Friday, April 29, 2011

Spotted at the Royal Wedding

So this morning I got up at 3am to watch the royal wedding. I wasn't going to. I'm one of those people who doesn't care much for the royal family, and whose mom is a royalist so I've had a lifetime of being annoyed by it. But on Easter weekend I was reminded by aunts talking about it that I'd gotten up at 5am to see Di marry Charles, and maybe it would be kinda cool to do it again. My best friend was getting up at 2:30 this morning, so I thought what the hell... I'd drive down to her place Thursday night, grab a couple of hours of sleep, and we'd watch together. It was awesome fun in the end, even if it was kinda bleary, tired fun. She went all out -- blue and white streamers with the little white bells; wedding confetti all over the coffee table; homemade scones with jam and clotted cream; full English breakfast later in the morning; little plastic tiaras and pearls for us to wear while watching; champagne poured during the kiss. (She's a serious royalist, but you probably figured that out by now.) So it was awesome.

Anyway, at one point in the (poor) CBC coverage, one of the anchors made a comment about how no one alive today was around to see Queen Victoria's coronation. I made a sarcastic remark about how that damn commentator was making a rather general, sweeping statement, and not taking into account time travellers or Doctor Who.

Well, it turns out that Victoria's coronation isn't the only royal event the Doctor has attended at Westminster Abbey. Speak of the devil...

(Via Vanessa Aisha)

UPDATE: After my post went up, one of my readers sent the following evidence, proving my statement the morning of the wedding to be absolutely correct! Thanks for the laugh, Scott. ;)

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Game of Thrones Ep 2: Kings Road

“There’s a war coming, Ned. I don’t know when, and I don’t know who we’ll be fighting, but it’s coming.”

When I first watched the opening episodes of Game of Thrones a few weeks ago, the first thing I did was email Christopher Lockett (who once again joins me this week below for his take on the HBO series as an adaptation of the book series) and said, “I want a direwolf.” That comment was because of this episode.

Episode 2, “The Kings Road” is where the seemingly perfect marriage between Catelyn and Ned shows its deep cracks. As Catelyn sits by Bran’s sickbed, she’s in mourning not only for the son who is gravely ill, but for a marriage that is in danger as well. Ned is leaving her, much the same way he did when he went away and came back with Jon. This is also the episode where Catelyn begins to piece things together and believes the Lannisters had something to do with Bran’s fall out of the window. Considering her mama bear personality (and her wicked fighting skills), I’m thinking this is about to get really interesting.

Listening to Queen Cersei and her brother saying it would be merciful for Bran to die rather than live a cripple is disgusting. I loved the look on Jaime’s face when Tyrion said, “I hope the boy does wake; I’d be quite interested in what he has to say.” I’m thinking at this point this could go one of several ways: Bran dies (that wouldn’t be much fun… and by the end of the ep we know that’s not the case); Bran awakes and tells them everything (also not much fun); Bran wakes and tells only a couple of key people who then know the secret and could use it against the Queen; Bran wakes and has some sort of amnesia.

Cersei gains a wee bit of sympathy from us for telling us about the child that she lost. There’s a sadness to her that seems to permeate her constantly… even when she was “involved” with her brother at the end of the previous episode, there was a melancholy to even that act. But with the whole “butcher’s boy” incident, she loses that sympathy again. She’s cold-hearted, probably knows her wuss of a son is telling a lie, but she figures killing a direwolf (and the butcher’s boy) will bring the Starks down a peg. But clearly the act of killing the animal has the opposite effect. It would seem that not only are the direwolves connected to their immediate owner, but to each other, and all of the owners. The death of Lady sparks the reawakening of Bran, and now the REAL fun begins.

• Tyrion slapping Joffrey over and over again. I started to love him this week. The Hound says, “The prince will remember that,” and Tyrion replies, “I hope SO. If he forgets, be a good dog and remind him.”
• Arya receiving her sword from Jon. “It’s so skinny.” “So are you.”
• The direwolf taking on the intruder in a most grisly fashion, before setting itself up as Bran’s lookout.
• Watching Daenerys take over and find a connection with Khal.
• Joffrey becoming a simpering little wanker at the tip of Arya’s sword. Ugh, I hate him.

Did You Notice:
• The sets of the courtyard are incredible, from the blacksmith area to the stables.
• Arya’s direwolf is called Nymeria, after a warrior queen.
• Arya seems closer to Jon, Ned’s bastard son, than her full brothers and sisters. Jon seems to understand her better than the others. In fact, when we see the next scene when Jon goes to say goodbye to Bran (amidst the seething loathing from Catelyn), Jon seems to care deeply for both his young half-siblings.
• I wonder what the story is about Ned and Jon’s mother. There’s obviously a story there. Ned’s face changes completely when the king asks about her. The king acts like he won’t talk about her because he feels badly about what happened, but it seems more like he won’t talk about her because he still cares about her.
• The spread Ned and the king have in the field is awesome and hilarious. Imagine… there must have been an entire coach just devoted to carrying the food.
• Whoa, Catelyn’s got some fight in her!
• The wall… is… TERRIFYING.
• I was a little confused about the journey Ned and the king were on. I thought they were heading south (Ned appeared to be saying goodbye to Catelyn in a rather final way) and I couldn’t figure out how they were both suddenly back at Winterfell. But now I’m thinking they were just taking Jon to the point where he’d head off to the Wall.

• Those direwolves grow FAST. I’m assuming more time has passed than it seems. I’m curious to know, from the readers, if the book jumps, too, or do we see the immediate reactions from Ned and Catelyn when they find Bran’s body?
• How old is Daenerys supposed to be?

And now for the bookish response, it’s Chris Lockett! (Complete with answers to my questions, since this week I sent my post to him first.) He is posting this simultaneously on his blog here, where you can go for another discussion.

In the comments for my last post, Nikki asked me if, as I watch Game of Thrones, I ever wish I hadn’t read the books—so that I might experience the series without knowing what was coming. When I replied, I said I was more intrigued to see how people who haven’t read the books would respond to the twists and turns of GRRM’s story. But while I was watching “The Kingsroad,” I found myself trying to imagine how I would enjoy the series if I was ignorant of the story.

It is a difficult task, doubly so because I am currently re-reading A Game of Thrones for the purpose of these posts, so everything is quite fresh in my mind when I sit down to watch new episodes. I have to imagine it denudes the viewing experience somewhat, as there is no suspense for me, and I get impatient to see my favourite parts, some of which are several episodes away. And it sometimes felt, with episode two, as if it unfolded as a series of set-pieces rather than an organically evolving story.

That being said, I don’t wish to give the impression that I didn’t love episode two, or thought it wasn’t good—I thought it was excellent. Yet again, we are given a fantastic sense of this other world, from the lush riverlands to the Dothraki Sea, to the stark (ha!) life on the Wall. And the characters are deepening beautifully. I’m particularly happy that we’re leaving Daenerys-as-victim behind already. In a genre notable for its lack of strong women, GRRM gives us an embarrassment of riches, and Dany arguably rises to the top of that group. Based on previews for next week, it looks as though she faces down Viserys, a character who rivals Joffrey as, to use Nikki’s phrase, the simperingest little wanker.

OK—so, my itemized thoughts:

What they left out
• Bran’s dream. For the un-booked, Bran’s waking is preceded by a complex dream in which he flies high above Westeros, seeing everything going on in the world unfolding beneath him—very reminiscent of Frodo’s god-view from Amon Hen—while a three-eyed crow enjoins him to fly. I kind of figured they would leave this out, but still hoped they’d use it, if for no other reason than to clarify the geography of Westeros.

What they added
• Cersei’s sad story of her dead child. As everyone will by now have surmised, her platinum blond brood of children are not Robert’s but Jaime’s. In her story, she describes the child as having had black hair, indicating that it was Robert’s trueborn. In the novel, she speaks of having been gotten pregnant by Robert, but that she terminated that pregnancy in disgust. Here it seems to suggest that, once upon a time, she was genuinely in love with the king. Not sure if I like this.
• Jaime’s taunting of Jon Snow. Just to remind us how hateful Jaime can be, and providing a great contrast for Tyrion’s honest pragmatism later in the episode. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau doesn’t overdo it—just a slight edge, enough to cut, but also subtle enough that at first you can believe he’s being earnest.
• Catelyn’s weird-ass dreamcatcher. What the hell is that thing she was making at Bran’s bedside?
• Catelyn searching the broken tower and finding Cersei’s blonde hair.
• Doreah tutoring Daenerys in the erotic arts. This is only hinted at in the novel, and comes somewhat later. In the novel, Dany’s reversal of power in the bedchamber results in pregnancy—it will be interesting to see if they go that route next episode, or wait. I must say, I was impressed with how they handled this scene, as there must have been a temptation to go more over-the-top with it (as they would certainly have done on Starz). But there was no point at which Dany was anything but the curious ingĂ©nue, and Doreah the worldly mentor. No indulgent faux-lesbian romp here.

What they got exactly right
• Jon Snow giving Arya Needle.
• Ned and Robert. Though in the novel this conversation happens on horseback, the tone and feel of it is totally faithful. We really get a strong sense of this long friendship, and the deep love these two men have for each other—but also of their fundamental difference in character.
• Bran’s would-be assassin. That scene was the highlight of the episode for me, and came just at the moment I was thinking “the pace of this episode is notably slower.” For the un-booked, it unfolded pretty much exactly as it did in the novel, right down to Catelyn grabbing the blade of the knife.
• Arya and Joffrey by the river. OMFG.
• Tyrion and Jon. I had forgotten the unlikely friendship these two forge in the novel. The conversation they have around the fire is pitch-perfect. “My brother has his sword. I have my mind. And a mind needs books like a sword needs a whetstone.” A sentiment to please readers, and pretty much verbatim from the novel. I love that the writers are actually using GRRM’s dialogue when they can.
• Speaking of GRRM’s dialogue, Daenerys’ conversation with her handmaidens about dragons is pretty much exactly lifted from the novel.
• Ned and Arya facing down Robert and Cersei. Such a great scene, and such a fabulous insight into Robert’s character—we see here why he’s such a bad king. Loves a fight, hates a confrontation. And FINALLY we see Cersei show us some of her malicious steel. ‘Bout bloody time.

Slightly disappointing
• The Hound. Really? That’s the best you could do with his face? He’s not nearly as terrifying as he is in the novels.
• Ser Illyn Payne. Ditto.

