“Game of Thrones” Season 8 (2019) was a Greek tragedy. And I’m fine with that.

I’ve read and heard so many of the popular complaints about Season 8 of “Game of Thrones.”  Most of them are understandable.  A couple I agree with.  But I’m not on board with panning this six-episode final season.  Even with my own reservations about it, I still loved enough to rate it a 10 out of 10.

By far and away, of course, the part of Season 8 that has people up in arms is a major story development in its final two episodes.  (You almost certainly know what it is; because fans are complaining about it everywhere.  I’m not sure why I am trying so hard to keep this review spoiler-free.)  It was a bombshell, and it was damned saddening, and even I’ll admit that it affected my enjoyment of everything that transpired until the credits rolled for the last time.

But I made peace with it quickly.  (Granted, the character who figured the most prominently here was not my favorite, so it was a little easier for me to do so.)

I think it boils down to a matter of taste — specifically what you wanted out of “Game of Thrones.”  I like tragedies.  I love pathos in stories, whether they’re books, movies or television shows.  Stories that end badly aren’t bad stories.  One of the things that excited me about “Game of Thrones” since its second season was how it so often took the traditional elements of fantasy and fairy tales and turned them on their head with a brutal, unexpected (yet reasonable) conclusion to a story arc.  (I wasn’t fanatical about the show during Season 1, which overwhelmed me with exposition and plotting.)

The show has always tried to give us stories that were complex or ambiguous in terms of character, theme, setting and resolution.  One of the things that I tell people who have never watched the show is this — it is almost never as simple as “the good guys vs. the bad guys.”  Instead, it parallels human interaction in the real world — there are disparate groups and individuals fighting and aiding one another out of self-interest or philosophy.  The character turns and story turns that we saw in the last two episodes … somewhat parallel what we’ve seen in and heard on this show before.  As Ramsay Bolton said back in Season 3, “If you think this has a happy ending, you haven’t been paying attention.”

“Game of Thrones” was a Greek tragedy.  This last season’s classical plot resolution was arguably perfect for the show’s sweeping fantasy epic masterpiece.  The ending didn’t make me happy.  But it impressed me and affected me and made me think.  This was a fantasy show for adults.  It was an edgier, less predictable, more provocative alternative to “The Lord of the Rings” in all of that epic’s incarnations.  I far prefer the ending I saw to a pandering, cookie-cutter “happily ever after.”

And the show has indeed hinted at the outcomes we see in the final two episodes.  It’s been doing so for years, not just with major events but also with obvious dialogue.  I kept asking one other fan in particular, “Are you seeing what I’m seeing?”  But he didn’t.  Maybe a lot of fans didn’t.

If you tell me that a certain character decision was made too abruptly, with insufficient buildup, I hear you.  But, in the real world, I’m inclined to think that the internal processes we witness in the penultimate episode are often completely invisible.

If I had any complaints about Season 8, they lay elsewhere.  I simply cannot understand why this was six episodes instead of 10.  The two major battles we see each occupy one episode.  Why?  Even with a longer running time for each episode, this season felt rushed and truncated.  It still bothers me, even as I write this.

I had the same quibble as everyone else about the Battle of Winterfell being difficult to follow, but I’m willing to accept that this was a deliberate stylistic choice.  (And although I loved both major battles this season, I think the show’s three prior major land engagements were superior.  The Massacre at Hardhome, the Battle of the Bastards and the Attack on the Rose Road were all so well choreographed and scored that they were just too difficult to surpass.)  I even had my own disappointments for the outcomes we see for various characters.

I consequently almost rated the eighth season a 9 out of 10, instead of a perfect 10.  But I couldn’t.  I loved Season 8 too much.  It wasn’t perfect, but it was … still so damned riveting and enjoyable.  It was still “Game of Thrones,” with all of the attention to story and detail and performances that I’d come to love.  It was still the best thing on television.

 

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A short review of “Bad Samaritan” (2018)

As I believe I may have mentioned, I have a love-hate relationship with David Tennant’s onscreen performances.  I find him inexplicably, positively grating whenever he plays a protagonist.  (See 2011’s “Fright Might” remake, or his cringe-inducing stint as “Doctor Who.”)  But it seems to me that the man is absolutely fantastic when he plays a bad guy.  (See his frightening and hilarious role as Kilgrave the first season of “Jessica Jones” in 2015.)

“Bad Samaritan” (2018) thankfully presents us with the latter Tennant.  He musters an intensity with his eyes and his voice that are incongruous counterpoints to his innocent-looking face, and this makes him a damned good antagonist in a thriller.  (He is a highly organized, sociopathic kidnapper in this film.  I don’t think that’s much of a spoiler, as all of the film’s marketing make it clear.)  He’s a hell of a lot of fun to watch — and listen to.

With that said, “Bad Samaritan” is an average movie — not altogether bad, but not awesomely good, either.  (I suppose I’d rate it a 7 out of 10.)  It benefits a lot from another very good actor in Robert Sheehan as its anti-heroic young protagonist.  (The plot setup here is interesting — a mild-mannered burglar discovers a psychopath’s captive while in his house, then struggles with how he can help the terrified victim of a far worse criminal than he is.)  The movie’s biggest sin seems to be that it borrows heavily from comparable genre-defining works from the likes of Thomas Harris and James Patterson.  But it’s still an enjoyable enough movie in its own right.

There’s someone else here that’s great fun to watch too — Kerry Condon as the kidnapee.  Her voice is amazing, and she’s a superb actress; I think she’s strong enough to carry another movie like this.  I just knew she looked familiar … it turns out she played Clara, the really weird woman that Rick found in the woods during Season 3 of “The Walking Dead.”  (He asks her the show’s signature “three questions.”)

