Monthly Archives: May 2013

Bad Lieutenant and the Uses of Nicolas Cage

This post contains spoilers, for a four-year-old film that has less of a plot than it has a Cage. Be warned.

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Nicolas Cage is one of Hollywood’s true enigmas. Anyone with a public image and a couple million to spare can be adorably quirky. Dozens of actors make their living by projecting an image of a loveable weirdo, odd enough to coo over, but not odd enough to reject. Cage, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to be interested in what the public thinks of him, what with the castles, Peruvian crystal skulls, and hundred-thousand-dollar octopi that he buys with reckless abandon. The standard response to this, is that he was a good actor once, now sadly degenerated into the sort of person who stars in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and Season of the Witch. People will generally point to some point in his early career as a peak, and then look at National Treaure and tut softly. The thing about Cage, though, is that there’s no discernible place in his career that can be quantified as either the peak or the nadir. He just does, and whether the movie he’s in is good and whether he’s good in it, seems unpredictable and totally divorced from context.

Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant Port of Call: New Orleans, despite looking like it needs a second colon in its title, is an amazing film. It’s got a lot of interesting commentary on its setting, post-Katrina New Orleans, but, personally I don’t feel qualified to analyse that. Instead, I’m going to focus on Nicolas Cage in one of the best roles of his career, and certainly his most recent great one. His character, Lt. Terence McDonagh is one of the best arguments for Cage still being relevant in modern film, as he’s every insane stereotype that Cage has accumulated over thirtyish years, and he works, and not just as a curiosity.

McDonagh is first characterised by excess, and that remains constant throughout the film. In his first appearance, he tries to interest his partner (Val Kilmer) in a thousand-dollar bet on a drowning prisoner’s life. His character is unsympathetically developed enough by this point that when he jumps into a flooded holding cell to rescue the prisoner while simultaneously complaining about ruining his fifty-dollar underwear, it seems out of character. But he does jump, which gives him a debilitating back injury that informs his character throughout the film.

The character in question is a corrupt, crack-smoking, police officer with a prostitute girlfriend and a gambling addiction who nevertheless remains sympathetic throughout the film. Most of his habits Most of the film portrays his attempts at self-destruction whilst simultaneously attempting to solve a high-profile murder.

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A quintuple murder case is technically the central plot of Bad Lieutenant, but it’s much better understood as a character study, which is established in the funeral of the murdered family. McDonagh attends, looking distinctly uncomfortable with the African funerary rights, and is begged by a hysterical family member for help. This scene shows the character as pre-occupied with something other than his own self-destruction. He says little to the woman who’s crying at him, but the fact that he showed up at the funeral and Cage’s facial expressions convey that he cares very deeply about justice for the murders, and he pursues the case with borderline insane fervor.

Likewise, when his partner pulls in several persons of interest, Cage berates him for intimidation in the interrogation room and bad procedure. He actually cares about the outcome of the investigation enough to treat a prisoner fairly well in the context of a police force with a healthy disdain for basic human rights.

Generally when this movie gets mentioned in any sort of critical sense, it’s to point out the utter off-the-wall insanity of Cage’s performance. He hallucinates iguanas! He giggles hysterically while smoking crack with drug dealers! He threatens a resident of a retirement home by cutting of her oxygen! And it’s true that these sequences, which are plentiful as the ones that paint McDonagh as depressed and self-destructive, are immensely entertaining. But they serve a second purpose, which is to obfuscate his intentions and motivation. When McDonagh shouts at a corpse “Shoot him again. His soul’s still dancing.”, the viewer’s response is to assume it’s just Nic Cage acting crazy. Both the character’s and the actor’s insanity are covers for the fact that Cage is playing a deeply conflicted man.

As the plot advances, it becomes apparent that the walls are closing in on Terence McDonagh. He pisses of the wrong people, both legally and otherwise, he owes his bookie thousands, and the case goes nowhere. Seemingly out of desperation, he climbs into bed with the same drug lord who he’s trying to imprison. As it turns out, this in an elaborate and very illegal frame-up; the drug lord (played by Xzibit, of all people) takes a hit from McDonagh’s “lucky crack pipe,” and the false DNA evidence on the pipe is planted at the scene of the murder. What makes this interesting is how well the movie convinces you that this is simply McDonagh snapping. Cage plays the descent into villainy totally straight, giving no indication that McDonagh is anything more than unhinged and desperate. He gives a brilliant performance in a scene where he does crack with, and subsequently uses his new friends to massacre a rival gang to which he owes money. Throughout, he’s laughing mad, screaming about football players turning into elks, but it’s both an indicator of his encroaching insanity and his dedication to the case that he’d produce such a convincing smokescreen.

