Any series built around the outsize talents of Peter Dinklage can't be accused of ignoring the little people. And yet, in its devotion to the maneuverings of the rich and powerful, Game of Thrones occasionally overlooks the plight of its pawns. Over the course of these three seasons, we've become wildly intimate with those jockeying for control of Westeros — the Kingslayers and Queens, the Lords of Light and the smoke-filled ladies who attend to them — but spent precious little time with the ordinary people who actually have to live in such a gods-forsaken place. This focus is understandable — with only 10 hours per season to service what can feel like 10 times as many characters, it sometimes feels as if David Benioff and D.B. Weiss are forced to sacrifice the depth of George R.R. Martin's novels in order to have any chance at all of communicating their scope — and it's also a key part of the storytelling: As last night's gruesome opening demonstrated, an entire army can go from the celebratory roasting of meats to getting barbecued in a matter of seconds. (In their world, as in ours, the fate of those who live in tents is all too often decided by those who operate behind closed doors.) But the cruelly unsentimental fantasy-kingdom realpolitik of Game of Thrones, while plenty admirable, isn't enough to consistently fuel the kind of fandom the show has earned. Call me old-fashioned, but it takes more than the shocking deaths of powerful, seemingly untouchable people to keep me interested. I occasionally need to be reminded just what it is they all felt was worth dying for.
Happily, the broad and bracing "Mhysa" helped provide an answer. The motivation for Westerosi, high and lowborn alike, is the same thing that fuels big dreams and bigger alcohol consumption in our own realm: family.
"You're very kind," says the Hound to Arya, in between bites of pickled pig trotter. "Someday it'll get you killed." If ever there were words to live by — or, more likely, the opposite — in Westeros, it's these. From day one, Game of Thrones presented the Stark family as the heroic moral compass of its endlessly twisting narrative. Unlike the conniving schemers to the South, the fair-minded and merciful Starks were as sturdy as a Northern oak. Noble and unflashy, they were the Derek Jeters of the Seven Kingdoms: praised and resented for playing the Game the right way.
In a typical fantasy epic, Ned would have been the hero; the only thing heavier than his chain mail was his conscience. Way back in the pilot, Lord Stark taught his boys an important life lesson when he meted out rough justice upon a deserter, saying "He who passes the sentence should swing the sword." But sword-swinging is a creaky and clunky way to get things done in a more modern era, one when the line of fate separating those handling the blade and those receiving it is smaller than Roose Bolton's bar tab. Ned found that out himself in King's Landing when his slash-and-burn truth-telling proved no match for the million pinpricks and paper cuts of gossip, power, and innuendo that did him in. (Attacking the Lannisters with outmoded ideas like "justice" is like taking on a nuclear submarine armed with nothing but a copy of Robert's Rules of Order.) And, tellingly, there were no swords unsheathed in last night's carnage either — assuming you don't count dumb old Edmure's non-metaphorical bedding ceremony. The most shocking scene on television in 2013 was a quick and brutal affair carried out with daggers, crossbows, and slithery, secondhand deceit. The Starks prayed to the Old Gods to the very end, but it was their allegiance to the old ways that cost them everything.
Normally the smell of old produce can be unpleasant, but I can't tell you how happy I was to see the Onion Knight again. And it wasn't merely because Ser Davos, the fingerless former right-hand man of Stannis, appears to have as much trouble reading books as you people think I do. No, the sight of Davos being freed from the Dragonstone dungeon warmed my heart and seasoned this entire excellent episode because it was a reminder of just how wonderful Game of Thrones can be when it digs in instead of spreading out.
I've judged the past two weeks harshly not because there wasn't enough action but because there was far too much of it: the camera whooshing from here to there and back again, like a three-eyed raven on a four-day coke binge. Believe me, I understand that the epic scope of this story demands multiple perspectives and myriad narrative threads. Even someone who hasn't read a word of George R.R. Martin's prose can be suitably stunned by the sheer size of the world he's created, the way small butterfly wings of culture, history, and pride beating on one continent can cause empires to fall on another. That Game of Thrones has a tendency to feel diffuse is more a byproduct of the medium than an indictment of the maestro; it's not easy taking a Hound-size plot and cramming it into Arya-size installments every week. Having too many wonderful characters to service is a good problem, one that other showrunners would walk through wildfire to experience. But it is a problem.
