Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Walking Dead 4.07: "Dead Weight"

Well, my big hopes for the Governor’s redemption have been flushed down the toilet, as we welcome to the show Charlie Francis from Fringe and Victor from Dollhouse. Welcome to another week of The Walking Dead, where I’m joined by my co-host, Joshua “The Survivor” Winstead! If you’re reading this on Facebook, please click on the link below to continue.

Nikki: Sigh. You know, I had real high hopes for Philip going good on this. I know you said last week that he had no hope, Josh, but I thought if the writers wanted a real challenge, they would actually put the Governor on the road to redemption. Is there a single character who would have been more difficult to redeem than this guy? Not one I can think of. And yet, knowing the love he had for his daughter and his wife, he’s one worth trying to redeem. Last week’s episode was so full of promise, and this week? All thrown into a zombie pit. 

“Dead Weight.” What an apt title.

In a way, I see Philip’s killing sprees and shift back over to the Dark Side as really lazy writing. Last week you could feel the tension and restraint in every frame of David Morrissey’s acting. This week it was just Woodbury set in the Dharma camp. So I can’t say I’m thrilled with the turn of events, and I have to confess, there was a part of me that thought, “Well, damn” when we ended up back at the prison. I was really enjoying the Governor’s story. I think he should get a spinoff of his own. I’d totally watch that. Josh, what did you think of part 2 of Brian’s Song?

Joshua:  Yes, it looks like the writer's room took the easy way out after all. I can't say I'm surprised, but I can't pretend the turn is any less disappointing, either. This season established itself with a voice so strong and confident that it gave rise to expectations that were clearly unrealistic in retrospect – for myself as well as you, I guess. And now here we are, right back where we started.

To be clear: there's no I-told-you-so pleasure in seeing this happen so predictably. Like you, I felt a strange allure in the possibility of broadening the narrow trajectory of The Governor's past through what could have proven to be genuine contrition and a heretofore unseen (and entirely unexpected) frailty. By the end of last season, he had become almost a cartoon villain, and my hope was that the minds behind the show recognized that and had plans to try for something more complex this year. Alas, it was not to be.

Though I didn't take the bait – and it's clear now that it was in fact bait, an elaborate setup to trick the audience into sympathy where none was truly deserved – you were right that the ambiguity of last week's episode showed genuine promise. Even this installment looked good at first blush. The opening sequence as Philip hung out their laundry, conversing with Meghan in an extension of their previous chess-as-war metaphor, was great stuff despite the situational retread, and the reveal of the tank at the end made me break out in gooseflesh. But from there, I found myself either questioning, or put off by, almost every narrative decision that followed. And that bums me out, man; I don't know how else to put it.

No matter how critical I was last week, and whether I agreed with the logic or not, I truly believed there were possibilities for this offbeat new direction, ways to keep things simple and grounded and play the idea out to a logical conclusion. For example, the show could have chosen to lean on the tension of whether or not Martinez would allow The Governor to maintain his cover, hinging the drama on the more reasonable possibility that his very efforts to shield Lily and Meghan from the truth about his past would prove to be what drove him back to the kind of murderous tactics that he seemed to want to leave behind him. Instead we got unexplained decapitations, unprovoked outbursts, and uninspired banter; the simple stereotypes of the Victor Charlie brothers and the hackneyed moral quandaries between them; an awkward stab at LGBT inclusion with a three-line courtship for Tara, so perfunctory it was embarrassing; et cetera, et cetera, culminating in a literal quagmire that blocked Philip's retreat from the coming storm and those old tendencies he knew he couldn't resist if he stayed. No kidding, I rolled my eyes so hard it hurt.

At the end of last week's write-up, I talked about how surprising it was to have found myself so engaged by the continuing story of The Governor. Now I find myself hoping that this midseason finale just puts a merciful end to it all. I'm so let down, I can scarcely muster the energy to write about it any more.

Nikki: I’m with you on this one. As I said in my email to you when I sent my first pass over, after this episode I’m ready to turn this into a Television Without Pity sort of recapping, each week talking about why the episode sucked and how much I hated it, more than actually analyzing it in any way.

Like you, I thought the opening scene held so much promise. The quiet banter between “Brian” and Meghan was so well done. “Were you bad?” “Sometimes.” But there’s this feeling that it’s in the past. Martinez notwithstanding, I felt like he just needed to move on, not stay with these people, and maybe that scene was far away, past all the others, where he and Meghan had made a new life for themselves with Lily and Tara. And then they pulled back to show the tank. And I thought, “Oh god. We know what he did to the LAST owners of a tank. This is bad. Bad bad bad.” And from that point on, it was just almost a formulaic return to the Governor of old. At first they try to play his anger and violence as him fighting against the very idea of becoming the Governor again, a trope that makes little sense. “I will strangle you to death with my bare hands rather than share a crown with you because I don’t want to become the sort of person who strangles another man with his bare hands!!!” O…kay. Got it. Shorthand from the writer’s room = this guy is a sociopath. Like we didn’t get that already.