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By the film’s final, devastating scene, it’s apparent that despite succeeding in every area of his life, McDonagh hasn’t changed at all. He has everything he wants in life, but he’s fundamentally unhappy. Whether it’s by his back injury or the systematic self-destruction that characterises his life, McDonagh is permanently scarred and can’t fix any aspect of his life, even if it’s done for him. He may have all his problems solved, a successful career and a happy family life, but there’s no escape. Nevertheless, the final line of the film denotes that he’s devoid of both hope and regret. When he tells the prisoner he saved “I still hate you for ruining my underpants,” he’s not blaming him for ruining his life. He’s telling him that the only thing he regrets that day is the loss of his fifty-dollar underwear, not the rescue. Even in the face of the cause of his emotional and physical disabilities, he retains a sense of justice that defines his character throughout the film. Cage conveys all this in a single, wearily delivered line, as if he’s accepted the deeply flawed human that he is and the lack of meaning in his life.

Bad Lieutenant is a perfect example of how Nicolas Cage works as an actor. Given a role with a sufficient degree of insanity, he pushes his character’s unhinged behaviour such that it jumps back and forth between hilarious and disturbing with reckless abandon. Even so, there’s a genuine human being in his performance, buried beneath addiction and excess, who is vulnerable despite being deeply flawed.


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Hannibal – “Trou Normand”

Having spent the last few episodes playing around in Hannibal Lecter’s psyche, Hannibal gets back to Will Graham in “Trou Normand,” suggesting some worrying things both about him as a character and his future on the show. The episode also tries to bring back some of the psychological fascination that its killers of the week had at the beginning of the season, with less success.

But look, he's so happy!

But look, he’s so happy!

Hugh Dancy gets a wonderful scene at the beginning of the episode, where post-crime scene, he loses three hours of time and finds himself in Hannibal’s office. Will quietly loses his mind, playing up the vulnerability he’s been displaying for most of the season in a very believable breakdown. The scene is also indicative of his developing relationship with Hannibal; he goes to his office, a safe space, when he mentally dissociates from the extreme stress placed on his psyche. Hannibal pushes it further in a frankly adorable line, where he says “I’m your friend. I don’t care about the lives you save. I care about you.” This development works because we know that their friendship can’t last given the serial killer thing, but possibly less sustainable is the drama revolving around Will’s psyche. Alana Bloom tells him he’s unstable, and he agrees, so I’m curious what happens next after he snaps in some way or other. I assume it’ll happen at the end of the season, but what next for his character in season two? Though I’m confident the writers have some sort of idea, I can’t think what it is.

“Trou Normand”s totem of corpses is one of the most viscerally disturbing murders Hannibal has shown so far, and the clinical detachment with which it’s portrayed is even more effective than usual. As usual, the crime scene FBI People banter was entertaining without overdoing levity, but the highlight of the case was Will explaining that, to the killer, it didn’t matter how the victims were killed. His aim was their death rather any sort of performance, until his final installation. Usually Hannibal villains have a motive other than straight murder, and, initially, it was both refreshing and starkly frightening.

However, when revealed, Lawrence Wells came as somewhat of a disappointment. True, his introduction, sitting in an armchair with all his possessions, ready and willing to go to jail is very evocative. That part of the plot, the fact that the villain’s plan worked, and he is essentially unpunished, went very well. He didn’t, though, have the delusional sort of insanity that made Garrett Jacob Hobbs, Mushroom Man, and Brain Tumour Jesus so interesting despite minimal screen time. Furthermore, Jack and Will’s discovery of him seemed far too easy, even if the man planned it himself. Hannibal goes out of its way a lot to show that the FBI are actually quite good at their jobs, but sometimes it’s unsatisfying how easily Jack and co. track down the crazies. Likewise, the plot involving Wells’ son seemed rather tacked on; even though he did need some depth, his relationship to his family wasn’t something I really cared about, and Hannibal wasn’t able to convince me that it was important.

"Ye're tardy; I should have been aflame ten minutes since."

“Ye’re tardy; I should have been aflame ten minutes since.”

Abigail Hobbs’ return left me somewhat conflicted. Dead Girl Support Group could have been a great scene, if played a little less melodramatic, but as it happened, the chorus of accusation ended up silly rather than disturbing. Similarly unexciting was Abigail’s new relationship with Freddie Lounds, because it’s very obvious what an awful human being Freddie is, and that this is going nowhere nice for Abigail. It did, however, facilitate Abigail calling out Will on his paternalist attitude towards her. Her interactions with him and Hannibal this week clearly indicate that she doesn’t want a father figure, and it is interesting to watch Freddie use that to get closer to her.

The best parts of Abigail’s story are the few choices she makes herself, and this week one of her only acts of agency comes back to haunt her when Nicholas Boyle’s body is discovered. Really, “Trou Normand” highlights how utterly hopeless Abigail’s situation is; the only decisions she’s made on her own – killing Nicholas Boyle, collaborating with Freddie Lounds – have made her life even worse than it already is. The episode’s final revelation that pretty much everything Jack Crawford said about her is true puts her in an interesting position. It’s easy to make the audience sympathise with a serial killer; obvious, given this show is about Hannibal Lecter. But Abigail’s revelation is hardly coloured by ambiguity at all. Hannibal tells her “You’re not a monster. You’re a victim.” Everything in her life is determined by others acting upon her and the result is a character who is deeply transgressive in her actions, but not her motivations or disposition. I severely doubt she’s going to live through the season, but Abigail’s story definitely has enough steam to carry another few episodes.

