Review: Game of Thrones – Season 8

This review contains spoilers

The end of an era

Well, that was . . . something. Game of Thrones, HBO’s landmark television series, has cut to black for the final time. Much has and will be said about the final season in the weeks, months, even years to come. Though, likely not as HBO and co-writring showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss anticipated.

Game of Thrones has long been cherished for its cinematography, score, pioneering television special effects, and the precarious nature of every episode. The show, as with author George R. R. Martin’s series of books upon which it’s based, was renowned for subverting the tropes often associated with fantasy/blockbuster entertainment. Thrones delighted in punishing its viewers and instilling a sense of dread, foreboding, and anxiety in millions of living rooms across the world a few weeks per year.

Of specific praise was its writing, as Benioff and Weiss’ Emmys can attest. Fans the world over were in agreement, the drama of Throne‘s fantasy world was a compelling escape to the drama of our own. Prophecy, political intrigue, and the macabre were interwoven and set to a low-burning flame, churning ominously throughout entire seasons before bursting forth in explosive bouts of violence and world-shaking consequences. Entire episodes were needed to re-establish boundaries, factions, alliances, and personal relationships – while others existed solely to wipe the board clean.

These observations apply more so to the books now than the show, seeing as Martin has yet to finish his renowned series and the seasons which surpassed their source material have stumbled their way to this: The most disappointing anti-climax of pop-television since Dexter.

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All’s well that ends well

The final episode of the series, titled “The Iron Throne”, isn’t the worst of the eighth season, not at all. In fact, few of the episodes on their own merits should be considered of poor quality. From a technical perspective, especially, Thrones has never looked or sounded this good. The production values are elevated beyond that of most Hollywood films – that much is evident from this season’s opening moments, when the Unsullied army marches across a wide landscape into Winterfell, falling snow landing gently on bystanders’ faces. Obviously, the scale of the final season was enormous, but large-scale battles and digital-effects work mean little without the proper stakes and narrative developments to contextualize them.

That isn’t to say there wasn’t adequate foreshadowing of the events of the final few episodes. Daenarys’ fall from grace and into madness has long been understood as a possibility; if not by the validation of her often violent actions, then by her Targaryan blood. However, season six left us with the image of a liberator sailing westward with the intent to do good, and the entirety of season seven was spent convincing Daenarys and her armies to fight for the living, rather than succumb to petty squabbling over a pointy chair. There were exactly two episodes in season eight to appropriately convey Daenarys’ descent into madness. Two. For comparison, Daenarys spent more screen-time sitting in tents, pondering over how best to deal with slave-masters, than she did before massacring thousands of innocent lives in King’s Landing.

What followed the sacking of King’s Landing isn’t illogical. Jon Snow and Tyrion take matters into their own hands, kill Daenarys to avoid another tyrant ruler. Yadda-yadda-yadda, badda-boom badda-bing, Bran’s the new king. Tyrion is the hand yet again, Bronn wants new brothels, there’s an overt attempt to mirror the end of The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, and Jon Snow finally gets to pet his dog.

Happy day.

Put another way: The events of the final season are not the problem. Under normal circumstances and with proper time allotted to developing and contextualizing these major revelations and plot points, the legions of fans calling for the final season to be remade probably wouldn’t have much to complain about. That’s the Achilles Heel of the end to this once great series: Baffling time management. An odd complaint to have considering the extended delay between seasons seven and eight.

Time is no ally

Following the sixth season, Benioff and Weiss announced that seasons seven and eight would wrap in a total of thirteen episodes. At that point in the narrative, there were two wars yet to be fought: One against the living, and one against the dead. Great lengths had been taken to ensure that the viewer understood the stakes of both (read: sixty episodes’ worth of storytelling.)

Season seven provided elevated, though occasionally lopsided, stakes and action, not to mention the most important reveal of the series up to that point – that of Jon Snow’s superior claim to the Iron Throne. It delivered, for the most part, but of its seven episodes, few felt as if they weren’t barreling toward the season finale in a whirlwind of broken ships and dragon-fire. Where the season excelled, however, was in inching every prior prophecy and character conflict up to its natural breaking point, then shying away in time for the credits to roll. This left audiences in baited anticipation for the final six episodes.

Jaime Lannister had seemingly betrayed Cersei; Jon and Daenarys were fully allied; the south finally understood the threat of the undead; the Night King had acquired a dragon and destroyed the wall; and the long-simmering tensions in Westeros seemed poised to finally boil over.

Which is where poor plot management and haphazard thematic assimilation come in and singlehandedly dismantle season eight from the inside out.

Season eight is a looker, as I’ve mentioned. That extended production schedule was certainly put to good use as far as dragon-effects and clashing armies were concerned, but something was missing throughout the entirety. That bloody beating heart of the show was absent.

Characters, freshly detached from any deliberate attempt at inter-episodic continuity, behave in accordance with a checklist of plot-points as opposed to influencing said plot-points themselves. The romance between Jon and Daenarys is especially flat and unfulfilled, as it’s given next to no adequate screen-time to develop. For comparison, Jon and Ygritte were allowed multiple seasons of interplay and concessions, the payoff of which was emotionally charged and satisfyingly tragic. The sound of Jon’s dagger plunging into Daenarys’ heart, ending her long saga of conquest and liberation, felt about as poignant as if he had jabbed a fork into a baked potato. Made so by the fact that two episodes prior, Daenarys and her army were essential allies in saving the land of the living from the dead. Three significant deaths and a few scowling close-ups do not a good villain make. Daenarys deserved to be a better villain. Were this a tragedy, as is suggested by the framing of her death, the seeds sown prior to this would have bloomed long ago.

The sin of the final season is that of wasted potential, not of bad ideas. Had we another few episodes, all of which dedicated to the massive ramifications of larger events, such as the battle against the dead, the sting of this final season would be dulled exponentially.

One needn’t look further for comparison than the Red Wedding and the Freys’ slaughter of the Starks. The geopolitical landscape of the entire series needed to be re-established. Under the time-lapse dictum set forth by seasons seven and eight, Winterfell would’ve been back in Stark hands within a handful of episodes, not thirty. The image of Stark Banners flying from the walls of Winterfell was a moment so long delayed, yet so well earned. Seasons of build up, of torment, and of perseverance informed that single shot of a sigil unfurling onto frost-bitten stone.

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Hollow Spectacle

The problem then, is that during the six episodes of season eight, we are treated to visual spectacle the likes of which television has never seen. However, so very little of it managed any impact. “The Long Night” was every bit as bleak and dire as fans could have hoped for, but for one fatal error – it reduced the greatest threat known to the seven kingdoms into a one-off skirmish, ended in mere hours by a repurposed prophecy and a fancy knife trick.

The Great War, as it’s referred to in the show, was no more than a single siege on a single castle, with casualties landing in the significant-but-inconsequential range. What resulted was a massive showcase of special effects and nauseating tension, one that ended with the deaths of only one secondary character, and two tertiary characters – a far cry from the bloodletting viewers have come to expect from these titanic showdowns. The dead: A thread cutting through the entirety of the show, pulled at and revealed to be no more than an inconvenience. Which is to say nothing of the other plot elements left entirely out to dry by the show’s end, but that’s an article for another time.

For all its bombast and striking visuals, the core of the conflict was lost. The existential threat diminished overnight, those left living could resume their game of lordship and backstabbing. Characters known solely for their dedication to issues above their personage were suddenly cut down to serve as means to a structural end. Jon is told of his true lineage in no convincing manner, divulges this information to others for reasons born completely from a need to propel the narrative to a foregone conclusion, and then he suffers the consequences of these actions in no satisfying way.

There was a way to heighten the drama between Jon and Daenarys, tease out its elements and have it culminate in something other than a trite romance and heel-turn character moment. There was a way to pull Daenarys down from atop her wheel-crushing moral pedestal, but it would’ve taken far longer than the structure of the final season allowed. There was a way to maintain internal consistency, episode to episode, without phantom fleets appearing suddenly to “even the odds” (poor Rhaegal.)