I will try not to be smug in this recap, but I have the feeling I won’t be able to help it. I’ve been pulling for my man John Cochran for quite some time. To some degree, all of Caramoan’s favorites had scores to settle or reputations to redeem from their previous seasons: Dawn Meehan battled her tear ducts, Phillip Sheppard tried (and arguably succeeded) to get some respect, Brandon Hantz made a futile attempt at impersonating a sane guy, and Erik Reichenbach was out to prove he wasn’t some double-dipwad who would get labeled a sucker for the second time for giving up his immunity. Can you say Survivor seasons have themes? Because if this one did, it would have been a distinctly high school motif: the popular, good-looking clique that excludes and titters about the outcasts, the embarrassments of dorky nicknames (hey there, True Grit), spring break–style sunburns, and the sexual tension of hookups that never were (I’ll bet Eddie gets pretty busy after his dog-bar speech, though). If Caramoan had been a movie, it might have been Can’t Hardly Wait or — if you were feeling like going on-the-nose with it — Revenge of the Nerds. There is ultimately nothing so satisfying to me as seeing the person who gave the most eloquent confessionals and had the indoorsiest complexion win a game involving so many different kinds of athletic and social maneuvers. Cochran struggled so much in his first season on South Pacific that it was often uncomfortable to watch; as a result, he was bullied, sometimes even reviled (at one point he was called “disgusting”), particularly after flipping on his alliance. He seemed both over- and underprepared, rich with theories but really poor on everything else required to win. He was the 13th castaway kicked out, but the whole time it was apparent that Cochran was in a panic, and maybe even not terribly proud of his performance. What a comeback.
Lord Petyr Baelish may be small of finger, but he is large where it matters most: Few men in Westeros are his equal when it comes to cruelty, and none come close to matching his patience. These two traits alone make him a formidable competitor in the titular Game of Thrones, where the milk of human kindness tends to leave players all wet, and the hotheaded are usually the first to be decapitated. But as I watched Aidan Gillen stomp and preen all over his episode-closing monologue like Mayor Tommy Carcetti working a Baltimore press line, another thought occurred to me: Littlefinger's unique set of skills would make him the ideal viewer of Game of Thrones, as well.
It's no secret by now that for those of us abstaining from the original novels, the sheer weight of the story demands savage cuts and even more drastic changes of mind. Characters we've grown close to are abandoned on the fly, and we're often forced to turn our backs on the most fascinating among them for hours, even seasons at a time. This capriciousness comes easily to Littlefinger; witness how quickly he adjusted his plans away from Sansa and how viciously he dispatched Ros, a once-trusted ally offered up as target practice for Joffrey's hideous sadism. But more than anything else, Game of Thrones (the show) rewards patience and persistence, those able to sacrifice short-term satisfaction for the greater glories still to come. At the end of the hour, while Varys paraphrased Morrissey lyrics and clung to "illusions" like law and order, it was Littlefinger who kept his eye on the prize. "Chaos is a ladder," he purred, making it clear that it's never worth stopping to smell the flowers when the entire garden is there for the taking. "Only the climb is real."
Over the course of this bracing and brilliant debut season of The Americans, we've been introduced to all sorts of agents. There are federal agents, Soviet and travel agents (Philip and Elizabeth happen to be both), and a large assortment of single, double, and now, thanks to Nina's bureaucratic gymnastics, triple agents. It's a tricky grammar thing, but being an agent isn't quite the same thing as agency: The former involves carrying out the business of another, the latter is the freedom to carry out business for yourself. In many ways, being an agent — of whomever — is easier than freelancing: You were merely following orders when you shot that innocent man in the back of the head or when you held a pillow over a poisoned teenager's face or when you booked that couple on a Carnival Cruise. You say the security guard was just doing his job when he asked me to get in the car? Fine, then he should understand that I was just doing mine when I put a bullet in his brain. Doing dirt for others is a good way to distance yourself from the stains on your own clothes, the blowback on your hands. Ideally, being an agent means immersing yourself in something larger, something noble, and, if you're lucky, losing the uglier bits of yourself in the process.