Drop dead.

Drop dead.

On a more continuity-related note, I very much enjoyed Hannibal’s manipulation of Will when he discovers that he helped dispose of Nicholas Boyle. The “both her fathers” line is an excellent example of Hannibal using what he knows about Will’s mind to manipulate him. The sort of manipulation that Hannibal is known for in most of his incarnations has been absent thus far, and it’s subtly introduced in that scene. I hope we get more of that, because Mads Mikkelsen is absolutely killing the subtle suggestion embedded within a larger point that works so well on Will. You don’t want your new daughter to go to prison, do you, Will? Here, I’ll pat you on the shoulder to re-assure you that covering it up is the proper, paternal response to Abigail gutting a guy with a hunting knife.

Hannibal is moving its plot along, which is necessary given how close it is to the end of the season, but it’s usually better when it’s not doing that. The show excels at its characters, not its narrative, and too much of the latter is, oddly, less interesting than Hannibal or Will just talking to someone. Luckily, “Trou Normand” had some lovely images, some very good depictions of Will’s mental collapse, and a promise that Abigail Hobbs is going some very interesting places. It’s enough to make up for the less interesting places she’s going, and the half-hearted family plot with Lawrence Wells. Even given Hannibal’s foregone conclusion, I’m very excited as to where the end of the season is headed, which almost certainly nowhere cheerful.

In Memoriam: Abigail Hobbs’ innocence, although ambiguously. It’s difficult to tell whether it’s alive or dead at this point.

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Doctor Who – “The Name of The Doctor”

That got my attention, but it really shouldn’t have.

“The Name of The Doctor” is not a good episode. It came as a disappointing episode at the end of a half-season that never really hit its full potential. A lot of individual episodes had great moments and a few had some plots that involved The Doctor to a lesser extent and still worked very well, but overall it never really came together. Oddly, given that Doctor Who only had half a season to resolve what appeared to be a rather sweeping plot, this wasn’t the result of rushing, it just seemed that the whole thing never really came together.

“The Name of The Doctor” decided to do something about this by solving half the show’s mysteries, throwing in a hundred different references to the rest of the series, and then introducing a whole bunch more mysteries, all in forty-five minutes. To its credit, this never seems rushed, either. The episode is quite well paced, considering. It’s just very silly.

Since there are a lot of elements to its silliness, I’ll start out with a smaller one: this week’s villain, Dr. “Great Intelligence” Simeon. The Great Intelligence, as far as I know, is an original series villain who showed up in “The Snowmen” to be a largely uninteresting threat in order to galvanise some lovely character interaction and some of the best Clara material of the series. Like all original series villains, that unfortunately gave him (it?) the opportunity to overstay his welcome, which was highly evident in this episode. G. Intelligence didn’t present a credible threat. A severe Victorian gentleman in dapper clothing does not work against a backdrop of The Doctor’s tomb and his near death. He’s too small to seem dangerous, even as a vessel for a greater (and more boring) evil, and you could detect the show reaching to make him seem intimidating.


Those are some lovely top hats, though.

Those are some lovely top hats, though.


His menace should have been helped along by the Whisper Men, who I was very excited about last week given that they looked like an actually credible cross between Slenderman(s) and The Gentlemen from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Most of the episode they were frightening monsters of the seemingly invincible sort, and their rhyming introduction by Evil Prison Man was very unsettling in a way that only nursery rhymes about monsters can be. I’d love to see an entire episode about the Whisper Men, but they’d have to be legitimised as threats again, because “The Name of The Doctor” did them a terrible disservice. As soon as Simeon McGreatIntelligence steps into the portal, they disappear. I know there’s a timey-wimey story reason for it, but it’s also the show blatantly going “these guys aren’t relevant to the plot any more. Stop thinking about them.” They just…fuck off, unsatisfactorily to say the least.

In this episode, River Song says that The Doctor never came to see her because “he doesn’t like endings,” and the same can certainly be said of the show’s writers. River did not need to be in this episode. Her entire role in the plot could easily have been re-written, and it took screentime away from a plot that was very thin to begin with. The problem with River’s appearances, especially in the current season, is that it makes every scene with her in it about her relationship to The Doctor. This wasn’t such a problem in the fifth and sixth seasons, and her two-parter from the fourth was much improved by her presence, but as of “The Wedding of River Song,” her character is essentially finished. Her mystery is solved, and as much as she wants to hang around being flirty, it won’t induce the audience to care.

Oh yes, I’d nearly forgotten what the episode was about, which is never a good sign. So, I suppose this week the secret of The Impossible Girl was revealed. And I’ll be honest, I liked the setup. I liked The Doctor going to the one place he can never go to save three people that aren’t very important in the grand scheme of things, because that’s what The Doctor does. Trenzalore itself was fairly interesting, and an enormous TARDIS is exactly what The Doctor’s tomb would be. The setting details were quite nice, but the Big Secret left me entirely nonplussed. That is not a good sign for a revelation that retroactively alters the show’s entire timeline. It simply left no impression. So Clara has saved The Doctor thousands of times in the past. That’s…good? I guess? And the day was saved by The Doctor going “I am way too amazing for the rules to apply to, so I’m going to break all of them without consequence.” I mean, yes, there are usually consequences, but they never stick, and The Doctor usually fixes them by going even bigger and more impossible. Doctor Who constantly breaks its own rules, and I’m mostly fine with that, but in this instance the plot wasn’t interesting enough to compel me to go along with it.