There was a way to slowly build tension, to lay plans, and have it erupt like the Sept of Baelor. The show, once holding the longest of daggers under its sleeve, has been stripped to reveal the anemic framework of this by-the-numbers final season.

Valar Dohaeris

Rather than subvert the trappings of its genre, season eight of Thrones seemed content to revel in them. The lethargic earnestness on display in the closing hour of “The Iron Throne” ran counter to the nature of the show as we’ve come to understand it. Westeros and Essos were governed by a brutal pragmatism, the ends being power and the means being death. Daenarys succumbing to that fault isn’t a problem, but her doing so without much time for her (or the audience) to reach that point, or mull over the consequences, is.

There were no happy endings on the horizon, especially following “The Bells.” Daenarys uttered only a handful of lines to Jon Snow during their final interaction, each of which seemed tailor-made to comply with the lengthy speech Tyrion had given him moments earlier, where he begs Jon to end Daenarys’ life for the sake of the realm. How . . . convenient. For a show with a foundation of blood and bones, plot-conveniences certainly found an inopportune time to rear their heads, and they were a plague on this season.

Be it Euron emerging from the sea as Jaime happens to be strolling by, or Arya travelling all the way to King’s Landing to kill Cersei Lannister, only to change her mind and act as a ground-level vessel through which the audience can view the needlessly excessive destruction of King’s Landing. Tensions must mount before the showdown between Cersei and Daenarys, so Euron’s fleet arrives from nowhere to shoot down Rhaegal. An act of little importance, as the final battle was as one-sided a victory as we’d seen in the show.

What’s worse, due more to its context and presentation than its content, is the ending. A council of sorts is formed in King’s Landing of the remaining lords and ladies of Westeros. Played for a heart-warming (read: eye-rolling) chuckle is the notion that the next King or Queen ought be democratically elected. How bizarre, given the speechifying by one reformed misanthrope, Tyrion, to duly choose what is best for the realm and her people. Notably absent from this episode? The common people of Westeros. Absent from the season? Each of these lords save for the Starks, Sam, and (sort of) Yara. Representatives of the other kingdoms played no part in the events of the season as a whole – no role in fighting the dead or of sacking King’s Landing. Pity they think their judgement is requisite enough to elect a new king.

The idea of Bran on the throne is, actually, a solid one. Generations of knowledge would inform each of his decisions. It’s unfortunate, then, that the show does little to justify Bran’s existence as the Three-Eyed Raven until this point, and refuses to extrapolate on the benefits of such a ruler, other than Tyrion’s incessant monologing. The only scene in which Bran has assumed this role involves little dialogue and a hammy scene of wish-fulfillment in which all of our favorite characters were appointed to posts on the King’s Council.

Viewers are given a sermon, a list of morals for which to choose a king, one is chosen, and the realm lives happily ever after. It’s neat and clean and it even has a little Jon-pets-Ghost bow on top.

It is, at best, an uncharacteristically benign finale to one of the most audacious, gut-wrenching, and boundary-leaping shows ever made. Reminiscent more of the amber-hued farewells of The Lord of the Rings trilogy than of a work once emblazoned with the phrase, “All men must die.” A show that promised no easy solutions from its opening scene, ends near bloodlessly, and without pause for reflection. Not that it had the time to do so.

Conclusion

Viewers are well within their rights to exhume the corpse of this show and parade it around for as long as they’d like. Use it to justify abstinence from Benioff and Weiss’ Star Wars trilogy if you wish. Despite my criticisms of the eighth season, it’s no secret the impact Game of Thrones has had on television. What The Sopranos did for drama, Thrones did for sheer scale. Argue among yourselves as to whether either of them stuck their landing, but it goes without saying that with the passing of this entertainment titan, there will certainly be an arms-race of studio cash-burning trying to replace it.

Season eight, though, earns no seal of approval from me. As a technical marvel, it was well worth the ride. The issue with sticking the landing is an issue of legacy. Great works are defined by their endings. What is Blade Runner without “Tears in the rain?” What is Breaking Bad without “I did it for me?” Gatsby without bearing back ceaselessly into the past? These might not be fair comparisons, but they ought to be. At one point, Game of Thrones was in the conversation for the television Mount Rushmore. No longer. Poorly executed endings, protracted or otherwise, good ideas or none, tarnish the events preceding them.

Verdict: 2/5 – An incredible disappointment.

Solid directing, acting, score, and visual effects can’t overcome vapid, expeditious writing. Plot-contrivances and schematic characterizations overpower most dramatic potential. There is little of consequence to the proceedings, and it might well taint the stellar reputation this show has enjoyed for nearly a decade.

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Thank you so much for stopping by the blog today. Be sure to check back soon for more reviews, commentary, podcasts, YouTube videos, and the new webcomic, Scribble Sardonic. Follow along on Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook.

Until next time.

The most exciting trailers of the last seven days.

Television Tea Leaves

Hello, dear reader, and welcome back.

It’s been a few days; I hope you’re doing well.

In my *very* brief time away from the keyboard, the world of pop-culture exploded into a fervor of speculation and awards-show favorites. Make no mistake, I’m not contributing to that conversation (lest the Oscar’s find a decent host who actually wants the gig); no, I’m here to share my favorite new trailers for movies, television, and games – all released within the last week.

Why ponder over the best stuff of this contemptible year, when we could yearn, eager-eyed and full of wonderment, at the year(s) to come?

So here’s my list in no particular order.

Avengers: Endgame

Sweet Christmas ladies and gentlemen, there’s still reason to get excited about superheroes. Though this isn’t the only superhero trailer on this list, it’s by far and away my most anticipated. Thanos reshaped the universe with a snap of his fingers in the last outing, put simply: the Avengers crew took a loss. What’s most exciting, however, are the appearances of much-demanded Hawkeye and Ant-Man into the fold with other major players. Though, with Marvel’s penchant for misleading its fans to better hype up a film (HBO does the same thing with Game of Thrones), expect a great deal of speculation and little in the way of answers until you’re in the theater. MEANWHILE, there are other superhero outings to look forward to – and to decipher how exactly they fit in with the larger MCU narrative. One of which…

Captain Marvel

FINALLY, we know why Brie Larson so casually decked a sweet old woman in the face. Spoiler: the older woman is of an evil alien race of shape-shifters known as the Skrull, and absolutely deserves to be punched in the face by an academy award winning actress.

The trailer also helps to clear up a bit of what left me so confused after watching the first trailer – how did Carol Danvers wind up fighting these intergalactic beasts, but retains so many earthbound memories? Watch the trailer and see for yourself.

BrightBurn

Although I find it odd that Hollywood is referring to James Gunn as a “visionary director” because he can splash some colors on the screen around his wacky characters, this trailer is worth a watch for one reason alone: It’s a superhero horror movie. Borrowing heavily from the first trailer for Man of Steel, even down to the font and effects used leading up to the reveal, BrightBurn promises a darker, more satirical portrayal of the superhero origin shlock. Oh, your baby fell from the sky, imbued with otherworldly powers? Yeah, that thing is probably dangerous. Cue the scene where a woman, locked in a restaurant walk-in fridge, stares in horror as the child uses heat vision to slice through the door. This could be fun.

Stranger Things 3

The darling Netflix series returns in 2019. While this teaser is nothing more than the iconic synthwave intro sequence and what I assume are the titles of each episode flashing across the screen – it’s still worth getting excited over. Stranger Things has been on hiatus since 2017, presumably to age-up the characters for the next season’s setting of “the summer of 1985.”

Since then, the Russo Brothers have signed off on a Stranger Things video game taking place after season two, David Habour is starring in the next Helboy, Gaten Matarazzo is all over the commercial space, Finn Wolfhard starred in IT, and Millie Bobby Brown is literally taking over the world via social media. It’s time to bring the band back together.

Triple Frontier

Folks, Netflix is at it again. It looks like the wave of interest in cartel-related media is still rolling, though nothing has matched the ferocity and poignancy of Sicario. This film, however, led by an astonishingly talented cast, might be Netflix’s best attempt since the first season of Narcos. With marquee names Ben Affleck, Oscar Isaac, Charlie Hunnam, Garrett Hedlund, and Pedro Pascal all directed by A Most Violent Year director J.C. Chandor, this has the makings of a solid effort by the subscription service. Though I should note how often Netflix’s original films fail on their promise (it’s quite often.)

