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.
"The Bear and the Maiden Fair" wasn't a particularly good episode of Game of Thrones. I found it draggy and digressive, which was a surprise considering it was written by author George R.R. Martin, whose past contributions have been among the series' best, and directed by the truly gifted Michelle MacLaren, the visual genius behind Breaking Bad’s "Madrigal," who, for some reason, was handed an hour that was all tell and very little show. But it was an ideal episode for Mother's Day. Not because it featured marked-up brunches and a flurry of last-minute flowers — though I'm sure there's a Sansa Stark joke in there somewhere — but because of the way it demonstrated that there's no love more lasting or abiding than that which exists between a mother and her child.
Westeros is a harsh, decidedly macho realm. Its females, in Bronn's words, are generally afforded only two options in life, to be wedded or bedded — though I'd add a third in memory of Ros: to be deaded. Yet it appears that maternity grants Westerosi women something nearly as valuable as Yunkish gold: perspective. Turns out, Margaery's preternatural calm isn't due to the tightness of her corsets cutting off her circulation, it's because the version of Game of Thrones she's playing is a very long game indeed. Though she's marrying a preening, bloodthirsty sadist with an itchy trigger finger where his heart should be, Margaery seems sanguine about her chances. "My son will be King," she shrugs to Sansa. "Sons learn from their mothers. I plan to teach mine a great deal."
It's been nearly 30 years since Christopher Guest — along with director Rob Reiner (kids, you know him as Jess's dad on New Girl) — strapped on the spandex and more or less invented the mockumentary format with the seminal-in-all-senses This Is Spinal Tap. And, over the ensuing decades, Guest came close to perfecting it with a series of increasingly precious improv comedies, the best of which, Waiting for Guffman, remains as flawless and coveted as a Remains of the Day lunchbox. Still, it was the doofs at Dunder Mifflin who truly cranked the format up to eleven. The success of The Office and, later, the even larger cultural footprint of Modern Family helped establish the Guest-ian tradition of oblivious yobs venting directly into the camera as the go-to style of high-class comedy on television. He may not get residuals for it and he may not even find it funny — he's notoriously prickly when not in character — but Guest is as responsible as anyone for a sea change in sitcoms, one that saw the quiet raising of an eyebrow replace the canned howl of a studio audience.
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."
Well, this is certainly a surprise. THR reports that Dwayne Johnson is cashing in on his hard-earned box-office cred and nailing down a flashy HBO show with all kinds of big names involved. We're talking Peter Berg as director, Mark Wahlberg as producer, and, for better or worse, Entourage’s Stephen Levinson on script duties (but not as showrunner — the search for that is still on). It's a half-hour dramedy that'll take Johnson back to Miami, where he last sojourned, with Wahlberg and Michael Bay, for Pain & Gain. And all we know right now is that it's about "the lives of retired athletes."
The traditional place to start a story — particularly a story featuring beautiful maidens, brave knights, and extravagant, fairy-tale weddings — is at the beginning. When the sun is shining and the storm clouds of plot are still a ways away, it's possible for an audience to gain perspective and appreciate the purpose of the struggle to come. It's why The Fellowship of the Ring opened with a Hobbit birthday party, not a savage orc battle: It's a necessary glimpse of good before things inevitably go bad.
But Game of Thrones is far from a traditional story for reasons that go well beyond the fact that the beautiful maiden in question is currently a hostage, the brave knight is gay, and Westeros's wedding of the year will celebrate the union of a cleavage-baring schemer and a psychosexual sadist whose mother is also his aunt. Things may have gotten progressively worse in the Seven Kingdoms since the series began, but decline seems to be the natural direction of things in Westeros. As far as I can tell, there have been no good times, only moments that were slightly less bad. Before Joffrey's reign of errors, there was Robert Baratheon, a wine-drunk usurper who treated the Iron Throne room like the MLB Fan Cave. And before Robert, there was Aerys Targaryen, the Mad King, who burned bridges and allies with equal ardor. Barristan Selmy's recognized as far away as Essos as a great warrior, but what he really is is exhausted. "I've burnt away my years fighting for terrible kings," he sighs to Jorah. "Just once in my life, before it's over, I want to know what it's like to serve with pride." The quiet calm of Winterfell we witnessed back in the pilot wasn't merely brief, it was illusory. The crush of plot and the multiple points of view since then have taught Game of Thrones watchers an important lesson: Peace is only pleasant for the winners. And even for them, it always arrives with an expiration date.
On last Sunday’s episode of Game of Thrones, Varys explained to Tyrion that his hatred of magic stems from a sorcerer in Myr who cut off his genitals and burned them as an offering to the blood gods. It took Varys many years, and much scheming, but he was finally able to locate the sorcerer. But locating him was only the first part in the logistics chain of a satisfying revenge plot. How do you get him from Myr in Essos, across the Narrow Sea, and safely to your private chambers in the Red Keep?