Excuse me for a moment, while I take leave of my critical faculties:









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All right, now that that’s finished, I’ve read a few theories on who he actually is, some based on “sources,” others blatant conjecture. I think it would be both fantastic and fantastically unlikely if he was to be The Doctor’s next incarnation, but that “introducing” sub-title seems meaningful. More likely he’ll be around for the 50th Anniversary Special, and then wander off back into time, but I can dream. Oh, I can dream.

In Memoriam: my interest in Clara as a character, which has suddenly and unaccountably dried up. I’m hoping the next season will do something that develops her as a character rather than a plot event or curiosity, but I’m not hoping too much.

That’s it for Doctor Who reviews until November, when Matt Smith and David Tennant return in what will hopefully not be a clusterfuck, or at least not a boring clusterfuck.


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Hannibal – “Fromage”

Hannibal has it easy in one important aspect; it doesn’t have to iterate its premise very much. As an adaptation, even a loose one, certain groundrules are previously established, and certain expectations are pre-existing. Hannibal could have been quite lazy with its subject matter, given that Hannibal Lecter murdering people and talking about is such lucrative territory, but this week’s “Fromage” has fully revealed what the show is really about: crazy people being crazy at each other. Principally these people are Hannibal and Will, and the expression and interaction of their psychologies drives a lot of what makes the show good.

Will and Alana Bloom’s romantic scenes are an excellent example of this preoccupation, as they’re just as important to the episode as Hannibal’s relationship to the killer of the week, Tobias Budge. The scenes are full of psychological analysis, both implied and explained out loud. Alana very rationally talks herself down from going any farther with Will and it’s abundantly clear what it means to both of them. There’s clearly a mutual attraction, but Alana knows that unless Will is going to stop being a curiosity, she can’t separate academic fascination. “Fromage” does a great job of showing that this is at least as important to the show as various murders. When Will shows up at Hannibal’s house after he’s rejected, it’s adorable, but it’s also an admission by the show that it’s principally about how these two minds function. Everything they do matters, because the crimes aren’t the focus. It’s a show about people.

Before I explore that theme a little more, I’d like to comment on this week’s crime-scene empathy. It’s a pretty interesting idea, and I’d hesitate to call it a gimmick, but after last week it seemed like it might be heading in that direction. Not that there was anything wrong with last week’s hotel murder, but it didn’t do anything new. However, this week’s was wonderfully chilling. The murder itself is the result of a much more interesting mind than the previous few episodes, but what really makes the scene is Garret Jacob Hobbs clapping in the seats. Hannibal keeps coming up with new ways to show us how tortured Will’s psyche is, and a visit from the man himself is chilling. The way the camera moves to him smirking alone in the audience reinforces how much his murder Will’s been trying to repress and its symbolic development from the animals to a human presence lurking in the corners of his psyche. Better yet, it isn’t another bloody elk.

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“Now I’m not condoning any of this, but you have to admit that this human cello thing is pretty fucking cool.”

Other fun with the murder of the week: Beverly Katz holding a bow and looking nonplussed. Her banter with the two other FBI People is one of the most consistently funny pieces of dark comedy the show has to offer.

The episode’s central murder is musically-themed, a man’s throat cut and his vocal cords played like a cello, and as such the soundtrack is almost constantly present, emitting some kind of noise or other. This ties in nicely with Will’s deteriorating mental state, symbolising the mental “noise” his brain is constantly suffering, what with the empathy combined with the traumatic recent past.

Having established Hannibal Lecter’s loneliness and god complex in previous weeks, “Fromage” has what I can only describe as fun with it. We know Hannibal wants a friend, and now we have someone who wants to be friends with him in Tobias Budge, musician, luthier, and musically-themed serial killer. Tobias gives Hannibal a message via poor, stupid Franklyn Froideveaux and the two spend most of the episode circling each other like cats. Tobias seems to genuinely want Hannibal’s approval; unfortunately, Hannibal can barely conceal his contempt. You’d think a friend who shares his interests would be nice, but the thing is, it’s crucial to Hannibal’s character that he’s not only a serial killer, but the serial killer. Everyone else kills out of compulsion, or emotional fetters, or sheer fucked-upness, but Hannibal tells himself that he kills for a nobler purpose.

Hannibal’s paradox is that he wants understanding, but no-one that can truly empathise with him is worthy of his time. Will, as he mentions obliquely to his therapist, is the closest he can get to true understanding without being a competitor. Franklin is a useful example here, as it’s clear that Hannibal has a sort of condescending regard for him, enough to refer him to someone else and ask Tobias not to kill him. However, as soon as Franklin becomes an irritation in his confrontation with Tobias, Hannibal snaps his neck, partially because he’s a liability in the situation, but partially to spite Tobias, who was “looking forward to that.” Hannibal murders a man out of sheer contempt, both for the victim and the would-be murderer. He hates that someone who he doesn’t respect thinks he understands him, which is abundantly clear when he subsequently murders Tobias. With an elk statue. Sigh. You just can’t get away from them, apparently.