She is also to voice of F.R.I.D.A.Y., Tony Stark’s on-board A.I. in several of Marvel’s “Avengers” movies.  Didn’t see that one coming.  Weird world.

 

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A short review of “Black Mirror” Season 3

“Black Mirror” (2011) remains the best science fiction show on television; I’d rate the six-episode third season a perfect 10.  The show continues to succeed at every level with its story concepts and their execution.  And I think it’s actually getting better.

It’s getting darker and harder hitting, too.  I’d guess that this season’s blackmailing-hackers episode (“Shut Up and Dance”) would be the one that the majority of viewers find the most disturbing.  For some reason, the man-vs.-monster story of “Men Against Fire” is the one that really got under my skin.

I was surprised to learn that nearly all of “Black Mirror’s” episodes are penned by series creator Charlie Brooker.  I’m still surprised at how many clever ideas and lean, smart scripts could spring from one writer.  I was so impressed that I looked Brooker up on Wikipedia — but was surprised to discover I’m unfamiliar with nearly all of his other work.  The one exception is “Dead Set” (2008) — the truly fantastic British zombie horror miniseries that I’ve been recommending to friends for ages.  That makes sense.

Anyway, I am fully and happily converted to “Black Mirror’s” cult following, and I enthusiastically recommend it to people who ask about it.  (The show’s popularity is still growing — I believe it appeals to the same kind of fans as those who flocked to the various iterations of “The Twilight Zone” and “The Outer Limits” of generations past.)  But I might actually suggest that newcomers begin with the second or third season, rather than the first.  Season 1 is terrific, but it’s three episodes are more subtle and thematic, while the latter seasons follow a more conventional story structure that might better appeal to more mainstream audiences.  (They have more satisfying twists and emotional payoffs, too.)

And a quick caveat — I’ll reiterate that this show is indeed dark.  There is a strictly human element to most of “Black Mirror’s” twists that is intended to surprise the viewer by provoking anxiety or dread.  For a show that relies on technological story devices, it succeeds even more with its old fashioned psychological horror.

 

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A few quick words on “Fear the Walking Dead” Season 3 (2017)

For my money, “Fear the Walking Dead” is the best zombie show on television.  Yes, it has its share of stupid parts — sometimes the writers seem to throw in some incredibly implausible story points only to test viewers’ credulity.  (My favorite this season was the occupants of a heavy truck throwing a beeping keychain from a horde-infested highway — the zombies are attracted to the sound of the keychain, but not the rumble and movement of the truck that sneaks past them.)

On other levels, “Fear the Walking Dead” can be a relatively smart show — at least more so than its more famous progenitor, “The Walking Dead.”  I’m talking about being smart in terms of character, dialogue and themes.  Sometimes I think of it as “The Walking Dead for Grownups.”  The characters are … often more three-dimensional and compelling than their counterparts on the flagship show.  Not being based on a comic series, they’re not bound by the medium’s character tropes, the way that Rick Grimes and company always seem so inescapably tethered.   They feel more like real people, and not the disposable inhabitants of Robert Kirkman’s (admittedly excellent) comic series.   That makes the show scarier, because the characters are more identifiable.

The dialogue and story logistics are far more thoughtful.  The stories themselves are more expansive, more quickly paced and farther reaching.  Consider the three major locales covered this season — the ranch, the dam and the bazaar.  Two out of three of those settings are explored in depth — along with the characters inhabiting them. (I’d like to see more of that bazaar.)  Now consider how slowly “The Walking Dead’s” major plot-lines move.  It would take the latter at least three seasons to cover the major stories covered in a single season of “Fear the Walking Dead.”

I know this show has its share of detractors, but I’d rate Season 3 a 9 out of 10.

 

 

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A short review of the Season 3 premiere of “The Strain.”

“The Strain” is zany, over-the-top, serialized comic book horror that often veers too close to high camp.  I keep waiting for either “South Park” of “Family Guy” to lampoon it.  It’s  sometimes pretty brainless, and it often seems like the product of a group of hyperactive 14 year old boys sitting down to imagine a vampire apocalypse.

But what the hell?  The damn thing works.  It isn’t as smart or as grown up as the moody “The Walking Dead,” “Fear the Walking Dead” or “Stranger Things.”  But it’s got a fast pace, a kinetic energy and an unpredictability that all of those shows lack.  It’s just … more fun.  I’d be lying if I said I didn’t love it.  And, as my interest in slow-moving zombie dramas starts to wane, this might become my favorite horror show currently on television.

It’s damned ambitious.  The writers here desperately want to show a full scale monster armageddon, and they don’t seem to care much that they’ve got a limited budget or a finite number of extras.  (We are told, now, that the vampire plague is spreading throughout the country, and is no longer confined to New York City.)

And it’s still scary.  Guillermo del Toro’s screeching, leopard-fast vampire baddies are still unnerving.  They’re goddam albino apex predators and they’re repulsive.  And I think their appeal is surprising after two seasons of audience exposure.  I predicted a while back that this show’s horror elements would lose their momentum, and I’ve pleasantly been proven wrong.  (Hey, if you’re a horror fan who loves monsters, you eventually crave story antagonists other than doomed, pitiful zombies.)

Last night’s Season 3 premiere offered little that was new.  But it did offer Navy Seals fighting vampires in the NYC sewers, and that was frikkin’ sweet.  I’d give it a 9 out of 10.

 

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