Sunday, June 24, 2012

Five Comics Worth Reading: June 2012

I’ve been really getting into “world building” series lately, i.e. books that may focus on a set cast but really are telling the story of an entire society and moving the camera around a lot to do so; I feel like Paul Levitz’ first Legion of Super-Heroes run was the template for these in modern super hero comics and some really good ones have cropped up lately, from Age of Apocalypse to the current volume of Ultimates to Earth 2 by James Robinson and Nicola Scott. It’s not surprising that this type of storytelling falls in Robinson’s wheelhouse, as his Starman featured a vast array of characters beyond Jack Knight who could easily carry their own stories at any given moment (and the setting itself was as much a star as any of them). The idea of alternate realities featuring familiar characters is a tried and true one I’m a big fan of, and with the New 52 basically making the entire DC Universe one of these to begin with, I somehow find the concept of Earth 2 almost refreshing and particularly palatable for an older fan like me; this is another new take, but one rooted in a tradition dating back decades (if that makes sense). Really it’s the characters that sell it, though, in particular Robinson’s new version of Jay Garrick as The Flash, an everyman dreamer who stumbles across destiny he never figured within his grasp and now has to cope with a battle way over his head; that’s my favorite kind of hero. There’s also coolness to seeing guys like Garrick or Alan Scott not as the grizzled warhorses we’ve come to know them as, but fresh faced rookies who still possess the intangibles of the characters I’ve dug. So between the cross-reality scope, the likable protagonists, the “you know them but you don’t” twists with guys like Mr. Terrific and Nicola Scott’s classic, colorful, oh-so comic book art, this new series has become a quick favorite of mine.

Speaking of world building, Fables is another title that typifies that expression, as Bill Willingham, Mark Buckingham and company have spent over a decade now creating and letting flourish their vast storytelling tapestry across genres and through dozens of stories. While they still do a nice job over in that book of putting the characters first and foremost, there’s no denying they have to top the last arc a lot—and that’s a tall order—so Fairest is a nice spin-off in that it goes somewhat “old school” with more self-contained stories set across Fables continuity but specific focus on smaller adventures. I’m loving the first arc, where Willingham has gone back to the well on one of the things that has helped Fables endure and taken an “origin story”—in this case Sleeping Beauty’s—and found a quirky ground that’s more hardcore than the cartoons we’ve seen, more lighthearted than the gory original “fairy tales,” and with the kind of wit and high adventure that makes a comic book. It’s an escapist delight to follow familiar characters like Ali Baba with a thoroughly modern edge plus get more insight into established Fables folk like the Snow Queen. If I may toot a pal’s horn though, my friend Phil Jimenez’s art on this book is gorgeous on a jaw-dropping scale; he was born to draw the lush landscapes, intricate palaces and beautiful people of Fables. It’s a visual feast nicely abetted by the inks of another amigo, Andy Lanning, plus knockout colors by Andrew Dalhouse.

When I was growing up reading Incredible Hulk, it was in the midst of Peter David’s reign as writer, and while it was also action-packed, psychological and often pretty dark, it was a funny book, with The Hulk as a witty lead operating a monstrous physical entity. Jason Aaron’s current run on Hulk is also very action-packed, also fairly psychological and quite dark, but while it’s not always funny—it frequently is—it’s damn sure demonstrating that some stuff I don’t typically think of as “fun” quite well can be. The current “Stay Angry” arc has at its core a clever premise that both subverts the “typical” Hulk hierarchy and provides brilliant set-ups for any number of stories: Bruce Banner is now the deranged side of the equation and is up to some crazy—and as yet unrevealed—scheme that has him spending his time “at the wheel” positioning himself into crazy situations then getting pissed off enough to become The Hulk, who has to deal with said situation, hoping not to inadvertently do exactly what Banner wanted, and thus far failing each and every time. Hulk also has to (wait for it) stay angry or else he’ll revert to Banner, who will either screw him over further or get them both killed. It’s an elaborate yet elegant framework that Aaron jumps off and then kicks to 11 by cramming the craziest things he can think of into the stories; so far we’ve had Hulk teaming up with The Punisher to take down a Mexican drug lord who was either a dog mutated into a man or a man who mutated himself to be part dog—to put the cherry on top, Hulk has Punished shoot him in the face several times when he’s in danger of calming down—and Hulk under the sea fending off a horde of Atlanteans and sea monsters inebriated by seaweed juice and thinking they’re pirates. It’s the kind of off-the-wall stuff you’d expect to find in a book like, say, Preacher or something, but that perhaps works even better here because The Hulk is such a resilient force you can throw into nearly anything and have him believably survive as well as make a bigger mess of things. I applaud Aaron for thinking big on this story and for creating a new take on Hulk himself: an astutely rational but annoyed monster that has to clean up the messes he himself created for years being perpetrated by the unfettered alter ego who has had to endure the brunt of that action. Inspired art choices like Steve Dillon and Pasqual Ferry only make things better. And this week, Tom Raney draws Hulk fighting Russian bears in outer space!