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You say the word “elk” enough, it loses all meaning.

With “Fromage,” Hannibal has definitely let its audience know that, as much as it masquerades as a crime show, it’s first and foremost about exploring peoples’ heads in excruciating detail. There are a few murders and a kiss, but all of them are in service of how the characters interact on an intellectual and emotional level.

In Memoriam: Franklyn Froideveaux, who probably had it coming, given that he tried to reason with a guy who makes instruments out of people and stalked Hannibal Lecter. Idiot.

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Game of Thrones – “The Bear and the Maiden Fair”

Note: This review is from the perspective of someone who’s read all five Song of Ice and Fire books, and so may contain spoilers for all five books, particularly A Storm of Swords.


Last week I said that “The Climb” was a preamble everything falling apart in the second half of season three of Game of Thrones. Turns out that the show is still inching its way towards the precipice, because this week’s “The Bear and the Maiden Fair” is still moving pieces around on the board. Game of Thrones checks in on various bears and maiden fairs across Westeros, theming its episode around couples and their varying degrees of happiness.

Unfortunately, my complaints about the wildling group haven’t changed one bit from last week. Jon and Orell are still butting heads, and the possibility that their enmity for each other could result in any sort of meaningful interaction is slim. Orell’s interaction with Ygritte is similarly pointless; it’s obvious she isn’t going to abandon whatever relationship she has with Jon for him, and the two don’t need any more reason to hate each other. I’ve liked a fair few adaptation changes that Game of Thrones has done so far, but the show seems really confused as to how to handle the wildlings. At least Tormund gets to showcase an actual character when he explains to Jon how to properly pleasure a lady, complete with expansive gestures. Like I’ve said before, he’s the one of the only wildling characters to potentially matter beyond season three, so he should get more screen time.

Please just go away.

Please just go away.

Jon and Ygritte follows the same pattern as per last week, alternating between weirdly saccharine flirting, banter, and occasional suspicion. This relationship is what the show is getting right, and I quite like how much of Ygritte’s perspective we’re getting. We’ve been getting little insights on how she thinks, but this week it’s clear that she doesn’t care what side Jon is on. He’s hers, and that’s much more important than trivialities like war, vows, and the encroaching ice-zombie apocalypse. Most importantly, we learn that Jon Snow does know something, as it turns out, about windmills. As enjoyable as it is to watch Jon and Ygritte, there’s only one way this can all end, and I don’t care enough about any of the wildlings or their plans for it to matter very much.

Well, at least Robb Stark’s happy, and the fact that he has such a great relationship to his wife is laying on the Red Wedding foreshadowing pretty thick. It’s an unfortunate side effect of having read the books that I find it quite difficult to invest in his story, but I think Talisa is a great improvement over the book’s Jeyne Westerling, who was less Robb Stark’s wife than a convenient, wife-shaped plot device. Having Talisa be even less strategically valuable, and giving her a personality makes the fact that she’s going to doom Robb all the more poignant. They’re one of the only truly happy couples on the show, and the fact that they’re the most dangerous to the people around them is as strong an articulation on Game of Thrones’ opinions on things like love and honour as poor old Ned Stark.

Margarey and Sansa have a chat about their various romantic prospects and it’s mostly useful to reinforce how much I am liking Margarey’s character so far. She’s playing a big game with the Lannisters, and she’s winning. Despite her ambitions to be “the queen,” she also seems to genuinely care about Sansa, though that could certainly be a play to get the North on her side once the war ends. The show had to cut a lot of minor scheming in transition from the books for the sake of brevity, but the fact that they’re exploring Margarey’s designs more is lovely. She’s developed into one of the only characters who can play the game and play it well, and still remain totally likeable. When she tells Sansa at the end of their scene, “Yes, sweet girl. I learned it from my mother,” in reference to their sex talk, it comes across as gently humorous rather than condescending.

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Yeah, my mother told me that Tyrion Lannister is good in bed.

Tyrion and Shae, like Margarey and Sansa, was a necessary scene given the characters’ relationship, but it didn’t accomplish much, and nor was it particularly engaging. I’m predicting a lot of fan hatred towards Shae after this scene, as she’s been previously been an unexpectedly intelligent source of fanservice and occasionally knives, and now she’s actually objecting to the class structure that’s put her in this position. I’m sure the same sort of people who hate Skyler in Breaking Bad are just chomping at the bit to call her a “bitch” for expecting some sort of fidelity in her relationship with Tyrion. He clearly loves her in a twisted sort of way, but as unengaging as the scene was, it’s useful in showing that, even as a partial outcast from his family, he’s still a product of the society he’s been raised in. Marrying his “whore,” even if he’s done it once before, is not something that crosses his mind, as out of place as he is in King’s Landing now that his father’s returned.