What I’m loving
• Sean Bean. The Darcy Effect is taking hold: as I reread A Game of Thrones, I’m hearing his voice in my head as I read Ned’s dialogue.
• Peter Dinklage. He continues to nail this role.
• Direwolves. I freely admit, I teared up at the end when Ned killed Lady. And when Arya threw rocks at Nymeria to get her to run away. What breed are those dogs? I want one.
• Mark Addy. As I have previously mentioned, he was the actor I was most concerned about, and he is proving all those fears wrong. His take on Robert is nuanced and subtle, no small accomplishment with a character who is literally and figuratively larger than life.
• Iain Glen. Ser Jorah Mormont is described differently in the novel—bigger, bluffer, less attractive—but Glen brings to the role a sad grit. I am biased in this actor’s favour, I should admit, given that he played Hamlet in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.

Answers for Nikki
• Time passing: when Catelyn musters everyone in the Godswood, she alludes to Bran having been asleep a month. And in the novel, the preternatural speed with which the direwolves mature is frequently remarked upon.
• They’re not back at Winterfell, but are miles to the south. They take up residence in a local noble’s castle when Arya runs off. For those who have looked up the map online, they’re in the vicinity of the forks of the Trident.
• In the novel, Daenerys is thirteen when she marries Drogo. They’ve aged all the young characters somewhat for the series. I don’t think they ever specify Dany’s age, but I would estimate it to be somewhere around sixteen.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Buffy Rewatch Week 17

3.13 The Zeppo
3.14 Bad Girls
3.15 Consequences
Bite Me! pages 201-206

Welcome to week 17 (!) of the Buffy Rewatch! I’ve been noticing in recent weeks that many people commenting on the episodes and the commentary have been saying things like, “I’m surprised no one pointed out the obvious, which was ______.” And in many cases, I did point that out… in my book. But I’m trying not to reiterate too much that I already talked about in my book. So instead at the beginning of each week I’m going to direct you to the pages in Bite Me — The Chosen Edition: The Unofficial Guide to Buffy the Vampire Slayer that correspond to this week’s episodes. Things have gotten a bit crazy for me here now that I’m trying to cover Buffy, Fringe, Game of Thrones, and any other show that I’m watching right now (by the way, if you’re not watching The Killing… WATCH IT) so I’m just going to focus on the first of our three eps this week in mine, and trust me, the guests I have this week will MORE than make up for my lack of wordage.

This week we finally come to an episode many commentators (including myself) have referred to whenever discussing the ins and outs of Xander: “The Zeppo.” This has been a fan favourite since it first aired, and I think it’s absolutely wonderful in so many ways. Now, when it was first broadcast and the message boards lit up, I distinctly remember a large group of people complaining that the apocalypse that Buffy and the Gang were fighting looked REALLY interesting and they were pissed off that we didn’t get to see it in anything other than snippets. Those people were missing the point, in my opinion. This was an episode showing everything from Xander’s point of view (with a few moments that diverted from that when he couldn’t have possibly known what was happening in a handful of scenes) and the apocalypse itself doesn’t matter. What matters is the behind-the-scenes stuff that Xander goes through, and how this one episode makes you watch everything after it in a different way. Whenever one of the Scoobs isn’t around, what exactly are they up to? Could they be having an even wilder adventure than Buffy at the moment?

The hilarious lines from this episode are many (my favourite being Giles commenting that there’s a “stench of death in the air” and Xander replying, “I think that’s Bob”) but what has always stuck with me about it is the moment where Xander is standing next to the bomb and refuses to let Jack leave. Jack says he doesn’t care because he’s not afraid, and then says, “Are you?” Xander stands there for a second, and a serene smile appears on his face as he softly says, “I like the quiet.” It’s a scene that, with the exception of the first time I watched it (where I stared at my screen in shock), has always brought me to tears. Xander is always the guy with the jokes, the happy fun guy, but deep down he’s endured more pain than possibly anyone else in the crew. Perhaps it’s why he lashes out the way he always does. Buffy might have had to fight her boyfriend and lose him in a battle by her own hand, but what about Xander, whose parents don’t seem to care if he lives or dies, who sleeps outside in a tent in the middle of the winter because he can’t stand the fighting and drinking happening inside, who has been the butt of jokes at school and possibly the victim of abuse in his home? He’s found solace with his friends, and they constantly do things he doesn’t agree with, and so he gets angry. In this moment, we realize that he’s reconciled himself to his own fate perhaps more solidly than even Buffy has. She said poignantly in “Prophecy Girl” that she’s only 16, and doesn’t want to die. But Xander… he seems kind of OK with it. That said, I always breathe a sigh of relief when he seems to snap out of his reverie the moment the door opens and he’s able to leave, as if he was telling himself it was OK in the moment and he didn’t really mean it. Or did he?

I’ll leave “Bad Girls” and “Consequences,” two brilliant Faith episodes (are you totally loving her yet?) to Michael Holland below. Faith, the Mayor, Wesley… god, there is so much to say about these, I’m ticked that this would be the week I’m too busy to weigh in much (but I do have something to say in my book). However, without spoiling you, I just want to say that I know Wesley comes off as the Upper Class Twit of the Year when you first meet him, and you’re not wrong to think that. But I can say without a moment of hesitation that he is hands down my favourite character in the Whedonverse. Really. He is going to go on to have the single most incredible, heart-wrenching, and beautiful character arc of all of Whedon’s characters. And I say that knowing you guys know the love I have for Willow and Giles. They’re both amazing characters, but they can’t touch Wesley Wyndam-Pryce. You can’t see it now, but trust me on this one.

OK! First up in our guests this week, we have a teeny tiny slice of cheese from Steve Halfyard about the music in “The Zeppo”:

I could talk all day about the joy of musical parody in ‘The Zeppo’, but will resist, beyond noting the references back to ‘Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered’ (more 1970s funk when Xander has sex with Faith; lots of skittering strings in true Xander style) and some cheeky use of the love theme in a very over the top scene between Buffy and Angel. The main cheese nugget is from ‘Consequences’: in the library, when Buffy goes to tell Giles the truth about what Faith did, as he discovers that Faith has got there first and blamed her, we hear the Death motif from ‘Helpless’ again (now expanded slightly with a fourth note on the end, bring it back to the pitch it began on). This is the start of that motif moving from being an abstract idea to do with Buffy’s mortality to being specifically associated with Faith as the person most likely to try to kill her: the Mayor may be the big bad of the season, but it’s Faith who is rapidly becoming the biggest threat to Buffy herself.

*For the next two writers, I'll be using invisible ink. Whenever you see a space with no writing, highlight the area and you can see the hidden spoilery comments. If you're a first-time watcher, don't highlight the spoilers if you wish to remain spoiler-free.

Next up is first time caller, long time listener, Ensley Guffey. I met Ensley's girlfriend, Dale Koontz, briefly at Slayage 3 in Arkansas, after she delivered a fantastic paper there, and when Dale came over to me to say hi at Slayage 4, she introduced him to me as her husband. Now the two of them are my favourite Facebook comedy team, and I think they are one of the most perfect couplings of two people I’ve ever met. I’ll let Ensley give you the rest of his bio, just because it was too damn funny for me to rewrite.

Ensley Guffey is an academic late-bloomer who spends most of his time walking up and down the earth scowling at flash cards and declining Latin nouns, but it beats the restaurant business. His scribblings on a myriad of subjects can be found at Solomon Mao’s, a blog where he manfully attempts to post regularly. He is married to the absolutely incredible K. Dale Koontz, presented his first paper at Slayage 4, which will be published in an upcoming issue of Watcher Junior, and the week this Rewatch post appears he will be presenting on Breaking Bad at the Pop Culture Association’s National Conference in San Antonio, Texas. Other plates currently being spun include a paper on Samuel Colt and Supernatural, a look at war in the works of Joss Whedon, graduating from college, and talking someone into letting him into graduate school. He must also find the time to obtain a passport before Slayage 5 because apparently Canada is a whole different country and all. Who knew? He always thought it was part of Maine or something.

“This essay doesn’t have a title because I handed it in to Nikki Stafford about two months ago knowing I’d be busy at PCA, and in her typical way she didn’t notice until a few days before the post was going live that it lacked a title, but she didn’t want to bother me so she left it title-less”: Did Nikki succeed in making this non-title even longer than the title on the speech she co-delivered at Slayage 4?

A paper by Ensley Guffey

I grew up playing Dungeons & Dragons (back when Gary Gygax still worked for TSR, and D&D had yet to turn into a glorified poker game), and with few exceptions, I always played humans, and always fighter-types. I had a Muggle’s instinctive distrust for magic users, and an ingrained belief that despite the lack of any sort of inborn powers or racial ability, the good old-fashioned, un-improved human bean was the most versatile, dependable, cunning, and downright scary critter in any world, real or imagined. A belief I still hold, by and large.

So, when invited to participate in the Great Buffy Re-Watch of 2011, I leapt on the opportunity to write about Season 3’s “The Zeppo,” the ultimate Xander-centric episode, and a love song to all of us guys (including, as Joss Whedon admits, the creator of Buffy his own bad self) who displayed Xander-type traits in high school (and beyond). For a Geek Guy like me, this episode has more emotional realism per frame than any other in the series. This is how high school, first time sex, and dealing with a world far more powerful and insane than I’d imagined really was! Sure the wild boys weren’t dead, but I knew versions of all of them, and I remember more than once having to evacuate my high school due to bomb threats (fortunately none of them real, so far as I know). As for first time sex, Xander pretty much sums it up:

“Long gone. Probably loaded with supplies. Gotta think. I can't believe I had sex. Okay, bombs. Already dead guys with bombs.”

For most of this episode, Xander is running on marbles. It’s doable as long as you keep moving forward, and Xander manages to stay mostly upright, but it doesn’t mean that things are under control. He’s reacting, being swept along, and things are getting crazier and crazier, and while all of that’s going on, he’s trying to figure out just who the hell he is and if that person is worth being. You know, pretty much the story of my late teens and early twenties (and late twenties and early thirties but who’s counting?)

And then he gets laid. By Faith, who is – let’s face it – the definition of “out of his league.” That’s heady stuff, and look at how it’s presented to us: in the reflection on the glass of a television screen, emphasizing just how unreal all of this has got to seem to Xander. He’s leapt from a potentially deadly encounter with a knife-wielding psycho, to roaring around Sunnydale with a car full of dead hoodlums bent on mayhem, to running down a demon with his car, to Faith’s bed. There has been no time to adjust to any of it, no chance to slow down and collect himself, and meanwhile all of his friends are so involved in their own thing (sure it’s an apocalypse, but what isn’t?) that he’s left all on his own.