Speaking of that Lanning guy—and I was back in the Fairest write-up—he also writes, and along with Dan Abnett, he’s penning one of our consistent favorites on the This Week in Marvel podcast, New Mutants. This series occupies a very unique place in not just the Marvel Universe, but really all of comics, there has always been the problem of what to do with teenage characters when they kind of grow up—or rather are replaced by a younger generation—but can’t fully because they’re not going to supplant the adult characters already in place. The peak members of the New Teen Titans cast were—and really still are for the most part—victims of this grey area and the original New Mutants seemed doomed to a similar fate after their X-Force run came to an end and teams like Generation X or the young students of New X-Men and Generation Hope took their place, but Zeb Wells started up a new series that played on their connection to one another being what made them truly compelling, and now DnA have carved their niche out even further. Beyond having a very specific mission statement of mopping up the X-Men’s “unfinished business” (locating mutants who have fallen through the cracks or hunting down bad guys that eluded capture), the New Mutants are comics’ quintessential twenty-somethings: no longer in school, but still unsure of their long-term goals and therefore clinging to one another for support and safety. They fight Asgardian death maidens—as seen in the excellent “Exiled” crossover with Journey Into Mystery—but they also live in an apartment together, trying to get jobs at the local diner so they don’t have to ask Cyclops for cash. Two of the very best recent issues of New Mutants have been ones with little to no action—namely Magma’s date with Mephisto and when Blink dragged the team out for a night on the town—but then you’ve also got creepy horror stories like the Ani-Mator trilogy or their Fear Itself sojourn into the depths of Hel; New Mutants can do it all. The cast is endearing, relatable and quirky; the soap opera is suitably complex without being overwhelming; the humor is both dry and cute. Also, the art on the book fits its one-of-a-kind nature well, whether it’s David Lopez depicting evil death metal bands or Leandro Fernandez imagining a techno-organic freakshow. I love Dani, Roberto, Amara, Doug, Warlock and Nate like they’re my pals, and this book is among the best anywhere right now.

Yep, Brian K. Vaughan’s new comic book is awesome—I’m as shocked as anybody else. Seriously, BKV has a near flawless track record, and Saga has done nothing to harm that reputation. Going back one more time to that old world building theme that seems to have encompassed this post, I love that just as with Y: The Last Man, Ex Machina and even Runaways (though obviously that last one wasn’t as self-contained as the first two), Vaughan began demonstrating immediately via newborn baby Hazel being the narrator that he has the long game in mind for this one, and I really enjoy the little teases in that narration when we meet a new character hinting at events far down the line, as a creator being in for the long haul certainly encourages me to feel the same way. It’s not hard to invest in this series right from the start, as every character from foulmouthed star-crossed lovers Alana and Marko to bounty hunter The Will already have hidden depths I’m keen to discover, and the mash-up of romance and humor against a big ol’ sci-fi background is a tasty genre smorgasbord. Only a few issues in there have already been eye-grabbing visuals like people with television heads having sex and pre-pubescent ghosts missing their lower halves that Fiona Staples absolutely nails; she can do the beautiful and the epic as well as she does the gross and the laugh out loud, so that’s pretty darn swell. As a bonus, BKV is hilarious on the letters page which featured in one instance thus far fan art from none other than Rickey Purdin himself!

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Art Attack: September 2012's Coolest Covers

-I've been hot and cold (mostly cold) on Superman's casual crusader look in Action Comics (not a big fan of the modern armor), but Ben Oliver really sells it. I think it works best with a painter or an artist who shoots for realism since it's basically the apparel you'd assume a super hero would wear in real life as far as being functional (or at least non-constricting) and cool. When Oliver draws it, I think "I'd wear that if I were a pro wrestler," which is high praise coming from me.

-Who's the Scarecrow in the Angel & Faith cover?

-How do you beat that Daredevil cover by Paolo Rivera? The man is a machine. How long did that take?! I'm constantly amazed by how driven Paolo is. When he was doing Mythos, his painting was the best in the business as far as I'm concerned, but he reinvented himself as a pencil artist and has been tweaking everything he does ever since. He could get away with just stark, gorgeous portraits of Daredevil each month, but he always goes that extra mile, whether it's a unique presentation such as the "snow devil," the braille in Doom's face plate, the "barbed wire radar" and now this. I was on a call this week where Chris Samnee praised Paolo's interpretation of Daredevil's powers as "the way it always should have been done and the way everybody will do it from now on." Just a genius (and newly engaged--sorry ladies!).

-I want a New 52 Flash figure designed by Francis Manapul. I also want to see him draw the entire Justice League.

-That movie style Goon is bad ass because it jumps out as being not what I expect from a Goon cover, but also so totally still the character and his essence.

-With DC's cover theme this month, Clayton Crain did a nice job making I, Vampire stick out by having his figure mist through the background rather than tearing it apart; the little things.

-Part of me misses the old iconic Shazam! look, but I wasn't such a devotee that I'm not energized by Gary Frank drawing him as a bad ass. He actually reminds me a bit more of Prime now, which has to be some kind of irony.

-John Tyler Christopher's New Mutants #49 cover is currently my desktop background at work. It kind of terrifies me every time I turn on my computer.

-I'm high on sweet, sweet nostalgia with Todd McFarlane paying homage to his own stuff on Spawn and Rob Liefeld doing up zombie Youngblood.

-No two David Yardin covers ever look the same even a little bit. I am frequently fooled into thinking X-Factor has a rotating stable of extremely talented cover artists, but it's just one gent with a lot of range and imagination.

ACTION COMICS #0 by Ben Oliver
ANGEL & FAITH #14 by Rebekah Isaacs
DAREDEVIL #18 by Paolo Rivera
DEBRIS #3 by Riley Rossmo
THE FLASH #0 by Francis Manapul
THE GOON #42 by Blur Studio
HAPPY! #1 by Darick Robertson
I, VAMPIRE #0 by Clayton Crain
IT GIRL & THE ATOMICS #2 by Mike Allred
JUSTICE LEAGUE #0 by Gary Frank
THE MIGHTY THOR #19 by Alan Davis
MIND THE GAP #5 by Rodin Esquejo
NEW MUTANTS #49 by John Tyler Christopher
THE PUNISHER #16 by Marco Checchetto
ROAD TO OZ #1 by Skottie Young
SPAWN #223 by Todd McFarlane
SPIDER-MEN #5 by Jim Cheung
X-FACTOR #243 by David Yardin
X-MEN #36 by David Lopez
X-MEN LEGACY #274 by Mark Brooks
YOUNG JUSTICE #20 by Christopher Jones
YOUNGBLOOD #75 by Rob Liefeld

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Multiple Paragraph Movie Review: Rock of Ages

If you don't have plans to see this movie, you can check the spoilers here and then come back.

