I’m throwing off the usual monthly format of these TV reviews to keep up with coverage of Game of Thrones. This time: the Battle of Winterfell and its aftermath. Next time: the series finale!
Also this fortnight: new BBC fantasy sitcom Ghosts, the first (sort of) episode of Columbo, the latest editions of Mark Kermode’s Secrets of Cinema and Thronecast, and more of the best tales from The Twilight Zone.
Game of Thrones Season 8 Episodes 3-4
Almost two years ago, just hours after Game of Thrones’ seventh season finale aired, I tweeted the following:
“Crazy(?) Game of Thrones s8 prediction: army of the dead defeated in ep2 or 3; humans return to bickering amongst themselves for 3 or 4 eps.”
Well, reader, I’ve been feeling a bit smug for the past couple of weeks, I must admit. It was quite widely known that the big battle between the living and the dead at Winterfell was coming in episode three, but it seemed like a lot of people expected it to be a victory for the Night King, with a retreat to King’s Landing in order for the final battle to happen later. I suspected differently, and I was right. That a lot of people didn’t suspect that and were consequently outraged that the Night King and his army could be defeated so ‘early’… ugh, let’s not get into that. Other than to say: this has always been a show (a) more concerned with the politicking of humans than supernatural threats, and (b) that zigs when you expect it to zag (or does neither, if your name’s Rickon). And further to that, we’re only three episodes from the end of a 73-episode story — in percentage terms, these final few episodes are kinda the epilogue; they’re about what happens after The Great War is over.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The Long Night itself was… well, it was an interesting choice of episode title, firstly, considering the Long Night is already an event in Westeros’ history and is rumoured to be the title of the in-production spin-off series. (It also sent Wikipedia editors into a tizzy, but what else is new?) More pertinent controversy was found in the way the episode was shot, i.e. very dark. Too dark for a lot of people to see, in fact. Many blamed the cinematographer, but it seems to me it was more likely HBO’s compression wiping out detail in the blacks — many other viewers who watched the episode from higher-quality sources (including myself) found no problem seeing it on correctly-calibrated televisions. And, when watching a decent copy in good viewing conditions, much of it actually looked spectacular — the darkness was effective for conveying the scariness of the events being witnessed, and it was punctuated with some beautiful moments from firelight or moonlight.
Content-wise, the episode was one long battle — the longest ever in film or TV history, apparently. More isn’t always more, mind. While I didn’t find it boring or drawn-out, it also wasn’t perfect. The battle tactics left a lot to be desired, something spotted by lay-viewers, never mind the “how it should’ve been done” articles by professional military tacticians that followed the broadcast. And the way things played out, a lot more deaths were warranted. Quite a few key characters did fall, and even more faceless masses, but the way it was staged made it a miracle that so many people escaped unscathed. There are three episodes left — you need characters to fuel the story, and major characters left to be sacrificed later too — but that doesn’t mean you have to stage it so everyone effects an improbable escape. There’s a balance to be found between “it looks like they’re all about to die” and “it seems literally impossible everyone would’ve survived those last-minute odds”. But hey, this isn’t the first time the show has succumbed to this, and there was a lot else to like: lots of effective individual sequences within the battle, great callbacks to previous lines and events, some heroic sacrifices, and a perfect ending. (I’m really not going to talk about some dickheads’ reaction to that.)
So, with the presumed Big Bad defeated with three feature-length episodes still to go, next week’s The Last of the Starks was tasked with both showing the aftermath of the battle and charting a course into the series’ endgame. As it turned out, it was much more than that, with major events all of its own. This is where the reduced episode count rears its ugly head for me because, much like in season seven, I feel like they’re rushing certain events just for the sake of getting the series finished, not because it merits a picking up of the pace. There were things in episode four that felt glossed over or skipped past; things which merited a bit more time and focus. If anything, this felt like two episodes glued together — and out of the three 80-minute episodes the show has now done (the other being the season seven finale), I’ve felt that way about two of them. Why not add another 15 to 20 minutes of scenes and split this episode in two? It wouldn’t be unnecessary padding because, as I said, there was a load of stuff just raced past. I wanted to see Arya and Sansa’s immediate reaction to the news about Jon; and Tyrion’s, for that matter. I felt like there was a lot more to be done with Missandei’s storyline this episode — in my imagined two-part version, she would’ve been captured at the end of the first episode and there’d be scenes between her and Cersei before her ending. And, yeah, I wouldn’t’ve minded seeing Jon say goodbye to Ghost properly (a massive topic of discussion on social media this week).