So what does Xander do? Well, to put it bluntly, he mans up. He does what I think every 17-18 year-old guy who’s ever found himself so overwhelmed by life, sex, and self-doubt wishes he could do: when there’s finally a moment to catch his breath, and when it’s become obvious that Angel and Buffy are too far up one another’s butts with the self sacrificing and eternal love to help out, he straightens his spine and takes care of things himself. More, he does it knowing that he will most likely wind up on the wrong side of the whole dead-guy thing. This is it, this is the core of the episode and of Xander Harris: he screws up, he gets knocked across rooms and buried under trash, he gets into ridiculously dangerous situations – often of his own making – and he always, always stands up. For his friends, to his friends, often in spite of mortal danger, but always in the finest traditions of masculinity.

I’m not talking about any macho-nonsense here, or trying to get into a whole gender-issues debate, I’m just saying that as a role model for the modern man, you could do worse than Xander. He’s utterly human, surrounded by powerful forces he can neither control nor really understand but which directly affect him every day, and every major female figure in his life goes above and beyond the usual meaning of a strong woman. Xander knows this, accepts this, and moves forward, doing his absolutely human best. Xander will hold down a job and work hard. Xander will provide for those he loves in every way he can. And Xander will be there in the darkest night and brightest day. You can count on Xander, and on his humanity, his masculinity, chock-full of flaws as it is. I’m not gonna spoil it for you, Readers Mine, but you can trust me on this one: Whether you want to debate the merits of George Lucas’ casting, build a picture window, or save the world from an ancient, Lovecraftian evil, you want Xander Harris with you.

“The Zeppo” is where Xander discovers all of this within himself, and when we begin to realize that true heroism lies not in being chosen, but in making a choice.

Okay, the other two eps in my block are gonna get short shrift, I’m afraid, but I’ll try to be pithy and brief, with some spoilage as noted by asterisks:

“Bad Girls”:

• Oh Mr. Mayor and Mr. Trick, I miss you!!
• Wesley Wyndam-Milquetoast-Pryce*
• Oh noes! Faith is going to the dark side! (never saw that one coming!)
• My inner monologue: “Wow, Balthazar is one disgustingly fat thing. Nasty. I should really start working out again.”
• God I love it when “Ripper” Giles shows up!
• Faith washing shirt in the sink: Lady Macbeth anyone?

*I had forgotten what an incredible journey it is from “But I’d like to have my knee-caps” to “I’ll take away your bucket.” Poor Wes!

Has anyone else noticed that the eye that Xander twitches every time Buffy says “Faith” is the same eye that Caleb “plucks out” in Season 7?


• Faith gets even worse!
• Oh Xander. You moron.
• Angel gets to do some old-school Twelfth Step Work!*
• Oh Wesley. You moron.**
• Mr. Trick!! NOOOOOO!!
• So Sunnydale is a deep water port?***
• See, now if the Mayor had Faith and Mr. Trick, the gang would really be in trouble!


*Faith hasn’t hit bottom yet though, so Angel won’t get to sponsor her until “Sanctuary” in Season 1 of Angel.
** Again, it’s a long way from trying to kidnap Faith in a panel truck to emptying a clip into something Wes thinks is his father when it starts to threaten Fred!
*** Seriously, in “Chosen” don’t we see the crater that used to be Sunnydale completely surrounded by dry land? The Sunnydale docks must be from the same plot-convenience warehouse as the castle in “Buffy vs. Dracula”

Thank you, Ensley! And now, a REALLY long essay (but worth the read!) by Michael Holland. Michael has been one of the most regular readers and commenters on my blog since back in the Lost days, and one day he emailed me to tell me he was the post-production supervisor on Dollhouse and was really enjoying reading the Dollhouse discussions we were having on my blog. It’s always been great to hear from him, and he’s weighed in on some great topics when we were discussing Lost, so when he asked me if would consider allowing him to contribute to the Buffy Rewatch, I didn’t hesitate for a second before saying yes. Now, he actually gave me a giant paper on all three, but when Ensley covered off The Zeppo I decided just to run the parts of his paper here that were on Bad Girls and Consequences, so that every episode would get its say. (However, never fear: I will run his Zeppo rundown in the spoilers section because I can’t bear to just chop something out completely after someone’s gone to so much work on it!) I was hesitant to ask him to cut it down too much, because he’s been very busy ever since his second son was born at the end of March. And to give you an idea of the cuteness that has just come into the world, here is Michael with his first son, Jack. All together now… AWWWWWW.

So without any further ado, here is Michael Holland!

I hope I haven’t bitten off more than I can chew.

When I first read that Guest Commentators would be co-hosting The Great Buffy Rewatch, I knew I somehow had to be a part of it. But how? I wasn’t sure. I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting Nikki in person, just over email, but the little contact we’d had made me believe I could at least email her about it. So I did. And of course she was as wonderfully gracious as you’d expect; as most of you already know. That I – just another fan – could join what many consider the great Buffy academics around.

Which brings me to the biting and chewing.

First of all, who was I to join such academics? Sure, I’ve worked in Hollywood all my professional life – including a stint on Dollhouse – so perhaps I had a certain “in.” And I write about The Whedonverse every once in a while. And I’m definitely a fan, having watched all of Whedon’s series live as they aired, including hosting get-togethers for Buffy and eventually along with Angel those wonderful Tuesday nights long ago. But would any of this give me cred among the real academics?

More biting, more chewing.

For second of all, by the time I garnered enough courage to throw my hat in the ring, all the episodes were already taken. Had I missed my chance? Well, I did see there were a few double-ups, so I thought, “Well, I’ll offer a couple of weeks and see what happens,” pretty sure I could write a little something entertaining, hopefully interesting, and succeed in my own original goal: to simply be a part of this exciting year.

I saw the Zeppo week and remembered how much I love that episode. I’ve always had a soft spot for Xander so I thought, “Yeah! Zeppo! That one will be fun.” (So much of a soft spot, in fact, that I hate Hell’s Bells with a furious passion. But we’ll get to that.) But what I didn’t immediately think about was Bad Girls and Consequences being in the same group. I tried to remember what happened in those. (Before this Great Rewatch, I hadn’t seen Season 3 in a couple of years.) “Let’s see, that’s where Faith kills The Deputy Mayor. And one of them is where Wesley shows up. Anything else? Eh, I’ll figure it out. Yeah, I can do that group.”

For the sake of this review, of course, I rewatched Bad Girls and Consequences again and, um, there’s a lot that happens in them. (As I smack myself in the head) They’re kind of the crux of the rest of the season.

Uh oh. Had I picked the wrong group, especially considering my academic audience?

Had I bitten off more than I could chew?

Camera pushes in on me, wide-eyed at my laptop, furiously typing away and –

Opening Credits.

Bad Girls
w Doug Petrie
d Michael Lange

While The Zeppo is a stand-alone episode, barely if at all dealing with the mythology of the season, Bad Girls and Consequences – they’re really a two-parter, aren’t they? – are very much the mythology of the season. In fact, they’re the season’s very turning point. While up through these episodes we’ve been chugging up the track of the first big hill, the rest of the season is the roller coaster ride. And, wow.

As I say, I’d forgotten just how significant especially Bad Girls is, but felt better when the writer himself, Doug Petrie, said the same in his DVD Commentary Track. Think of it. The Mayor full-fledgingly (it’s a word) stepping into his role; the introduction of Wesley Wyndam-Pryce (as it’s spelled in Petrie’s script, though we’ll also see it Wyndam-Price and Wyndham-Price); Angel and Wesley meet [and considering their relationship on Angel, how “Casablanca” (I like to call it; something meaning more the second time you watch it) this truly is]; another character (Balthazar) references The Mayor’s importance; we’re introduced to Faith’s longbow (which will play a significant role in Graduation Day Part 1); and The Mayor becomes invincible. (All in just forty-four minutes!)

There is always The Big Bad of the Season, and Season 3’s is of course The Mayor. But the more significant enemy – certainly to Buffy personally – is Faith. (Foreshadowing Season 6 in which, as Nikki herself points out so well in Bite Me!, The Big Bad is least clear. Some say The Troika, some say Willow, where, really, it’s the characters’ process of growing up. I wish I was as astute, but couldn’t agree more.) Throughout the first three seasons, though it will certainly carry throughout the entire series, Buffy has had to balance her personal life with the life of The Slayer. But what Season 3 looks at specifically, certainly from Bad Girls forward, is what happens when the life of The Slayer takes a different path. (Our great What If episode The Wish looked at this as well, but singularly, and from its Elseworld point of view. Now – much like the cool of The Zeppo – it’s really happening.)

What makes Buffy the hero she is are a myriad of influences, most significantly the people in her life. Remember Spike in School Hard? “A Slayer with family and friends. That sure as hell wasn't in the brochure.” Joyce as her mother – and this is the topic of a much longer article, but consider the impact Joyce had on Buffy’s life for the fifteen years before she became The Slayer. Giles as her Watcher and father figure. Willow and Xander as her friends. Angel (period). Even Oz and Anya. (And Riley and Tara and Dawn and Spike, these four so significantly in seasons to come.) But just as significant as having her family around her proves -- and how wonderfully Whedon spotlights this, as well as solidifying Tara in our group, in Season 5’s Family -- it’s the woman Buffy – Slayer aside – is inherently. Like Peter Parker, another hero we know is inherently a good person, Buffy enjoys quipping with her enemies in a light-hearted manner. She still wants to finish High School, go to College. She still wants to fall in love, shop, pay her bills. (Seemingly insignificant, especially in TV Land, but very significant in Season 6; and one of the “real life, growing up” things I love about the season.) She still wants to be a normal girl. [Still very much a part of who she is. (Consider the very last episode of the series as, pre battle, Shopping and Mini Golf remain topics of conversation.)] So imagine stripping it all away from her. How she was raised, the family around her, her sense of humor, the girl inside the woman. Would she still be as good?

Or, to put it simply … what if The Slayer was bad?

This is the fun Whedon & Company get to have with Faith. And as unnerving as it is, fun is indeed a key word. Because few people enjoy – find pure giddiness in – being evil as much as The Mayor and Faith. (Especially The Mayor. Like Sue Sylvester on Glee, reveling in The Dark Side, it’s why The Mayor is often a – without question my – favourite Big Bad.) As old a device as this is in Story – every Superman has his Bizarro – there’s always something enticing about delving into the dark mirror of our hero.