Warren Buffett, one of American capitalism's own Masters of Coin, is often credited with introducing the phrase "skin in the game." It turns out the Lord of Omaha didn't actually invent the expression, which refers to an individual's assumption of real risk in a chosen undertaking, but it's easy to see why he's become synonymous with it. Despite possessing the wealth of a Lannister and the toughness of an Ironborn, Buffett remains as popular as a Tyrell with the world at large. The reason: The billionaire businessman never makes a move that doesn't involve sticking out his own neck. People tend to trust a guy who trusts himself, and, more likely than not, they'll respect a winner who has personal knowledge of what it feels like to lose.
Mr. John Legend! Not just a silky-smooth crooner of the finest of piano-pop ballads and rap hooks anymore! Now he's out here making TV shows too. Why, just last night, HBO picked up a series coproduced by Legend and Tony Krantz, called Down Lo, for development. It's about Miami, and it's got music and money and gay rappers.
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.
Chris and I tend to agree a lot — always the formula for a successful listening experience! — so this week came as a bit of a surprise. He loved Game of Thrones on Sunday night, I thought it was a little all over the place. I adored Mad Men's Season 6 premiere, he thought it was pokey. I don't know if core disagreements like that make for a good friendship, but they made for a lively discussion! We tore through our inaugural Thrones power rankings (sorry, Joffrey's Tailor: you did not make the top 10!) and ripped into the idea that Theon has to hang around — in this case literally — just because he's still alive in the books. Wandering from Westeros to the East Side of Manhattan, we had a ton to say about Don Draper's wonderfully weird vacation in Hawaii and the specter of death that seemed to travel back home with him. I don't care what Chris says about things being draggy or on the nose — that wonderful phone call between Stan and Peggy reminded me of the good old days, when my fellow Philadelphian and I could laugh about Big Sean and focus on the good times.
A toast to the the lucky ladies of Westeros! Yours is a continent teeming with options for the modern woman. Will you choose to be "intelligent" as your king suggests and "do what [you’re] told"? Best-case scenario: You don't hate your chosen husband, and your eventual children don't hate you — Cat Stark had a setup like that for a while, before she wound up widowed and in chains. Sure, she's "an honest woman," as her sworn protector tells the mocking Kingslayer, but a fat lot of good that did her. The minute she starts trying to think for herself, she's left alone sewing solitary dream catchers like a Widespread Panic fan trying to make a buck at Bonnaroo.
Or perhaps you'll take a more independent route, like Ros? She's got a head for business, which means, naturally, she's got to put her body to work, too; it's a glamorous existence doing the bidding of Littlefinger and just plain doing little people like Tyrion. Whoring is an opportunity to get a leg up in the man's world of Game of Thrones — and very often two. So what if it's less Lean In and more Lie Back? At least your average wine-drunk lord comes faster than winter.
At every single moment of Lena Dunham's professional existence, there has been a notable and active Anti–Lena Dunham faction. The size and fervor of this faction fluctuates greatly along with occurrences of Dunham's HBO television program, Girls, and her personal life and Instagram account. Charting the spikes of the ALD Faction, you'd have a veritable sine wave, as the action pinged between legitimate content criticism and ad hominem attacks, and heated discussion about the manner in which Hannah Horvath's boobs appeared this week. But that the faction exists, and that the faction isn't going anywhere, is indisputable. And, now, that faction has a king. His name is Christopher Abbott and — up until earlier today, at least, when he abruptly quit the show — he played Charlie on Girls.
In our real lives Chris Ryan and I like to talk about all sorts of things: movies, the weather, how Domonic Brown is going to win the Triple Crown this season. But when it came time to record this week, the only topic worth discussing was one dear to my professional heart: television. This is one of the busiest and best weeks I can remember on the small screen, filled with the return of old favorites, the escalation of new flings, and the arrival of one very intriguing surprise. But first I had to give Chris the rundown of my time with the FX network last week. In town to announce its cellular split into three distinct networks, the channel gathered all of its stars — and its stars' interesting hair — in a Manhattan bowling alley to celebrate.
There are no straight lines in Westeros. Everything twists and turns at its own deliberative speed. And woe to those unable to adjust accordingly! The titular Game of Thrones tends to devour players who lack the requisite patience to participate far before those who merely lack skill: Noble Ned rushed to speak the truth and quickly lost his head; randy Theon tried to impress his father by conquering first his sister's breastplate then his brother's castle, and in his haste he failed at all three. The most successful characters tend to be those willing to roll with whatever the gods throw at them, like Robb Stark wandering in the woods, missing the Lannisters but finding a wife; or Tyrion, using his minimal brawn, not his outsize brains, to defend the city that somehow wound up in his care.