Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Review: True Blood "She's Not There"

Non Spoiler Review:
True Blood begins its fourth season with one of the oddest episodes of the entire series. Sookie's disappearance in last year's finale is the spark that drives everything this week, and the first ten minutes literally change the direction of the whole show. The rest of the hour is spent catching up with every character rather than setting any significant plot in motion aside from some broad hints at what the season might entail. 

I'm still not sure how I feel about She's Not There. It all hinges on how the next weeks unfold whether this makes for a reinvigorated True Blood, or the derailment of the show. Some of the character directions are definitely exciting, and others less so. We've now got fairies and witches to deal with, but sadly, no Alcide yet this week. Other than that, there's very little that can be summed up without dropping the big spoiler, but if nothing else, it will get fans talking.

Spoilers Now!
After vanishing in the cemetery, Sookie emerges into a fairy world where everyone is being given glowing gold apples. Claudine says she's her godmother, and she's been pretty high maintenance (duh). Sookie sees Barry, the bellboy from Dallas, who's pretty excited to be among people who don't think they're freaks. He eagerly bites into the fruit, but Sookie is suspicious about everyone eating them, and holds off on her's. Then she spies her grandfather, Earl. He thinks he just saw her a week before on her birthday. But that was twenty years ago.

That's a lot for him to process. Sookie fills him in on her grandmother and her parents' deaths (which is a lot more to process). Earl thinks he's only been there a few hours. She lets him know telepathically that it's all a trap and they need to leave, but as it turns out, everyone else can hear her too given they're all fairies like her. In comes Queen Mab. She's the one who sent for her and urges her to try the fruit. Sookie throws it on the ground, and the fairy glamor vanishes, revealing it and everyone else to be uglier troll-like creatures.

Mab says they can't stay on the human plane any longer as the vampires nearly hunted them to extinction and now she's led another one to their plane. They've bred with humans and now it's time to harvest their seeds and retreat from the human world forever. Sookie's grabbed, but she uses her light hands and dispels the illusion showing the place to be a grim and barren countryside. She and Earl run off, with everyone in pursuit and throwing magical exploding balls of light (!)

They're intercepted by some rebels (one of whom is the queen's brother) who don't want to shut themselves away from humanity.They can send her back, but Earl has to stay given he ate the apple. They need to jump through a portal before it closes, so Earl takes her and jumps.

They arrive in the cemetery, but Earl doesn't feel well and quickly begins to turn grey. He dies very quickly, but tells her to give Jason his watch to show he never abandoned them.

Distraught, Sookie returns home and finds her house completely repainted and renovated. A workman threatens to call the police, and later Jason shows up (as a police officer). He's dumbfounded at the sight of her as everyone thought she was dead. She's been gone a year.

The house was sold to a real estate company after they all resolved she was gone for good. She can't believe he gave up on her. When she gives him the watch, he believes her story about the fairies. As the sun sets she goes onto the porch to see Bill, who is equally shocked to find her alive (he's been implicated as a possible suspect in her murder). He seems to have guessed she was with Claudine, though. Then Eric shows up and suggests he was the only one who never gave up on her.

Andy drives up and demands to know where she was given all the resources spent on her search. Bill steps in and says she was on vampire business for him. He wants Andy to clear his name as well. In the patrol car, Jason asks Andy if he's using again. Yup. Andy's a V addict.

Next we catch up with Jesus and Lafayette, who are still together. Jesus is bringing him to a coven of witches, which includes Holly from Merlot's. The head of the coven, Marnie, seems to channel Eddie, who was the late vampire who used to supply Lafayette his blood. Lafayette's suitably freaked out and angry with Jesus for trying to set him up.

Terry and Arlene have a son, Mikey, but something's up. She comes home from work to find the baby has pulled the heads off all his sister's dolls.

Nan is trying to win back public support, post-Russell, with public service announcements featuring a non-threatening Eric. Meanwhile, Bill has opened a seniors home in honor of his late wife, and seems to be friends with head of the chamber of commerce, Portia Bellefleur. 

Sookie is reunited with everyone at Merlotte's and is brought up to speed on Tara leaving. Sam's less forgiving for her dropping off the face of the earth on vampire business, but he gives her her job back.

Hoyt's mother walks in with Tommy, who is wearing a leg brace. She's taken him in over the last year as her Hoyt replacement, and he's currently in physiotherapy after Sam shot him. For his part, Sam's in anger management.

Anger management for Sam is a group of two girls and another guy, who Sam commiserates with in a cabin in the woods. But it's apparent that when they're talking about how difficult it is for them to keep control, that something more is going on. They take off their clothes and shape-shift into horses to go run off some stress.

Sookie meet with Portia, who's she's retained to find out who bought the house so she can get it back. It will take some work to find the owners of the company, Portia explains. Sookie reads her mind and hears her thinking about Bill.

In New Orleans, Tara is a wrestler (now known as Toni) and in a lesbian relationship. She gets a text from Lafayette that Sookie is alive, but that doesn't prompt her to want to return to Bon Temps.

Hoyt and Jessica are living together, but her domestic skills are quite lacking, and prompts an argument. She brings up that his mother nearly killed her when she tried to shoot her (and missed). They make up, and head out to Fangtasia for a date night.

Jessica is hit on by another guy at the bar, though Hoyt isn't aware of it. Pam does notice, and chats with her in the bathroom, telling her how unnatural it is for a predator like herself to try to shack up with a human. 