Daenerys’ singular scene in “The Bear and the Maiden Fair” is the most satisfying portion of the episode, and serves as a transitory passage to the next part of her story. Nothing dramatic happens, merely a meeting with an ambassador from Yunkai, but it confirms that she’s going to be kicking around in Essos for a good while; her nebulous goal from the first two seasons has been replaced, temporarily, by the immediate goal of Abraham Lincolning Slaver’s Bay and surrounding area. It also serves to highlight the confidence she’s found in wielding her power; her sack of Astapor marked a change from relying in her advisors. Her talk with the Yunkish ambassador is directed entirely by her, and her presence dominates everyone involved. It’s a joy to watch her utterly shut down everyone who contradicts her, and threaten various people with dragon- or eunuch-based murder without changing her expression.

I didn't mention him in the review, but wow, does the show really like this particular shot.

I didn’t mention him in the review, but wow, does the show really like this particular shot.

The episode’s conclusion and literal interpretation of the title provides some spectacle to allay the frustration of nothing much happening all episode. Jaime’s rescue of Brienne proves how fundamentally losing his hand has changed him. He relies on bluff and guile to accomplish his ends, and he does it very well. When he does get into a fight, he’s totally useless, running away from the bear until Brienne can get out safely. The confrontation with Roose Bolton’s lackey is nicely tense and it is good to see the fucker denied something. If he’s supposed to be a stand-in for Vargo Hoat, I wonder if the show is going to have Gregor Clegane feed him his own limbs? One can but hope.

“The Bear and the Maiden Fair” isn’t a bad episode of Game of Thrones by any means, and by any reasonable metric a bad episode of Game of Thrones is still very good. But it’s easy to get impatient what with all the potential teased last week. It had lots of great character moments; I didn’t have much to say about Joffrey and Tywin, but it was an excellent scene. However, it squandered a little of the breathless anticipation of “The Climb”, only giving the audience a little bit of payoff at the end of the episode. Like, “The Climb:, it foreshadows greater things, but it doesn’t do it quite as well.



Oh, and before I forget: a moment of silence for Theon Greyjoy’s genitals, brought so low by the ravages of time and psychopaths with sharp knives.


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Doctor Who – “Nightmare in Silver”

After the brilliance of “The Doctor’s Wife”, it was widely assumed (by me, and presumably some other folks) that Neil Gaiman’s second turn as writer for Stephen Moffat’s Doctor Who would be equal in offbeat humour and piercing insight into a decades-old character. These people (me) must have been surprised when “Nightmare in Silver” was not at all brilliant, but instead one of the most uneven episodes the new series has ever produced.


“Nightmare in Silver”, like “The Doctor’s Wife” has a lot of Gaiman hallmarks. His fascination with the grotesque nature of carnivals and theatrical illusionists, and peculiar sense of humour are definitely present. But what’s also very evident is that Gaiman is first and foremost writing as a fan. Not that I’m in possession of the statistics, but there’s a fairly good chance that most of the show’s writers were fans of the original series. The difference is, however, that no writer has as much of a “inmates running the asylum” mentality as Gaiman. You can just see him thinking “Oh man, oh man, what if The Doctor was a Cyberman?” or “Wouldn’t it be awesome to have a callback to all of The Doctor’s regenerations? They were so cool.”


The answer to the first question is that it would be terrifying.

The answer to the first question is that it would be terrifying.


These questions, though interesting, don’t tend to result in a well-formed narrative, and as such the episode isn’t terribly coherent. The plot isn’t anything new: the Cybermen are back, and that’s really about it. The Cybermen are second only to the Daleks in cockroach tenacity, so it’s never as terribly surprising as the characters make it out to be. There’s a backdrop of a massive galactic empire that’s not shown up until now, but the setting is mostly concerned with its rejects, and it doesn’t directly enter into the narrative until the climax. When it does, it’s not exactly a deus ex machina¸ but it’s not totally satisfying and it elevates a character who hasn’t got much in the way of an arc.


That said, Neil Gaiman is still Neil Gaiman, and he’s still a master. Despite all its plot contrivances and a certain lack of originality, I thoroughly enjoyed “Nightmare in Silver.” Firstly, The Doctor was unconventionally removed from the central narrative and it showcased his most interesting plot of the season, and one of Doctor Who’s most compelling villains. And secondly, Clara got to do things. And they were cool things.


I’ll start with the second. Like I mentioned in my review of “Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS,” Doctor Who is very slowly breaking out of its standard Companion paradigm. With The Doctor incapacitated in his chess game with himself, he tacitly leaves Clara in charge of fighting off the Cybermen and not letting anyone blow up the planet. And she does. No fuss, no agony of command, she just up and starts making decisions. In what I’ve chose to refer to as The Siege of Comical Castle, she runs about organising a defense that’s surprisingly capable given her total ignorance of pretty much the entire setting. In between, she gets a couple fantastic interactions with The Doctor, absolutely nailing his psychology regarding romance: “Because even if that was true, which it is…obviously not, I know you well enough to know that you would rather die than say it.” Clara’s final interaction with the Emperor was odd and didn’t feel particularly organic, but it cemented the tremendous amount of independence she gets this episode. The girl uses a two-handed mace on a Cyberman. Unsuccessfully, sure, but she isn’t fucking around.  “Nightmare in Silver” shows she’s got a lot in common with the Eleventh Doctor: fast-talking, clever, good with children, and very confident of her own abilities. As such, I’m even more excited to see where their relationship goes, as he’s never been quite this well-matched with someone on his side.