I saw the stage show of Rock of Ages a couple months back and had a blast, with the full knowledge that it was a weak plot and story held together tenuously at best, but all that was blown out of the water by the energy of the cast, the enthusiasm of the live crowd and, of course, my sheer, unadulterated love for the music at its core. For the film adaptation, my expectations were extremely tempered since the stuff I dug about the play is impossible to replicate on screen (I saw it at 1:30 in the afternoon on a Saturday in a theater with about a dozen people, none of whom besides me I expect could have sung an entire Motley Crue album word for word); I figured I'd spend a couple hours listening to my favorite hair metal anthems and ignore the rest. I'm thrilled to report that the Rock of Ages movie took those expectations and blew them out of the water.

It's the perfect stage-to-movie adaptation in that it keeps the character dynamics and plot points that are pretty universal, torpedoes the stuff that would be diminished without that live interaction, then seamlessly inserts new stuff without overwhelming the framework; most importantly, regardless of what got kept or junked, Rock of Ages the movie maintains the heart of Rock of Ages the play: the look at a period in time and a lifestyle with tongue firmly in cheek that says "we're not going to idealize this stuff, because a lot of it was pretty rough, but damn was it fun anyway." The soul of hair metal! My hat's off to Justin Theroux and company on their script (and of course it would be Justin Theroux who could make this work) and especially to director Adam Shankman. He fully embraces the stuff he's able to do in a film that couldn't be done on stage with mash-ups, montages and more fully-realized sets for the big musical numbers. I feel like when a Broadway show gets made into a movie the directors often get sheepish and focus too much on making the plot more "Hollywood" and not enough on using the shiny tools at their disposal to enhance what they've already got, so thumbs up again, Mr. Shankman.

I was also concerned about Tom Cruise as Stacee Jaxx, both because his performance had been hyped beyond belief and because the character underwent a fairly significant change between versions (in the play he's a morally bankrupt poser, in the movie he's a more tortured but ultimately virtuous real deal rock star). I need not have worried, because film Stacee is a great character (and much better suited for a cinematic story where the characters need to be at least a bit more fleshed out; again, the changes in this Rock of Ages weren't arbitrary, they were thought out and calculated for a different medium--what a concept!) and Cruise pours himself into the role with a fervor I'd most closely compare to his turn in Tropic Thunder (also written by Theroux), where he last reinvented himself. He's able to make Stacee hilarious in his excess, believable as a guy with issues without sacrificing the comedy, and every bit as big a deal and presence as the story requires him to be--and the dude can sing!

One of the big knocks I saw in reviews of this movie were that the two leads, Diego Boneta and Julianne Hough, cast primarily for their singing and dancing ability, dragged the action down with a lack of acting skills, and I'd totally disagree. Boneta certainly won't be doing Shakespeare anytime soon, but who cares? He's plenty charismatic and has the necessary pipes to hit the big musical numbers. Hough actually can act; she has a real magnetism to her and just as with the Footloose remake is able to create enough chemistry with her more wooden co-star for both of them, which is pretty important here given that Drew and Sherrie's romance, cheesy as it may be, is central to the whole enterprise. I really cared about them (I'm a sap, whatever) and was rooting for them to achieve their dreams, which is more than I can say for quite a few of the protagonists I've encountered in better reviewed films of late.

Besides, any deficiencies, real or imagined, in the acting of the young leads is more than made up for by the veteran and amazing remainder of the ensemble. Most pleasant surprise? Catherine Zeta-Jones vamping it up to high heck and looking like she's having a blast as the crusading mayor's wife out to stamp out rock and roll (a new character not in the play, as--to really run this point into the ground--they're great about eliminating the roles that wouldn't carry over well and adding in ones they need to flesh out the story they're telling). Russell Brand finds his groove probably the easiest as Bourbon Club manager Lonny, a Russell Brand role if ever there was one, and he and Alec Baldwin's Dennis Dupree fill the comedic duo slot nicely (if you were curious, Brand can actually sing, Baldwin cannot, both work for what they need to do). Mary J. Blige can't really act, but that's not really a big issue, as you pretty much know what you're getting when you cast Mary J. Blige in a movie. Paul Giamatti and Malin Akerman are crucial in providing the antagonist (the German land developer from the play is out, Giamatti's sleazeball agent is in) and a love interest to humanize Stacee (I had no idea Akerman could nail physical comedy so well). Bryan Cranston and Will Forte round out the cast with relative bit parts they seize nonetheless. Also of note: Kevin Nash is one of Stacee's silent bodyguards and rocks his one line in "Wanted Dead or Alive"--you go, Diesel!

I've rambled on about this movie more than most (hence the multiple paragraph review) but that's because it really came out of nowhere and grabbed me the way only a flick you go into expecting very little can (probably the last time I reacted like this was Rent, another musical interestingly enough). The poor reviews I've read criticize that Rock of Age's can't decide if it wants to be a total send-up of the era or something weighty, but I think they're missing the point; hair metal is music that doesn't take itself too seriously or not seriously enough, it really just doesn't think much at all about anything but "this sounds cool" ("Nothin' But a Good Time" is the third song in the movie) and that's what Rock of Ages is. I stick by the praise I doled out for the acting, the directing and particularly the craft in the writing as far as shaping source material with a deftness missing far too often with these kinds of endeavors, but at the end of the day, I don't think Rock of Ages is setting out to win any awards, change any lives or make any grand statements, it just wants to give you two hours of kick ass music with a fun story that lets you leave the stress of the real world behind and get lost in the leather and hairspray.