As they come up on the log cabin they find a family where someone has gone completely batshit and killed all of them (and then himself) pinning words on each one, words that could all apply to Philip: Liar. Rapist. Murderer. (While technically we didn’t see him rape anyone, he did strip Maggie and make her believe she was going to be raped, traumatizing her for a long time afterwards.)

I didn’t like Tara last week, as I admitted, because she was so abrasive and bitchy all the time I just thought she was really annoying. And then… they throw the lesbian curveball. I saw it coming a mile away and muttered to my husband, “They’re bringing on the lesbian action.” Because as we all know, every single lesbian is a bitchy butch and a butchy bitch, am I right? Sigh. And then there’s the “I’ve never been into big guns” line, which caused both of us to groan loudly, and my husband to repeat, “Lesbian action.” This is 2013. Introducing gay characters into a show shouldn’t be that clumsily handled anymore. UGH.

As if him walking around systematically killing anyone who threatens his new pacifist nature (snort), we have to get the physical transformation as well, with “Brian” throwing on the jacket to become Philip once more (the Guv’nah was rarely seen outside without his leather jacket on) and stride around like a commander.

I should say, before we get attacked by fans saying we simply didn’t get it, that I did get the episode itself. It was about doing what you can to survive, and about the past catching up with you and consuming you, trapping you like a wave of zombies trapped in mud, unable to move. I get it. The tank, the army, Martinez himself (who was Philip’s right-hand man), the necessity of saving Lily and Meghan after he’d failed so badly with his own wife and child, Victor still moving about in the water as an underwater zombie who will never go away, instead a constant reminder of what “Brian” did (that effect was very cool, I must admit). He can’t escape the past. Once you lie about who you are, you’re doomed to play out the consequences of that lie. I just think that’s a motif that’s been done to death, and it would have been nice for the Walking Dead writers to change the script.

I did want to mention one thing. Coming on the heels of the very, VERY excellent 50th anniversary special of Doctor Who, there was a line that struck me particularly: the Governor says that there is no right thing, and no wrong thing: just the only thing. Interesting, the plot of “The Day of the Doctor” came down to that very same trope, and then the Doctors rethought it and realized nope, there’s never just one solution, and you do have the opportunity to find the right solution. I’ve complained on here before that TWD is becoming too grim, and for me, the possible redemption of Philip stood to fix all of them, and redeem him for all of us and show that yes, people can fall off the rails in desperate situations, but they do have good in them, and do deserve to embrace that goodness. Unfortunately, that would have been far too complicated when they have to wrap up everything for the mid-season finale, so… yeah, let’s just make him evil again and stomp on some more zombie heads, woohoo!!

You know what would have been far more challenging? Having him come to the prison, be turned away, and live adjacent to it, living his life peacefully while Rick unravels, showing that we all have the potential to go both ways. There are no good guys or bad guys, it’s just what you do with what you have that counts. But that’s just not dreary enough.

But hey, I should really find one good thing in this episode. My husband, a golf writer, said that Martinez had a really strong swing. So… there’s that?

Josh and I have chatted and decided we’ll keep this week’s analysis short, because we’ve pretty much said all we have to say.

Next week’s episode promises to bring more deaths of primary characters, which once again is going for the giant showboating rather than the more subtle storytelling, but here’s hoping that their deaths are meaningful and not just something thrown in there to create a tear in us. Remember when zombie Sophia lumbered out of the barn? Still one of the most beautifully gut-wrenching and heartbreaking moments I’ve ever seen on television. Grim, yes, but handled so adeptly that it still hurts. Can the Walking Dead writers return to that kind of gorgeous storytelling? 

Monday, November 25, 2013

Game of Thrones Book Club: Book One, Part 2

Hello and welcome to Week 2 of our Game of Thrones book club, where we'll be discussing pp. 160-323 in the mass market version; pp. 134-271 of the trade paperback (starting with BRAN "It seemed as though he'd been falling for years...") Here we go!

Christopher: What strikes me most on rereading this section is how it develops the mystery plot, and how that plays into our expectations. I suppose the anticipation must be different when you read A Game of Thrones now, knowing that there’s another four novels in the series and two yet-to-be-written after that; but when I read it many moons ago, when GRRM hadn’t written any of the others and was still under the illusion it would be a trilogy, there was a definite anticipation built into Ned playing the detective. It’s a clever little bit of genre-tweaking on GRRM’s part, as murder mysteries build to closure—a rather shrewd little bit of misdirection, when you think of it, making us that much more stunned when not only do we get closure on this little caper, but the rulebooks of both mystery and fantasy fiction get emphatically defenestrated.

I’m also impressed at just how the motif of bastardy surfaces again (and again and again). Like Shakespeare’s history plays, A Game of Thrones (itself loosely based on the Wars of the Roses) is preoccupied with blood, lineage, and patrilineal descent. Who your father was defines you indelibly in this world; and where in Shakespeare bastards like Edmund and Falconbridge, or Don John in Much Ado, are almost invariably villainous, driven to evil out of resentment or given over to it by their “tainted” blood, GRRM deliberately troubles this convention with such characters as Jon Snow and Gendry. Ned’s investigation of Robert’s bastards is a particularly cruel task for him, reminding him of his own relationship with Jon, and prodding him with the concern that he did not do right by him. Certainly, Jon always fared much better in Winterfell under Ned than any of Robert’s bastards have—and though Jon’s relationship with Catelyn was always frosty, she is much more forgiving than Cersei (as we shall see later on).