Babysitting Andy isn't the only thing keeping Jason busy. He returns to the were-panther family he's looking after. Crystal is still missing, so he's been seeing to their needs, but when he brings groceries they knock him out and lock him in the deep freezer.

Jesus and Lafayette show up at the coven again, this time for a ritual in honor of Marnie's dead bird. But it's apparent there's something more to it, as she tries to resurrect it from the dead—and it works. The bird briefly flies before falling dead again to everyone's shock. Later, one of the coven members goes to a lush mansion where she finds Bill Compton, whom she addresses as your majesty

Eric shows up when Sookie is in the shower. She no longer owns the house anymore, so her invitation is worthless. He bought it. He always knew she was alive, and if he owned the house, he would own her. Fangs on!

The Verdict:
I'm not sure what to think about that. Battlestar Galactica mastered the whole one year later twist so it's not as novel an idea as it used to be. It was disconcerting catching up to everything, but after thinking it over I'm leaning more in favor of the time jump. The first three seasons have actually taken place over the course of a meagre few months, so a leap ahead really does freshen things up and evolve the characters after three seasons. We also got to avoid having to sit through a lot of boring things—the fallout from Russell, and courtships for Jesus/Lafayette and Hoyt/Jessica, etc.

What absolutely did not work for me was the entire fairy sequence, which reminded me of something from Star Trek: Next Generation—Worf could have walked on screen and not even raised an eyebrow, even before the fireballs started flying. Additionally, the Earl Stackhouse appearance felt a bit tacked on and Gary Cole seemed miscast. It was hard to picture Sookie's grandmother with him (even twenty years younger).

As far as the state of everyone else:

Sookie—A year missing and they manage to pull off an explanation of secret vampire business to brush it off. That's a bit hard to swallow, even for this show. But at least the homestead got a makeover. It's going to be a challenge to ensure she keeps dealing with people as if a few hours have passed.

Bill—Probably my favorite change. I was curious why Eric seemed to obey him and leave, until the end when we get the your majesty. Guess he won the fight with Queen Sophie. But did he replace her or Russell? I wasn't sure if that was Russell's mansion or not.

Eric—He had very little to do, oddly enough. But his threatening episode fade-outs have been done to death.

Jason—Another plus. We avoid all the boring police training and get a full-fledged responsible deputy keeping things together for Andy, as well as looking after his hillbilly brood (ugh) while waiting for Crystal to come back. Please resolve this storyline soon.

Pam—Always a joy, and awesome outfit.

Hoyt—The casual comment about his mother and her gun seemed out of place, almost an afterthought, as if the writers thought better of it over the hiatus. It remains to be seen if this couple can remain interesting.

Tara—Not sure what to think about scrappy Toni and her lesbian lover. They really need to reinvigorate the character to be the likable girl she was in season one.

Lafayette and Jesus—It's nice to see them still together. I'm excited about the magic storyline, so I'm interested to see how it goes.

Terry and Arlene—Filler scene.

Sam—Bizarre. After his dark side was revealed at last season's end, it's difficult to figure out his direction.

Hoyt's mom and Tommy—It actually makes a lot of sense.

Alcide—More Alcide!

My final verdict will rest on how the next episode unfolds and starts to play out the season's storylines. The very nature of the time jump required a lot of scenes to bring things up to speed, which did make for an uneven story. I'm holding out hope the witch angle is better handled than the fairies. So a confusing, but decent beginning to the season.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Review: Falling Skies "The Armory"

Non Spoiler Review:
Tom and his team scout the Acton armory after Weaver insists they find out for sure if there are any weapons in there, or just a trap. They quickly run into trouble—but not the alien kind. At camp, the civilian/military debate heats up between Anne and Weaver, while Hal struggles to follow the mission when he wants to be looking for his brother.

The Armory focuses on the darker sides of humanity that have emerged as a result of the attack, while furthering along the dynamics between the characters, with the introduction of someone new and controversial to the regulars. It was a decent ending to the premiere, and sets up the main thrust of the storyline to find the harnessed children in future episodes, while successfully introducing the core cast.

Spoilers Now!
The second part to Falling Skies picks up with Tom, Hal, and his team scouting the armory for Weaver, but they quickly draw out a Mech. Thirteen year old Timmy freaks out that his dog might get hurt, which draws its fire, forcing them to flee.

The survivors are camped out in town, with the military getting the choice pick of houses with beds. Tom retrieves Matt, who has been sleeping comfortably in someone's bedroom, then goes to report in to Weaver, intent on looking for Ben that night.

Weaver's not impressed that the scouting mission failed, so wants them to go back and check it out again. Tom thinks it's empty and the Scitters are staking it out. Anne shows up, wanting to see if she can get the civilians to stay in houses, too, and not tents. Weaver says it's not feasible to evacuate in a hurry if everyone were scattered about in homes and suggests they minimize the whining and be grateful for their protection. Anne points out the people pull their weight by doing chores, but he brushes her off.

Angry, Anne runs into Tom. They walk out to the civilian camp in the meadow and he muses about the age old question of civilians and the military. He sees them as a liability, but also the best motivation to fight.

Tom goes on to chat with a teacher named Scott, who has been wondering why six-legged aliens would create bipedal Mechs. Tom suggests it might be to instill fear in humans.

Karen is getting jealous of rival Lourdes always hitting on Hal. Lourdes' faith in God is also an issue for her, and a source of mockery. Hal later puts Karen's mind to ease that there's no competition.