Devil May Cry 5

We’re moving into video game territory now. As some of you may know, The Game Awards 2018 was held just a few nights ago. While the greatest moments of the night came from the stage [READ IT BOY] there were a handful of truly exciting announcements. Such as this, the return of the original Dante after the lackluster Ninja Theory soft franchise reboot DmC. Ninja Theory would go on to make 2017’s most dramatically arresting game, HellBlade: Senua’s Sacrifice, but latter success doesn’t excuse former failure. Aside from the return of Dante’s glistening silver hair, we have Nero returning, as well as a new character named “V” – all playable. Oh, and keeping in line with the confusing-as-fuck-all narrative structure of the franchise, Devil May Cry 5 takes place several years after Devil May Cry 2 – which follows Devil May Cry 4, which follows Devil May Cry 1, which follows Devil May Cry 3. So, if you think about it, Devil May Cry 5 is the only entry in chronological order. Make sense? Moving on.

The Outer Worlds

I don’t have to tell you, reader, that Obsidian Entertainment was royally screwed by Bethesda Softworks despite producing what is arguably the greatest entry in the Fallout franchise with Fallout: New Vegas – while only having eighteen months to do so. Bethesda denied Obsidian employees monetary bonuses by requiring that New Vegas receive an 85 or higher on review aggregate website Metacritic. When the game scored an 84, Bethesda denied the bonuses.

Well, Obsidian is back after a lengthy few years developing [nothing like New Vegas or what fans have been asking for]. Enter, The Outer Worlds, a first-person perspective role-playing game the looks like the beautiful bastard child of Fallout, Bioshock, and Borderlands (God I needed this trailer so badly.) Obsidian has emphasized that player-choice is paramount to their narrative experiences. Enhanced gun-play and mechanics are great, but should the narrative not amount to anything worthwhile (*cough* Fallout 4 *cough* Fallout 76 *cough*) then the game probably won’t resonate as well with the player. The timing of this announcement, a sci-fi RPG with Fallout mechanics, Borderlands zaniness, and Bioshock aesthetics, pulls the rug right out from Bethesda Game Studios’ feet – as their often teased upcoming Starfield, another sci-fi RPG, has had some doubt cast its way after the horrendous launch of Fallout 76 and the scrutiny levied toward Bethesda for watering down their storytelling experiences and relying too heavily on a seriously out-dated game engine. To that point, The Outer Worlds may not have Battlefield V levels of graphical fidelity, but it’s a great deal easier on the eyes than the play-dough abominations Bethesda’s been hawking as character-models.

Keep an eye on The Outer Worlds, it has all the makings of a truly exceptional RPG from a band of reliable, longtime industry veterans.


 

Well, those are the trailers that jumped out at me over the last several days. If there’s a trailer you saw and wished was on this list, I either didn’t see it or didn’t feel as strongly about it as you did.

Either way, have yourself a wonderful day, dear reader. If you’re among those currently snowed-in on the United States East Coast, I am suffering with you. Double up those socks and don’t forget your gloves.

Until next time.

Review: Orange is the New Black: Season 6 – Part 4

This is the conclusion of a review in-progress of Netflix’s prison dramedy, Orange is the New Black. This review covers episodes twelve and thirteen.

*Some Spoilers Ahead*

“Double Trouble”

Released 27 July, 2018; Runtime 59m; Created by Jenji Kohan; Directed by Clark Johnson

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Tensions are coming to a head, and while they are we become acutely aware that this season might not end the way we want it to. Taystee is dealing with a stacked trial, and her lawyer sheds pretense when speaking with a frazzled Caputo: she has a fifty-fifty shot of winning or losing. We’re meant to understand that as a positive note, but the show’s allusions here are clear – the best someone like Taystee (read: black in America) could ever hope for is a coin-toss’s odds.

It doesn’t matter if Caputo has fulfilled his redemption-arc and is slowly yanking Fig along with him. Good intentions don’t change shit.

Elsewhere we have characters trying to take a stand. Vause is risking everything to keep Badison away from Piper – the former wishing to add prison time for the latter. This puts Vause dead smack in the middle of the upcoming block war/kickball match. Vause still has time to serve, and she may be throwing in the towel. That theme becomes apparent now – not that it’s been especially absent – that people are tired of trying so hard and not going anywhere, conceding to the system.

Speaking of, MCC has rebranded itself as PolyCon as a PR move. Fig is unimpressed, but has to submit to the wishes of her superiors and implement a new, laughably malleable inmate ranking system that weighs demerits against their original defense, or…something, I don’t know.

Regardless, a few times around the halfway point of the episode there are some key exchanges about personhood and volition. One CO asks another about the data-entry inmate ranking system, isn’t it hard turning people into numbers? No, he replies, not once you’re used to it. He should be used to it, as the COs have been ranking the inmates the whole season without corporate mandate.

All of the prisoners are numbers, pawns, what have you. Pieces to be moved around a chessboard to progress someone else’s motives – at least that’s what I’m taking from the show at this point. I don’t see Caputo or Fig making a dent against PolyCon/MCC, and I don’t have high hopes for Taystee or any of the other inmates subscribing to Barb and Carol’s war. Things feel too orchestrated, to precarious. Everyone speaking out against it is being locked up in SHU.

And Red, poor vengeful Red. She almost saw her grandchildren. It’s as if the show is subtly reminding us that hey, these guys are criminals and are still susceptible to their baser instincts – but so is everyone else.

Anyways, the stage is set for the finale. Tensions are very, very high, though the episode doesn’t do much more than advance a good plot. It’s got a pretty interesting ending, though.

4/5


“Be Free”

Released 27 July, 2018; Runtime 1h 24m; Created by Jenji KohanDirected by Nick Sandow

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All the planning, all the tested loyalties and alliances formed, they all come to this. Though this season hasn’t made the actual kickball match feel particularly threatening, there’s been more than adequate portent. From the jump we see that things aren’t going as planned, a theme coursing through this episode’s feature-length runtime. We have to expect, as the audience, that we aren’t getting what we want. At all. Same deal with our characters.

Turns out Vause isn’t going to school. Turns out that maybe Fig and Caputo aren’t compatible. Turns out Piper isn’t going to get to spend another few months with Vause.

That’s right, she’s being sprung. Due to the aforementioned easily-manipulated inmate-scoring software that PolyCon instituted, and Piper’s ignorance about the drug-economy of the prison, she’s being released. It’s wholly, incredibly convenient. Piper’s smart enough not to question a good thing too vocally, though, as a person with her background tends to behave.

Aleida wants to get her kids back, but that might mean losing Daya. Taystee just wanted justice for Poussey, but it might cost her the rest of her life. Morello just wants a baby, and Nichols just wants an easy ride through the end of her sentence. Barb and Carol? I’ll get to that.

We’re allowed some tender moments between long-running characters at Vause and Piper’s spontaneous prison-wedding, but aren’t allowed to savor it because the kickball match approaches.

Some thoughts on that.

This never felt like the big, burgeoning battle sequence as it was imagined by the inmates of Litchfield. As one of the COs mentions, it’s just kickball. And that may have been the point the whole time. Nichols, when she corners Morello over her shifted alliances, points out that the only reason anyone is doing anything is because of Carol and Barb. The powers that be, manipulating and corralling the lesser-thans into violent opposition.

Though it wears it on its sleeve, this show has some decent subtext.

There’s a big twist regarding Carol and Barb and the show earns it, I think. I was frustrated a few episodes back about a series of flashbacks showing how they killed their younger sister together, about how proficiently manipulative they were together, and I bear no qualms about eating my own words. The flashback was relevant. I was wrong.

Still, this last episode needed thirty extra minutes to tell a full story. Just saying.

Moving on, the major conflicts are put to rest here, but nothing has changed and it’s wonderful. Why? Because that’s the whole point. OITNB has outdone itself with this ending. It feels like the writers, in their dimly-lit windowless room in some office-building in L.A., just sat at a table and never once denied a good idea because it might not market well. They approached a moment of severe tension and had it result in a way that is both unsurprising and well-earned.