It is also interesting how bastardy, at this point in the novel, is explicitly associated with the colour black: Jon snow is described as having black hair, in contrast to Robb’s auburn, and Robert’s bastards all share his own dark locks. The Wall itself comprises the Seven Kingdom’s castoffs, and as we come to understand the skepticism, mockery, and indeed contempt in which the Night’s Watch is held by most people south of the neck, it itself comes to be a metaphor for bastardy. This association is also something found in Shakespeare, with his various bastards often described in terms of blackness and darkness. Throughout this second section, as indeed throughout the entire novel, the drama in King’s Landing finds its counterpoint on the Wall—a contrast that is more marked in A Game of Thrones than in the rest of the series so far, mainly because the geography of the narratives hasn’t yet expanded to the extent it will. This contrast is thus especially stark (pardon the pun) at this point, between the monochromatic palette of the North and the sumptuous colour of the south, the sensual riot of sensations in King’s Landing versus the literal numbness at the Wall. How do you think these contrasts work? Are you finding them more or less vivid in the novel as opposed to the series?

Nikki: I think the contrasts work brilliantly, and this section continues to astound me insofar as how faithful to the novels the show really was. On the show as in the books, King’s Landing is full of colour, whereas the Wall is white and black, as you say. Winterfell is in the middle, very grey and stark (pun intended). The metaphor is well taken, with the Wall being the place where things are either good or bad; King’s Landing the place where a happy face is put on everything despite the seamy underbelly of the place, and Winterfell a place where who is good and who is bad is never clear.

Just as in show, I can see why fans were already whispering about Ned Stark being a dumbass. “Hm… look at this dark-haired lad here in the shop, the very picture of Robert Baratheon. Why would Jon Arryn have taken the time to worry about this guy, when Robert has all those lovely golden-haired children of his own at home? Is there something I am missing??!!” ;) Apparently, in King’s Landing, one does not simply come to an obvious conclusion. Ahem.

I would like to look at Sansa again, and how once again I have far more sympathy for her here than in the show. On HBO, she looks like this vapid girl glancing around the room, seeing what is really going on, and choosing to ignore it for glory and riches. But here, she’s a girl who is in puberty, taken over by the beautiful men on horses handing her roses, heart fluttering as Joffrey dares to look in her direction, dreaming of the day Sir Loras might give her another glance. Despite how much we love making fun of her self-absorption throughout the HBO series, I’m really seeing her as a very young, lovelorn, easily influenced girl here, and I’ve really taken to her a lot in the book. That was a very pleasant surprise.

We’re seeing some of Arya’s “dancing” lessons in this section, bringing back the memories of her learning how to become a swordsman in the book. I remember the actual teacher being more prominent in the series (and perhaps he will be again) but in the book he’s more in the background, as we just see Arya explaining to her exasperated father what she’s learning. I’m falling in love with her character all over again.

More importantly, Bran is back, and it’s interesting seeing his awakening from his point of view. I don’t remember the scene in the series (which doesn’t mean it wasn’t there) where the three-eyed crow tells him he can fly if he wants to, but reading this scene certainly brought a lot more meaning and poignancy to the three-eyed crow, who has become far more prominent as the series goes on.

Christopher: No, they didn’t have the “dream” sequence preceding Bran’s waking in the series, at least not such that it was anything like the novel. I remember that pretty clearly, because I’d wondered whether that dream of flying would happen, and how they would do it—in the novel it’s a pretty elaborate sequence, and always reminds me of the scene in The Fellowship of the Ring when Frodo sits on Amon Hen while wearing the ring and is granted the ability to see almost all of Middle-Earth. (As with GoT, that scene was not replicated in the film as described in the novel). Bran’s vision is similar, and as we know from the details given (such as Catelyn and Ser Rodrik’s galley crossing the Bite) that the vision is no mere dream. This is our first inkling of Bran’s new abilities: having lost use of his legs, he is given new sight, as symbolized by the crow’s third eye, and its insistence that Bran, too, has one.

I must confess, Bran’s storyline over the five novels is the one that, mostly, has interested me the least—something best depicted in the series by the long stretch of time where all we saw of him was one or two perfunctory scenes per episode as he and his entourage trek north. That being said, his waking and the dream that prefaces it is probably my favourite part: the description of him falling and all of Westeros slowly coming into focus beneath him is beautifully done. And as I said, it has echoes of Frodo on Amon Hen, one of my favourite scenes in Fellowship:

“At first he could see little. He seemed to be in a world of mist in which there were only shadows: the Ring was upon him. Then here and there the mist gave way and he saw many visions: small and clear as if they were under his eyes on a table, and yet remote. There was no sound, only bright living images. The world seemed to have shrunk and fallen silent … Eastward he looked into wide uncharted lands, namely plains, and forests unexplored. Northward he looked, and the Great River lay like a ribbon beneath him, and the Misty Mountains stood small and hard as broken teeth.”