It starts innocently enough – “Count of three isn’t a plan, it’s Sesame Street” – but soon delves deeper – Buffy cutting class through the window (which, frankly, the teacher didn’t notice?) and dancing at The Bronze – then very deep indeed with the accidental killing of The Deputy Mayor. This too is a topic for a much longer article – and may very well be dealt with in The Body or The Gift or Seeing Red – but human death is an odd thing in The Buffyverse (more so than in the rest of The Whedonverse). Demons are off’d left and right, and we accept demons killing their fair share of humans, but then some are singled out very particularly – Joyce, Ben, Tara – and then to the gravest effect. (Certainly Joyce whose The Body may be the best episode of the series.) But I think accidental is a key word, not just for their innocence sake, but for Faith’s turn specifically in that she knows she has a way out if she talks to Giles, but chooses to let the walls she’s built up keep her from doing the right thing. (The walls Buffy herself may also have if not for her mother, friends, et cetera. Again, this is the turn we see in The Wish, but I digress.) Faith isn’t drawn to The Dark Side for money or power or anything Evil offers her, but is thrust there as accidentally -- as innocently -- as Buffy. (Well, nothing Evil offers her until The Mayor fatherly showers her with The Knife, the apartment, a Playstation, and, in what may be the key moment in their relationship, the flowery dress in which he -- solely fatherly -- sees her prettier than she ever will herself.) And this is where Whedon & Co write her so well: Faith’s very walls simply let her flounder there.

Re Buffy herself, and this reiterates what I was talking about good writing always staying within character, one might argue that her being our hero – an inherently good girl – well, she wouldn’t do some of the things she does in this episode: lying about the Deputy Mayor’s death, stealing from the hardware store, injuring the cops to escape from them. But she does them all within the frame of her being who she is. I particularly like the moment after the car crash where she checks the cops to make sure they’re okay. This could easily have not been written or shot (or it could have been cut for time) but including it solidifies who she is. She may be delving into her own Dark Side for one episode – and fair enough – but she’s still our girl. Besides, who can blame her for almost being drowned a second time? Considering the Season 1 finale, Petrie says it’s a bit like “baptism by fire.” And perhaps she deserves burning off a little steam. I know I’m getting ahead of myself, but what ultimately solidifies her remaining our hero is the end of Consequences where there’s this exchange –

I really thought we were gonna lose her.

She still has a lot to face before she can put this behind her. But yes,
she has a real chance. Because you didn't give up on her.

The difference between Buffy and Faith is clear. Faith feels alone. But as Buffy has her mother, Giles, and friends, she can also be a friend.

This is, too, perhaps the topic for a longer article – Cops In Sunnydale – but it’s interesting to see when and where we see Cops in the series. Like the very real death tone of The Body, it’s interesting to see where Whedon & Co decide to use police presence in the show. Two significant episodes right in a row are Bad Girls and Consequences where they’re all over the place. They’re tools for the writers, sure, but it’s at least worth mentioning. I’m ashamed not to give credit to whomever mentioned this in the Season 1 Commentary, but there’s Giles’ line, “People have a tendency to rationalize what they can and forget what they can't.” (Recalled in the Angel episode The Prodigal when Angel tells Kate Lockley, “People have a way of seeing what they need to.”) And there’s the reasonable buy-in that, as we now know The Mayor is “a black hat” (as Faith will say in the next ep), that he might send the police after our heroes a bit more vehemently than before. Still, it’s interesting when and where they pop up.

Before we get into Consequences, I’d be remiss not to touch on the introduction of our dear Wesley. And I hope you agree he is dear. I certainly think of him that way. In both his incarnations. First, the bumbling brain on Buffy and then the cool stoicism on Angel. I mean, Rogue Demon Hunter? Getting his throat slit? Sleeping with Lilah? Dude takes a turn! But I foreshadow. When Doug Petrie originally pitched the character to Whedon, he says, “I thought of a Michael J. Fox type, kind of a George Stephanopoulos American young aggressive go-getter,” which I think would have been a fun balance, but then we’d miss the doubly British moments like this --

It's not all books and theory nowadays. I have in fact faced
two vampires - under controlled circumstances, of course.

Well, you're in no danger of finding any here.


Controlled circumstances.

Then both of them closing that scene by cleaning their glasses at the same time? Indeed, “Giles The Next Generation,” as Cordelia says in the next episode, just shines. Petrie also notes in his DVD Commentary Track that giving Wesley the brainy bumbling also allowed them to take most of that away from Giles, who, for two-and-a-half years, played that role. This, then, more solidly places Giles in the role of the quieter, cooler father figure to Buffy, greatly solidifying that bond.

There are an abundance of insides in this episode – inside jokes, references and the like. Willow being admitted to Wesleyan (Whedon’s alma mater); the Gleaves crypt where Balthazar’s amulet is buried, Gleaves is Petrie’s wife’s maiden name; Balthazar being thought of as a Blade rip-off (though Petrie admits he’d never seen Blade and was instead ripping off Marvel’s The Kingpin); The Mayor’s cleanliness obsession a friendly jab at Executive Producer David Greenwalt; and it was while shooting this episode – the scene in which Angel charges in to save Giles and Wesley – that Greenwalt said, “Yeah, I think there’s a Series in him.” While Angel had been prepped since the end of Buffy Season 2, his exit at the end of this Season was still up in the air.

No doubt about it, this is a big episode. Sadly, I barely scratched its surface. For me it’s really about Buffy and Faith, a very special relationship, of which this is just the beginning. More specifically, this is Faith’s fall from grace. So the questions linger. How long will it be before she claws her way back up? Can she?

Or are her walls too strongly built?

w Marti Noxon
d Michael Gershman

I won’t give Ms. Noxon nearly enough credit in this Commentary, though she very much deserves it. Suffice to say her great script drives the roller coaster. While Bad Girls is the first rush down, Consequences is the first turn, the bare settling, the chug back up the track. It’s a breather, but only a short one, giving us just enough time to comprehend what’s happened; the resetting of a timebomb, threatening us with what we realize was there all along. And still have to face.

As I say, both episodes are really a two-parter, so let’s get right back into it. Faith left us with, “I don’t care” so that’s where we’ll start. (Oh those walls of hers!) Faith herself doesn’t believe she doesn’t care, and Buffy knows it; but, as Milton wrote some four hundred years ago, “Long is the way and hard that out of hell leads up to light.” Buffy, as our hero, can’t shake what’s happened, as her dream personifies: she’s drowning in it. She knows how quickly Faith is falling; more importantly, were those the walls she herself built, how quickly she’d be dragged down with her.

As I began the Zeppo Commentary with how much I love What If episodes, the last half of Season 3 is, as I wrote, sort of a big What If, isn’t it?

What if The Slayer was bad?

As Bad Girls gave us the setup, Consequences is the payoff. And it’s a dark one. Not just for Faith (natch) but for Buffy too. Because Faith is the personification of Buffy’s Dark Side. So, really, we’re getting a glimpse of the shadow, the silhouette, in Buffy’s mind.

Magnifying that idea specifically, there are two big scenes in this episode. For nearly three seasons, we’ve had glimpses of it -- certainly Slayer Vs Buffy-As-Normal-Girl, but also Slayer Vs Slayer (the latter as far back as When She Was Bad) -- but now that Buffy’s inner demons are personified in Faith, we get to hear those thoughts. The first big is in the street –

Buffy. I'm not going to "see" anything... I missed the mark
last night. And I'm sorry about the guy, really. But it happens.
Anyway - how many people do you think we've saved by
now? Thousands? And didn't you stop the world from ending?
In my book, that puts you and me firmly in the plus column.

We help people. That doesn't mean we can do whatever we want-

Why not? This guy I off’d was no Ghandi. We just saw - he was
mixed up in dirty dealing.

Maybe. But what if he was coming to us for help?

What if he was? You're still not looking at the big picture, B.
Something made us different. We're warriors. We were built
to kill-

(cutting her off)
To kill demons. But we don't get to pass judgement on people,
like we're better than everybody else-

We are better.
(this stops Buffy)
That's right. Better. People need us to survive. In the balance?
Nobody's gonna cry over some random bystander who got caught
in the crossfire.

Buffy looks stricken. Finally-

I am.

Faith just looks at her. Shakes her head.

Your loss.

This is key because most likely Buffy has had this exact … if not conversation with herself, the thought has to have crossed her mind. Not to mention, um, “Death is your gift,” anyone? It’s first personified in “Want Take Have” in the last ep, then magnified here. Indeed, Buffy and Faith are better, in a sense. Stronger, faster, all that. The difference, though, is Buffy chooses to use her powers to help people.

The second big is on the docks at the end.

What bugs you is - you know I'm right. You know in your gut.
We don't need the law. We are the law-


Faith moves in closer. Sees that she's getting to her.

Yes. You know exactly what I'm about. Because you have it
in you, too.

No. You're sick, Faith-

I've seen it, B. You've got the lust. And I'm not just talking about
screwing vampires-

Don't bring him into this-

It was good, wasn't it? The sex? The danger? Bet a part of you
even dug him when he went psycho-


See - you need me to tow the line because you're afraid you'll go
over it, aren't you, B? You can't handle watching me living my
own way and having a blast - because it tempts you. You know it
could be you-

That's it. Something snaps in Buffy. She rears back and POPS Faith a good one. Faith falls back, but she's smiling as she puts a hand to her bleeding mouth.

There's my girl...

Nail on the head.

Because Faith has a point. This is what every Slayer, indeed Buffy, must fight internally; now, as I say, these inner demons are personified in Faith. (These inner demons only grow as the seasons continue; the deepest, I’d say, in Season 6.) Though, interestingly, Buffy hits first. Pushed to it, sure, but “her own way,” as Faith taunts her, pushes back. And can you blame her? They’ve been verbally dueling a while now, so one of them was bound to take it to the next level. But that it’s Buffy who first resorts to the physical? (Again, I can’t help but think of The Primitive here.) Well, even Luke in Jedi, hearing Vader will go after Leia, loses it. And, dear readers, don’t ever get between Buffy and Angel. I wrote a Spec of Smallville many years ago (that show’s Season 2) where Clark and Random Bad Guy are facing off and Random Bad asks him, “Everything you can do and you choose to help these people? Why?!” And Clark says, “Because I can.” Indeed: Buffy can. And does.

But is Faith truly lost?