Tom lets him know they have to go back to the armory that night instead of looking for Ben, which gets him angry. Karen says she'll come too. Timmy, however, will sit this one out, though Weaver admits the kid is a good fighter.

That night at the armory, one of Tom's men is shot—with arrows. They manage to shoot and wound one of the attackers, but they realize they're all human, and they take Hal and Karen hostage. Tom surrenders, and they're taken to a gymnasium where a man named Pope interrogates him while their wounded man, Billy, is treated and sedated. Tom speaks for everyone, so gives himself away as the leader. But Pope wants to know where they got their weapons.

Pope is about to shoot Tom when Hal speaks up saying he can get them more guns from the 2nd Massachusetts. Pope reveals they've been watching them for two days already and knows exactly how many of them there are and what they have. He'll set them free for the mounted gun they have in their car, and sends Hal back to town to bring the terms.

Hal tries to negotiate with the girl, Maggie, who takes him out of their lair, but she won't listen to him. The rest of the group are separated from Tom, and Pope remains to chat with him about what he did before the invasion. Pope looks at the end of the world as the best thing that ever happened to him, and he doesn't agree with Tom's optimism about the resistance. But he's had success in killing lots of the Scitters (and has one laid out in the gymnasium as a trophy). Tom suggests Pope join the resistance, given he seems a lot smarter than his men.

Anne talks to Weaver again about housing, but Hal shows up to explain the situation. Weaver won't make the trade as he thinks they will likely attack them anyway, and they don't have any real idea where they are. He tells Anne to get the civilians ready to move and after everyone is safe they will go back to attempt a rescue. Hal resists, of course, so Weaver locks him in the bedroom, but his friend Mike immediately lets him out, and Anne has an idea to go back with Hal as the doctor to treat their wounded man.

Hal and Anne meet up with Maggie, who isn't impressed he didn't bring the gun, but she takes them back. Billy is in pain, and Pope is furious for them changing the terms. But the prospect that she can help Billy eases the situation a bit, and he may even let them live if she succeeds.

Pope leaves Maggie to guard them while he goes off with the rest of his men to get the weapons. Weaver is angry with Mike for disobeying orders, but any punishement is interrupted when they suddenly see flares in the sky, shot by Pope. He comes over with a white flag, demanding the weapons, as the aliens will soon come to investigate the flares and blow up the area. He wants their food and the car with the gun in exchange for their captured men. Weaver reluctantly agrees, but says he'll get him.

Billy is conscious and orders Karen to model her body for him. But that only gets Maggie angry as she came into the group much the same way and was abused by the men. So she asks Anne if he'll recover, and when she says yes, Maggie shoots Billy and the other guard, and helps them escape.

Pope gets the car ready to go but is suddenly under fire by Tom, Maggie, and the rest (with Pope's guns). Anne goes to advise Weaver of the situation. Pope suggests Tom leave, but Tom points out they're the ones standing among the flares for the Scitters to target, so they're sitting ducks. He tells Pope he can join them or die.

Pope climbs into the car just as a ship swoops down and fires. He gets away with the vehicle, but his men are all killed. Weaver is there to take him into custody at gunpoint.

The group moves on to a school as their base of operations. Weaver isn't happy with everyone being so reckless and wants to ensure people follow the chain of command. But he lets Tom go look for his son given he successfully checked out the armory. Maggie's said she saw some harnessed kids by a hospital, so they'll start with that.

Tom escorts his prisoner, Pope, to his new cell. It hasn't been decided what they'll do with him yet, though Maggie wants to be a fighter and is willing to join them. Pope's happy to take a rest for awhile. Tom thanks Anne for coming and Matt shows up to play a game of catch. Then Tom, Hal, Maggie, Karen and their crew head off on their search for the harnessed kids.

The Verdict:
As the second part of the premiere, this episode stands on its own with little plot in common to the first part, aside from the overall threads. The scenes at camp were as interesting as the hostage crisis, especially the chat about the bipedal Mechs and the little bits of conversation talking about the attack—Weaver made a comment that the town's inhabitants were rounded up to a relocation camp and then nuked—was this common practice for the initial months after the invasion? Are there radioactive areas that they'll have to avoid?

Pope's character is an odd duck to fit into the cast. His crew are racists and rapists, so he's not just a simple rebel or anarchist with a different viewpoint. He doesn't even comment on his brother dying, so the man's a sociopath. While it doesn't surprise me Tom would let him live, it does that Weaver would bring him back to their refuge. It will be interesting to see what's done with him.

Maggie looks to be a good addition, though she is a bit similar to Karen—perhaps another potential member of Hal's fan club? Anne's easily a favorite, and I'm looking forward to seeing more civilian characters and their contributions.

However, Weaver's ambivalence about the civilians just does not work. I find it strange that his men would share the same view, given most must have families among the civilians. It would make sense he would face a lot of insubordination with so many unprofessional soldiers in his ranks. But that could be part of the storyline to come, and these first episodes have piqued my interest and raised my hopes this series will get into a lot of dark territory like The Walking Dead and Battlestar Galactica.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Review: Falling Skies "Live and Learn"

Non Spoiler Review:
Steven Spielberg and TNT promise to deliver a different take on the alien invasion theme compared to what we've been used to on television (I'm talking to you, V). The opening credits are a montage of children's drawings depicting the arrival of an alien force. At first everyone thought they might be friendly, until they EMP'ed the planet, destroyed all the military and nuked the world's capital cities. The series picks up six month into this occupation, where enclaves of humans are struggling to survive.