It’s frustrating because I liked the tone of the episode overall — as I said, the return to human conflict and schemes; also a lot of the individual scenes between characters and so on. But it needs more room to breathe. It’s especially galling after the exceptionally spacious first two episodes this season, which did exactly that. They’ve said these last two seasons have fewer episodes because of the time and money needed to film the massive battle sequences, but that’s a thin excuse. It’s clear HBO would’ve given them however much money they asked for, and allow them however much time they needed — we’ve had to wait almost two years for this final season, remember. So it doesn’t seem so ridiculous to think that this episode (and, as I said, last season’s finale) could’ve had another chunk of scenes added (which would’ve ‘just’ been characters talking, really) and been split in two. I don’t care about raising the overall episode count (though that doesn’t hurt), I just care about giving these characters and storylines their due.
Well, I guess it is what is now, but it’s a shame. Hopefully the final two episodes can bring things to a good conclusion — not necessarily a joyous one, because this is Game of Thrones after all, but one that feels suitable and satisfying. Based on the show’s current track record, I’m worried I’ll approve of where it ends up but think it was too hurried getting there. It feels like there should be more than a mere two episodes left to wrap all this up.
Ghosts Series 1 Episodes 1-3
This new sitcom from the writing and performing troupe behind the original TV iteration of Horrible Histories and the Sky One fantasy comedy Yonderland is pitched as a more adult-focused series, but it’s not exactly 18-rated stuff, just a little cheekier than they might’ve done before. Anyway, it’s about a young couple who inherit a crumbling old mansion, which is home to the ghosts of various people who’ve died there down the centuries. As the couple attempt to make a life for themselves and restore the place on a budget of nothing, the ghosts cause various issues, while also having problems of their own — turns out being dead isn’t the end of your emotional woes. I wouldn’t say Ghosts is the most hilarious sitcom you’ve ever seen, but it has a definite charm. It also surprises with genuine emotion, particularly in the third episode, where we learn about the death and family of one of the more recent ghosts.
Columbo Murder by the Book
I’ve never seen Columbo before, and despite this being the first episode (er, kind of — I believe it was preceded by two other pilots) this isn’t the start of me watching it regularly. No, I watched this for one simple reason: the director was a certain Mr Steven Spielberg, in his pre-movie days when he directed a handful of TV episodes. Unsurprisingly, such an early work contains little about its style that screams “Spielberg”, but it’s still a classily staged production, with a lot more going for its visuals than the point-and-shoot style we associate with old TV. The story’s not a bad one either, about a crime novelist who murders his co-writer following the methodology from an unused plot. He thinks he’s a clever bugger who’s got away with it easily, but Columbo seems to see through him right from the start. Well, I’m not sure dumping the corpse on your own front lawn is the best way to go about claiming “it wasn’t me.”
The Twilight Zone ‘Best Of’
With still no sign of the new Twilight Zone making its way to a UK platform, here’s another selection of some of the best episodes of the original 1959-64 series, as determined by cross-referencing the opinions of IMDb voters and an article I happened to stumble across on Screen Crush. (My previous such overviews can be found here and here.)
First up, season one’s The Hitch-Hiker is another Twilight Zone tale where we can’t be sure if the protagonist is experiencing paranoia or the supernatural — undoubtedly a recurring theme for the series, almost to the point where it’s less a “theme” more just a fact of its format. Anyway, this particular reiteration is effectively unnerving, with a scenario that’s relatable — you can just imagine how it would feel if you kept seeing the same hitchhiker by the side of the road, always somehow ahead of you, always staring at you with a despondent look… it gives me chills just thinking about it. Director Alvin Ganzer gets good mileage out of that element too, creating some effective shocks. Aside from that the execution isn’t top notch though, with Rod Serling seeming to have taken too much inspiration from the original radio play (by Lucille Fletcher) in his inclusion of some over-explanatory narration. The trademark twist ending is both altogether guessable for the savvy viewer, but also doesn’t really explain a whole lot.