For me, there are three key moments where Faith’s conscience kicks in, and she, however fleetingly, allows a crack in the wall. For me these moments are key in not letting Faith go too evil, considering how she’ll return to hero mode on Angel and eventually this show. It goes back to what I was saying about writers staying in character. “Buffy wouldn’t be bad, it’s not in her nature,” though Whedon & Co stay in her framework. Same here. If Faith goes too evil? If we don’t have these moments – including the dream in Graduation Day Part 2 – we won’t buy the prodigal return later on. The first, and I think most significant, is in Bad Girls where, after killing The Deputy Mayor, she returns to the scene to view it, let it sink in. (This is probably the turning point, where she decides to let the walls build.) The second is in this episode when she and Buffy are snooping around The Mayor’s office and there’s this –


A shot of the Deputy Mayor with the Mayor at on official function of some kind. The Deputy Mayor is smiling, proud.

He came out of nowhere.

I know.

At this Faith’s eyes go cold and she returns to the search.

Whatever. I’m not looking to hug and cry and learn and grow.
I’m just saying it went down quick, is all.

Buffy, a little stung, decides to let it go.

More letting it sink in – and no pun intended considering how our episode began – it’s what I was saying about Faith choosing to go down this path. Even here, Buffy doesn’t gloat or pry or do anything but agree with her. And Faith knows it. Catches herself and – “shields up!” – can’t buy that there’s any way out besides that which her past allows – no-mother, no-Giles, no-friends.

The third, and fairly most obvious moment is in the end fight where Trick is about to dine on Buffy and Faith stakes him, saving her. Faith could have escaped, let it happen – we see her pause – but instead she chooses to do the right thing and save our hero.

And for an episode named Consequences, ah there are many.

The biggest of which (sigh) is Willow. I’ve often said that no two actresses working today cry better than Gillian Anderson and Alyson Hannigan. (Am I surprised both their first and last names have the same syllables? But I digress …) Witness any time Hannigan cries in this show – hearing about Miss Calendar over the phone in Passion is a great example – or even this season’s How I Met Your Mother when Marshall’s father passes away and Lily has to give him the news. Gutwrenching? You bet. Because she makes it so. Our dear Willow has had to cry so many times in seven seasons, but one of the real hit-homes is in this episode, when she hears of Xander having sex with – losing his virginity to – Faith (and this, remember, two episodes later). It’s setup by a comical moment, the double “Oh” between Buffy and Giles, as they realize what’s happened, undercut by the solemn, “I don’t need to say it” Willow gives; she having realized it first. And then the cut-to her crying in the bathroom. Ugh. (In the larger Whedonverse, we’ll see this moment again in Firefly as, in Heart Of Gold, Inara realizes Mal has slept with Nandi. And, yes indeed, sigh again.)

The other big consequence is, after the same significant scene, the simple cut-to Xander laying on the stairs of the library thinking about what’s happened. Not that he’s slept with Faith, not that he’s lost his virginity, but that Willow now knows, again two episodes (call it two weeks) later. They talk every night, so two weeks? Willow, his best friend since they were six, who he knows has been in love with him for as long (pre Oz), who he knows must have cried after hearing the news. Once again, with as big a switch-up as Whedon & Co throw at us turning Faith, and the consequences that births, it’s the simple everyday relationship issues that hit home the hardest. And work the best.
I mentioned the sigh, right?

As remiss as I would have been not to mention Wesley’s introduction in Bad Girls, I have to mention his key moment in this episode. Upon learning of Faith’s indiscretion, he takes it upon himself to SWAT her back to The Council (foreshadowing the “wetworks” team in Season 4’s Who Are You?). Whereas so far in these two episodes we’ve only seen him as the brainy bumbler, this gives him a moment of substance, some grounding to believe that there’s more to him than just the comedy. As well rounded as all the characters are in the Whedonverse, so indeed is Our New Watcher. And I know I mentioned this before, but oh the arc he’ll continue in the remaining episodes of this season and especially Angel. I wonder how long Whedon & Co initially planned to keep him around, considering he’s gone from Sunnydale in Season 4 and doesn’t show up in L.A. until that show’s tenth episode, Parting Gifts. In any event, I’m glad he returns, because he is our dear Wesley.

And last but not least, from a production standpoint, I have to mention the great Michael Gershman, who directed this episode. This is his second Directed By – after Season 2’s Passion (another Best Of The Series) and we’ll see him direct next on Season 4’s A New Man – and I think he does a wonderful job. You know his name as he’s been Buffy’s Cinematographer (and will be for eighty-some episodes); and, as Mr. Pateman pointed out so well in his first Commentary of our Rewatch, he successfully helped establish the look of the show.

Couple of things, if I may.

First, I found it interesting in Gershman’s DVD Commentary of this episode that there were never storyboards for the show. An aside, really, but I found it interesting.

Secondly, please note the three long camera moves in this ep: through the crime scene to Angel looking on; following Angel out of the mansion into the courtyard to see Buffy; and off Giles’ office to Wesley listening in. Why significant? Because most decisions made on a TV Show have something to do with time. The less time spent on something generally means the less money spent (all the way to the Network Cut of a show, as they want to cram as much Advertising in as possible). For a myriad of reasons for another much longer article, you just don’t see long shots like this in a TV Show; one of the reasons being how long it takes to light enough Set for that long a shot. But as Gershman was the Cinematographer on the show – knew the sets and what it took to light them – he could plan-for and get-away-with them as Director. Again, perhaps an aside, but I find it interesting.

As Ms. Stuller wrote so well in the Season 1 Prophecy Girl Commentary about The Hero’s Journey: redemption resolves. Unfortunately, as we see in this episode’s final scene, Faith chooses to continue down the dark path, turning herself over to The Mayor; not in any heroic sacrifice, but, in a sense, turning over her very soul. Does she really feel that alone? Are her walls that fully built? The roller coaster rushes on, redemption left to wait, as it seems Milton’s hard way into light is indeed still a long one before us all.

Buffy Rewatch Week 17: Spoiler Forum

Hello and welcome to that place where you can discuss Buffy and Angel freely without fear of spoilage. I'm going to run Michael Holland's Zeppo piece below, which is full of spoilers (which I, thankfully, don't have to white out this time!) Unfortunately it's not going to be as pretty and formatted as the pieces in the post above this one, simply because due to the length of it I've spent about 4 hours editing, formatting, and whiting out the spoilers just in the one above, and I'm exhausted (and didn't really write up my own notes because I ran out of time). So this one will be sans italics and block quotes and all that purty stuff. But you can still read it just fine, I'm sure. ;) Enjoy!! It's a great piece.

The Zeppo
w Dan Vebber
d James Whitmore Jr.

I have always been a fan of “What If” stories. Taking established settings and characters and viewing them under different circumstances. We recently saw Buffy’s own best example with The Wish. (In David Kociemba’s great article, “Buffy Vs Her Very Mind Itself,” he discusses Normal Again and notes, “Long-running series that work hard to create an active viewing experience are peculiarly able to exploit such narrative techniques.” And few shows have done as well as Buffy in laying such solid groundwork so as to be able to venture into What If territory. Not to gloat, but our show is clever enough to take it one step further as yet another episode, Dopplegangland, will then play off The Wish in our real timeline.) And while The Zeppo feels like a What If – or, as I like to think of it, more like Back To The Future Part 2 where Marty revisits the adventure in the first movie while simultaneously being on another; seeing the events of one storyline from the different point of view of a simultaneous one – what separates it from being categorized as Elseworld is that it’s really happening. And that’s something even cooler. (I’ve had this same argument about Restless. It too feels like a What If episode, but it’s not. Sure, it’s their dreams, but it’s happening within the construct of our real timeline -- they remember their dreams at the end of the episode. Different than, say, spell-cast sagas – the swooning “Isn’t he just?” of Superstar or the “Who are we?” of Tabula Rasa, in which how can you not love when Giles and Spike hug as father and son?)
And “cool” is the theme here, isn’t it? It’s precisely how Xander isn’t portrayed at the beginning of this episode; and, for the most part, how he hasn’t been portrayed in the series thus far. There are moments when Nicholas Brendon is given the chance to play cool – say, The Soldier in Halloween (but this is a spell cast on the character) – and even moments of Xander playing it cool – say, his punching out The Clown in Nightmares or reenacting The Soldier in Innocence – but he’s never been able to be cool yet. Well, in The Zeppo he gets his comeuppance in spades. For all the buttmonkeying he’s been put through -- and will continue to be put through, he himself fed up with that very label in Buffy Vs. Dracula -- and, as I say, for how this very episode begins, Xander goes from Zero to Hero in one of the best stories not just of the season but, in my opinion, of the very series. One of my arguments against “bad writing” in a series (not standalones like features, I’m talking episodic storytelling; a series of features, comics, especially television) is writing against character. Having a character all of a sudden do something that is completely not who they are. One of Buffy’s greatest strengths as a series is never failing here (including Willow’s Oz to Tara evolution in Season 4). Sure, Xander is the loveable buffoon, as he will be again, but it’s in his character to do the right thing, so his being the hero here indeed works. In fact, for me, Zeppo sets the stage for Grave when, again, Xander stands alone against all hell breaking loose.
Let’s talk about how great the story itself is. The two stories. The first is the End Of The World Apocalypse that’s bigger than most of the episodic bads we face. This is a Big Bad, as big as the two Season Finales we’ve seen thus far. As built up, wonderfully melodramatic as it is, it indeed feels like a Season Finale, including the scene between Buffy and Angel in the mansion that Xander awkwardly breaks into. We’ll see a similar Buffy-Angel exchange “for real” in this season’s two-part finale, Graduation Day. (I particularly love the music cues here, the score beneath Buffy and Angel that cuts out when Xander’s there then resumes when he leaves. But I’m getting ahead of myself, because …) The second story is of course the one playing out behind these scenes; the one in which, really, our primary adventure takes place. In which Xander saves the day – and all our heroes’ lives – on his own.
It all begins when he’s sent off for donuts, a seemingly unimportant task until the great callback when Giles tells Buffy and Willow he’ll try and contact The Spirit Guides, and asks what happened to the jellies. [This scene isn’t in the Shooting Script, so it must have been written while they were shooting. By Whedon? Feels like his work. (Perhaps the episode came in short so it was added? In any event …) If you’ve never been to the great site Buffy World, please do; it’s the best source for all the Buffy and Angel scripts online (that I know of). And this “missing scene” is just one of the fun things you find when reading a script. A particular favourite is in Marti Noxon’s stage direction in Bargaining Part 1 when The Biker Gang arrives in town. She writes, “The open highway. Razor leads a pack of demons, who roar down the road on their hogs. (or motorcycles. Motorcycles would be better.)” It’s just stage direction, nothing to be seen on screen, it’s just for those reading. I love when writers do that.] And the jellies bit is just one example of the brilliance in this episode, and what I meant by it feeling like a What If, or at least slightly removed from our regular timeline. It’s packed with moments like that. And while the basic story is split in two – the Apocalypse and Xander’s Adventure – Xander’s Adventure is split in two as well.
First is the what I’ll call “brilliant wackiness” of it. Cordelia calling Xander The Zeppo (is she really enough of a Marx Bros fan to quip a reference like that?); Oz mocking Seth Green’s guitar playing; the cut from Oz playing light-of and Giles astutely serious that “it’s the end of the world;” Xander (always sex-on-his-mind Xander) – remember in Innocence, “I’m seventeen. Looking at linoleum makes me wanna have sex.” – all but flat-out turning down Lysette to hang out with Angel (of all people); the cool-in-the-face-of-death quip, “Mostly I feel Katie;” losing his virginity to (of all people) Faith; his (in a very cool moment) grabbing the one baddie, dragging him with the car, about to get the information he needs and WHAM … well, you know; Oz, his memory simply “oddly full,” at dispensing Jack; all of it crystallized by the perfectly delivered, “Did I mention I’m having a very strange night?”
It is strange, brilliantly wacky -- as I say, slightly removed -- and that’s what makes it work. It plays like a dream, a fairy tale, but – and this really makes it work – at the end of the day, it’s really happening. Xander is this cool. (Foreshadowing the funny – and touching – The Replacement in which Xander’s cool is literally split from him, for everyone to once again realize it’s been part of him all along. And who doesn’t love the Snoopy dance?)
But the other half of Xander’s Adventure is a serious story and, in most ways, a conventional one. There’s the Zero To Hero arc, sure, but with wonderfully conventional dramatic moments. (And I mean conventional here in a good way, giving us what we expect in any story by going above and beyond what we want from as good a show as Buffy.) One instance is the donut setup/callback itself – and I believe this is why, the episode running short or not, Whedon added this scene (missing from the original script) – where the seemingly irrelevant task means so much (this time Xander is the one out of the loop, mirroring everyone else being out of the loop on his adventure). But the biggest instance is the state of fear. Remember the setup outside The Bronze where Jack calls Xander out? “Fear. Who has the least fear.” And then the magnificent end when Xander turns that exact phrase back on his nemesis. (“We’re your arch nemisis-es,” as Warren will say in Season 6’s Gone. Makes me laugh every time.)