Falling Skies draws influence in tone from Battlestar Galactica and The Walking Dead. The visuals are typical post-apocalyptic ruins, accented with the occasional alien tech or life forms, and come off quite well. The first episode does the usual introductions and set ups, with a simple plot about retreating from Boston and a mission to get food—all to start some of the ongoing storylines.

In addition to the everyday challenges of just getting by, there's an additional mystery surrounding missing children. Of course, given there is no communication beyond local groups, the greater motivations of the invaders, and the fate of the rest of the country and planet remain unknown.

Falling Skies features Noah Wyle as Tom Mason, a teacher of military history. He has three children, one of whom is missing. Moon Bloodgood is Dr. Anne. The military leader is Weaver, a Golf War veteran who isn't happy carting civilians along with his militia when he'd rather be fighting. There's an assortment of lesser characters waiting to be developed, much like Lost.

For a first episode, I was pretty impressed and creeped out in a few scenes given the portrayal of the aliens and the ominous sense of defeat that is already permeating the show. The human populace makes an effort to appear optimistic, but they are simply in a continuous state of retreat against a superior force. The series has the makings of being a groundbreaking take on the usual alien invasion theme that never seems to get a good presentation on television, so this is off to a good start.

Spoilers Now!
Six months into the alien occupation, a survivor group in Boston finds supplies running low and alien activity closing in on them. Tom Mason and his eldest son are on a failed mission to get food where they lose several men to the Scitters (their name for the six-legged creatures). The aliens also use bipedal robotic war machines called Mechs. Weaver, the man in charge, orders a retreat as they watch a Scitter ship bomb the area.

Tom is a military historian (which we're told, like, ten times). He's already lost one son, Ben, to the Scitters, who use a device called a harness to enslave adolescent children. His oldest son, Hal, is a member of the resistance, as well, while younger son Matt is just hoping things would get back to the way they were. It's also his birthday, which is kind of a bummer given the situation.

Tom also has a good rapport with Dr. Anne. Shes a pediatrician and a valuable commodity as a doctor. She also serves as therapist for some of the kids (including Matt) dealing with the deaths of their parents. Tom returns to his son, but is quickly called into a meeting with the head of their group, Porter.

The invaders can apparently detect populations larger than 300 now, so the commander of the militia breaks up their community into smaller groups of 100 military/200 civilians in order to give them all a better chance of survival, then sending them off to different hiding places. Tom isn't happy about abandoning Boston given all the harnessed kids still missing.

Weaver is named head of the 2nd Massachusetts given his army/reserve background. He's a very pro-military (anti-civilian) commander who disagrees with the retreat and wants to stay and fight too. But Porter puts Tom as his second in command to ensure the civilians are looked after as they make their way to a new hiding place in Acton.

Weaver thinks they can hold their own against the Scitters given some of the ships haven't come back since the invasion. Porter disagrees. He's taking the scientists he has with him to try to figure out how to get the harnesses off kids without killing them. He wishes them all good luck.

The group treks out of Boston. Weaver's not happy having to feed so many people aside from soldiers. With supplies running low, Tom wants to go back to a food warehouse to check it out, but Weaver won't waste men on that kind of mission, so lets Tom take six volunteers and meet up with them later on.

While they wait for Hal to scout around, Tom comes across a dead boy with a harness half torn off his back. It makes him think of his missing son, Ben...whom Hal just happens to see in a procession of children and several Mechs walking by down the road. He runs back to tell his father and wants to go rescue his brother right away. Tom gets into a wrestling match with him and convinces his son they have to finish their mission, then they'll go after Ben.

At the warehouse, the group manages to start stocking up on food until Hal comes across a Scitter which has been waiting as a trap. A Mech shows up, too, but Tom manages to blow it up, then they shoot the Scitter. The group gathers around as it slowly dies in front of them, wondering what it's thinking.

Tom and company rendezvous with everyone on the road, bringing back food, plus a cool skateboard as a gift for Matt, which he promptly shares with the other children. Weaver can't bring himself to congratulate Tom, though.

Tom brings up the matter of finding his son. He wants to go look for him, but Weaver insists they continue on to the Acton armory. Tom agrees, but just wants a chance to find Ben after they get there and restock their weapons. Weaver's lost a son himself, so Tom suggests he might do the same if he saw a chance of rescuing him. But Weaver is resolved that they're all dead. Tom counters that the aliens die just like us. They just need to get close. 

The Verdict:
Falling Skies suffers the same growing pains of any premiere—introducing its characters in ways that tend to be obvious and exposition-heavy.

It was refreshing that the aliens were seen right away without trying to cloak them in mystery. They're creepy enough seen up close, and remind me of some of the creatures from The Mist. The Mechs, flying craft, and the quadruped mother ships are all cool effects, too.

Some care needs to be taken in explaining the tactical situation. The aliens don't seem to be on an urgent mission of extermination. One would think they would be able to track human movements quite easily (especially if people move about in the day like we've seen). Weaver also remarked that the Scitter's mother ships seem to have left from the initial attack. I'm hoping we get some flashbacks (Lost style) to really flesh out the events (and the characters pre-acopalypse).

