Tag Archives: recap

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
Advertisements

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

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.