Rock on.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Ben & Jordan Watch Game of Thrones: Valar Morghulis

The bonds of brotherhood between Ben Morse and Jordan Geary were forged during their time as students at Connecticut College, where they spent four years losing at intramural sports (except softball in 2004!), forming their own fraternity because the school wouldn’t let them, making student films one professor called “unfortunate” and regularly beating their friend Dan Hartnett in Goldeneye.

Today, they live 20 minutes apart in New Jersey with their respective lovely wives, sharing passions for miniature golf, diner cuisine and the music of Motley Crue. They also both watch HBO’s Game of Thrones and have decided to write a column about it. While Jordan ran out and read all the books on which the show is based after season one, Ben prefers books with pictures and floppy covers.

Bear witness to their wit, wisdom and frequent allusions to Melrose Place as they try to do the tradition of Sean T. Collins and Megan Morse proud!

Ben: To give you a quick peek behind the curtains of how this column works, Jordan and I will alternate weeks as the guy who “starts” and sends his initial thoughts on the latest episode, then the other one responds, then I edit everything together. I drew this finale, but upon finishing it, I actually texted Jordan and said it might be better if he did it because I was so let down and figured the whole deal would just become a “this season sucked” rant on my part.

Ultimately, I sat on it a day, my initial annoyance died down, and I notified my buddy I could lead off after all, as there were some things I liked.

However, I’m still very disappointed in this finale, and more over in this season, so before we really get underway, allow me a mini-rant…

I fell in love with the first season of Game of Thrones because, despite being a show with a huge cast, tons of plotlines and a wide variety of locations, it seemed to pull off the near impossible and juggle them all. I cared about almost every character and story; some more than others (I never enjoyed Jon Snow’s adventures on The Wall), but there were none I really tuned out during. I felt affected whenever anything major happened to any character. When people died, it was a big deal, despite the fact that there was a legitimate feeling anybody could go at any time. It was a show with great acting, spot-on direction and smart writing that pulled it all together in an epic way.

This season, I stopped caring. By the finale, there were probably three or four characters I would have been really gutted if they died (off the top of my head, Tyrion, Bronn, Arya and Jaime; maybe Dany); for the most part, I would have just gone “Thank goodness, one less person taking up screen time” even for characters I really like or liked. I enjoy Theon immensely, but if he got his head lopped off here, I wouldn’t have shed many tears because his story feels like its run its course and he only gets five minutes on camera every other week anyway. I out Jaime on my “no kill” list up there, but truth be told, he was so absent this season anyway, I probably wouldn’t much notice he was gone.

I feel like the show is collapsing under its own weight. I’ll try to keep this brief (already failed that one) because I’ve said a lot of this in weeks past, but we’re just not given enough time with any of these characters or plots to care about them. I feel like people who have read the books have a distinct edge now, because they have some attachment from having enjoyed this stuff once already at their own pace, but the rest of us are hung out to dry. My erstwhile commentary partner put it well a few weeks ago when pointing out how slight the death of Renly Baratheon came off due to how little he has been used. When Ned Stark died last season obviously it was huge, but I was similarly affected by the demises of King Robert or Khal Drogo since we’d gotten a good measure of who they were and come to care about them independently as well as through those around them. I haven’t gotten the chance to know Stannis or the Tyrells or Talisa or Dagmer or Hot Pie or any of the dozens of other players whose names I’m currently copying from Wikipedia well enough to care about them. And when plots like Dany’s interminable stay in Qarth or Jon Snow’s never-ending trek beyond The Wall advance at a snail’s pace due to how little time can be spent on them while still cramming in everything else, I lose all interest.

Game of Thrones still has a great and talented cast, impressive technical direction, and in its better moments strong writing, but the more complex the books become, the more I feel like they’re struggling to get it all on screen without losing anything. I don’t hate the show and I’m definitely going to keep watching next year, but I’m bored by it and the long wait for season three isn’t something I’m particularly sweating versus how I counted the days following that stellar first run.

Jordan: Well said. The moment I read "allow me a mini-rant" I cracked my knuckles, got my wiffle bat out, and prepared for an all out blog war (unquestionably the nerdiest type of war), but I have to concede that I agree with everything that you just wrote. The part that hit especially close to home was your point that this season was experienced differently if the viewer had read the books. On my end, this manifested itself in both in good and bad ways...

The "good” was as you described: I was able to identify and grow with these characters more than viewers of the television show because I spent more time with them. Characters that were seemingly pooped out onscreen for a scene or two, like Renly, Stannis, and Brienne were MAJOR players in the books. Had you read the books, by this point in the story you either loved or hated each of the characters outlined above...but at least you KNEW enough to feel SOMETHING.

I enjoy using CAPS LOCK.

The "bad," as the poor, unfortunate readers of my words have already heard a million times, was the frequent deviation from the original story. While some of this could be explained away in the name of having to fit all of the content in, much of it didn't serve ANY purpose other than to help the HBO writers sleep at night with the knowledge they wrote something original. For those of you who disagree, I can't wait to talk to your future selves and say, "Remember sweet, Bill Cosby-esque Tywin? The show's obsession with that unnamed red-haired whore woman? Arya playing a game of cat and mouse with Tywin regarding who she really is?...WHERE DID ANY OF THESE THINGS LEAD AND WHY WERE THEY INCLUDED?" After the resultant shrug, I will snap my fingers, birth a shadow demon and it will strike all of you down.