Both Bran and Frodo are very briefly gifted with all-encompassing sight, though to dramatically different ends. For Frodo, it galvanizes him into abandoning the Fellowship and pressing on alone. For Bran, it is just his first indication of abilities quickening in him that he has no understanding of, and is thus baffling. But in both cases, the visions are (for the reader, if not the characters) momentarily unifying, framing the totality of the stories in a geographical whole. Already in A Game of Thrones the action has become fragmentary and fractious (and factious), flung all over the seven kingdoms in a series of individual narratives … but for a brief moment in Bran’s vision we’re reminded that, to quote Lester Freamon, all the pieces matter.

Meanwhile … Sansa is in her element, or so she thinks. This is what she was bred for! All the pageantry and beauty of the Hand’s Tourney, all the handsome knights and delectable food, all the courtly manners and beautiful dresses, and being given the rose by Loras Tyrell … for a brief time, Sansa lives inside one of her beloved songs. There are only a few little suggestions that things might be otherwise, the first coming when the Mountain kills the Vale knight in the lists. Sansa is not as horrified as one might expect—she is, as we will find out, made of sterner stuff than she at first appears—but the death is a reminder of knight’s principal function, and that jousting is not a sport as much as it combat training.

Of course, Sansa’s first real education comes when the Hound walks her back to her room and tells her the story of how his face was burned. In the series, it was Littlefinger whispering the story to her in the bleachers as they stared at his scars; but here, we get it from Sandor’s own mouth, along with the dire threat to kill her if she tells anyone. It is the first moment of the odd relationship he and Sansa develop. What did you think of how it happened in the novel?

Nikki: I entirely agree with you on Bran. His story hasn’t interested me much on the show, and it didn’t interest me much more in the book. The vision was beautifully written, and as you say, it unveiled things happening at Winterfell that Bran couldn’t have possibly known (machinations happening in the very moment after he’d been unconscious for weeks) so it indicates right away that we’re not seeing a dream, but something much more real.

I’m surprised at how much I can remember of the first season, right down to scenery and tiny details, and when they were at the jousting tournament, I kept waiting for Littlefinger to show up, sit next to Sansa, and tell her the story of the Mountain and the Hound. And then he walks over, says hello, gives her a shiver, and turns and walks away again. I thought, “Wait… aren’t we going to get the story?” And instead it’s delivered by the Hound himself. I think it’s actually more powerful to come from Sandor than Baelish, to be honest. I can see why they did it — dramatically speaking, it’s far more effective to know what the Mountain did to the Hound when they’re both in the jousting tourney, and it allows the audience at home to hate the Mountain and cheer when he falls. But the relationship between Sansa and the Hound is a complicated one on the show, and having this beginning to it now gives me far more insight into the later complications. In season 1 she’s merely afraid of him. But in season 2 he seems to take care of her, rushing into her room and offering to whisk her away from the Lannisters and the horrible betrothal to Joffrey (and her certain death, as he sees it) but she turns him down. Yet there’s this affection there that seems to have sprung out of nowhere. (By season 3 he’s with Arya instead.) So I really enjoyed that scene, the moment where she seems rapt by his story and shows sympathy to him, telling him that his brother “was no true knight.” He seems rather bemused by her response, but still growls at her that if she tells anyone what he just said, he’ll kill her. That explains the constant terror she feels around him. On the show, we just chalk her terror up to the look of his face and the seeming menace he presents, but in the book it’s a very real menace.

Speaking of complicated characters, oh how I love the introduction to Varys in this section. On the show I can never put my finger on him. Is he good? Is he bad? In one scene he’s entirely sympathetic, and in the next his little birds have sung to the wrong person and one of our heroes is in trouble. You’ve said in our back and forth discussions on the HBO show many times that they couldn’t have made a better casting decision than bringing on Conleth Hill to play the Spider, and WOW were you ever right. (Not that I questioned you!) Entire sections of dialogue are taken directly from the book, and I can’t help but picture Hill every time Varys enters the scene. Interestingly, I’m not always picturing the actors playing these characters anymore, since some of the descriptions are different from the actual characters on screen, but with Varys, he’s exactly the same character.

In the final EDDARD scene of this section, Varys seems far more on board than he is on the show. I didn’t trust him at all in the first two seasons of the series, but in this scene I really do believe he’s trying to help Ned. But then again, that could all be part of his plan. I look forward to the Varys scenes now, just like I do on the show. But, interestingly, it took until season 3 before I was really intrigued by the character on the show; I’m fascinated by him immediately in the book. Was he a favourite of yours from the get-go?