There's a good pool of characters, and Tom and Anne are especially a highlight after this first episode. Tom's children didn't seem tedious or cliched at all, and the few scenes of relative normalcy actually provided a great contrast to the massive darkness looming on the edges of their lives.

Yes, we did hear Tom drop example after example of military history lessons to anyone who might listen. He did raise some valid points, but towards the end he was seeming a bit naive. His suggestion that they don't have to win, just make it inconvenient enough for the aliens to stay, is a bit hopeful on his part. None of his earlier military analogies took into account such a vast difference in technology and even agendas on the part of the invaders.

I'm wondering how long before the inevitable military/civilians quarrel explodes. I really hope it doesn't come to that, as it just never makes sense that the military would think they're fighting for anything but the civilians. Weaver definitely needs to get some depth or he'll quickly be the man everyone hopes gets killed.

Of course, there are the mysteries of the harnesses and their true purpose, as well as the reasons behind the invasion to look forward to. Coupled with good characterization and some mature and more complex storylines, Falling Skies could really open up the genre. It's a nice companion piece to The Walking Dead if you like your post-apocalyptic survival stories.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Review: Game of Thrones "Fire and Blood"

Non Spoiler Review:
The season finale of Game of Thrones delivers on all fronts. Except being over too quickly. It was going to take a lot to top last week's emotional wallop, but they managed to, and I walked away feeling a little out of breath.

The news of events in King's Landing make their way north, bringing all sorts of repercussions. Jon makes a decision about his future, while Catelyn and Robb get an additional surprise from their army. The Stark girls are in a fine mess, and about to take very different journeys. Joffrey's reign of terror begins, and Tywin sets in motion some events to try to salvage an increasingly desperate situation. Daenerys is faced with the terrible consequences of her recent choices.

Politics, drama, revelations, a shocking ending—not much more to ask for here. Everyone seemed to get a final moment in the spotlight, no matter how brief. The series has left things in such disarray. Not just the Stark family is scattered, but now the Lannisters, too, and the unity of the kingdom is in a mess. There's nothing to complain about here. All the pieces were moved into place throughout the hour to set up next season (and thankfully there is a second season!). In some ways the emotional level was even higher than last week's, given Fire and Blood focused on characters dealing with grief and loss. 

A fantastic episode and an even greater season. This series has become my favorite thing on television right now, and it's going to be a long, long wait for it to return.

Spoilers Now!
Just in case there was any doubt, Fire and Blood opens with Ned's blood dripping from the sword, and the executioner holding up his head to the cheering crowd. Yoren grabs Arya and takes her inside as she watches Sansa collapse. Yoren orders her to keep her mouth shut and calls her boy, chopping off her hair. They're going north, he tells her.

Word of Ned's death spreads throughout the Seven Kingdoms. At Winterfell, Osha is carrying Bran around on her shoulders as he recounts his dream about the three-eyed raven, which showed him his father's crypt. He convinces her to go down into the passages, where he points out his grandfather's tomb (burned by the mad king) and his aunt (killed by Rhaegar). And the empty space for his father. But they're startled by Shaggydog, Rickon's wolf. Rickon appears himself and says he had a dream his father was down there and came to see him. When they return, they see Luwin, who has a raven's message, and gravely goes over to Bran to tell him the news.

Catelyn heads off into the woods to mourn in silence, but hears Robb slashing at a tree with his sword. He wants to kill them all. She embraces him, telling her son the Lannisters still have his sisters, and when they get them back, they'll definitely kill them all.

At court, Joffrey forces a bard to sing the unflattering song he was caught performing in a tavern regarding Robert's death. He has his tongue cut out, and leaves the rest of the business for his mother, summoning Sansa to come along with him (Cersei still wants him to wed her). He leads her to the wall where her father's head is on a pike, and forces her to look. Septa's head, as well as all the northerners, are there, too.

He gloats that her brother's head will soon join them. Sansa suggests her brother might bring her Joffrey's head. He instructs his guard to strike her (as a good king doesn't strike a lady). For a moment it looks as though she might walk over and try to push Joffrey off the wall. But Sandor steps forward and offers her a handkerchief. Joffrey leaves them, and the Hound suggests she keep it, as she'll likely need it. 

Robb's bannermen debate their next move. Greatjon wants to join up with Renly and swear loyalty to him, but Robb insists on the proper succession—Stannis. Bran can no more be lord before him than Renly can be king before Stannis. Greatjon admits Stannis and Renly mean nothing to him—they know nothing of the north and worship different gods. He once bowed to the dragons, but they're dead. He declares Robb is the only king he will bend his knee to—the king of the north. Others agree and begin to swear loyalty to Robb as their king. Even Theon steps forward, declaring him his loyal brother.

Catelyn watches, then goes to see Jaimie, who's been bound to a post. She hits him with a rock and he offers some sarcasm and insults. She demands to know if he pushed Bran, and he admits to it, though his intent was that he die. But he won't answer why he did it. He mocks her gods and tells her to rest, as it will be a long war.

Cersei has taken up with young cousin Lancel (who's quite excited about the war). She's reading a letter about Jaime's capture. Tywin is reading a similar message—the Starks have Jaime. He and his men debate their course of action, some of whom suggest they sue for peace. Tyrion advises that there is no hope for peace now that Joffrey's taken Ned's head. They want to pay a ransom for Jaime but also can't appear weak. An angry and frustrated Tywin sends them all out except for Tyrion. 