Ben: Separating the episode out from the season, it was a tremendous let-down coming out of the awesomeness that was Blackwater last week, as I think we kind of expected it to be, but it was also just disappointing in that it was the season finale. This was supposed to be the one that put us on the edge of our seats until next spring and I feel like it failed miserably at that. Not only were the cliffhangers, few, far between and uninteresting, but so many plots and characters were left in even flatter places than usual.

Last week was a master class from George RR Martin on how this show should be done and this week was anything but. With Blackwater, as we noted, we got a laser focused story full of intensity and memorable moments where you fell in love/back in love with the small cadre of characters involved; this episode was the equivalent of Ron Garvin’s lame duck reign as NWA World champion in 1987 because they wanted to take the belt off Ric Flair for a little bit but nobody believed he wasn’t getting it right back (it took me weeks, but yes, I finally worked in a pro wrestling reference).

Jordan: I too agree this episode was a letdown, and not just because it followed The Blackwater. The vignettes were just way too short and way too all over the place this time. If a viewer had missed the rest of the season and then plopped down to watch this, he/she would see it jumping from location to location and character to character and think it was the worst episode of SNL ever (though Haratio Sanz would have portrayed Cersei better).

Taking into account your fantastic point about the structure of the first season vs. this one, I can't help but wonder if the show would have been better served trying to do HALF of the second book instead of the whole darn thing AND parts of the third. Yes, I have the clarity of hindsight when saying this, but at the same time it's safe to say that most readers realized the monumental task ahead for the writers and approached this season with an "I have no idea how they are going to do this" mindset. I wonder if the success of the first season, and its ability to perfectly encapsulate so much of the book, set the stakes unreasonably high for the next season as far as how much they could feasibly accomplish.

I must add that I LIKED this season, and as far as translating book to screen it was a far cry from a "Michael Bay ruining my childhood" scenario, but I also think it could have been done better with stronger pre-production.

FUN FACT: Kids, "Pre-Production" is the stage before writing begins on a show where everyone sits in a room and figures out how the season is going to run. In more familiar terms, it's the time Ben Affleck should be spending on figuring out how he should portray a character in a movie as opposed to playing video games.

I have no idea why I wrote that Fun Fact part like the narrator from How I Met Your Mother.

Ben: For the most part, the stuff at King’s Landing was oddly disjointed simply because last week was clearly their season finale, and everything I know about storytelling tells me that you end your year on Tywin showing up and Tyrion’s fate unknown, rather than the immediate dull aftermath of both events before anything else happens.

That said, I still rather enjoy the King’s Landing scenes through the strength of the performances as most of the best characters/actors are based there and also got the most time to shine this season, even if it was in large part all last week. Though I stand by not really knowing the Tyrells and thus not caring about them as much as I feel I could, I will say I’m more intrigued by them than a lot of other new characters. I like that Margaery’s ambition is pretty naked, in that she’s not a Varys or a Littlefinger as far as manipulating her way into power, she just comes right out and says what she wants (to be Queen) and lets those in charge know she’ll do whatever they want to get that. I can’t get a bead on whether she’s a good person, a bad person, or something in between, so again, she intrigues me. I’d also like to know what’s driving her brother now that his lover is gone.

Jordan: I too like that Margaery is pretty naked. You served that one right up to me.

In all seriousness though, it adds a lot to boring scenes for her to wear that crazy boob dress she has. A fine point by you.

As mentioned in an old episode of this blog that I am too lazy to find or link [EDITOR’S NOTE: Ditto], Margery is a complete enigma in the books as far as what her ambitions are. It's obviously been spelled out for us in over-the-top terms on the show, but in the book there is an uneasiness around her character as no one (including the readers) seems to know if she is sincere in her words or not. As for her brother Loras, I'd hate to shove his motivations into such a simple place, but to my knowledge I have to default to, "He's gay. He's pissed. He wants revenge."

I will take this time to point out that the Tyrells don't interest me in the least. Boob dress excluded.

Ben: I go hot and cold on Sansa, or rather on the actress playing her, Sophie Turner, as she can be brilliant one scene/week and then awkward and stiff the next. It was nice to see her so gleeful at the prospect of being free of Joffrey—because who wouldn’t be—but it didn’t quite come off as genuine as I’d like. Littlefinger was great in his frank appraisal of her reality though; I didn’t realize how much the show missed him until that scene where he reminded me.

Jordan: Sophie Turner only has had to do one thing on his show and that's "act as if she is acting," otherwise known as the "January Jones Wheelhouse." I too am trying to figure out exactly how good she is. Rather than put too much effort behind this, let's just agree with this equation and move on:

GAME OF THRONES ACTING EQUATION: Peter Dinklage > Rest of Cast > A piece of tinfoil > The Hound/Mormont

I will now take this time to point out that the Gmail app for iPhone is the devil. It erased my entire response to this entry not once but (as of this morning) TWICE. Several weeks of my life have gone into simply contributing to this one blog entry, and while I looked like the man in the photo at the top at the start of this email, I now look like Balon Greyjoy. If you look closely at my dialogue, you can actually see the moment where my spirit was irrevocably broken.

Ben: The stuff with Tyrion and Shae was sweet. I have little interest in her on her own, but as he does with so many others, Peter Dinklage brings out the best; their devotion to one another given where each came from is sweet. I feel like Tyrion should have ended the season on a bigger note, though, and a cliffhanger given that he’s everybody’s favorite character and thus they’d get invested in not knowing his fate; as it was, it blew my mind that his last scene of the year was so bland (ditto for pretty much everybody at King’s Landing).

Jordan: Totally agree with you on there being an insufficient cliffhanger for Tyrion. Full disclosure: Because I knew it was the season finale, and figured "they can't go out this way with Tyrion in some weepy love scene," the moment Tyrion gently held Shae's head in his hands I expected him to twist her neck, killing her. Perhaps done in some sort of "killing her to save her from the pain of loving him" way. This didn't happen in the books or anything, but these HBO writers are untrustworthy sons of bitches so you never know.