See? Right there. Enormous mace. Damn.

See? Right there. Enormous mace. Damn.


Well, River comes close, but their relationship’s balance of power tips multiple times an episode, and “on his side” is relative. There was that one time she murdered him.


The Doctor’s plot, oddly insular, is how Gaiman’s “running the asylum” mentality manifests itself in the best way. The Doctor gets partially “upgraded” and spends most of the episode fighting with himself for dominance of his body. That sort of thing isn’t amazingly original, but the writing is wonderful and Matt Smith plays it perfectly. You wouldn’t think “The Doctor but evil and a robot” is terribly compelling, but oh dear me, he is. His behaviours, all embodying the same sort of manic energy Smith puts into Eleven, ranges from the ridiculous, calling himself “Mr. Clever,” to the actually quite menacing, the absolutely straightfaced “I have a chess game to win and you have to die pointlessly, and very far from home. Toodle-loo.” Smith also forms a distinct voice for Mr. Clever, which is often deliberately obfuscated to leave the audience (and Clara) guessing as to who’s actually talking. It’s very fun to see him against an adversary who is very nearly smarter than him, and though his defeat isn’t wholly satisfying, the interplay between the two right until the end makes it worthwhile. Meanwhile, there’s a bit of him still floating about in space, so Mr. Clever might be back. I can dream.


Children are rarely interesting characters in Doctor Who¸ and “Nightmare in Silver” didn’t, unfortunately, change this. Who children can be interesting, especially when the story concerns their ageing – the best examples are Amy in “The Eleventh Hour” and Kazran in “A Christmas Carol” – but they’re usually irritating bit players or hostages of some sort. This week, they were both: I cringed when Artie and Angie turned up at the end of “The Crimson Horror” and they didn’t get the slightest bit of development beyond “Enthusiastic Child” and “Surly Intelligent Teen”, respectively. The impression I got when they were “upgraded” was that the show realised that there was no way to make them interesting and turned them into stakes, instead. True, it did get them to stop talking, but replacing one sort of bad writing with another, less irritating form of bad writing doesn’t fix either. Angie figuring Porridge (Warwick Davis) out as the Emperor didn’t really make her less obnoxious, and you can’t help but agree when Mr. Clever points out that sacrificing the chess game to save them is pretty pointless.


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Let’s not talk about them any more.


Another big episode for what is definitely probably going to be something romantic with The Doctor and Clara. I do like how Mr. Clever uses what’s already there to screw with both of them, as it doesn’t take too much to get either out of their comfort zone regarding each other. With Clara this is somewhat understandable, given the “madman in a box” deal, but The Doctor having the emotional maturity of a teenager is a little wearing. Nonetheless, the episode had a lot of lingering looks and pauses, as well as a line describing them as a couple that neither bothers to deny. Something has to come to a head soon, and perhaps The Doctor, however unlikely, will actually admit how he feels about another person.


“Nightmare in Silver” didn’t work all the way through, but when it did, it did with style and a flourish. It asked what would happen if The Doctor’s intellect was put behind a vast and implacable machine, and the answer it gave was not only satisfying but at times frightening. It played to fears of dehumanisation better than any Cyberman episode has to date, and though they still aren’t interesting villains, they can at least be helpful in providing one.

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Hannibal – “Sorbet”

Hannibal’s plot is occasionally difficult to detect, cloaked as it often is in compelling but resolution-deficient character interactions, lovingly-shot murders, and dream elk. It’s most evident in the most recent episode, “Sorbet”, in which we look at what Hannibal Lecter’s life is like, and not much else.


All right, yes, there’s a killer this week. But he’s a med student organ harvester, and isn’t even as psychologically interesting as last week’s Dr. Abel Gideon. After a body turns up in a hotel room with some Chesapeake Ripper-style mutilations and organ removals, Will Graham gets pulled out of his classroom to do that empathy thing. His and Jack Crawford’s exchange in the drive to the scene highlight the macabre nature of this “talent” that the show sometimes glosses over: “I’ve had the room sealed. You’ll get it fresh.”, to which Will replies “Fresh as a daisy.” As much as Hannibal likes to shock its viewers with tasteful gore, it’s easy to forget that its protagonist’s special ability is pretending to be a serial killer. Little comments like that bring the viewer back to the reality of what it is most people do on the show beyond the veil of dreamlike imagery.


I'd make some sort of joke about Jack being sad, but honestly, his life is unpleasant enough as it is.

I’d make some sort of joke about Jack being sad, but honestly, his life is unpleasant enough as it is.