He admits his son has grown wise—he was right about keeping Ned alive—that would have given them time to deal with the Baratheons. He's having Sir Gregor set the Riverland on fire, and the rest will regroup. He's sending Tyrion to King's Landing where he will be Hand of the King in his place and rein in Joffrey. Why not someone else, Tyrion asks. You're my son, he tells him. But he orders him not to take that whore to court.

Daenerys awakens with Jorah standing guard over her. She immediately asks of her son, but Jorah reluctantly tells her the boy didn't live. The women say he was malformed and was stillborn. Mirri arrives, explaining he was scaled like a lizard, with wings, monstrous, and full of worms. She warned her that only death would pay for life. 

Daenerys demands to see Drogo—what she bought with her son's life. She's taken to her husband who is sitting alone by the edge of the cliff. The Khalasar has all rode away in the night, leaving just the slaves. Drogo is alive, but just an empty shell with a blank stare. Mirri says she asked for life and that's what she got. 

Daenerys talks to her alone. She can't believe Mirri would do this after she saved her. Her child will burn no cities now, Mirri says, and explains she was saved from nothing—she had already been raped before Daenerys came, and saw her temple burn, and all the people she knew killed. She suggests she take a look at Drogo and see what a life is worth when everything else is gone.

Shae convinces Tyrion that he should disobey his father. If he didn't mention her by name, then why not take her, so he agrees and asks her to accompany him to King's Landing.

Daenerys stays with Drogo through the night, attempting to illicit some response from him, but as time progresses she realizes there is no sign of life in him. She says good-bye and tearfully smothers him with a pillow.

Pycelle is enjoying the services of Ros, and lectures her about the kings he served—including Aerys, whom he sadly watched go mad. He seems to think Joffrey will be a decent king. Ros is bored and eventually leaves him to his day. He does some stretching, and appears quite limber for 67, but as he dresses and makes to leave his chambers he hunches down to appear more decrepit.

Jon prepares to leave Castle Black at night, despite Sam's protests. He rides off, but is pursued by Sam, Pypar, Grenn and Rast, and finally stops to convince them to go back. They remind him of his oath to the Night's Watch, and Jon is ultimately persuaded to stay.

As they await a council meeting Varys and Petyr trade another round of barbs. Varys admits he's one of the few men who doesn't want to be king. Petyr insults Varys' manhood yet again, but the two begin to debate the merits of the new king, until Joffrey arrives to begin their meeting.

Yoren tells Arya she's now an orphan boy named Arry, and she'll keep her identity secret as they travel north with a the band of no-goods he got for recruitment to the Night's Watch. Arya's smart enough to take to the ruse right away, but she quickly gets bullied by a fat boy who wants her sword. Given she's already killed a fat boy, she tells him she has no problem killing him too. That's when Gendry, Robert's bastard (!) shows up. He recognizes the craftsmanship of her sword right away, given he was an armorer's apprentice. Apparently his master got sick of him, so he's now given over to the Night's Watch. Yoren calls them all out and they begin their 1000 league march to the Wall. Arya leaves King's Landing behind her.

Mormont is aware of Jon's moonlight ride, but lets him know the Wall would be empty if every recruit was punished for running away for the night. He tells Jon that the rangers have found whole villages emptied, tribes are uniting at a secret stronghold, and fires burn in the mountains. Blue-eyed corpses were found that were burned. He asks if Jon thinks Robb's war is more important than theirs. No, he replies. It doesn't matter who sits on the Iron Throne when dead men come after them. Mormont wants Jon and his wolf with him when the Night's Watch rides in force against the wildings and the White Walkers. And he swears he'll find Benjen Stark alive or dead. Jon chooses his loyalty and accompanies them north of the Wall.

Daenerys builds Drogo's funeral pyre, and has the dragon eggs placed upon it. Jorah advises against that—she could live out her days as a wealthy woman in one of the cities if she sold them. He begins to see what she means to do, and says he can't stand by and watch her climb onto the pyre to burn. But she tells him not to be afraid and gives him a kiss, then addresses the meager crowd.

She announces they will be her khalasar and frees all the slaves. They're free to go if they wish, but if they stay it will be as brothers and sisters. Some leave immediately. Mirri smiles, but Daenerys has her bound to the pyre. Daenerys declares she is the dragon's daughter, and those who would harm her people will die screaming. Mirri says she won't scream. It's not her screams she wants, Daenerys replies. Just her life.

She lights the pyre, and Mirri does scream. Then Daenerys walks into the flames as Jorah watches. Come morning, the fire is out, and Jorah slowly walks over to the charred remains. They find Daenerys crouching, and she lifts her head. Then an infant dragon appears behind her shoulder. She has two others at her feet as she rises. Jorah falls to his knees before her, as do the rest of her people.

The Verdict:
Fire and Blood set up quite an interesting dynamic for next season. We have Robb being declared king of the north by his army. Will he chose to engage Tywin next? That whole scene got me choked up, but especially Theon swearing his loyalty to the Starks. I like the character, and was always a bit concerned he might betray them (though, given what's all transpired, anything is on the table, I guess).

I was equally impressed with Catelyn and her show of strength with Robb, and then with Jaime. She really conveyed a look of confusion at Jaime's simple admission that he pushed her son from the window, but with no explanation for her.