It's now, as I write this, that I realize that reading the end of "Of Mice and Men" made me think that's the way every season of a show will end.

Ben: I don’t know what Varys is up to, but I think I’m supposed to be ok with that, and I enjoy watching him work, so I am. His bit with the whore was a highlight.

Jordan: He's a sneaky one!

...I got nothing.

Ben: How did Stannis get away from King’s Landing relatively unscathed? Wasn’t he right in the heart of the battle when Tywin rode in? I’m not saying it’s implausible he escaped, but even a throwaway line explaining how would have been nice. I actually kind of wanted him to be imprisoned as it would be a new setting and dynamic for the character and because he’d be an interesting ally to Tyrion.

Jordan: Maybe I have an overactive imagination, but I completely bought the unseen conceit that Stannis' men dragged him kicking and screaming from battle, chucked him on a boat, rowed around the icky green stuff, gave him a warm bath, and then plopped him back in that throne room in Dragonstone. Wasn't at all surprised to see him back home (though in my head he had fuzzy bunny slippers).

As much as I would have loved the idea of the caped-and-masked Stannis-Tyrion superhero duo you suggest, I don't think their personalities would have worked for it. Tyrion derives all of his power from persuasion and manipulation, and Stannis' power lies in his stiff, unbending nature. I can see them trying to have a simple conversation, getting pissed, and then flinging their teacups at one another (The English accents on the show suggest every conversation of theirs would happen over tea).

Ben: Still don’t care about Melisandre.

Jordan: I very much care about her. She made love on a giant game of Risk and then shot a shadow demon out of her girl-parts. Screw Bo Derek, these two actions are what I like to call a "perfect 10."

Ben: Timely reference!

Whereas I complained about other plots moving at a glacial pace, the Robb/Talisa one jumped to light speed. I was interested to see their courtship, especially given how they seemed drawn to one another yet on opposite poles of philosophy at first, but ok, I guess torrid sex and then a secret wedding works too. Catelyn’s attempts to extol the virtues of a loveless marriage made me chuckle.

Jordan: The Robb betrothal happens even MORE quickly and randomly in the books, making it both a wacky surprise for Catelyn and the readers. If my swiss-cheese memory serves me right, the whole first mention of Robb's lady and their betrothal happens like this:

CATELYN: Robb, I let Jaime Lannister go.
CATELYN: I want my daughters back, Robb.
ROBB: JEEZ! This is SO LIKE YOU! I'm ever so angry! (kicks a chair over)
CATELYN: Robb, I'm sorry, but I am a mother and I had to do what I had to do.
ROBB: Sigh. Well...I want to be angry at you, but I know as my mother I must forgive you.
CATELYN: That's very big of you Robb. Thank you for underst-
CATELYN: Whoa, WHAT?! To who?!!
ROBB: Some lowborn wench. I was sad one day and she was consoling thing I know we were re-enacting the train scene from Risky Business.
CATELYN: But...but you are supposed to marry some ugly Frey chick.
ROBB: I KNOW! Jeez, mom. I know! Still, I want you to meet her. You'll love her.
CATELYN: I dunno, Robb. I mean, it's sorta my THING to be a judgmental, unlikeable, nagging old crone. It's WHO I AM!
ROBB: Just give it a shot.
CATELYN: Okay. I will meet her. But I'm going to spend a few paragraphs talking about how irresponsible you are so I can maintain my spot as "most unlikeable character in Game of Thrones."
ROBB: Deal!
BRONSON PINCHOT: My lord, the enemy is advancing.

Ben: Still not sold on Brienne. I was hoping this would be her breakout scene, and it came close because she did kick ass, but I still feel like her line delivery comes off clumsy where it should be intimidating as hell. Need more Jaime next season.

Jordan: I am right about everything. We both know this. That said, I may have been wrong this one time when I said Gwendoline Christie as Brienne seemed good. She is not. Ohhhhhh boy she is not. I am not certain if they cast her simply by her looks, but she seems very vanilla for such an interesting character. Meanwhile Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as Jaime is acting circles around her and the combo just looks off.

By the way, Jaime is supposed to be blonde, blonde, blonde. Blonde personified. Blonde times a million. He has a dark brown beard on this show. This makes me want to throw a desk out of a plate glass window and then kill a kitten.

Ben: Theon’s scene with Luwin was maybe his best all year, and he’s been one of the few guys I thought had a breakout year. After all the bluster, when he broke down and let it all out about how terrible his life has been, I was cheering, because dammit, he’s had it rough. The line about being constantly reminded how grateful he should be to the people who kidnapped him was particularly great and impactful. His confessions about his family hammered home what I’ve been saying about his motivation. I don’t get the sense Luwin was ever really scared of Theon, more he was indifferent toward him, but when he showed pity and kindness, I really liked this dynamic. I’m glad Theon didn’t elect to run or go to The Wall, because this is a character I do care about (though I still would have been ok with him dying, for the completely different reason that he’s so tragic and it would fit).

Jordan: Theon is really likable in this sequence, which is great because the chief thing I wanted out of this season was to flip the script on those people who thought I was a monster for liking someone as awful as Theon. Now those people look like unsympathetic jerks. Thanks, Game of Thrones!

Despite all of his shortcomings and the overwhelming odds he faced, Theon had a chance to flee and instead he chose to fight. I admire the hell out of that. Pat Riley, former head coach of the Miami Heat pro basketball team, once said, "To be a leader one must be unafraid to risk unpopularity in the name of standing up for what is right." Theon perfectly embodies this notion.

Lord, I butchered that quote. I'm also fairly certain it was actually said by Abraham Lincoln.