Two from season two next, including another of the series’ most famous episodes, Eye of the Beholder (spookily, it’s referenced in Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some!!, which I happened to watch last night). It’s an episode with a message, but that feels a long while coming because most of the episode clues you in to where the twist is coming from thanks to how it’s shot. Anyway, it’s a commentary on appearances and the segregation of otherness; that the enforcement of “normality”, of conformity, isn’t good. Here it’s being enacted by some totalitarian state, but that’s just a firm example for the sake of analogy — society does it anyway in our real world. The twist ending underscores this point by adding that normality, or beauty, or whatever you want to call it, is all relative anyway. It’s a worthwhile message, but even at a short 25 minutes parts of the episode felt padded.
I was more taken with Nick of Time, written by the reliably superb Richard Matheson. Starring William Shatner as a superstitious honeymooner, it’s a neat little tale about a cheap fortune telling machine that might actually predict the future. As well as a genre tale about the perils such a machine might pose, it’s really about superstition and belief in fate vs. self determination — a strong moral life lesson bundled in a quirky supernatural fable. That’s Twilight Zone at its best, really. Similarly, season five’s Living Doll is another of the series’ most genuinely unnerving episodes. Telly Savalas stars as a man whose own insecurities make him paranoid and abusive towards his wife and stepdaughter. When the kid gets a new talking doll, it begins to taunt and threaten him, but only when no one else is around to hear. Again, it’s very creepy, but has a point to make beyond that.
Finally for now, it’s back to season two for The Obsolete Man. As I mentioned at the start, I’ve been using two different “best of” lists to guide my Twilight Zone viewing, and this is the biggest disagreement between them thus far (though there are 18 other episodes with bigger differences, so it’s all relative). Whereas IMDb’s consensus-voted opinion says this is the 10th best of all 156 episodes, Screen Crush only ranks it in the middle of the list, at 68th. It’s an initially simple story about the evil and cowardice of totalitarianism: in the opening scene, a man is sentenced to death for being of no use to a fascist regime. However, he has a cunning little plan up his sleeve. As a drama it’s clearly born of an era that was still directly reacting to Hitler and Stalin, but it’s all the more pertinent today as Western societies tip dangerously towards the kind of horrendous ideologies we used to fight, blithely ignorant of the lessons of history. Many Twilight Zone episodes have aged in the sense that the narratives can seem straightforward and guessable to the modern viewer (thanks to endless imitation and our exposure to more stories of this type), but the moral lessons remain depressingly relevant over half a century later.
Mark Kermode’s Secrets of Cinema Disaster Movies — Another one-off edition for this excellent series, a Bank Holiday special about that old staple of Bank Holiday TV schedules. Kermode (plus co-writer Kim Newman) is as insightful as ever about the similarities and connections between these movies across the decades. I hope we get another full series, but if it’s set to continue only as occasional specials, well, that’s good too.
Thronecast Series 8 Episodes 3-4 — I don’t know if the booker got better or just got lucky, but this picked up considerably with some improved guests. Not that I disliked the people on the first two episodes, but the ones here seemed more knowledgeable and chattier. Episode 4 was particularly good. Fingers crossed the final two editions are equally worthwhile post-episode viewing.
Things to Catch Up On
This fortnight, I have mostly been missing the fourth season of Lucifer, which just returned as a Netflix exclusive. I’ve not watched season three yet, though, so that’ll be a little while off. I’ve also successfully managed to avoid any spoilers about Line of Duty’s recently-concluded series (touch wood). I’ve got a plan to binge it in a few weeks’ time (so, not in my next TV roundup, but should be the one after) — hopefully nothing will blow its secrets between now and then!
Next fortnight… at the end of Game of Thrones, you win or you die.