The AHCA passing was the center of the week’s best jokes, with Jost commenting on Trump’s building of a wall “between Americans and their healthcare” and Che noting the overwhelmingly white House Republicans were celebrating like “they had just invented sickle cell.”

Their groove is so established that it comes down to the specifics of the material, and there’s just too much going on this week to not have a few good gags.

Correspondents

Two this week. One is Leslie Jones doing a solid bit of stand-up. I’m never going to protest when Leslie Jones comes on as herself, and she’s killing it as herself here. The other is Dawn Lazarus, played by Vanessa Bayer, who I’d love to see more of. It’s a variation on Kristen Wiig’s travel agent character, taken to an extreme where her nervousness has gone so far that it’s looped past making her unable to perform and has her speaking gibberish with total confidence. Bayer does amazing things with this character, an absolutely tightly controlled performance.

Did You Actually Watch The Musical Guest?

Nope, I feel like I should get into LCD Soundsystem at some point though.

MVPs!

Bennett wins it almost solely on the back of the World Peace Rap. In general, he seemed to vibe the most with what has happening this episode, acting through the singing and the musical number, but World Peace Rap is such an insane thing that it’s hard to not give him credit for how well it was done.

Season so far:

Beck Bennett – 4
Kate McKinnon – 2
Bobby Moynihan – 2
Cecily Strong – 2
Mikey Day – 2
Vanessa Bayer – 1
Jost and Che – 1
Leslie Jones – 1
Kyle Mooney – 1
Kenan Thompson – 1
Melissa Villaseñor – 1
Ensemble – 1

Final Thoughts!

Overall, I like when the show goes goofy, and I like when the show goes weird. This was both in spades, and Chris Pine was a surprising delight to watch. A good week.

Season Rankings (Shamelessly stolen from SNL Scorecard)

  1. Dave Chappelle
  2. Tom Hanks
  3. Kristen Stewart
  4. Lin-Manuel Miranda
  5. Louis C.K.
  6. Emma Stone
  7. Aziz Ansari
  8. Chris Pine
  9. Scarlett Johansson
  10. Alec Baldwin
  11. Kristen Wiig
  12. Margot Robbie
  13. Casey Affleck
  14. Benedict Cumberbatch
  15. John Cena
  16. Felicity Jones
  17. Octavia Spencer
  18. Emily Blunt
  19. Jimmy Fallon

Next Week: Melissa McCarthy!