But here's what The Americans showed us these past 13 episodes: You can't hide from who you are or gloss over what you've done. It doesn't matter how many wigs you own or how many vows you take and break. People are judged on behavior, not intentions. When our assortment of increasingly desperate characters took action this season, it didn't matter in whose name that action was taken. All that mattered was that the reaction, when it came, arrived pointed directly at our antiheroes' fragile hearts. Philip slept with Irina, which made Elizabeth kick him out. He stayed the night at Martha's, which led to Amador stabbing himself, which led to Gregory, Elizabeth's lover, being shot, and, eventually, Zhukov, her father figure, being killed. Forget titles, allegiances, culture, or creed. When it came down to it, when it mattered most, all of the characters on The Americans were agents of their own destruction.
One of the many benefits to the structure of Survivor is that as soon as things start to look predictable — when one alliance outnumbers the other, when someone loafs around excessively or goes out of his way to act obnoxiously — the whole tribe seems to hear a subconscious buzzer signaling Big Move Time. Big Move Time occurs after the post-merge group has been whittled down to a handful of starving, paranoid, raw-nerved people; it’s a period during which each of the remaining contestants has an idea of how they think they’ll appear to have performed during the game, and how they have to tweak or edit that image in order to progress and eventually appeal to the jury. Dawn has been holding back tears, mostly futilely, for 30-plus days. Now her face is an almost constant grimace — I think she’s trying to appear stoic. She’s chewing the inside of her cheeks off in every challenge trying to prove her physical prowess. Cochran, high off the fumes of a combination of luck and strategy that led to a mini-streak as the “challenge monster,” has turned into something that “would scare [his] mother if she saw [him].” People be power-hungry. People be island-crazy. Each of them knows that they’re an important character in the narrative of Caramoan, because at this point every individual’s plot trajectory contributes in a large way to the outcome of the finale (though Brenda, basically a ghost, is notable mostly as a pawn). Big Move Time separates the stars from the costars, the leaders from the followers. Big Move Time has arrived. It’s a blindside, bitches.
One of the many subtle arguments The Americans has advanced during this remarkable debut season is the notion anyone is capable of doing just about anything. Maybe we can't all get an armed FBI agent to stab himself in the gut, like Philip, or spice up foreplay with a metal towel rack to the head, like Elizabeth, or even catch grapes in our mouth like Paige. But those are just details. In terms of the juicy stuff that spies do on the reg, the lies and double-crosses, the violence and deception? Yeah. Just about anybody can manage that. You'd be surprised.
The reason isn't ideology and it isn't patriotism. It's not some dark or resourceful second self that lurks within each of us, Mr. Hyde–like, waiting for the right moment to emerge. Our capacity for doing dirt, The Americans argues, is directly connected to our proximity to other people. "Love," as a great American once put it, "is a battlefield." And the fighting, as worst-mom-of-the-year candidate Elizabeth counsels her daughter, never stops. ("Feelings come and go, honey," she told Paige while at the sink. "It doesn't mean the battle is lost." C'mon, Nadezhda! That's a soldier's mentality guaranteed to land you an officer but never, ever a gentleman.) Love — and its double agent, fear — is what made Stan put a bullet into the back of an innocent kid's brain, what made Viola put a ticking clock in her boss's office, and what made Martha betray first her practicality and then her country. When pushes turned to shoves, even little Henry went full Streets of Rage and broke a bottle over a creeper's skull the moment he felt his sister was in danger — and Henry weighs less than the piece of paper Arkady made Nina read aloud to him. The brilliance of The Americans is the way it demonstrates no war is ever really cold. People are far too hot-blooded for that.