Tywin is a bastard, but he's a smart one. He realizes the grave mistake he made (and his daughter and grandson). I was half expecting him to order Joffrey's death just to correct it. But making Tyrion Hand of the King was a fantastic move to get the imp to court. I'm eager to see how he engages his sister and deals with the other council members. But Hand of the King isn't a safe job either, so I hope that doesn't mean he's near on the list of future cast culls. On that note, I'm not betting that Joffrey will stay around as king for any length of time at all.

The Baratheon situation is still up in the air. It's unclear what the situation is with Stannis and Renly—is it going to be two armies or one when all is said and done? The additional surprise was the appearance of Robert's bastard, Gendry, now accompanying Arya north. That looks to be a great dynamic duo. But surely now Arya must run into her wolf at some point on the road. 

Jon's choice of honor was an interesting contrast to Ned's failed decisions. It would have been so conventional to have him leave the Wall and join Robb's army, but the situation in the north looms far more important, he realizes, and Mormont (who continues to accelerate up the ladder of my favorites) has shown great faith in him. What will they meet on the other side?

Pycelle's scene was a curious moment. I took from that he's not as infirm as he leads Varys and Petyr to think, and his crippled demeanor his mostly an act. Yet he did ramble on and on about the kings without really saying anything of value, either (though that might have served as this episode's history lesson).

What to say about the Dothraki? This is perhaps the most unpredictable storyline. Given Ned's death, I can't say Drogo's passing came as much as a surprise, but it was a very touching scene. Mirri's role in it was pretty harsh, but after listening to her speech, who can blame her?

I'm always so torn with Daenerys, as I quite like her character strengths, but her hands certainly aren't clean, and I don't know if I would like to see her wage a war against Westeros for the throne. Can she manage to persuade the Dothraki to follow her? Or will she seek to inspire others to be her army, instead? Suffice it to say, the final scene was an amazing bit. I honestly didn't think they'd go the dragon route so soon—I figured that was in the cards at some point, but not for quite awhile.

Given things started out rather secular, I'm pleased that the supernatural has been used sparingly, so when it does rear its head it has some punch. Needless to say, with growing dire wolves and now dragons, HBO's CGI budget is going to take a hit.

Finally, I'm looking forward to seeing what develops with the host of supporting characters—Osha, Shae, Ros, and even Sandor Clegane (who might have a bit of compassion in him?). Everyone is composed of shades of grey in this series, and anyone could just as easily become hero or villain with the slightest push. While it's a bit stressful rooting for characters that could easily die at the drop of the hat, the tenuous nature of life in Westeros makes this series completely compelling and addictive. I'll definitely be revisiting these ten episodes for a rewatch prior to next spring.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Review: Green Lantern

As Marvel continues its successful roll out of films featuring the likes of Thor, X-Men and Captain America, DC finally brings a new entry from its library—Green Lantern. The hero is certainly well known to the fanbase and has enjoyed some spectacular storylines in print over the last few years. He's easily one of DC's big four (that includes Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman), but is less known to the general movie-going public. His backstory is dense and his powers require a lot more explanation, which makes this a challenge from the start. Special effects have reached the point to do him and his world justice, so I was really looking forward to a new DC character brought to life outside of Superman and Batman. Unfortunately, I was quite disappointed by the wasted potential of the film.

Green Lantern is the obligatory origin story, which always brings its own set of problems delaying a lot of the plot and action of the film. Ryan Reynolds is Hal Jordan, a talented but irresponsible test pilot who has had a fling with childhood friend Carol Ferris, who is also the daughter of the owner of Ferris Aircraft where he works. While he seems to screw up a lot of things, he's brought into the greater universe of the Green Lantern Corps when a dying alien choses him to wield the ring of their intergalactic peacekeeping force for Earth's sector of space. The crash also affects an introverted scientist, Hector Hammond, while the big threat and cause of it all remains in space, challenging the universe and the Green Lantern Corps at large.

I'll start with the good—the cast. I can't find anything wrong to say with the choices, especially Reynolds as Hal Jordan. He pulls it off quite well and there's never a moment where I found myself thinking he was behaving too silly or out of character from the source material. Equally good is Mark Strong as Sinestro, who has a tough job carrying that name, pink skin, pointy ears and mustache, without looking like a farce. Because it's make up and not CGI, his look comes across much more real than his rendered aliens peers. Carol Ferris, while never a very compelling character in the comics, is played capably by Blake Lively. Finally,  Peter Sarsgaard is Hector Hammond, who brings a suitable sliminess to this malformed villain. Green Lantern is directed by Martin Campbell (who also did Casino Royale).

A few logical liberties have been taken with the material to make it more streamlined. The very complex backstory with Parallax and the yellow energy of fear has been made tighter and more cohesive for the story, which works very well.

While the Green Lantern Corps and its 3600 members are a treat as far as cameos and imaginative alien lifeforms, problems arise with the general look of the film. It's a mixed bag, as the emerald energy needs its CGI. The costuming generally gets the notion of the organic look of the energy right, but it doesn't always translate well on screen. The space vistas looked great, but as soon as a glowing green alien flew around it couldn't hold that realism.

While watching I was continually comparing the natural look of Superman Returns' flying scenes to Hal Jordan's glowing video game style shots. Ryan Reynolds seemed to stick out like a sore thumb among these artificial environments and background aliens. Tomar-Re and Kilowog (famous characters from the comics) were welcome additions, but didn't fit well with a real human actor in the same frame. 

