"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."
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.
Do you know who I am? Do you know who Chris is? These are the questions that America's sweetheart, Reese Witherspoon (:50), would ask were she in the podcast studio with us instead of locked up in an Atlanta drunk tank. And though we had much to say about the Academy Award winner's transgressions down south, we actually had a great deal more to say about television. First, some light weekend reading got Chris thinking about Howard Hawkes and the means of Hollywood production, which (a) was actually much lighter than it sounds, and (b) dovetailed quite nicely with a piece I wrote last week about how cable's niche targeting and fan service may be limiting future greatness (7:10). But luckily we still have plenty of present greatness to debate, so we spent plenty of time raving over a truly phenomenal episode of Game of Thrones (23:25) and puzzling our way through a knotty, occasionally ugly episode of Mad Men (35:45). Now if you'll excuse us we're going to lock ourselves in an office with Stan Rizzo and 100 takeout menus, and we're not coming out until this pitch for our separatist moon colony series is in tip-top shape and ready to go. (It'll make more sense if you listen. Honest.)
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?
Before settling in for a weekend spent watching Hemlock Grove, I read the New York Times's lukewarm review, which called it “a hybrid of Twin Peaks ... and CW teenage gothic” before going on to refer to its pace as pokey. This did not bode well, and I wandered into the Grove with adjusted expectations. Prior to reading the review, which was actually one of the more generous accounts of Hemlock Grove, I was psyching myself up for a highly enjoyable experience: how much would I have loved to permanently disfigure my sofa with my body’s imprint after a zillion hours spent consuming American Horror Story all at once? So much! How good was that teaser of the werewolf transformation? Pretty good! How long ago did Eli Roth’s Hostel: Part II come out? Long enough that we’re over it now!
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.
After our Ryan Seacrest–on-a-budget "premiere" of Miley Cyrus's new Snoop Lion–assisted single, "Ashtrays and Heartbreaks," last week, the Girls in Hoodies decided to conduct a general survey of how the tween stars of the aughts are holding up these days. We're feeling pretty good about the future of the former Miss Montana (and no longer future Mrs. Hemsworth) — which made Lindsay Lohan's disastrous Letterman appearance on Tuesday all the more sad-making. But first things first: We had a Mad Men season premiere and Stan Rizzo's beard to obsess over. The two-hour episode was weird, morbid, death-obsessed — and that's why it was so great! Finally, Tess and Molly helped Emily mentally prepare for Coachella this weekend, and we all discuss the pros and cons of the modern music festival. If only we could still see things through Huell's eyes.
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.
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.
Every week, television documentaries present us with so many unusual people, with so many strange and/or disturbing problems, you might find it hard to keep up with all of them. That's where I come in! Here's an unflinching look back at TV's Week in Freak Shows.
Hoarding: Buried Alive (TLC)
Who Is This Now? Louise.
Why Are We Watching Her? She has hoarded so much in her multiple apartments and storage spaces that they're past the point of usefulness.
How Did She Get Here? To hear her describe it, she has an extremely emotional attachment to every item she's collected; multiple times, she notes that she doesn't have children or pets — just her things — and that she takes the responsibility of taking care of them very seriously. Unfortunately, she also came into what a friend describes as "a great deal of money" about 30 years ago, when her parents died, which enabled her compulsive shopping. But now, even though the amount she inherited would have been enough for any normal person to live on for the rest of his or her life, Louise is nearly broke. And if she doesn't clean out her apartments and possibly sell some of her stuff, she will be destitute.
With only four contestants left, Worst Cooks in America is a different show. Last week the judges eliminated Carla and Michael, cooks with two of the clearest gimmicks: Wanna-Lay-Bobby-Flay and Bow-Tie-Accounting-Dork. With their dismissal, all that's left is to watch the most capable cooks compete, though that distinction is profoundly relative. On other cooking reality shows, there is a drama inherent to having a whole pickup truck full of contestants running around your kitchen: Some people don't get along, some people get along too well, a few have no business competing but look interesting on television while doing it. Then, as the field narrows, that particular drama flakes away and is replaced by the drama of watching only the most skilled cooks competing. These are people at the top of their field crafting works of art. That is not the case here. Now that the ballerina and the frat guy and the chiropractor with the sex dungeon are gone, all that's left is to watch four miserable home cooks struggle and get things wrong. I expected to be let down. Instead, the increased screen time exploded these remaining four contestants from sound bites and punchlines into real people, people with families and human struggles who want to be better providers, and I also cried twice. I'm an old softie.
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.