You'll die too.

Yeah, looks like. So I guess the question really is … who has
less fear?

I ain't afraid to die. I'm dead.

Yeah, but this is different. Blowed up isn't walking around and drinking
with your buddies dead. It's 'little bits swept up by the janitor' dead, and
I don't think you're ready for that.

Are you?

Beat. Jack. Xander. Clock.

(smiling calmly)
I like the quiet.

“I like the quiet.” As Ferris Bueller would say, “So choice.” It’s the exact kind of Errol Flynn line we don’t expect from Xander – or the show, per se – but looooove when he says it. Because it falls right in line with the duality of the piece. The dreamlike reality. One more facet in the brilliant wackiness that is the entire episode.
(Speaking of asides, am I the only one that thinks the moment where Xander is chasing Dickie in the school hallway, only to be turned around and chased by The Demons must be an homage to Star Wars? And speaking of Dickie, I do love the moment where he’s the only one to see what’s going on in the library. “Wow,” he says! So funny. Okay, moving on.)
“But Xander’s totally brushed off by his friends,” a friend of mine said to me while we were discussing this episode one time. But it’s not really a brush-off, is it? Or, rather, it’s the kind of brush-off only real friends can give. Because they don’t want him out of their hair like an annoying sibling, they want him out of the way because they’re genuinely concerned for his well being. The best of these is Willow passing him outside The Magic Shop, then coming back to tell him she loves him. [And what a recurring character The Magic Shop will be! From Jenny Calendar buying the Orb of Thesulah there in Passion and Giles becoming its proprietor in Season 5, to its demise at the end of Season 6. (Anya, even in the afterlife, still cries at all its money lost.)] I particularly like Buffy’s reaction to Xander in the mansion scene. She waits for him to say what he needs to, even when he ends up saying nothing – she doesn’t come off as annoyed; it’s simply bad timing – and when he asks if he can help, she just shakes her head, appreciative (I believe) that he’d even ask.
I remember the first time I saw The Zeppo, when it first aired, I thought, “A ha! The bomb’s in the basement of the school, right under the library (we’d dropped straight down from Giles – “Who knows what’s going to come up from beneath us?” – to first see it). Xander will save the day by using the bomb to destroy the tentacled monster the others are fighting!” (The same tentacled monster we first saw in Season 1’s Prophecy Girl; I love Giles’s simple, “It’s Grown.”) Well, how happy I was to be wrong. (We won’t see a bomb in the library save the day until Graduation Day Part 2, and what’s really waiting to come up from beneath there until the series finale Chosen.) Because even better is Xander saving the day – indeed saving all our heroes’ lives -- and they never know. The episode is bookended by the wonderful Cordelia scenes in which, at the beginning she berates him in wonderfully witty repartee – “Cool. Look it up. It's something a subliterate who's repeated the 12th grade three times has and you don't.” – and at the end, she can only look at him, bewildered, while continuing to ask, “What? What? What?” (While so many people talk about Willow’s character arc throughout seven seasons – and fairly so – what about our little Cordelia? How much she’s changed from the first couple seasons of Buffy to the woman she’ll become on Angel!)
“I like the quiet,” Xander said.
So it’s no surprise, then, that it’s his silent smile, his back to Cordelia as he walks away, that’s the coolest ever.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Fringe: "6:02 AM EST"

This week’s episode begins the three-part arc that will take us to the season finale, which will no doubt be mindblowing. The creators have said that many of the questions raised this season will be answered within the next three eps, and considering this episode focused on the mysterious machine and the even more mysterious Sam Weiss, I’m hoping we at least get more information on both of them.

What really struck me this episode is how much we’ve now invested in both worlds. It’s no longer easy to say, “I hope Walter and Peter can save their universe, who cares what happens to the other one” because those other characters mean a lot to us now. I was jotting down some notes as I often do, and when I wrote “Fauxlivia” at one point it suddenly seemed like the wrong thing to do. She’s no less real than our Olivia. So I think from now on I’ll just refer to them as Alt-versions of their “our world” counterparts.

It would be so much easier to see Altlivia as some sort of interloper, pretending she’s Olivia to gain information for the other side. It would be so much easier to see Walternate as an evil genius, broken from what happened to him years ago and hellbent on destroying an entire world. It would be so much easier to see Lincoln as a threat, mostly because until a couple of weeks ago, when he showed up in our universe as a specialty agent, we didn’t know him on our side at all.

But now we’ve seen Altlivia give birth, and we worried when it looked like she’d die. We’ve seen the way Lincoln cares for her. And it’s been clear in the past few episodes that Walternate is not acting unthinkingly. He loves Peter, and he’s crushed that Peter decided to return to the world that should be foreign to him. He refuses to do experiments on children, a boundary Walter certainly didn’t have when he gave cortexiphan to kids and created an army of damaged people. This week’s episode featured a very poignant scene of Walternate explaining to Brandon that they can be heroes (just for one day…) and save their own world, but they will live with the nightmares of billions of screams of innocents dying for the rest of their lives. He knows what he’s doing, and he’s not launching headlong into it without thinking. But he doesn’t know what else to do. It wasn’t he who opened the vortex in the first place; that was Walter.

There’s a distinct turn of events when Walter lets Peter go – saying to him, “I was never good at letting YOU go,” emphasizing the YOU as if he’d been able to let other things/people go, and also reminding Peter that he thinks of HIM as his son just as much as the original Peter was – but it’s a colossal failure when Peter can’t even touch the machine without being tossed aside like a ragdoll. What will they do now?

I adored that scene in the chapel. What I love about JJ Abrams shows is that, as with Lost, they embrace Christianity without making fun of it, but also without preaching, either. They allow for atheism and agnosticism to co-exist with faith, and don’t make judgments on either side. Walter already made his feelings about God known in “White Tulip,” and it was in that episode he received a sign… but we know it was from a time traveller, not God, which allows for the possibility of something else. In this wonderful scene in “6:20 AM EST” he speaks to God and begs him to save his son. If there is a higher power, is He a deity in both worlds?

Did You Notice?
• The glyphs spelled AGENT.
• I loved the mention of the Faraday cage. Not only does it remind us of our beloved Daniel on Lost, but it shows that Faraday’s invention (which allows people to witness an electromagnetic event from inside a cage that shields them from the waves) was so fundamental, it exists in both worlds.
• Oppenheimer also exists in both worlds… he was the father of the atom bomb, and was the head of the Manhattan Project. Like Walternate, he knew that what he was creating was as deadly as it was revolutionary, and he often waxed poetic on the horrors of the brave new world they were building. Walternate quotes the very famous line Oppenheimer spoke after watching the first testing of the atomic bomb: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
• When the pre-credit sequence featured both worlds prominently, I half-expected the opening credits to be purple or something (combo of blue and red?) but instead it was just blue. When I watched it again, however, and then compared it to the original credit sequences on YouTube, I noticed tinges of red in the background. If you still have it on your PVR, go check it out: you’ll see waves of red, like northern lights, almost, in the background behind the red. I’m positive that was a subtle way of showing the alternate world beginning to bleed into ours.
• Loved Altlivia over-bundling the baby. Glad to see new moms are overprotective in any reality. (Oh, and by the way, all newborns really ARE that easy to put to bed. No, really.)
• Brandon mentions that he was listening to a Yankees game from Ebbett’s Field, which is where the Brooklyn Dodgers played. It was destroyed (in our world) in 1960.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Game of Thrones Ep 1: Winter Is Coming

Welcome to the first co-blog on Game of Thrones, with my compatriot Christopher Lockett. As I mentioned in a post a few days ago, I’m planning to blog weekly on this spectacular new series from HBO, but I knew that I was definitely missing something by not having read the books. So, I co-opted my dear friend who is a serious fan of the books (and has been since Martin first began publishing them... my friend is not a bandwagon-jumper, he) and I knew we could do so much more if I talked about it as purely a TV show, without any knowledge of the books, while Chris talked about how successful each episode was as an adaptation. We are simulposting this on our two blogs (you can find him here) so check out both conversation threads to discuss! I’m so excited to do this! (And as a big fan of his writing, I’m thrilled to do this with him.) So first up... my take.