Christopher: I wish I could remember what my first impression of Varys was, because he has become one of my favourite characters. GRRM has a talent for characterization across a broad spectrum, but he’s particularly good at the sociopaths (The Mountain, the Bastard of Bolton) and such shrewd, highly intelligent schemers as Tyrion, Tywin, Littlefinger … and Varys. I think one of my favourite parts of the series that doesn’t appear in the books is the occasional verbal sparring between Baelish and Varys—and I wonder whether that was just something the writers decided on before the actors were cast, or whether they added the scenes when they realized what brilliant banterers they had in Aidan Gillen and Conleth Hill. We don’t have any such moments in the novel, mainly because we don’t have POVs from either of those characters, but also (I suspect) because the Littlefinger of the novels isn’t quite as ruthless as the one on the show (perhaps we should call this the “Carcetti Effect”). A crucial scene in this respect is his secret conference with Ned and Catelyn—his unrequited love for Lady Stark doesn’t prevent him from betraying Ned (or possibly incites him to do so, it is hard to say), but it humanizes him in a way that the series never allows. In season three, Varys says of Littlefinger that he would burn the realm to the ground if he could be king over the ashes; the Baelish of the novels is not nearly that monomaniacal, and his lingering love for Catelyn is an element of that.
In both the novel and the series, however, Varys and Littlefinger act, at this point in the story, as much as foils to Ned Stark’s suspicious and yet obtuse sense of King’s Landing as anything else. Both act as apparent guides, offering him counsel and advice; in both cases, their counsel and advice seems legitimate at first glance, though we will understand in hindsight that both were just testing the waters and getting a sense of this new Hand. The difference? Varys is, perhaps counter-intuitively, more honest. “I will make another confession, Lord Eddard,” says Varys. “I was curious to see what you would do. Why not come to me? you ask, and I must answer, Why, because I did not trust you, my lord.” The fact that Ned is frankly gobsmacked that anyone would not trust him at once vindicates Varys’ recently-found trust in him and bodes ill for his future in King’s Landing. What both the Spider and the Master of Coin try to teach him is one-half of the X-Files’ dictum: Trust No One. (The “truth,” such as it is, remains pretty far Out There after five novels).
Nikki: You are so correct about the Littlefinger of the novels being more sympathetic than the Carcetti version. Like I said with Viserys, it’s the little details about their childhoods that make you look at them with a little more sympathy than we do on the show. There are no flashbacks to childhood in the HBO version, just the here and now. But hearing about his love for Catelyn, and how he followed her and her friends around like a little lapdog (and how they bullied him and laughed about his sadness in his face) really casts a sympathetic light on him. If a rather unsympathetic one on Catelyn…
We don’t get much of Daenerys in this section, just one check-in with her, but I really enjoyed it. Despite the gentleness of Khal Drogo on their wedding night, the scenes in this section are more in keeping with what we saw on the show, with her in extreme pain from riding the horse, and then having to be taken roughly by her husband every night whether she likes it or not (and generally it’s not). Just like on the show, she takes control and makes him face her when they’re making love, and you can tell how completely consumed by her he becomes in that moment, making everything we know will come later fall right into place. The scene where she humiliates Viserys is well played in the book, reminding me of the same scene on the series. Man, reading this is really making me want to watch season 1 again! ;)
We didn’t get much of a chance to talk about Tyrion last week, and I think we’ll probably get more of a chance to talk about him in next week’s segment, but I’m really enjoying reading his parts. I meant to mention a line that made me gasp in the first section because of how much I loved its poetry, and the line still fits in this section. As Tyrion turns to walk away from Jon Snow after pointing out the similarities between the two of them (both cast off by their fathers; one for being a dwarf, the other for being a bastard), GRRM writes, “And with that he turned and sauntered back into the feast, whistling a tune. When he opened the door, the light from within threw his shadow clear across the yard, and for just a moment Tyrion Lannister stood tall as a king.”
What a beautiful, beautiful line.
In this section he leaves behind Jon Snow and returns home to that fateful moment in the tavern, where Catelyn calls on her bannermen to nab him. It’s played almost exactly the same way as it was on the show, and yet GRRM handled the scene so deftly I still found myself worried and nervous about what was about to happen.
I know back when the show began, you expressed as much delight as the other fans in the choice of Peter Dinklage as Tyrion. In the book, he’s ugly and twisted and far more deformed than he is on TV, and yet I can imagine absolutely no one else. It’s Dinklage on every page where Tyrion appears. When you read it now, are you also picturing Dinklage or do you picture the original Tyrion in your head? How about the other characters?
Christopher: There’s a few discrepancies, to be certain. Dinklage is amazing as Tyrion, but Dinklage is also an exceptionally handsome man. The way Tyrion is described in the novels makes him out as a grotesque, and not just because of his height. The series makes it work, if for no other reason than we expect television to give us more attractive people on the screen than we encounter in normal life, but I do think we lose something of Tyrion’s characterization in the novels by having him portrayed as someone genuinely attractive.
In our episode recaps, I have frequently voiced my ambivalence about Lena Headey as Cersei, and part of that proceeds from her description in the novels. Headey’s performance has been really good—I don’t want to take anything away from her as an actress—but she emphasizes the icy dimension of Cersei and little of the sensuality we see in the novels. It occurred to me recently that Polly Walker, who played Atia of the Julii in Rome would have been ideal in this role: similarly aloof and cold when necessary, but always exuding a syrupy aura of sex. (By the same token, James Purefoy, who played Antony, would have made for a good Jaime … though you’d have had to bleach his entire body).
Aside from those quibbles, the casting on this show has been pretty much spot-on. It’s easy to gloss over those little discrepancies, like Joffrey’s shoulder-length curls. The Darcy Effect only really takes hold, for me, with the Stark children, especially Jon, Robb, and Arya. How about you?
Nikki: As much as I love Purefoy, I think the casting of Jaime Lannister is pretty much spot-on. Even when GRRM describes him the first time, it’s like he’s describing the actor playing him, not just the character in the book. And I haven’t seen enough of Cersei to comment on Lena Headey; she’s cold, that’s for sure, but I agree her character feels a little thin compared to the far more sensuous Cersei in the book. But I’m looking forward to more of her.
The last character is Jon Snow. We get introduced to Samwell Tarly, one of my favourite characters on the show, and while the Sam of the book seems to be even fatter, I think John Bradley plays him wonderfully on the show. Much like it plays out on the show, Jon comes to Sam’s rescue against the bullies on the Wall, and slowly earns the respect (or fear) of those around him by using his cunning. In the books as well as on the show, Jon certainly comes off as the “Stark” who is the smartest of the bunch, save for Arya, perhaps.
And that’s it for week 2!
Next week: Part Three: 324-488 mass market; 272-408 trade paperback (starting with TYRION "As he stood in the predawn chill...")

Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Walking Dead 4.06: Live Bait

Welcome back to our weekly recaps of “The Walking Dead” with your host, the inimitable Nikki Stafford, and her long-haired, true-bearded, two-eyed sidekick Josh Winstead. Grab a pepperoni stick and settle in, folks. This is a weird one.

Joshua: Let me say this right up front: Philip Blake is not a nice guy. Not at all. Look, even horrid savage lunatics do nice things sometimes. Saddam Hussein penned romance novels. Charles Manson writes silly love songs on the guitar. Maybe Adolph Hitler baked awesome chocolate chip cookies; I don't know. What I do know is that small acts of kindness do not negate torture and mass murder. Playing on our sympathies is one thing, but if the writers are attempting to redeem The Governor and his multifold transgressions with this new take on the character, here's one guy who ain't buying.

This week's episode temporarily abandons the prison storyline to instead pick up right where we last left the aforementioned patch-wearing sociopath in season three's finale, immediately following the coldblooded slaughter of all but two of his own troops in a snarling frenzy reminiscent of nothing more than a six-year-old's temper tantrum, provided you replace the petulant screaming and stomping with a hail of bullets. We are then treated to a lengthy montage of then-to-now, beginning with The Governor's abandonment by those last two men (no surprise there) and progressing through his destruction of Woodbury by fire and the subsequent months he spent wandering alone through the apocalyptic landscape, sidestepping conflict and cultivating the worst tv beard since Jack Shephard's season 4 special. As the sequence plays, it is accompanied by voiceover of a conversation between Philip and an unknown female as he selectively recounts his story, certain to gloss over pertinent details like “...then I bit off several of his fingers and spat them in his face...” or “...then I bound and tortured my girlfriend, stabbed my most faithful assistant several times, and left them both to die...” and the like, careful to make it all sound like such a terrible, typical tragedy.

Also accompanying the montage is Ben Nichols' song “The Last Pale Light in the West,” a melancholy acoustic number inspired by Cormac McCarthy's horror novel Blood Meridian. I call it a horror novel not because it fits the typical description of the genre or because that's where you'd find shelved it in your local library, but because it might be the single most horrific thing I've ever read, a relentless catalog of brutality in which every character is a vile, reprehensible beast and the primary antagonist is basically a physical manifestation of mankind's tendency toward war.

I don't think the choice was incidental, particularly in light of the later discussion between “Brian” and young Meghan as he prepares to teach her to play chess. She picks up a pawn and inquires about its function.

“They're your soldiers,” he says.

“Do they die?”


“Do you lose if they die?”

“No, not necessarily,” he tells her. “You can lose a lot of soldiers and still win the game.”

We as viewers are certainly not meant to forget what he's done, and it's obvious that he hasn't forgotten either. But are we meant to believe that he's penitent? Because nothing he said, and nothing I saw, would seem to indicate remorsefulness to me. Simply moving on isn't the same as being made new.

Nikki, what's your take on the strange and unexpected trajectory of this year's Governor?

Nikki: Well, as we both know, the Governor dies in the comic books in the great prison war we saw at the end of the previous season, so at this point the writers can do whatever the hell they want with the character. And I’m wondering if they’re going to use him to present someone on the long, difficult road to redemption. I agree with you that horrible people can do wonderful things, but it doesn’t make them good. But what if someone has committed the worst atrocities possible (not enough room here to list them all), has hit his lowest possible point (losing Penny), has lost his will to live (he appeared to be wandering through the first 10 minutes of this episode just walking until he dropped), and has given up? Is it possible for him to have a revelation and begin the slow road to redemption?