They stuck to their guts here. Though our characters may not be in a better place because of it, it makes for much better television. Everyone you might expect to walk away from that prison, does so. Everyone else? Not so lucky. I watched the ending, searching for some consolation, but as with the inmates left in Litchfield, there isn’t much to find.

Again, that’s the point.

Well done.

4.5/5


So that’s it!

Season six is in the books. I wouldn’t brand this a hard reboot, that was season five, this season has been an enthralling return to form for the series. They sat down and thought hard about how to tell a good story using all the tools at their disposal, and it works very well.

There are pacing issues, sure, as well as the normal structural problems present with such a large ensemble cast, but they do this better than most productions.

We get meaningful, impactful arcs for almost every character. Things happen and they mean something this season. Which can’t be said for several of the others. That small actions precipitated larger conflicts, broadly and specifically, feels great and watches better.

Though I will say this: I’m done.

Yes, done. I don’t really want another season of this show. The narrative of season six was so effused with the series’ overarching themes and said so much with them, arguably what it’s been trying to say this whole time. I don’t need anything else. Netflix has already ordered season seven, so I may be ranting at a wall here, but I think they tied everything up nicely.

Taystee didn’t get justice, because it’s so infrequent that black men and women ever do in a system biased against them. Piper gets out no strings attached, and many of the immigrant detainees are sent to ICE-compounds after thinking they were being released. It’s heartbreaking, but an accurately assembled tableau of racial and economic biases and segregation within our criminal justice system. And those powers that be? They stay in power.

They do it all without saying a word, either. Our characters exchange worried glances far more often than they monologue or address these issues through dialogue. That’s what sets this season apart for me. It shows more often that it tells – you can never go wrong there.

I’m curious to see where this goes. But, and I can’t understate this, season seven should be the show’s final season. Show Piper writing her book, or whatever; make it a prolonged post-series “where they are now” segment. Just don’t counteract the statements made in this season. Please.

Final score: 4/5 – Well above average.

An excellent return to form for the series. It’s found its teeth again and bites hard when it has to. Binge it.

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Review: Orange is the New Black: Season 6 – Part 3

This is Part Three of a review in-progress for the sixth season of Netflix’s prison dramedy, Orange is the New Black. This review covers episodes eight through eleven.

*Some Spoilers Ahead*

“Gordons”

Released 27 July, 2018; Runtime 58m; Created by Jenji Kohan; Directed by Sian Heder

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Relationships are changing in Litchfield, and it’s fun to watch. Vause doesn’t want to be a…phone-mule? She wants to keep to herself, while Piper wants to make a difference – it’s good they’ve developed so much over the series. There’s some drama regarding the blocks, Red is getting in over her head with Carol, Nichols gets to artificially inseminate Flores (fucking hilarious), and a whole litany of other shenanigans that might break wide into more substantial plot-threads. Importantly, though, and much to my relief, this episode decides to shift focus away from some of the block-drama back onto Taystee and the riot-trial.

Taystee knows one of the COs, who delivers to her all of her mail. This is fleshed out with a flashback about their time working the overnight drive-thru window together at a burger joint. Prisoner and CO, both from the same walk of life, very obviously went in different directions – both of which were deemed the only course of action by either character.

This is interesting stuff, especially once Taystee does her interview and lambastes the COs for their treatment of the prisoners, which has been observably poor. Here comes some drama, furthering the divide between the guards and prisoners. I like this stuff, why doesn’t it linger on it a little more? Make a point about the nature of this trial in relation to the guards, what are the consequences should they be exposed for their behavior? The show doesn’t really need to spell it out for us, far from it, but tossing characters against one another and playing their differences on their similarities is what has given this series so many memorable moments. These are the things we tune in for.

I can do without the final scene of them literally walking two separate ways at an intersection. It’s not awful, but we get it.

Going forward the show would do wise to keep us invested in this trial. The prison-block drama is juicy and fun, but the politics surrounding the inmates and the officers outside their cell-doors is a foundational pillar to the show.

3.5/5


“Break the String”

Released 27 July, 2018; Runtime 1h; Created by Jenji Kohan; Directed by Nick Sandow

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It’s fitting that so much of the season up to this point has been about establishing where our characters’ loyalties lie. Following their incarceration in max, each one of them has had to develop a plan that ensures their own survival within the system. These plans, much to the benefit of the show itself, often run incongruous or in direct opposition to one another. This episode starts a pattern which will hopefully play out to the season’s ending. Cindy, Flaka, Piper, Carol, Barb, Frieda, Caputo, Linda, Fig, Badison, Morello, Mendoza, Ruiz, Daya, Daddy, Aleida, even Suzanne – each of them have an endgame, and a course of action going forward that could potentially bear enormous consequences.

Be it Piper trying to reinstate kickball during recreational hours, or Daddy forcing Barb to OD in order to buy herself some time setting up another drug-racket. Both of these plans have to juggle the intentions of multiple characters. That the show has managed to weave a web of motivation and consequence this tightly is what’s moving everything along at this point, as the tension over the trial has long since devolved into no more than back-pain for Cindy – literally.

But that’s okay, because these are lovely characters and we don’t want them to feel pain anywhere, and the idea that some of our beloveds may inflict damage to one another, rather than do the right thing, is unerring entertainment. What’s more, the show continues to experiment with the tools at its disposal. Flaka and Cindy are fun together, and the budding “romance” between Aleida and a guard is actually illuminating – Aleida has for so long-held a high guard, but her need of others in a moment of genuine weakness is a challenge her character alone would find so difficult overcoming.

Caputo is finally coming around it seems, as his moral objections to MCC might be boiling over. That Fig is there to offer him advice, and further invest in her own vulnerability, feels right. It’s important to offer developments like this six seasons along. But this season is loyalty, respect, and playing the long game: Plans.

This late in the season, well over half-way, the show is dishing out a bit more than we bargained for. It isn’t a problem that it’s so densely plotted, especially when compared to earlier seasons, but I’m worried as to whether or not the show can pull off a resolution to so much with the amount of time it has left. Everyone in Litchfield is committing to their game plan, we just have to wait and see what happens. There’s certainly the potential for a stellar ending here.

4/5


“Chocolate Chip Nookie”

Released 27 July, 2018; Runtime 1h; Created by Jenji Kohan; Directed by Ludovic Littee

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This is a good episode, flat-out, but it has some problems. To set the scene, everyone’s plans are underway. Daddy, Daya, and Aleida are smuggling drugs into the prison using the guard/boyfriend and his protein-shake tubs – props for making that relevant – and Barb is finally sober thanks to some time spent with Nicky in the infirmary. Piper’s got C-Block running drills to get ready for kickball, which was reinstated, but Badison’s a control-freak so you know where that’s headed. Caputo and Fig are starting to invest some energy against MCC, Red is cozying up with Carol in the hopes of getting at Frieda, who is still in Florida with Suzanne and Doggett trying not to get murdered. None of that is to mention the continued conflict between Mendoza and the other women of C-Block and Luschek and the cell-phone smuggling business. Shew.

This show’s layers are tangling up very quickly, and with only a handful more episodes left on the roster we need as much screen time reserved for relevant material as possible.

Right?

I guess not, because in the middle of all of that interesting shit, we get another glimpse into Carol and Barb’s back story. My question: Why? What do we learn? Nothing of value. I’d rather be following Caputo on his crusade against his former employer, with a reformed Fig backing him up, or the changing politics of the old alliances between characters that are being challenged in max.

What we get in this lengthy set of flashbacks is what Frieda describes as the “Little Debbie Killings.” Barb and Carol, while teenagers, murder their younger sister by locking her in a car and pushing it into a lake. And? They bicker a lot once they’re in prison together. It’s rushed, it’s a severe strain on the suspension of disbelief, and it doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know about the warring tribes of Lichfield in the present. Their characterization in Frieda’s flashback was enough. They’re bickering sisters who went to prison and, over their long incarceration, grew to hate each other. What’s to elaborate on?

