"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."
If you watch Survivor, and I’m assuming you do, you undoubtedly find yourself discussing it with other fans over the course of the season. Survivor people have little homing devices; we find one another, and then we stand around in offices or on telephones or huddled over other people’s side tables of BBQ chicken and we talk about our picks to win. Then we talk about our mother’s picks to win. Then we talk about who knows a person who knows a contestant and who their pick is to win. And this season, one name that keeps popping up in these conversations, despite her anorexic story line, is Brenda.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
Maybe today isn't the best day to get morbid on y'all, but this week's tragic French Survivor deaths made us wonder, Carrie Bradshaw–style, about how dependent pop culture is becoming on high-risk entertainment. From the literal task of surviving on Survivor to the more murky waters of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills to druggie blogger Cat Marnell (and her $500,000 book proposal), we wonder what it is about potential misery that keeps audiences (including ourselves) riveted.
Mad Men returns for a sixth season this weekend on AMC, and even those of us who haven't seen a frame of the two-hour premiere are nonetheless ready to talk our heads off about what for years now has been a top contender for Best Show on Television. Join us as we relive some of our favorite moments from the past five seasons, in all their bourbon-pounding, chain-smoking, lawnmower-crashing, existential-crisis-having glory. (Obviously, a multitude of spoilers after the jump — you've been warned.)
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.
My dad was dying to spoil this episode of Survivor for me from his sofa in Eastern Daylight Time, but I wouldn't let him. Though I could intuit this was not going to be a curveball episode, I was still worried about my strange buddy Phillip Sheppard, whose days are clearly numbered. A fellow Grantlander e-mailed a few of us Survivor fans asking us to explain the Special Agent, and while I got into how Sheppard is kind of like David Brent with a Special Ops folder standing in for the lyrics to "Free Love Freeway," someone else succinctly nailed it with "Sure, he's fucking crazy." He is, obviously, and I wouldn't want to share a few cubic feet of island with him or anything, but I couldn't stand to see him go just yet. I was in luck.
The shabby purple folk of Bikal return to their camp a little depleted after losing Longbeard. They'll miss Longbeard, particularly Michael, who shared a special floating alliance bond with him. Forgotten Julia mentions that she "nearly peed [her]self" at tribal council, but then evaporates, leaving only a puddle in her wake. Corinne, mad about gays, continues to heap love on Michael as they converse over the fire in plain view of Sheppard, who grows paranoid. He grabs Cochran and breathes down his neck, whispering that he wants Corinne gone before they merge. Cochran says that it may send the wrong message to Gota if they turn on their alliance so quickly, but he's become super-adept at dealing with Sheppard and remains diplomatic enough that Sheppard leaves the conversation satisfied, while Cochran smirks to the camera, presumably covered in little droplets of Special Agent sweat. The following morning, Dawn reads a tree-mail that mentions the strong carrying the weak in the rewards challenge. While the rest of the tribe hopes against hope that this challenge will somehow allow their collective weakness a chance to shine, Phillip is excited to show off the superhuman strength of his "upper body, upper back [and] shoulders." His strength is "deceptive." The pecs are undercover, but they're in there, coiled and ready to spring out of his chest. To prove this, he challenges Cochran to an arm wrasslin' match, which Sheppard dominates (obviously). He supports Cochran's entire body weight, probably 20 pounds or so, and then rolls over, exhausted and exalted, an even more overconfident man. His asset is his "will of a lion and determination of a gorilla" (see arm tats), and bolstered by this show of strength, he struts into the immunity challenge like a rhino with a trio of falcons riding on its back waving little American flags.
Last week’s Survivor was a little bit too crazy, so this week’s episode was all about getting everyone’s minds back in the game and off the Loco Hantz meltdown and sand-sullied rice. Life with Brandon was so hard that the favorites didn’t have time to strategize — everyone was just focused on staying alive and blending in with the sand like chameleons so as not to get struck in the head with some lil’ fists from Lil’ Hantz. Returning from the forfeited immunity challenge, the members of Bikal are relieved to be rid of the “traitor” whose behavior Corinne calls “right up there with Mel Gibson and every other crazy person,” but Brandon’s exit outburst also tipped Gota off to the discord on the favorites’ team. Special Agent Phillip Sheppard seems like he’s still got the jazzy adrenaline pumping through his body from battling with Brandon, and he hatches the bright idea to get rid of Corinne as soon as he gets the opportunity.
A hard and fast truth, not only in television, but in American life: People just don't like watching sad, aging, neurotic women. The past decade has brought us plenty of popular shows that feature women on the verge of some sort of nervous breakdown or another, but there seems to be a rule that female mental illness must be cute/funny, homicidal, or sexualized. You're either a hot mess of childlike affectations or you're standing in the middle of traffic on Wisteria Lane, a paring knife gripped in your bony, manicured hands. The reasoning behind this flattening of the female psyche is obvious: Television, for all its complexity, still clings to its patriarchal past, where the central question lies in whether or not the crazy lady can or cannot be saved by love of the strong, stoic lead.
There’s no word for “Decoy” other than “awesome.” It plays off all of the plots from this season so far, sending them colliding in a story that pulls together almost everything we know about Harlan County, Kentucky. It’s a great character piece, it’s a genuinely thrilling hour of action, and it deepens the themes the season has been building all along. The second season of Justified has taken on an almost mythic status in my mind, as a season of TV that took a good show and made it into a great one by tapping into all the things that were unique about it in the first place. It was the season of Mags Bennett and “it was in the glass” and the complicated story of poor, orphaned Loretta McCready. It was the season that took Justified from a show I watched to a show I was obsessed with.
And if the final two episodes are anywhere near as good as last night's, Season 4 just might end up being better.