The clues are subtle: he doesn’t speak for the longest time. He hands over his gun rather than trying to come up with a cunning, sneaky way to hide one so he can kill them all in their sleep, deprive the old man of his oxygen tank and steal the little girl and name her Penny. This is Philip we’re talking about, after all: he could do all of that with a patch over his other eye. He shuffles into the room and helps with the washing, and lifting Grandpa into bed, and when he’s had his fill of these people (and who wouldn’t… come on, Phil, couldn’t we have had a tiny Guvnah moment while you took down Tara, just to put all of us out of our misery?), he tries to get away, but they ask him to do one more favour for them. And he does. He doesn’t have any ties to them, he couldn’t give a rat’s if they lived or died. We watched him kill people he did have ties to, without a moment’s hesitation, and yet here he’s actually helping people where it doesn’t do anything for him in return. They’ve stripped him of all his rights — Lily constantly just walks into his apartment without so much as giving a brief knock first. Just throws open the door and wanders right in, looking at his personal photos, invading his privacy, when they’re squatting just as much as he is. They order him around. Tara keeps holding a gun in his face. He ingratiates himself to Meghan but they still treat him like dirt. They keep thanking him for doing things for them while continuing to order them around, and even when they do something nice, like give him something for the road, she throws it at him when he doesn’t want to take it from her. (His plea for her to not throw the gun at him was very funny in that moment.)

But, like him, they’ve hit the end of their rope. Dad is dying. The little girl has seen too much tragedy. They’re all alone, their nerves are frayed, and they’ve probably been taken advantage of one too many times to trust anyone, especially a homeless-looking guy who won’t speak.

And in the midst of their mistreatment of him, he never fights back, never once loses it, never uses the gun he found on the guy upstairs in the bathtub. He’s humbled, he’s weak, he’s subservient, and he’s given up. He does what they tell him to do, nothing more, nothing less. When he goes to the nursing home, he’s so destroyed by what he saw happen to Penny that he can’t take out any of the walkers coming after him. He could have easily and handily gotten rid of them in seconds, but instead he dodges them, shoots randomly into the air, and runs like a scared child holding only two of the 10 oxygen tanks.

And then he has a conversation with Meghan, and for the first time in months, he chuckles at something she says. He finds somewhere deep inside himself, he’s still a father. And maybe he can help this little girl. Penny’s gone, but this little girl is real, right in front of him. He cleans up, begins hanging out with the sisters, and starts to become part of the family.

And then Gramps dies. When he goes to town on Gramps’ head, it’s the final burden he sloughs off. He finally recognizes that the biters aren’t the people they once were. While Meghan is traumatized for life at the sight of the Gov flattening her Grandpa’s face into the bed, Philip has to do this. After that, he stops being passive, and begins taking charge, taking action. He’s intimate with Lily, has friendly conversations with Tara, and becomes a second father to Meghan.

Could he snap again? Absolutely. But I’m really intrigued at the prospect that the writers might be trying to redeem this character, the maniacal serial killer who was once the Governor. This episode unfurled very slowly, like a play (I’d have to check it again, but other than the Nichols song, I don’t recall any non-diegetic music, and instead just stage noise in every scene), and they showed the very slow, subtle changes in this man. He’s back in action, and has three females following him at this point. Is this a new beginning in a new direction, or just starting over to build up the same group of loyal followers so he can lead them to their doom?

Joshua: I think it's impossible to tell just yet. With the abrupt way the episode ended, it felt very much to me like the first installment of a two-part presentation. It's clear that only in his imminent dealings with Martinez and whatever crew of miscreants he's aligned with since abandoning Philip will we learn what's really going on behind that eyepatch of his. And you're right – redemption isn't unthinkable. Just highly unlikely, in my opinion. It's hard for me to forget that The Governor didn't simply grow to become a lunatic over time, after enduring terrible circumstances and suffering through. Our introduction to the man involved the ambushed slaying of numerous National Guard members for their gear and supplies, after which the one guy who survives is kept alive just long enough to pump for information before being beheaded – BEHEADED – and his severed head added to Phil's bubbling trophy case. The one he stares at while kicked back in a lounger, leisurely drinking scotch. And then? He gets progressively worse. Worse. Than beheading dudes and keeping the heads as undead aquarium fish. That is not the kind of crazy that simply goes away.

That said, I believe the biggest problem I have is less about the notion of his redemption itself and more with the cursory way it's been handled so far. Perhaps I could more easily accept a radical shift in gears like the one I assume they want us to swallow here if it were built up over the course of several episodes. As it stands, everything's just much too tidy for my taste. I can see plausibility in the concept that he would try to be different, try to be better. And as you said, just the fact that he's trying at all is intriguing, an obvious allusion to the idea that he wasn't always nuts, back before the show's chronology intersected with his own. They certainly hit the photo moments hard enough to telegraph such sentiment. But it seems odd that he would fold himself out of the image if he were feeling nostalgic for who he once was more so than what he once had. Meghan is a blatant dead ringer (excuse the phrase) for Penny, and I got the impression that this is all much more about her, and the promise of being a father again, than it is about him, and the promise of being a good person.

There's a great moment during that final scene when he and Meghan fall down into the pit. For the rest of the sequence, we never again see what's going on outside, up above. It's a fascinating choice because it means that when we begin to hear the sounds of automatic gunfire, it's impossible to tell if it is actually happening (as Lily and Tara had no such weapons, and we don't yet know that Martinez and his gang have arrived) or if instead The Governor is merely hearing it in his head, flashing back to the butchery of his troops as he goes full primitive on the biters threatening Meghan. And boy, does he snap down there – ripping one's spine out through its throat, punching through another's skull with his bare fist, and finally tearing the top of the last one's head clean off, like he was popping the tab on a can of peanuts. I don't know about you guys, but that sure looked like the same old Philip Blake to me.