It opens with three men on horses, travelling through what appears to be a tunnel made of ice, bolstered by wooden beams. They come out of the other side of what we now realize is a gigantic wall made of ice and snow. They enter a wintry, barren forest that appears to have no life in it whatsoever. You hear nothing but the horse’s hooves and snorts. Except an occasional howl of... something. Giant flakes of snow fall gently, swirling around before they hit the ground. One of the men, who looks like he’s not playing with a full deck, sees a line of smoke, and drops the ground and crawls toward it. When he ventures up over the fallen log, what he finds is horrifying... heads on spikes, torsos, legs ripped off, pieces of human flesh, all laid on the ground forming a strange circle with a line through it. Horrified, he jumps up and turns, only to see a young dead girl nailed to a tree. He runs to the others, and we hear the first lines of dialogue. They argue about what the significance is. One of them is cocky, believing this is nothing to be afraid of, another wants to go back to the wall, and the one who saw it is frantic, siding with the guy who wants to leave. The cocky guy tells the goofy one that if he leaves, he’ll be caught and beheaded, and to get back on his damn horse and keep riding with him. They return to the place where the bodies were... and they are gone. There’s not even a trace of blood on the snow. The three men split up, two of them fearful, the third one striding into the camp as if there’s nothing to be scared of. When one finds entrails in the snow, some large spectre rises up from the trees and slices the cocky guy’s throat. The goofy guy, separated from the others, sees the very girl who’d been pinned to the tree standing in a clearing. She turns her head slowly, her giant dead eyes on him. With the sound of metal on metal, we see the tall, horrifying men racing through the trees, chasing the two fearful men. The goofy guy stops and turns in time to see his companion standing alone as one of the giant men comes up behind him, grabs him by the hair, and beheads him, tossing the head into the snow. The goofy guy falls to his knees, knowing he’s probably next. The screen goes black and the credits roll.

Welcome to the world of Game of Thrones.

Now, where the first five minutes of HBO’s new series might feel like a horror film, the rest of the episode (while still loving its blood spurts and gore) is an epic Tolkien-like piece, closest to Rome in the canon of previous HBO programs. This sprawling epic spans seven realms, all on an isle not unlike the United Kingdom, but feeling more like Middle Earth, with its treacherous areas and beautiful gentle ones. In the north we have Winterfell, watched over by Ned Stark and his wife, Catelyn (played beautifully by Michelle Fairley, who looks remarkably like Joan Allen... so much so that I was convinced it was her for the first two episodes). The landscape is green, but grey and cold. King Robert Baratheon, who rules over the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, is in the South, where the sun is always shining through the windows and it looks warm and lovely. The realms themselves seem impossible to follow... or at least they WOULD, if it weren’t for the brilliant opening sequence.

Now, as someone who is completely new to the world of Westeros, I devoured the opening credits, watching it again and again before continuing on to the rest of the show. The camera pans over a map of the seven realms as each kingdom rises up, moving like little stop-motion animation pieces and you can see the various landscapes and proximity to one another. The music is sweeping and gorgeous, with mournful violins and big, driving, Gladiator-type music. Once again, HBO has hit a home run with yet another perfect credit sequence.

Speaking of HBO, as I’ve said many times before, the problem with HBO series is often the first episode. The Sopranos left me flat. Six Feet Under opens with a bang (literally) and then was dull for the rest of it. The Wire was complicated and difficult to enter and it took a couple of episodes to really grab onto it. Treme was joyous and musically glorious, but I couldn’t latch on to a single character in the beginning. The cursing of Deadwood was so off-putting I simply couldn’t stick around... the love came later. Carnivale, one of my fave shows, was bleak and dark and had so much backstory in that first episode that it took a few weeks before I bothered moving to the second. Big Love remains one of the only HBO series that lured me in right from the beginning and never let go. (Actually, Oz would be another.) But, as with Carnivale, the problem with HBO is that it tries to do far, far too much in that first episode. Then the second one slows down considerably and allows us to ease in, and the third one usually grabs us and keeps us there until the end of the series.

Not so with Game of Thrones. My husband and I commented that from the opening sequence, we were hooked. There is SO much that could have happened here by way of exposition, but didn’t. They jump from one person to the next so fast that your head is spinning, and you can’t seem to understand who is who. But they don’t explain it, and just lay it all out there, creating enough sympathetic situations and people that you want to know more. You can’t wait for that second episode because they’ve left so many things unexplained you need to get that exposition that’s been denied. And that’s what makes this opening episode so amazing. So for the n00bs to George RR Martin’s world, I suggest watching that opening sequence a few times like I did, looking at the way each area in Westeros comes to life (funny, despite watching the men go through that wall of ice, it was only in the opening credits I realized just how vast and foreboding that wall is.

And so, the many characters: Arya is one of my favourites, the little Stark girl who sits in embroidery classes while watching her brother take archery lessons, wishing she could do the same. Not that she needs the lessons... she nails the bullseye when her younger brother Bran (who would probably rather be reading a book) fails. Brilliant character, and she only gets better in the episodes to come. Bran is the thoughtful, sensitive boy who would rather climb walls as if looking for something different in this world of mayhem and murder.

Ned Stark is played by Boromir Sean Bean, who is PERFECT in this role. Good-looking but with a weathered face that looks like it’s seen a lot, he exudes bravery, vulnerability, and care. He’s a ruler who sometimes has to be stern, but he has a great love for his family, people, and king.

He has a bunch of other kids, one of whom is a bastard son by another woman. Another boy is a ward whom Ned has raised as a son, even though his father was someone who’d tried to rise up against the king. Sansa Stark is the rather annoying older sister, who is inexplicably in love with Prince Joffrey, and the king hopes to join the Stark and Lannister families by marrying the two.

And then there are the Lannisters. The queen, Cersei, doesn’t do much in this first episode other than just walk around looking morose, but she’ll have her moment in a few weeks. Her twin brother, Jaime, looks and talks EXACTLY like Prince Charming from the Shrek movies (seriously, he stepped off a horse and tossed his hair at one point and I longed for them to show it in slow-mo). ;) And by the way... he’s sleeping with his twin on a regular basis. All together now: EW.

Prince Joffrey is the queen and king’s son, but not only is his hair golden like his mom’s and... her brother’s, he just seems sleazy and a little off. I’m not convinced this kid isn’t the product of inbreeding. (But please, no spoilers from anyone who knows one way or the other.)

And then... there’s the imp. Tyrion Lannister, the twins’ older brother, who is a dwarf and as such, has developed a nasty streak. Played by the always brilliant Peter Dinklage, he’s a sex-crazed, drunken and brilliant character who you simultaneously hate and adore throughout the series. A few episodes in, he’s my husband’s and my favourite character.

The king is a lifelong friend of Ned’s, and was once engaged to Ned’s sister, who died in some way I’m not quite sure of yet and who he’s been pining after ever since. His wife probably gets her kicks from her brother because the king’s never really given her a second glance.

The real conflict of the show happens when Ned’s mentor, John Arryn, dies and he receives word that he was actually murdered by the Lannisters, who are conspiring to kill the king. Ned is asked to come south to the king’s land, but Catelyn begs him not to go, knowing that the last time he disappeared for a long period of time to follow a king, he came back with a son by another woman.

And then there are the exiles, the platinum haired brother and sister (a duo who are almost as creepy as the queen and her brother), Viserys and Daenerys. Viserys, the simpering whiner, believes he is the rightful king, which he proclaims as he feels up his buxom sister. He forces her into a terrifying marriage against her will to Khal Drogo, the warrior leader of a tribe of horsemen called the Dothraki, whose wedding ceremonies usually consist of slaughter and rape. Awesometimes. But in case you’re watching this thinking it’s taken on misogynist undertones, just keep watching. Daenerys isn’t as limp and quiet as you might think. She is given a gift of petrified dragon eggs at her wedding, and these will be something she looks to for solace in episodes to come.

Throughout the series, you’ll see many people wearing a symbol (I’m sure the readers of the books can speak better to this than I can) of a sword through a circle, and it looks a lot like the image of the bodies splayed on the ground in the episode’s opening. I haven’t figured out the connection, but I’m sure it’s there.

The shocking and powerful cliffhanger of this episode occurs when Bran, climbing the castle walls, interruptuses the coitus between the queen and her brother, who stops and questions the boy, before thoughtlessly shoving him out of the high castle window. Gah!! Will Bran die? Or will he live and tell the queen’s dirty secret? Tune in next week.

And now... the bookish perspective, a post I found immensely fascinating as someone who hasn’t read the books and is dying to know more about the ins and outs of the show. Please welcome Chris Lockett.

I just want to begin by saying that it is an honour to be co-blogging with Nikki—especially on a topic near and dear to my heart. Two topics, really, two epic imaginative spaces that have preoccupied me for years now: George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, and the dramatic programming on HBO. To have a forum in which to discuss the union of the two was too big an opportunity to pass up. Plus, I’m in awe of Nikki’s prolific, and prolifically intelligent blogging, so I’ll cheerfully hitch my wagon to her star.

As the half of this blogging duo who has read the books, I will be offering my thoughts on how successful the series has been in adapting Martin’s narrative, but I also hope to discuss some of the broader issues of fantasy as a genre, especially in terms of Martin’s vision, and how Game of Thrones does or doesn’t realize that vision (based on episode one, it totally does—but it’s early days yet). And I won’t be obsessing over every elision or change—even with ten hours of screen time to work with, there’s simply too much there in the novel. And besides which, there are inevitably nuances in prose fiction that films simply cannot replicate (and vice versa). Adaptation is always an exercise in translation.

This post, I should say now as a caveat, grew in the telling. I felt compelled to provide some context from which my commentary on the series will proceed; but if all you’re interested in is an avid GRRM fan’s take on the series, you might as well skip it. No worries.

By way of an introduction …

I should possibly begin by introducing myself a little, and what my stake in this conversation is. I’ve been an English professor at Memorial University of Newfoundland for the past six years. I know Nikki because we did our MAs together at the University of Toronto, and became pretty much instant friends when, while waiting for a class, we proceeded to have a conversation that unfolded entirely as Simpsons quotations (you have to understand that, at U of T, there were hardly any among the grad students who would admit to owning a television, let alone doing something as un-literary as watching it—so our classmates listened to us with something akin to horror). Nikki of course went on to be the prolific TV author and critic you all know and love, and I went on to a PhD and, miraculously, a tenure-track job. And while my field of specialization is contemporary American literature and culture, my defining moment as a reader was The Lord of the Rings at the age of eleven.

Since then, I have been an avid fantasy reader—and unfortunately, perhaps as well as anyone, as an English professor I see the genre get a bad rap. So it goes with most genre fiction, though I’m pleased to say that amongst the enclaves of younger faculty there is more of a tolerance for it.