Elizabeth Jennings is a hard character to root for. This alone does not separate her from the baker's dozen of high-profile cable wives who lurk in the shadows of the Internet's favorite dramas, funblocking their alpha spouses from all the illicit things they, and the audience, are desperate to see them do. But unlike a chard-sipping scold like Skyler White or an ignorant ingenue like Megan Draper (both of whom ought to be objects of fascination, not message-board scorn, but that's another recap), Elizabeth is actively involved in The Americans’ derring-do-wrong. We've seen her shoot an asset in the head and just plain give it to another. She's a mother who prioritizes work over family and a wife who fell in love with an employee.
In other words, she behaves in exactly the same way as a beloved generation of "difficult men," to borrow a phrase from author Brett Martin's upcoming book on the golden age of television. But while plenty difficult — woe be to those who speak out against the politburo or don't put their morning bowl of Toastie Bun Buns in the sink before heading to school! — she is assuredly not a man. And I can't help but wonder if this is part of the struggle I'm sensing from some corners to embrace Elizabeth. Most storytelling, eventually, returns to the clash between who characters are outside of the home and who they are when they return to it. And while cable has consistently pushed the narrative envelope in admirable fashion, it still tends to consider this split in frustratingly reductive ways. The men of Breaking Bad and Mad Men have a license to do their dirt and the free time to wrestle with their decisions because the women are home taking care of the children and otherwise maintaining the quiet, "normal" life that serves as ballast for the badness. Complain about them all you like, but without Skyler, Flynn, and Angel Baby Holly, Walter White is just another criminal with poor choice in undergarments.
Still sickly unable to get over my disappointment at losing KDAY, a bright spot in Vince Vaughn's Saturday Night Live this weekend was seeing Steve Jones — Sex Pistol and host of "Jonesy's Jukebox," first on the now-defunct Indie 103.1, then on KROQ — pop up in the best skit of the night ("History of Punk"). I have a serious affinity for Steve Jones, mostly because of "Jonesy's Jukebox," and I was really pleased to see him chilling at 30 Rock. Unfortunately, the sketch in which he appeared was one of the few high points in a show that had some notable clunkers ("Junior High Prom," you pedophilic Great Gatsby alien, you). It wasn't the worst episode in recent memory, but it was overshadowed by Melissa McCarthy's episode last week for sure. At least the Weather Channel soap opera proved that there was something special about "The Californians." That magic is tough to re-create.
Settle down, angry book-brandishing knights, and consider, if you will, the strange circumstance of Maesters Benioff and Weiss. The showrunning duo, like Jaime Lannister, know plenty of fancy words and are the product of some of the finest universities on the continent. (Benioff attended Dartmouth, known primarily for producing many wealthy Masters of Coin; Weiss graduated from Wesleyan, where the banners are made of hemp, and the bannermen are full of it, as well.) Yet like Robb Stark, they also know the pain and burden of undue expectations: There's a teeming mass of aggrieved nerds and Northerners following their every move, alternating between loyalty and skepticism. Adding to their challenge is the fact that George R.R. Martin, the revered lord whose army they've inherited, isn't conveniently dead, like Robb's dad, but rather is very much alive, standing over their shoulders, judgmentally stroking his beard. Most often, though, Benioff and Weiss remind me of Tyrion. Too clever for their own good, the two parlayed lucrative screenwriting careers and the confidence of the suits at HBO into a demanding new life spent poring over dense books filled with another man's fantastical writing and rearranging the chairs in someone else's council room.
It seems wholly possible, then, to admire their bravery while questioning their sanity. There are times, such as last week, when the attempt to unite the sprawling, digressive story of Game of Thrones in a way that still maintains a modicum of forward momentum seems more impossible than stitching together the sundered Seven Kingdoms. In these overwhelming moments, I imagine the duo's agents taking them out to lunch at the Ivy — or the Croatian version of the Ivy — and, over salads with dressing on the side, cheerfully spinning a version of the Kingslayer's mantra: "Fighting bravely for a losing cause is admirable. Fighting for a winning cause is far more rewarding." And then they hand them a blank check and a copy of the first draft of Goldilocks: Bear Hunter.