Consider it this way: All Frieda had to do in a brief conversation with Suzanne was hint at the notoriety of the “Little Debbie Killings” and that Little Debbie was Barb and Carol’s little sister. It should go without saying that only a depraved individual would murder their little sister. Did we need to see it play out? I’d argue that the handful of flashbacks did very little to justify, in any frame of mind, why the two sisters offed their younger sibling. There’s hardly enough time to present anything nuanced about these brand spanking new characters. And with everything else going on, it’s a distraction.

Let’s hope the next episode keeps its focus on the present day, because OITNB‘s recurring plot-device is becoming a hindrance. The show will get better going forward, not by continuously peeking backward.

3/5


“Well This Took a Dark Turn”

Released 27 July, 2018; Runtime 1h; Created by Jenji Kohan; Directed by Laura Prepon

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Maybe Laura Prepon should spend more time behind the camera, because she delivers a pretty tight episode here. Not a single flashback in sight as we focus on how dangerously all of the old alliances have shifted, and the new dramas that envelope our characters. Every meaningful arc gets some time here. Piper and Badison butt heads, Nichols is trapped between old friends and D-Block’s blood lust, MCC is maneuvering around Caputo’s campaign for the truth, and the riot-trial is officially underway. Those plans, the ones I’ve been yammering on about for the last few reviews, are in action. As they put it in the show – it’s time to go all-in, and I am. I really am.

Leading up to this episode we’ve had a mess of plot-lines entangle, to see them tugging and yanking all over is rewarding. There’s no near-miss with Aleida’s drug-tubs of protein powder, her boyfriend confronts her instantly. We have immediate consequences and action. Everything Piper does to help herself gets her in deeper trouble with Badison, regardless of what she wants, and she finally comes face to face with the realization we’ve all been yearning for over the last few years: The other prisoners fuck with her because of her privilege, because she’s in there with them despite having every opportunity they could only dream of having. That Taystee is the one to offer this revelation makes it all the more sweet.

Side note: It’s really nice to see Burset here, I wish this season would bring back some of our old favorites more frequently. Her situation is sad, but her decision at the end of the episode is in-keeping with the mantra this season has touted from the jump – it’s every woman for herself. She commits to her own survival, as does every other character.

Piper goes all in on her status as kickball captain, Vause goes all-in on a college course, Cindy goes all-in on her testimony, the Litchfield campers go all-in on their allegiances to their new blocks, and the guards go all-in on fixing their fantasy draft dry spell in what is a genuinely surprising way to end the episode.

Nothing distracts from the drama here. There’s levity, sure, but everyone has to make a choice, and those choices get made, galvanizing or undoing their relationships or their security.

Great episode; the kind you clench you jaw and raise your eyebrows at.

4.5/5


Two to go

I’m excited to see where this ends. The upcoming kickball game has some stakes riding on it, that’s for sure. This season has done well to unshackle itself from the sentimental-oozing of earlier episodes. It feels more akin to seasons one and two, where there’s danger behind every sign of relief.

I don’t want to see this kickball crap outshine the trial, however. For as prevalent a role that played in the first half of the season, I want it to finish strong.

We’ll see.

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From Under a Rock: Amy Poehler and Nick Offerman have a new show!

It’s hard to keep up with pop-culture. Things emerge and disappear at such a whiplash pace that any single human-being running a comprehensive media blog might be forgiven for letting some exciting news slip through his fingers. The news in question? The July 31, 2018 release of NBC reality show, Making It. Hosted by none other than Leslie Knope and Ron Swanson Amy Poehler and Nick Offerman.

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Seeing as the show premiered just last night, and the show’s YouTube channel has been up for like, four months or something, this hardly qualifies as “news.” But it’s recent enough for me to gush about it and to count my lucky stars that I even heard about this to begin with.

It looks like another competition-based reality show, but sharing its concept with some of the most popular videos on the internet right now: Arts and Crafts. Crafters are all over YouTube, from tutorials in homemaking to replicas of famous weaponry. Mythbusters alum Adam Savage has earned millions of views on his workshop-based web-show, Tested, where in one now-famous video he modified a nerf-gun to shoot 10,000 rounds of foam ammunition.

Crafting is popular, and there are few more recognized craftsmen than actor Nick Offerman.

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In his role as Ron Swanson on NBC’s own Parks and Rec, Offerman played the character as a government-loathing, hard-work, and self-sustainability championing everyman – whose longing for the outdoors, a stiff glass of scotch, and resentment of all personal vulnerability made him an ideal Hemingway hero.

Though it’s known in real life that Offerman is quite a softy, the handyman he played on TV was a representation of his actual proficiency in woodworking and other crafts.

Enter: Amy Poehler.

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Self-described in the new show’s promotional material as a bit of a layman, her role as co-host seems more to appeal to the audience’s sense of voyeurism. That kind of, “watcha makin’?” approach.

The set itself reminds me of PBS’s The Great British Baking Show. Craft-stations are set up in a smaller, less-industrial environment with soft lighting and brighter colors. The promo also suggests a more friendly and cooperative approach to competition rather than the cutthroat and demoralizing bickering of other, more Ramsey-ish reality television shows.

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All of this seems to act as the contrarian response to the acidity present in the modern social-discourse. Poehler at one point addresses this in the trailer, saying outright that the show is more about bringing people together over a shared love of creativity and artistry – rather than personal gain. In-keeping with the unshakeable optimism from other notable works in Poehler’s career, this might become the reality TV show to watch.

A little togetherness, Poehler says, is exactly what we need right now.

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There’s an audience for crafts online, and people have certainly been pining for more Parks and Rec. This could be a hit, especially considering just how far the show’s cast has launched into the pop-culture spotlight since the show ended. Stars Chris Pratt, Aubrey Plaza, Aziz Ansari, Rashida Jones, Rob Lowe, and Adam Scott have all seen success in prominent roles for other shows and feature films.

Anyways, let’s see how this works out for Amy and Nick and their band of professional crafters. I’d be tickled to death if we got at least one scene of our two co-hosts chowing down on waffles at a local diner. Tickled. To. Death.


Making It premiered July 31, and airs every Tuesday at 10/9c after America’s Got Talent, on NBC.

Review: Orange is the New Black: Season 6 – Part 2

This is Part Two of a review in-progress for the sixth season of Netflix’s prison dramedy, Orange is the New Black. This review covers episodes four through seven.

*Some Spoilers Ahead*
“I’m the Talking Ass”

Released 27 July, 2018; Runtime 56m; Created by Jenji Kohan; Directed by Phil Abraham

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Trust and loyalty are again at the forefront of this episode. While everyone inside of prison struggles to confide in their neighbors, the inmates associated with the riots begin reaching out for legal help. Plenty of familiar faces arrive, old COs who were held hostage during the riot have come back to work in max, including Luschek, and it’s uncertain if they are of sound mind enough to resume their duties. Neither those in prison or those outside seem to be able to aid one another.

So the theme of isolation continues.

This is one of the more humorous episodes, despite its portent. We have glimpses of trauma and fear from former COs and inmates alike, we finally have Daddy and Madison’s slots in the social pecking order explained, but the story and its flashbacks focus on Nichols. In the present, she’s in need of legal help. Her father has a solution, his new fiancée is a lawyer.

Young Nicky is a sharp child, eager to please both of her neglectful and self-serving parents (neglectful parents are a constant among the show’s incarcerated) for a share of their attention and approval. She straightens her hair for her bat mitzvah, but her father disapproves, considering it a veiled slight by his former wife. Young Nichols is a pawn in a post-matrimonial end-game. That she uses her biting, signature brand of humor to tear both of her parents down in front of the crowd is magical.

In order to spare herself extended jail-time, it looks like Nichols has to turn against Red, as the Feds are hoping to pin as much as they can of the riot and the murders on her. Red’s family is eating itself alive.

Shot for shot, this episode brings in to question who is trustworthy and who is false or self-serving. Taystee is told straight-up by her public defender that the Feds don’t care about truth or justice, they care about sweeping this under the rug. Women cannot confide in their mothers, nor can the mothers depend on their daughters – be they surrogate or otherwise. In a tense moment, Dayanara is torn from her meeting with Aleida, her mother, by a an angry CO. Aleida, who it turns out was scammed into a health-supplement ponzi-scheme, is trying everything she can to gain ownership of her children and be there for Dayanara. Everyone is trying, but it isn’t enough when the system in which they operate offers no hope of justice, or fairness.