Ben: And after that heartfelt scene, delivering a rousing speech then getting clocked in the head by his own men was, I thought, a perfect exit for Theon; also, an intriguing cliffhanger, because who knows how he’ll be greeted back on the Iron Islands, or if they’ll even take him there as opposed to maybe dumping him with the Starks for a payoff.

Jordan: Theon getting clocked in the head by his own men was a surprise to me that made me chuckle. In the books he is actually knocked unconscious when his army...wait...I can't say because it may happen at the beginning of the next season. CRAP! HBO writers, you have left me unable to determine what exactly I can say because I don't know what you are skipping over and what you are saving for later.

Maybe I...can I say this?...I think I can...whatever, I'll do it anyways.

In the books Theon has an ugly-as-hell sidekick named "Reek" that does his bidding for him. In the show, this character has not been seen yet but definitely will be in there next season. I am not certain how the relationship between Theon and Reek will change now that so much has happened without Reek being there, but I guess that is another quandary for another day.

Crap, I just realized they are already changing the third book and the new season hasn't even begun yet. It takes skill to mess up future seasons like that.

Ben: Luwin did a nice job with his death scene, though I’m beginning to doubt the effectiveness of this “milk of the poppy” stuff given how often it’s prescribed and how little it’s actually used. What the fuck happened at Winterfell was another good cliffhanger.

Jordan: I didn't like Luwin in the books or the show, so I greeted his demise happily.

Whenever I hear "milk of the poppy" I think of the character of Poppie From Seinfeld. This sentence was of no use to anyone.

Ben: It felt like they remembered Arya was both on the show and a pretty pivotal character very last minute, so they tacked on a two minute scene for her. That said, the trick with Jaqen was pretty awesome and made me jump.

Jordan: Jaqen is a badass. Love that guy.

Arya got the short end of the screen time stick in this episode, and now that the season is over I can fully say they chopped out about half of her awesome-as-hell story in favor of more crummy made up Tywin scenes. This is SUCH a shame as her story was unquestionably the most interesting one in the second book. Gone are her scary scenes where she is simultaneously tracking and trying to elude Sandor "The Mountain" Clegane and his band of torturers. Gone are all of the scenes in the forest with Hot Pie and Gendry, making both of those characters completely useless. And, most notably, gone is almost any mention of the characters "Rorge" and "Biter." Were you to ask anyone who watched the show what "Rorge" and "Biter" were they would undoubtedly guess they were the names of skateboarding companies.

Ben: Dany had the big water cooler moment in last year’s finale, so it was going to be hard to top that. It was fantastic to see Drogo again, and made me really miss that character and in particular their relationship, which was by far my favorite on the show. I liked getting to see Dany once again empowered and flashing that creepy cool smirk after a season where she whined way too much, but it did also feel like the House of the Undying and Qarth ended up as being built up too long and too hard for how quickly it all unraveled. Eh, whatever, hopefully Dany stays bad ass.

Jordan: Ahhhhh yes. When this scene started I did a cursory glance at the clock I realized there was only like eight minutes left in the season (five minutes if you take out the credits, irritating ads for HBO GO, and "Coming up next: Encino Man"). This meant one of two things:

a) The season was going to end with Dany seeing the first of the many terrifying and fascinating hallucinations in the House of the Undying...perhaps something like the haunting, bloody figure sitting on the throne with a wolf's head crudely sewn onto its body...and the next season would begin with the realization that the thing before her was all in her mind. Then would begin the amazing journey of hers of trying to get out of the House of the Undying in one piece.


b) The show would shorten the whole House of the Undying bit to the length of a fart.

We all knew which one they would pick.

After a season of the HBO writers tiptoeing around how much they wanted to change the books into their own awful, awful creation, here comes the full-frontal "F YOU" to the book-reading audience. Dany's journey through the House of the Undying is many readers' favorite scene in the entire series...and they butchered it. Many book readers waited excitedly through the episodes for this payoff, only to be shadow demon'd in the back when they actually saw it.

In the books, when Dany enters the House of the Undying she realizes she is becoming more and more lost and that the place itself is a trap trying to cage her for all eternity. As she goes from room to room she is greeted with hallucinations from her past, eerily bloody and confusing hallucinations of the future, and a room full of creepy mummified wise men. Every vision of Drogo and the things she holds dear is meant to be a trap to make her want to stay there forever, but she fights them all away and presses onward like the valiant dragon-woman she is. When she emerges from the House of the Undying, she is not only substantially wiser, but stronger mentally and primed to begin the massive takeover she needs to invade Westeros. Hoo-rah!

In the show, for some reason, they boiled the whole thing down to “evil warlocks stole her dragons and she needs to find them.” The buildup was immense, the payoff fleeting and idiotic. The multiple hallucinations turned into a pointless "Aw shucks. I miss that Drogo guy" moment, and the climactic scene is whittled down to a campy villain vs heroine showdown. It was like this scene wasn't even written by the same people who wrote the rest of the series. Like kids handing in a half-assed final assignment before summer vacation, the writers just re-skinned the end of "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" and then went outside to play "Manhunt" in the woods.

Ben: Jorah Mormont is not even capable of keeping up with a teenage girl as they walk leisurely around a small tower. That pretty much says it all, doesn’t it? Man, did I want him to bite it. Seriously, I’m tempted to say that had he died I would consider all forgiven and the first five paragraphs of this post would have been me saying how awesome this season was.

Jordan: In the books Mormont does not attempt to enter the House of the Undying with Dany, so when I saw him and that other dude trying to enter with her I was confused as to why the change had been made. Then Mormont lost Dany, looked up to the building and yelled "KHAAALLEEEEESIIIIII" and I had my answer: The HBO writers are idiots.