The show’s dark, subdued sense of humour also serves it well in “Sorbet”s ostensible A-plot. FBI-people Beverly Katz (Hetienne Park) and Brian Zeller (Aaron Abrams) are on the scene before Will, and after Katz lets him know that she touched the body and her impressions, Zeller chimes in, saying “I, uh, also did a little bit of touching.” The mutilated body not ten feet away makes his sheepish delivery far funnier than it should be, allowing a small moment of humour to precede one of Will’s empathic crime scene investigations. This one was as interesting as the rest, featuring an elk so as to remind the audience that, yes, the spectre of the Hobbs family is still around.


Hannibal is sometimes a straightforward procedural, and, unfortunately, this week’s case is pretty uninteresting. It had a similar progression to “Amuse-Bouche”; the breakthrough came in the last couple minutes after the case took back seat for most of the episode, and the killer was subdued without much difficulty. However, “Amuse-Bouche”s Mushroom Guy was much more interesting psychologically than “Sorbet”s Devon Silvestri, who had a single appearance and not much in the way of motive.


I’d complain more, but “Sorbet” did something the show hasn’t done since it began: actually focused on Hannibal Lecter as a character for the majority of an episode. We get an idea of his social life: he goes to the opera, visits his own therapist (Gillian Anderson!), and puts on elaborate cooking shows with what is definitely human meat this time, for sure. This seems fairly standard fare for a character we’ve been conditioned to have certain expectations about. What’s unexpected is that all these, even the human meat, are indicators of profound loneliness. Hannibal Lecter is lonely.


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The face of pure existential despair.


Giving the man an inner life and vulnerable emotions didn’t work out so well last time someone tried it: see Hannibal Rising, but the subtleties in “Sorbet” convey his state without diminishing any of his menace. The episode opens with one of Hannibal’s patients fumbling to form a connection with him, and the audience is given the impression that as a professional he’s above that sort of thing. Later, however, Hannibal’s own therapist sees right through him, accusing him as wearing a “person suit” and asking him if it’s lonely presenting a meticulously-constructed persona. He protests, almost weakly, that “I have friends, and the opportunities for friends. You and I are friendly.” But while she likes him, Hannibal’s therapist isn’t his friend, and you can see in Mikkelsen’s performance that he’s almost imperceptibly let down by this. His “person suit” barely wavers, but it does slip.


In his subsequent session with Will, Hannibal asks, seeking reassurance, “Am I your psychiatrist or are we simply having conversations?” In context, it sounds like a psychiatrist’s leading question, but it disguises that he really wants an answer; are he and Will friends? He asks a similar question while cooking eating dinner with Alana Bloom, “Why didn’t we [have an affair]?” Bloom changes the subject, but Will engages with Hannibal, obliquely implying that they are in fact friends. In three short interactions, Hannibal Lecter is more convincingly humanised than he’s ever been. He wants a connection to an equal, and he’s frustrated that no-one can understand him.


The show’s most interesting juxtaposition is multi-scene montage where we see Hannibal take business cards from his collection, match them to recipes, and then cut to preparing some sort of organ for consumption. It’s a beautiful bit of cinematography, like all Hannibal’s dinner scenes, but it differs in that this time, it’s pretty obvious that, yes, it’s human meat this time. And now that we know, Hannibal goes all-out, crafting a frankly delicious-looking table full of meat dishes, and then commenting as the episode ends, “Nothing here is vegetarian.”


I...I'd eat it.

I…I’d eat it.


This is delightful not only for the macabre sensibilities it displays, but how it ties in with the feeling of loneliness that pervades the episode. This round of killings for the “Chesapeake Ripper” is the result of pent-up frustration; everyone but Will has rejected his overtures at companionship, so he’s reaching out the only other way he knows how: ritualistic murder and cooking. In a sense, he forms a connection with his victims; he keeps everyone’s business card in a stylish rotating holder and clearly respects the results of the killing if not the subjects. It’s also quite telling that Will shows up for a few minutes at the beginning of Hannibal’s dinner party/food performance art piece, but leaves after delivering a bottle of wine and a short conversation. The rest of the guests are barely pictured, having one short shot of their faces. They’re Hannibal’s world, that he’s evidently tired of, representing a group who admire him but can’t possibly understand him. Will is outside the world of cannibalistic dinner parties, but he’s the only character who Hannibal ever relates to and isn’t rebuffed by.


Oh, and Jack gets a dream sequence that rather obviously compares his current protégé, Will, to his dead protégé, Miriam Lass. It’s a good reminder of his mental state, as he doesn’t get many scenes this week, but it’s a tad obvious, especially when the show garnishes a dead-eyed, stitched-up Will with a missing arm. It really isn’t necessary to emphasise how emotionally fragile Will is and how Jack’s reliance on him is dangerous every two to three scenes, especially where we know both of them are going to live through the full series.


This week, Hannibal recognised that its characters are sometimes more important than its plot, and gave its title character almost the full episode to showcase his inner life. Even stranger, this worked, giving him some quite interesting depth. The episode’s supposed main plot wasn’t enormously interesting, but the show does sometimes need to pretend it’s a procedural and not a human drama.

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