Another well acted, well paced episode closes on a relatively positive note for Doggett and Coates. Doggett is in disguise as a man in order for them to travel freely and go to an amusement park. When Coates and Doggett share a smooch, a man walking by calls them “faggots.” Dixon, charmingly, retorts with, “Hey, those faggots are my friends,” and proceeds to clock the offender across the jaw.

This show loves offering redeeming moments for its characters. But few have been offered so far. All in all, the episode plays it pretty safe. There are few revelations, but the dread surrounding the entire situation permeates every scene. Every character, regardless of context, is under pressure from every angle. Even Alex, who is alive (much to Piper’s excitement), must suffer her wounds and the bitter conflicts of her block. Every action taken seems to have motive beyond what is immediately apparent, and so far the show is using that to keep us on the hook.

It’s working.

4/5


“Mischief Mischief”

Released 27 July, 2018; Runtime 1h; Created by Jenji Kohan; Directed by Andrew McCarthy

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Oh, Luschek, please never change. The morally ambiguous, self-serving CO is back and at it again. Mirroring reality a bit too closely, the episode opens with the COs meeting for the “Inmate Fantasy Draft” – a scoring system determined by inmate behavior, wherein each CO creates a roster of inmates, keeps score, etc. Points are added for things like suicide – fewer if the attempt is unsuccessful. It’s incredibly dark humor, but cut this show at the vein and you won’t be seeing orange. I don’t want blood on your mind, though, think only of rats – dozens of them.

It’s Halloween, so Luschek isn’t the only one engaged in shenanigans. There are schemes forming between the warring blocks. We get a lovely scene with the always hilarious Morello and her roommate breeding rats in D-Block. Morello is pregnant, verifiably, and it appears it might be clouding her judgment of late.

Though this episode is focused more on hi-jinks and tossing all of our new characters in with the old (something this show always handles well), those themes of trust and loyalty, reliability and respect, are still there. It’s interesting to watch it play out. Power dynamics are shifting even amongst the COs, with Luschek quickly taking ownership of the Inmate Draft from another CO – a successful takeover won with chips, dip, and hacked computer software.

Back in prison, the older inmates continue hazing the cookies, who themselves are still suffering the anxiety of the riot investigation. Piper says it best: “I hate this place. Bosses, gang warfare, extortion.” She says this after Madison puts cheese in her nose and ears – it’s all about that pecking order.

Aside from trust and respect, this episode hammers home that this is a prolonged conflict. A silent, slow-burning engagement where no two sides see eye-to-eye. It isn’t on our minds, as the show uses humorous sleight-of-hand to keep us entertained with Piper clawing cheese out of her ears, then a CO – hostage during the riot – takes her chance to rough up Ruiz as payback. It’s startling.

These are the deep-seeded plotlines that work so well. When we almost forget after a year of separation from the show, but are then reminded in a flash of violence how dangerous the balance of power between these characters can be. The end of the episode sees fit to point that out. In an instant, the D-Block’s plan against C-Block is enacted. No blood is spilled (save for a rat), but it holds significant ramifications going forward.

Some stray thoughts: It’s nice to see Doggett take matters into her own hands in this episode. Doing what she feels is the right thing, especially since Coates is still a dick. It’s worrisome, however, to see Morello joining in on Daddy’s plans with D-Block. This could prove dangerous considering so many of their friends bunk in C-Block.

Another entertaining episode. The funniest yet, but never let your guard down. The violence may not have the budgeted flare of other shows, but in one as grounded as this, a sideways glance can carry weight.

4/5


“State of the Uterus”

Released 27 July, 2018; Runtime 58m; Created by Jenji Kohan; Directed by Constantine Makris

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What a great episode. One question dogs our characters: What is the right thing to do? Every character is seemingly standing on a ledge, and we’re here to see if they leap.

The episode finally tackles one of the newer characters directly – Daddy. It turns out she was something like a pimp, and the loss of one of her women to a sketchy businessman obviously haunts her. She struggles to stay in favor with Barb in D-Block after having lost the cooperation of a CO in their drug operation. She can’t let anyone down – not again. She’s taken a liking to Dayanara, who’s been using her oxycontin, and the two of them seem to be getting closer – Daya willing to lend support to Daddy late in the episode. It’s an interesting development, one that could lead anywhere depending on how desperate for relevance Daddy gets, or how addicted to Oxy Daya gets – not to mention how bloody the conflict between the blocks could get.

Back in Gen-Pop is Taystee, after being a fucking badass and refusing to plead guilty to the second-degree murder charge thrown at her, much to her public defender’s chagrin. This is where the moral center of this post-riot arc is starting to develop. We want these characters to do the right thing, stand with the truth and tough it out. We know that’s not how things will work out, but we can hope, damn it. Taystee is, without a doubt, the voice of reason at this point in the show, and it’s exhilarating to see her stand defiant. Difficult, though, to see her embrace Cindy near the episode’s end.

Everywhere our characters struggle to do what is right with the resources they have at their disposal. Aleida is struggling to sell protein powder and gummy-vitamins, and to explain to her children – in foster care – why she can’t yet take them back. She’s losing them, like she’s lost Daya. It’s tough not to empathize with her, as she’s one of the few who made it out of Litchfield and seems tough enough to succeed.

But sometimes tough isn’t enough. Red is struggling with the mounting case against her, and it’s difficult not to feel angry for her. This season has thus far made it apparent that it’s every woman for herself, and the one character least deserving of betrayal would be Red, however unintentional. All the Feds have to do is take one look at her scalped head to see why she’d want Piscatella dead. Everyone wants to do the right thing, or at least the criminals do.

The tension is continuing to rise, splendidly. Though at this point in the season, that early momentum is starting to taper.

In previous seasons, and certainly in other Netflix Original Series, the thirteen-episode format has stalled out around episode eight, often engaging in what feels like the television equivalent to fourth-act syndrome. Right now, however, our characters are defiant, hungry, broken, or healing. They’re moving across the board without leaps in logic, without much in the way of plot-contrivance. It’s refreshing. The season is almost halfway over and the plot is carrying the brunt of the weight – which lets the actors get to work showing us why these characters are so much damn fun to watch in the first place. I can’t complain about that.

4/5


“Changing Winds”

Released 27 July, 2018; Runtime 57m; Created by Jenji Kohan; Directed by Andrew McCarthy

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Another solid episode tackling the back story of a new character. Madison and Daddy have similar roles in their respective environments, as we’ve covered, so it makes sense to follow-up Daddy’s back story with Madison’s.

She was bullied, abuse insinuated, and she’s risen to take control of her life away from those that would put her down. Still, though, she’s subservient to Carol – who wasn’t impressed with Madison’s plan to shit on D-Block’s laundry. Madison has a penchant for taking things too far, ignoring any social graces and going straight for the jugular. We’ll see if she really is out for blood following this episode. I’m interested to see where her character goes, who stands up to her and on what grounds, or if she stands up to Carol in the end.

Aside from revelations about Madison, this episode is happy to pause the mounting tension and focus on the budding relationships between the characters. Until now, I didn’t realize how badly I wanted that. All season we’ve had plenty of Piper and Alex, filling their normal roles, but Madison’s presence is stressing that relationship as she tries using Alex to get back in good graces with Carol. Elsewhere, we have Nichols trying to calm an increasingly confrontational Morello (fairly funny), and Cindy has partnered up with Flaca to take over the prison’s radio show (not as funny as it could be).

Most felt in earnest, however, was the “first and last” date between Caputo and Fig, where they drop their normal pre-coital pleasantries and allow themselves some vulnerability. Caputo, taking the Missouri warden job, actually draws some sentiment from Fig. It’s a touching moment, especially when she says, at the conclusion of their date, “I can’t believe you’re leaving.”