Ben: Qhorin Halfhand’s plan and sacrifice was pretty clever and noble…except for the crucial fact that he did not take into account that it relies on Jon Snow not fucking up the opportunity he’s now been given, which he absolutely will do.

Jordan: In the books the situation is direr. Qhorin and Jon Snow are pretty damn sure they are going to be killed then and there, and Qhorin risks his life in the name of a plan that he hopes will save Jon Snow and work towards the betterment of all of Westeros. In the show, the thing got drawn out to the point of making the Wildlings look stupid when they fell for it. Also, it made Qhorin look like an idiot because (like you said) I wouldn't trust this Jon Snow idiot to walk my dog, let alone stop the Wildling horde and save the kingdom.

Ben: It was nice to see Ygritte bullying/flirting with Jon again, but she’s much less interesting when she was to rein it in around Shao Kahn from Mortal Kombat.

Jordan: Not a big fan of the treatment of the Lord of Bones in the show so far. In the books, ol' Rattleshirt (as he is called) is athletic, terrifying, and bloodthirsty. In the show, he is some slow-speaking fat, bearded dude who looks to me sorta like Cliff Clavin from Cheers. Hopefully they will make him more menacing and intimidating to up the stakes and help explain the actions surrounding his character...(remembers how The Hound acted this season)...God help us all.

Ben: And that brings us to the true cliffhanger of the season and the big finish: the return of the White Walkers. I have to say this was well done on pretty much every front, from the fact that we haven’t really seen these guys since literally the first minutes of the first episode to the masterful job the visual effects team did to the perfect pan out to close the episode with the reveal of just how vast this army is. It’s a definite wild card, which I love, and I’m interested to see where it goes. Also, I would add Sam to the list of people I’d be bummed about losing, so having him be the one in jeopardy was the smart play.

Jordan: I was surprised to see the White Walkers bit as the cliffhanger. The scene they showed is a relatively small part of the book when you compare it against the epic Blackwater battle and The House of the Undying. As cool as it looked, having it shoved in there at the end made me do less of an "Oh wow, COOL! I was WAITING to see more of those monsters" and more of an "Oh yeah. Totally forgot about those things."

The only thing I found a bit hokey was the White Walker seeing Sam and continuing on instead of trying to attack him. The White Walker seemingly tipped its cap to say, "Howdy. Just on my way to eat some people's brains. You stay classy, fatso."

Ben: My concern is that with so much already going on—the struggles at King’s Landing, Stannis’ imminent return, Robb’s campaign, Dany’s eventually arrival, Jon’s dilemma, whatever the heck’s happening with Theon and the Greyjoys—it may just add another unnecessary layer that diminishes the existing cast and stories even further. I do actually have faith here, though; if they held off their return for a whole two seasons, I feel like they’ll be able to use these guys with the necessary restraint.

Jordan: Yes, because restraint is squarely part of these writers' reputation…

Writer: "How do I capture the interesting innuendo that Renly and Loras are possibly operating as secret lovers....I know! Overt fellatio scene!"

Wow I sound so beaten down. While I liked this season, I think this final episode's fall from the epic Blackwater battle was a particularly steep one for me. It was a cataclysmic error to have the Blackwater, the unquestioned climax of the second book, be the second-to-last episode. You had built-in cliffhangers in that episode like "Is Tyrion alive or dead?" "Will Sansa be safe now what Joffrey's main enemy has been vanquished?" and "What happened to Stannis?" thrown straight into the dung pile.

As a television producer [EDITOR’S NOTE: Emmy-nominated television producer!], I'm trying to think practically about why the decision was made to have the Blackwater be second-to-last. All I keep coming back to is a fear from the show's producers that they would somehow fail in the show's hardest-to-film episode and the season would end on a flat note. Having a more conventional episode finish out the season would reduce the risk and provide a safety net should things go poorly. Turns out, ironically, that the final episode had the opposite effect. It diminished the astonishing triumph the Blackwater episode provided and sent audiences into the summer with a blah taste in their mouths.

The end of a movie or television season NEEDS to be the pinnacle of that season to keep viewers interested and coming back for more. It's the thing they teach you on the FIRST DAY of film-making 101.

I have never, in my life, taken a film course.

Ben: I said a lot to start, so I won’t say as much to finish, other than that I don’t hate this show, I just want it to live up to what I feel is the full potential it demonstrated in the first season and then just last week. Even recounting this tepid finale, I found so many bright spots I’d like to see exploited further. So I am looking forward to next season and hopeful Game of Thrones can recapture some of its former glory.

Jordan: I too am hopeful for the third season to be a return to the magic of the first season. From what I hear, they have already made the decision to have the next season be only the first HALF of the third book. This will hopefully avoid the scattered nature of the second season and properly tell the story without the need for shortcuts. The third book, A Storm of Swords, is one of my favorite books of ALL TIME. It is absolutely CRAZY the stuff that happens in it, so my hopes will be unreasonably high right from the get-go. What could go wrong?!

I never thought it would happen, but my brain has finally fatigued on Game of Thrones talk so it's fitting this is the last entry until we next meet Jon Snow n' Friends. This truly has been a very polarizing, exhausting season, and the highs of the Blackwater have been matched by the lowest lows of dragon fire in a warlock's face.

My final thought, before I enter into a long and restful summer hibernation, has been saved in the back of my mind all season long. I feel it is fitting that I share it with you now:

Hodor must poop a LOT. I mean like Mastadon levels.

Ben: My final note would be that even when I didn’t like the show as much as I used to, I still always enjoyed doing these blogs with you, buddy. Thanks for coming onboard and making it fun. Looking forward to our next top secret gig.

Jordan: Had such a fun time and can't wait for our next adventure! You are my moon and stars, Ben.

Ben: See you all in July!