Hey, guys. Nice tribal last night. We really saw some great text (use of the word “operatives” more than once, a “payback’s a bitch” bomb,) subtext (ominous warnings to play any idols floating around,) and a lightning-fast yoink right before the buzzer. That’s how you do it.
Before all of that, however, there were monkeys. Land monkeys, sea monkeys, and tree monkeys. Reynold is happy to be among the remaining fans in Enil Edam, following Corinne’s exit last week, and is grateful for his “ironclad” bro unity with Eddie, Erik, and Malcolm. Every girl they touch turns to snuffed torch dust, but the brotherhood endures. Malcolm is a little more hesitant because Corinne was the only other player who knew he had the idol, but he’s got a stew simmering with his fan dudes and knows it’s time for him to make those big moves he’s been talking about for ages, so he’s chilling. Since everyone's flirting like they’re in a dim restaurant in The Hills (R.I.P.), Sheppard jumps on the couples cruise and tells Sherri his first impression of her was that she was “hot.” He envelops her in the warm, suffocating embrace of Stealth R Us and dubs her “Tenacity.” They shake on her undying loyalty, then Sherri scurries off to tell the camera how nuts she thinks he is, calling him her new Shamar.
The last decade of great television dramas has primarily been about pushing willing audiences past hoary storytelling signifiers like "good" and "bad." Over the past several years, we've cheered for serial adulterers and empathized with homicidal gangsters. TV has become a museum of masterpieces, nearly all of them painted in varying shades of gray.
The Americans, which features sworn agents of the "Evil Empire" as its protagonists, fits right in amid this gunmetal gallery. But for those living in its fictional 1981, that sort of nuance is a hard pill to swallow. It's a world of troubled G-men and sympathetic Soviets, but the one thing the two sides share is an overwhelming desire to conform to some type of moral binary. We hear it most plainly in the slurred speech of Stan Beeman during his after-hours visit to Philip in the latter's lonely Motel Шесть. Through the beers, Stan lauds his deceased partner as "a good guy," before quickly adding "not like me." To Stan, a good guy is a man without secrets, which suggests that, in Stan's mind, a good guy is also a unicorn. Never mind the fact that Amador's death happened precisely because he was harboring a secret: his off-the-clock surveillance of Martha. When Philip meekly asks who was responsible for the killing, Stan doesn't blink: "Bad guys," he says, either unaware of or embracing the irony. "And we're gonna find ’em."
Everyone takes their work home with them. How could we not? Especially these days, when the demands of a high-maintenance boss can buzz in your pocket from miles away. But cell phones have only taken something universal and made it immediate. There's never been an emotional car wash to run through on the commute home, no way to scrub the dozen little frustrations and indignities from your memory, no possibility of corralling the accrued stress and locking it in your cubicle overnight. The borders we try to construct in our daily lives to keep our families safe and our selves sane are ultimately as futile as the wire mesh and concrete the Soviets once used to divide a city. You can't build a barrier big enough. Things have a tendency of spilling over.
After writing about the Koh-Lanta deaths and then talking about the assorted perils of reality shows on the Girls in Hoodies podcast, I was feeling kind of mixed on the whole Survivor thing this week. It isn’t that I don’t still love Survivor, but I felt like taking a little bit of a break from reality TV for a bit to just cleanse my soul, watch Room 237 a thousand more times, and think about The Running Man. But I’m devoted; conflicted, but devoted. I still feel better about watching Survivor than I do about The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills two-part reunion (which I also watched). It’s tempting to say I kept up with these shows in the wake of events that maybe should have deterred me because I write or talk about them for my job, but I think I would have watched them anyway. What does it mean? What does it all mean??! It doesn’t matter. Room 237 cost me seven dollars. Watching people throw up insect larvae is free.