After that moment I had to sit and think to myself about how long these characters have been playing off of one another, how many alliances have shifted and the friendships evolved. It should say something that Fig, who has been for several seasons a detestable character, can draw a bit of sympathy from the audience. Redeeming moments.

The episode closes with less surprise than it earns, but still with vested interest from me. Though the show has always gone out of its way to “go there,” it hasn’t always stuck the landing. Perhaps it was just awkwardly staged, or edited too slowly, but the pass off of the cell-phone between Madison and Alex was entirely too overt. The following image of inmates from C-Block and D-Block crowding the COs in the yard was equally sluggish in execution. I’m not entirely sure how, but I was very aware I was watching a television show.

As an element of the overarching narrative, however. It serves it’s purpose.

3.5/5


Halfway There

So far, so good. The show hasn’t lost its momentum yet, but a few too many threads remain up in the air. I’m still wondering when the rest of our characters are going to make an appearance, specifically Big Boo.

This season still feels like it’s building up to something. Piper has made mention of writing a memoir, so perhaps we’re entering the waning days of the series. It would seem appropriate, and I wouldn’t complain. As for this season, just past the halfway point there needs to be a more significant step forward in the plot. It may be their way of avoiding the aforementioned fourth-act syndrome that’s plagued other Netflix shows like Jessica Jones and Luke Cage. Episode eight might prove me wrong, but I’m worried that this season may have been front-loaded. It’s a small worry, as I’ve been thoroughly entertained so far.

Seven down, six to go.

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Review: Orange is the New Black: Season 6 – Part 1

This is Part One of a review in-progress for the sixth season of Netflix’s prison dramedy, Orange is the New Black. This review covers episodes one through three.

*Some spoilers ahead*

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The Riot’s Over

It’s hard to believe it’s been a year since Orange is the New Black (OITNB) left us with the inmates of Litchfield crammed into busses, their new lives in maximum security waiting down the hill. Much has been said about season five’s risky decision to confine its story to a span of three days. Plenty felt the pacing was off, justifiably so, as many episodes would pass before the conclusion of menial character arcs, and the near over-reliance on the show’s staple novelistic approach to storytelling via flashbacks. Season five relied heavily on those flashbacks to fill the spaces between the bursts of violence and revelation during the riot, it’s true, but what the truncated time-frame allowed the show to do was put its extensive cast of wonderfully realized characters into noticeable action.

For every lengthy flashback during season five, we were treated to tantalizing bits of character development; normally explained away with a chat in a prison bunk between confidants, now as a rousing monologue before news cameras behind a massive pile of burning junk-food. The anger and humanitarian concerns following both the MCC acquisition of Litchfield Prison and Poussey’s death reached a breaking point in season four, and the galvanizing violence that erupted against the COs made season five not only congruent with the themes of the show up to that point, but undeniably refreshing as a shake-up to the achingly slow pace and structural predictability of seasons two through four. By giving Dayanara that gun in season four’s closing moments, season five was able to hit the reset button on a show that was in trouble of becoming stale – derivative of itself. That didn’t work for everybody, understandably so, but seeing this huge cast of characters interact with one another of their own accord was well worth any storytelling contrivances. They are, after all, what makes this show so endlessly watchable in the first place. But, as Caputo points out early on in season five, riots don’t end well – they never end well.

Now in season six, with the anxiety of the riot’s conclusion retreating to a slight consolation for the viewer, we’re back with our favorite prison troupe and all of their vibrant eccentricities. Now those characters and their narratives have a new central arc to revolve around. Season five, whatever you think of it, has allowed season six to plot a new course in a new setting with an entirely new set of conflicts to resolve. And that’s what’s most apparent from the jump – that OITNB has some of its mojo back.


“Who Knows Better Than I”

Released 27 July, 2018; Runtime 54m; Created by Jenji Kohan; Directed by Michael Trim

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The episode opens dark, into unfamiliar territory. We aren’t in the minimum security compound anymore, or what prisoners and COs refer to as the “camp up the hill.”

We’re in max, general population or “Gen-Pop.” To better illustrate this transition we see it first through Suzanne’s eyes in a wonderful bit of creative interpretation. Suzanne has been deprived of her medication and is sinking back into episodes of delusion, reality warping around her in fanciful ways. To get acquainted with the new normal of maximum security, we the audience view it at first as an innocent bit of theater. Dayanara is brutalized by COs, a vengeful reaction to the death of CO Humphrey in the previous season. Now, more than ever, are the inmates and their overseers segregated by ideology. We see Nichols performing a bit of stand-up as a dog, displaying her tendency for witty obfuscation, and Frieda Berlin performing a “magic trick”, which we later discover was a legitimate suicide attempt. Oh, and there’s a funny bit with Alex Trebek in response to Piper’s unanswered pleading for the whereabouts of Alex Vause. The show, much like Nichols, has always been disarmingly funny, acerbic and dry when presenting the hardships of incarceration.

This, I think, is the best way to open this new season. Begin with unanswered questions, establish our new norm, and work retroactively to answer those questions without lingering for too long. The first episode gives us enough to digest without answering all of our deepest worries following the last season. The fate of many of our beloved characters are still up in the air, but this first episode gets us re-acquainted with the core cast, enough of them at least, and trudges up the connective tissue linking their current predicament to the aftermath of the riot.

Piper is delightfully deluded and self-absorbed – as she’s always been – and seems set to get knocked down a few pegs further as the season progresses. She wants to know what’s happened to Alex, while the rest of the Litchfield “Camp” alum are keenly focused on number one: themselves. It’s endearing that Piper is concerned about her prison fiancée, as she’s always been troubled on her own, but circumstances are changing for the new members to max – the “cookies” according to Gen-Pop – there will be very real consequences for the riot-organizers, and over the deaths of COs Humphrey and Piscatella, whether the inmates had anything to do with them or not. The Feds and MCC are in deep shit, and are unsurprisingly searching for a scapegoat to end their nasty spat of bad-publicity. This is where OITNB excels: Humanizing those behind bars, and turning a critical eye at those who put them there, while also allowing their humanity to peek through.

We have plenty of new characters, and an almost entirely new cast of COs to watch out for. That this show’s ensemble is growing, but each new addition manages to carve out a place for themselves in the narrative and blend almost seamlessly into the dynamic between the long-time cast, is marvelous. The fear of the unknown, though, is what gives this show its edge.

This first episode is well done. We’re immediately dropped into our new conflict, the pesky Feds and MCC elitists scraping pennies from between fiscal reports. More importantly we get to see Suzanne front and center to inform us that the situation our inmates find themselves in is truly and royally fucked. Suzanne is right to lose her cool over the conflicting stories the ladies try to spread before speaking to the Feds. Everyone is trying to cover something up, in or out of prison (especially if you remember who actually killed Piscatella), and you’d be right to go a little crazy trying to work it all out.

4/5


“Sh*tstorm Coming”

Released 27 July, 2018; Runtime 58m; Created by Jenji Kohan; Directed by Mark A. Burley

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An apt title, as a shitstorm is well and truly underway. The episode opens with our federal agents, the Feds, bickering over “ass”-scented lunch. But more importantly, we’re shown exactly the type of case they’re trying to build against the former inmates of the Camp. On the board in their meeting-room (the CO break-room), we see the faces of Frieda, Cindy, Daya, and Taystee underneath the label “MURDER”. Under “RIOT LEADERS” we see Mendoza, Flores, Nichols, and Piper. Between all of this we see “CHARGES”, two life sentences, and three ten-years extensions. This, it’s made apparent, is what will drive a wedge between our characters, as the Feds don’t seem particularly interested in what really happened, just in closing the case as quickly as possible.

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A lot had to transpire to immediately grasp the conflict this investigation presents. OITNB has given us years of backstory to each of these characters; the audience knows why they’re in prison, what they have waiting on the outside, and who they ally themselves with inside and why. The relationships in OITNB are predicated on a kind of pragmatic moral-coding. Right and wrong shift according to the usefulness of a specific character at a specific time, in relation to every other character they come across. Very few of them wouldn’t sell out the other for a delayed prison stay, and some are arguably close enough to take a fall on behalf of another. These are the complexities that stain the viewer’s subconscious when one character, say Cindy, is asked to offer testimony against Taystee, arguably her closest friend in prison.