Though if we’re being honest with ourselves, we have to admit that the knock against fantasy as escapist, regressive, and nostalgic—and at times egregiously misogynist—isn’t always unfair. The lurid covers staring down at us from bookstore shelves speak to this ambivalence, and it can be difficult to take a novel seriously when its cover art depicts a cartoonishly busty warrior-woman in a leather bustier and boots standing in the middle of a snowy landscape. But authors like George R. R. Martin are living proof that to tar the entire genre thus is to miss the fact that fantasy is increasingly becoming a vehicle for decidedly humanist allegories of power and politics. Knee-jerk condescension or the thoughtless depiction of fantasy audiences as the stereotypical pimply basement-dwelling D&D player ignore the thoughtful, intelligent reinvention of the genre by Martin, Neil Gaiman, Philip Pullman, Guy Gavriel Kay, Terry Pratchett, Robin Hobb, Richard K. Morgan, Joe Abercrombie, and many others.

Perhaps it goes without saying that, on this point, A Song of Ice & Fire is Exhibit A. GRRM’s world is notably free of both Aslans and Saurons; it is a world sketched in shades of grey, with deeply nuanced characters possessing familiar ambitions, fears, and desires; where power is not something tangibly manifested in a ring or a sword or a suit of armour, but which is a shifting and fluid thing that all the key players blunder after with varying degrees of gamesmanship. In other words, if the word is not too contradictory in this context, it is a deeply realistic world.

And that is what makes it perfect for HBO. Having only watched the first episode, I hesitate to make confident predictions; but if the series keeps on with the faithfulness to GRRM’s vision it displayed last Sunday, then its byzantine narrative web will be intimately familiar to any devoted viewer of The Wire or Deadwood; its plots and conspiracies, to say nothing of its epic scale, will evoke echoes of Rome; and the centrality of family as both site and source of personal identity and strife will resonate with fans of The Sopranos and Six Feet Under. One question I have heard voiced is why HBO should seek to depart from the tried and true naturalistic power of the shows just mentioned (a question that elides the ongoing presence of True Blood, but never mind) in favour of embracing epic fantasy? The simplest answer to that it hasn’t—Westeros may be another world, but the closer you look, the more familiar it becomes.

A Game of Thrones, Episode One—Winter is Coming

There will inevitably be many points of departure between the books and the television series, but this first episode seems to promise that they will mostly be superficial. So during the opening sequence as Ser Waymar Royce, Will, and Gared ride through the tunnel at the base of the Wall, my instinctive inner protest that “Hey! That tunnel shouldn’t be straight through the ice, but crooked, with many inner gates along the way!” quickly gave way to me geeking out over the image of the Wall itself as the three rangers emerged. The entire prologue unfolds differently than in the novel: the dead wildlings aren’t ritually mutilated, Waymar Royce actually faces down the White Walker—vainly, of course, but it’s a brief moment of respect for an otherwise petulant lordling—and it is Gared, not Will, who escapes only to be executed.

But these are trivial points. The television prologue maintains the same spirit as the novel’s, with the same conflict of personalities at work. The visual realization of the Haunted Forest is … well, haunting, and the emergence of the White Walkers and the wights/ice-zombies their victims turn into is suitably terrifying. If I was going to quibble, it would be on two points: first, the “White Walker” we see is notably un-white—and far from the lithe, pale terrors GRRM describes, it seems more like a hulking and monstrous barbarian. And secondly, in the novels the name the White Walkers go by is the “Others.” But I suppose that might prove a little confusing in the post-Lost television landscape.

The point here being, I suppose, is that this is more or less what we can expect: certain liberties taken, but the spirit of the novels carefully hewed to.

For those who haven’t read the books, take the time to watch the credits carefully—if you’re anything like me, having a mental map of a fantasy world helps orient you, and in this lovely credits sequence they lay out the basic geography of Westeros and the proximal relationships of the different narrative threads. (If you want a more specific or exhaustive map, there are many online, such as here). But they are also a small masterpiece, as are many of HBO series’ credit sequences—something of a lost art on network television, where these days they are often elided entirely to make room for more ad time. Here we move across continents to the key places—Winterfell, King’s Landing, Castle Black, Pentos—zooming in from our gods’-eye view to see them rise, toy-like, as a series of gears and cogs that bespeak the conspiratorial gears that grind away throughout Martin’s intricate narrative.

And it is not long before we encounter plots and secrets. The fugitive Will is captured and executed by Ned Stark (Sean Bean) himself, vainly attempting to warn his captors of the white walkers. Back at the Stark stronghold of Winterfell comes dire news of the death of Jon Arryn, Hand of the King, and former mentor to Ned. And worse yet: the king is riding north with all his retinue to be the Starks’ royal house guest, certainly determined to make Ned his new Hand. But before this, we have a glimpse of where one major narrative thread will unfold: King’s Landing, the capital city of the Seven Kingdoms. Cersei Lannister, Queen of the Realm, and her twin brother Jaime let it be known that Jon Arryn knew something that could have put their heads on pikes.

One of the things that deeply impressed me about this first episode is the deft touch it had in telling the story. There was a refreshing lack of lengthy exposition (never something HBO series tend to go in for), and character traits that GRRM develops over chapters the director economically introduces in brief conversations, or a series of looks and gestures. A case in point, and probably the best example of what I mean: Arya escaping her embroidery to put an arrow in the bullseye of the target her brother Bran aims at. That moment clarifies the fraught place both have in their family in terms of who they are, what is expected of them, and what they desire for themselves. Bran here is brooding and thoughtful, at pains to please his father; Arya, escaping the shadow of her beautiful, feminine sister to show her talents for the masculine arts.

It is exactly this deft, economical touch that makes me wonder if Troy Patterson at Slate actually watched the advance DVDs he received before he wrote:

There are unscalable slabs of expositionistic dialogue clogging the forward movement of the story. Sonorous and/or schmaltzy talk substitutes for the revelation of character through action. There is the sense of intricacy having been confused with intrigue and of a story transferred all too faithfully from its source and thus not transformed to meet the demands of the screen.

Um, what? I suppose it’s possible that in future episodes the series shifts gears in favour of length, sententious history lectures about the Seven Kingdoms, but somehow I doubt it (those don’t even really occur in the novels, where they would not exactly be out of place). Similar to the atrocious NYT review by Ginia Bellafante, Patterson seems to be approaching this series with a pre-formed sense of what all fantasy must be like, assuming that if GRRM writes fantasy then it must ape Tolkien’s often absurdly elevated diction. The only “sonorous” speech I can recall from the episode are actually moments of ceremony—Ned Stark pronouncing Will’s sentence of death, and King Robert formally asking Ned to be Hand of the King. Other than that, the language is pretty straightforward and often profane. Really, there’s more sonorous and elevated diction in Deadwood (a lot, really).

But I digress. I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge what are, to my mind, the two single greatest contributing factors to this show’s success: first, the scenery; and second, the casting.

The sheer look of the show is breathtaking, as is the scale. The renderings of the Wall, Winterfell, and King’s Landing—both in terms of their look from a distance and their textures and details up close—have been superbly done. While, as I mentioned above, GRRM’s world notably lacks the epic characters of classic fantasy (or, indeed, classic epics), it is nevertheless epic in scope, and the visuals the series produces are more than up to the task.

In terms of casting, watching the roles get filled over the last year and a half has been the biggest point of excitement for myself as well as, I imagine, many other diehard fans of the books. There have been no missteps. The one actor who gave me trepidation, I will admit, was Mark Addy—he seemed too happy and often gormless in previous roles to play King Robert, but he carries it off beautifully. Sean Bean is of course perfect in the role of Ned (though I should admit to being biased on this front as a long-time Sharpe fan), and Michelle Fairley—not an actress with whom I was previously familiar—does an excellent job in capturing Catelyn’s complex character: her heartfelt yet guarded love for Ned, her abiding sense of being out of place in the north, her protectiveness of her children, and her antipathy to Ned’s bastard son Jon Snow. The look she shares with Jon, looking down into the courtyard, is another great example of how the series manages to communicate character without unnecessary exposition.

The performance that most blew me away was Peter Dinklage as Tyrion—which makes me happy, as Tyrion is one of my favourite characters, one that really demonstrates GRRM’s talent for subtlety and nuance. But that being said, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau matches him well as his brother Jaime. The scene when Jaime blithely walks in on Tyrion and the prostitute, and their banter, is quite true to the spirit of their relationship in the books. Jaime himself is very well-played, with Coster-Waldau displaying the easy arrogance and amused indifference of Jaime Lannister. The final scene when Bran accidentally sees him and Cersei in coitus was pitch-perfect: Jaime’s reaction is amusement, not fear, and when he looks back at his twin, his grin says “Can you believe this kid?” And then—“The things I do for love,” shoving Bran out, without a measurable change in his face. Not cruel, but also not caring that he probably just killed a child.

If there’s someone on whom the jury is still out, it is Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister. She looks the part, but plays Cersei with a sadness that I find somewhat out of step with the Cersei of the novels. I get no malice underneath her words and actions—she seems to be playing her as if she mourns the loveless state of her marriage, rather than someone with her own plots and ambitions. When Robert spurns her, and later openly flirts with a servant girl, it hurts rather than irks her. Perhaps that malice and ambition will emerge later … I hope so, otherwise she won’t be a particularly interesting character.

Across the narrow sea … our exiled Targaryens Viserys and Daenerys, Magister Illyrio, Ser Jorah Mormont, and of course Khal Drogo. Presumably they’re going to give Emilia Clarke as Daenerys more to do than stand and look forlornly at things. I wasn’t able to get a good read on her in this episode, mainly because she did not do or say much. She makes a lovely Dany, and the terror in her eyes the closer she comes to consummating her marriage to Drogo is heartbreaking … but I look forward to the Dany who evolves as she gains confidence. By contrast Harry Lloyd’s Viserys get that character’s arrogance, cruelty, and childish petulance exactly right. My favourite moment is when Khal Drogo, having been initially presented with his presumptive bride, rides off without saying a thing. “What’s wrong? Didn’t he like her?” Viserys protests, his voice going up into a whiny register.

I never quite imagined Khal Drogo being quite that beefcake, but aside from that, actor Jason Momoa (soon to be seen as Conan the Barbarian) certainly looks the part.

All in all, a very promising start to the series. I’m sort of chomping at the bit for Ned to get to King’s Landing, as the piece of casting I most anticipate is Aidan Gillen. Tommy Carcetti as Littlefinger? Too perfect.