However, despite my narrative problems with it and the qualms I have with the idea of summarily excusing The Governor's previous psychoses, I still thought it was a terrific episode. It was filled with great images and nice touches, from that wide shot of Woodbury burning as walkers shuffled down its streets, to the white barn with all the messages spraypainted across its face like a big roadside dry erase board, to the pillow on the couch of the apartment where Blake holes up, embroidered with the legend 'This Too Shall Pass,' to Meghan adding the eye patch onto the chess king with magic marker. It's hard to quibble too much when the end result is so entertaining. What did you think of the episode overall, Nik?

Nikki: I LOVED the episode. I’ll pretty much watch anything with David Morrissey in it (so I’ll admit in the longterm I’m happy they diverged from the book with his character) and I’ll take him evil, good, or in between. He’s a mesmerizing actor, and did a brilliant job in this episode.

And you’re right; whether Philip can become Brian or will revert to the Governor remains to be seen, and could be quite a tension builder in episodes to come. I agree that this will definitely be a two-parter, especially since episode 5 ended with him sitting just outside the prison. We need Philip’s story to end at the prison (where, unfortunately, he appeared to be alone). If something happens to the women and Meghan, then I could see him turning into the Governor again. But if he can keep them safe and find a way to be a good guy only with them, then maybe he’s at the prison not as a threat, necessarily, but as penance. A stretch, but The Walking Dead is full of them. I mean, back in season 1, who would have foreseen Carol becoming a knife-wielding badass?

I thought it was interesting that Philip burned the photo of Penny. Yes, she’s gone, and the monster that invaded her body is also gone, care of Michonne, but why burn her picture? That’s a picture of his family when he was a good guy, before he’d done terrible things. First he folds the photo over so you can’t see him in the photo, as if he can’t bear to look at the happy family man he once was. Then he burns the photo, saying goodbye once and for all to any tangible evidence that he was once a part of a stable, happy family unit, rather than the broken shell of a thing he is now, with large-scale massacres in his background rather than Sunday dinners and birthday parties.

I do think his goodness/badness will all rest on Meghan. If he fails to keep her safe, he’ll turn into the Governor again. But until then, he’ll do his best to be Brian.

What did you make of the characterization of Tara and Lily?

Joshua: Tara and Lily weren't incredibly distinctive characters (and the actress who plays Lily looks so much like Lauren Cohan that it drove me to distraction, as my eyes were constantly fooled into thinking that Maggie had somehow entered the scene), but they were both very plausible, and I think that's more important. Tara was textbook tomboy tough, all surly posturing in an effort to mask her own fear, but she did it well, and her attitude made for some fun exchanges (“...I have enough ammo in here to kill you every day for the next ten years...” was a particular favorite). In fact, when she hurt her ankle near episode's end, I found myself genuinely concerned she might not make it, which is quite a feat in such a short amount of time, and on a show where death is so ever-present that you come to assume any new characters won't last long.

Lily is a bit more of a blank slate, with nothing particularly unique about her and really no definition at all save a brief clich├ęd backstory, but again, I think it was just right for the purpose she serves. In both cases, their commonality allows for an easy realism in their relationships, but with Lily in particular, that generic quality provides the perfect empty onto which Philip can project his desires – for a family, for a lover, for a fresh start, a new place to call home. Though I'm still unsure why they chose to leave the apartment building that had kept them safely sheltered for so long, I suppose it was necessary to get the plot moving in the right direction, and I'm willing to concede such breaks in logic as the price of sustaining a lengthy narrative, so long as they're infrequent, and provided the payoff makes it all worthwhile.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this left turn away from my expectations. Despite my skepticism regarding the circumstances, I must admit that I find myself much more engaged by the continuing saga of The Governor than I ever could have predicted a few weeks ago. Now it's up to the writers to bring it all home.

Nikki: I couldn’t more on Lily looking so much like Maggie! I kept doing exactly the same thing. It was uncanny. I didn’t like Tara at all, though, and have to say that in the dark, in the back of the truck, at first I thought that was Tara turning to Philip and that Lily was the one curled up with Meghan in the corner, and I thought, “No, no, no…” before realizing it was Lily. (But, um… awkward next to sister and child? Hm…) And when Tara twisted her ankle I was rather hoping that would make her quicker zombie bait. So I guess you and I diverge a wee bit there. ;)

But yes, I love the Governor side story, and hope we stick with it for at least one more week before returning to the prison. Although I have to mention one major nitpick in the episode: they lecture Grandpa about smoking around his oxygen tanks, yet they have kerosene lamps everywhere in the apartment, including one RIGHT next to the tank! You can’t have a kerosene lamp within about five or 10 feet of an oxygen tank, so that struck me as mighty strange, especially after the words in the script that talk about the dangers of flames next to the tanks. But we’ll just let that one go.

On to next week, where good ol’ One Eye continues his saga all the way to the prison.