We also understand that the value these characters hold, even in their own eyes, are tied intrinsically to the prison itself. Take Caputo, barking at loud neighbors while watching “dinosaur-cock” porn in his living room, tenderly cradling a box of cereal. On suspension from MCC due to his mishandling of the riot (let’s not argue whether his heart was in the right place, facts are facts), he has literally nothing to do. Everyone he talks to say the same thing – look man, you got your money, an easy out for the PR nightmare engulfing MCC, just take it and be happy. But, as we all know, Caputo is not a happy man, though he may try his damnedest to turn the other way – that pesky conscience of his keeps acting up.

This episode, however, has more to do with loyalty or – more specifically – responsibility. We discover Cindy was a young mother, but chose to care for herself rather than her child. This is juxtaposed with her responsibility to cover for Taystee, and she very nearly does, save for one fatal slip of the tongue. We also see Doggett in the trunk of Coates’ car, smuggled away from the prison the day the riot was shuttered. These two feel a responsibility toward one another, which is handled well enough, but more surprising is that fellow CO and hostage, Dixon, feels responsible (however misguided) in ensuring that Coates is allowed time to process his trauma as a prisoner. Dixon seems to have some experience here, mentioning briefly his own experience with Trauma and of being a former soldier. Though it’s comedic, considering Doggett’s pining for Slim-Jims and Temple Run in the trunk, it’s a quick endearment to one of the more villainous characters of the last two seasons.

That’s what this show likes to do. Present a character as one way, and dive into them. For the audience the character may seem to change over time, and sometimes they do, but in reality it’s the audience’s perception of those characters that changes. Layers, people. It makes for better television.

Piper’s responsibility to her prison-fiancée is driving a wedge in her ability to discern between the versions of herself. She’s suffering an existential crisis, no longer able to clearly identify the Piper outside of prison from the Piper inside. Add to this her new bunk-mate in Ad-Seg, an older woman of a quieter demeanor – like the nervous Piper of the first few seasons. That the woman seems approachable, broken even, endears Piper to her, but it’s revealed later that the woman is in max for killing her children. Which appearances can we trust? What roles are they to portray?

While this is happening, the Feds are turning people against one another. Flores and Mendoza agree to throw Ruiz under the bus as the organizer of the riot. Isolation and backstabbing. Not unfamiliar tactics for the show, but now with far greater consequences. These aren’t petty rivalries playing out, not as far as the “cookies” are concerned, but massive life-altering decisions.

This all serves to reinvigorate the show in ways seasons three and four tried to with their long-game approach to real-world commentary. Now, after season five lit the whole thing on fire, we finally feel some commentary relevant to the stakes of the show.

4/5


“Look Out for Number One”

Released 27 July, 2018; Runtime 50m; Created by Jenji Kohan; Directed by Erin Feeley

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Old rivalries are buried while older rivalries burn on endlessly. That’s the tale of the tape here in the third episode. What is possibly the best use of flashback in several seasons, introduces and explains a conflict that is sure to carry on throughout the season – overshadowing even the specter of the riot investigation. Frieda, now on the mend from her suicide attempt and following some careful advice from Red, is seeking a more creative solution to her time in maximum security. It turns out she wasn’t always at the Camp on the hill, she was once involved in a nasty sibling rivalry between two prominent drug-pushers, each occupying a block of the prison. Carol, easily identifiable for her glasses and short-fused temper, runs C-Block. Carol’s sister Barb runs D-Block. To differentiate who belongs to which block, C-Block is clad in navy-blue, while D-Block in the tan we viewers should recognize from Litchfield minimum security.

Things are going to get very, very ugly.

This episode piggybacks off the themes of responsibility and loyalty from the last, and shows just how dangerous those allegiances can be when pitted against one another. I’ll avoid spoiling how Frieda got in trouble in max, or where she winds up in this episode, but it has potential. Everyone else, it seems, is at the mercy of their new relationships. Cookies from the Camp find each other and stay together, but this block-to-block rivalry could pit them against one another again, further dividing them over the riot.

Soon it’ll be every woman for herself as the Feds’ inquisition persists. From the PR side of things, Fig (taking over for Caputo) and Linda (freshly released from her wrongful imprisonment) have to start managing the bad press over the riot and MCC’s handling of it. These women have more in common than their exposure to the soda-can. Both career oriented, they may yet make a formidable pair, especially considering their efforts will undoubtedly be to run with the false-narrative surrounding the deaths of Litchfield COs and the riot-leaders themselves. Linda shows hints of a conscious under that new wig of hers, but we’ll see. This show doesn’t want us knowing everything about anyone too early or too often.

And here’s where the central drama starts to unfold. Red is desperate to get the remnants of her prison family to agree on a narrative. It’s important to recall that barely any of the woman taken into maximum security know of Piscatella’s death. A game of telephone ensues as Red tries to send out the information, using new semi-ally and C-Block gossip queen, Badison (real name Madison). Nichols understands, but Piper does not, leading to incriminating testimony against Red.

While all of this is happening, as if enough wasn’t already happening, Dayanara and her compatriots in D-Block are dealing with their Badison equivalent, Daddy, who has taken a liking to Dayanara and offered her Oxycontin to help deal with the pain of her many CO-beatings. Daddy doesn’t look like she’s going anywhere.

That the show can continuously juggle this many narratives this concisely, while still allowing two major arcs to emerge from all of the character-drama, is commendable. Dialogue in the last few seasons, specifically three and four, felt stilted and weighed down by its overt political commentary. Here, however, the characters are each on the backs of their feet – up against the wall. What they say matters now, because every action they take in service of themself or someone else has real consequences. That isn’t to say that the show is more serious this time around, just more believably so.

After three episodes, season six looks to be as good as seasons one and two in terms of quick, character driven plotting, sharp dialogue, and the oh-so-essential parallels between the people in prison and the people running it.

4/5


So Far

I’m hooked. The acting is, as always, fantastic. Direction and plotting have always been shaky with this show, but as of right now, it feels lively and imbued with a newly-minted sense of forward momentum. Those orange end-cards are sneaking up on me now. For the first time in a few years I’m genuinely invested in the show. Let’s hope it stays that way.

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Game of Thrones Returns in ‘First Half’ of 2019

EW reported way back in January that HBO had confirmed the release window for its cash-printing juggernaut of a series, Game of Thrones. A placidly announced “2019”.

How wonderfully vague. This was after EW had reported back in 2017 that GoT might not have anything Thrones-related in 2018. HBO has seen fit to release small morsels of detail regarding the show’s conclusion (while teasing the spinoff already in pre-production), and around every three to five months we get a tasty little carrot dangled in front of us.

We’re biting HBO. Don’t worry.

Well, EW has reported again a clarification of HBO’s timetable for the final season’s release, and a bit more information on the prequel series spinoff.

Casey Bloys, HBO’s programming president, said to reporters that the final season of GoT will release in the “First half” of 2019. And that’s it. First half. 2019. Go apeshit, everybody, because that probably means it will follow a similar release pattern as seasons 1-6, airing in late March or early April as opposed to season 7’s July premier.

Remember, this final season will only be six episodes long, and (if Maisie William’s instagram is to be believed) principal photography has ended. All that’s left to do is for the animators slaving away in HBO’s office-basement to render the dragons, and the armies of the dead, and of the living clashing with those armies in what is sure to be the most extravagant and monumental achievement in television history. Did anyone else just shiver?

Moving on.

EW also makes mention of the prequel series HBO is producing to fill the void left after GoT wraps. You might remember rumors swirling around that HBO ordered five fucking prequel shows. Which is a lot, considering the massive budget of each episode of GoT. Perhaps following a moment of clarity in the afterglow of their hubris, they realized that only one show was necessary. A show, as reported by EW, that Casey Bloys expects to start filming in early 2019.

So, 2019 appears to be the year for all things Game of Thrones. Nothing to do now but create a new email and sign up for another free trial of HBO Now, catch up on Westworld or binge seasons 1-7 of GoT. Hum the theme-song to yourself on the morning commute. It’ll be worth it (hopefully).