The movie begins with an opening narration explaining some things  (compare it to Thor, for example) but the ominous tone of the opening scene didn't carry forward through the rest of the two hours. Having just seen X-Men: First Class I was continually making comparisons to this successful Marvel counterpart with its rich narrative and equally thick backstory. Green Lantern comes across as sterile in many ways, highly rendered and soulless (like The Phantom Menace). 

An origin shouldn't appear rushed. After the opening scene set up the movie, events take place over the course of a few days, which is a mistake, given the epic level  threat and the universe crossing escapades. Can the audience buy in that Hal can learn how to use the ring after a couple of training sessions on Oa?

A second issue is the power of the Green Lantern itself—the Corps' abilities didn't receive any greater explanation aside from the strength of willpower. That leaves the hero's vulnerabilities up in the air when it came to fighting Hector Hammond and Parallax. Why would one punch connect and not another? Does yellow cancel out green? Doesn't the ring protect him at all times?

A case in point—there's a moment where Hal creates a green necklace for Carol. Throughout the scene as they were talking I was distracted wondering how long the construct would last. Sure enough, it had disappeared without any comment by the next scene. I would be interested to know what a general audience would take away from that.

I generally have difficulty with the realistic portrayal of disbelief when a character in a movie like this is faced with a lot of overwhelming information—existence of aliens, drafted into an intergalactic police corps, able to make his thoughts reality—but Hal seems to take it all really well, including a warp speed trip through space. Aside from a few "wows" it's just another day for him it seems. And we're specifically told by Amanda Waller that there's been no alien contact in this world (so much for Superman).

While I enjoyed the characters, the final act and main mash up with the movie's villains pretty much started a downward trend for me. The battle scenes were few and far between and not memorable at all. Something as epic and star-spanning as this needs a big climax. Had the story been strong and complex enough, the visual problems could easily have been overlooked, but Green Lantern just lacks imagination, and that's what the hero is all about.

Some elements really stuck out for me as big mistakes. The point of no return seemed to be when Hal addressed the Guardians with Sinestro and gave his "I'm only human" speech. After that, he went on to single-handedly dispatch Parallax by tossing him into the sun after several experienced Lanterns had been killed in previous attempts. Let's not forget that Hal is barely a rookie, yet he can somehow walk around with Lanterns who are far superior fighters than him and manages to save the entire Corps.

Yes, Hal is one of the greatest Green Lanterns. But he isn't supposed to be in this movie. And while the writers felt that Hal needed to save the day without calling in back up, that really boxed the threat of Parallax into a relatively minor inconvenience and made the rest of the Corps look inept.

So this has been a disappointment, to say the least. Warner Brothers really needs to take a page from Marvel and see what they're doing right with their characters. An adult story does matter. A lot of flash and CGI does not. I'm hoping Green Lantern at least makes enough money to warrant a sequel which could rescue this hero and bring a proper, memorable Sinestro/Hal Jordan battle to the screen (as evidenced by the end credits easter egg).

I would recommend Green Lantern as light-hearted entertainment with some interesting visuals. You certainly won't get The Dark Knight, or even Superman Returns. Those who are fans and those just looking for something a little different (a super-hero in space) may get a kick out of it, but I found myself talking much more about X-Men: First Class when I left the theatre.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Review: Camelot "Reckoning"

Non Spoiler Review:
Camelot's freshman season comes to a close with a plot heavy episode to wrap up much of the season's threads. The siege at Bardon Pass is concluded, but with a hefty price, while Morgan moves into Camelot and wreaks havoc with Sybil. But there are a lot of consequences to everyone's actions, several high profile deaths, and the season ends on an ominous tone, drawing on a couple of juicy bits from Arthurian lore.

Reckoning ended the season on a good note, delivering on action and emotion. It kept me interested to the end. Some of the choices of the characters continue to be head-scratchers (Merlin, that's you). But the culmination of the Arthur/Morgan relationship produced a great conclusion to that particular storyline and setup for a potential second season.

The final act did suffer from scene after scene of endings when the main storyline had wrapped up. Some of the events could be seen coming, so there weren't too many surprises and certainly no shocking moments or revelations, unfortunately. There were also some frustrating, lingering questions.

I'm hoping Camelot gets a second season. It's a decent fantasy series at the moment, but the potential there is for so much more. Notes to writers—pacing and direction—work on that over your summer break.

Spoilers Now!
The knights camp at an old ruin, realizing Arthur is not coming. He stayed behind to prove himself. At Bardon Pass, the king has managed to fend off a few sneaky scouts attempting to get into the outpost. He works tirelessly to lay out all sorts of traps and weaponry to make it look like the place is being held by more men.

On a second attempt, Arthur is nearly killed, but does manage to free himself, but not before one of the men, Wallace, sends another off with the king's sword to give to Harwel, who sends it on to Morgan. Wallace faces Arthur alone and is gravely wounded on one of his traps. Arthur proceeds to extract information from him, namely who sent them—"Morgan," Wallace at last admits.

Morgan and her followers arrive at Camelot, managing to convince everyone Merlin needs to be restrained until Arthur returns. She promises the people they will all address the king when he returns from Bardon Pass. She sends Igraine to her chambers, promising to visit her shortly, then gloats to Merlin (in stocks) about managing to fool him with her transformation. She also manages to incite a rumour that the king has run off with Guinevere, given she can't be found at the castle.

Harwel realizes Arthur must still be alive and sends in another team to fight. Arthur is hopelessly outnumbered, but does manage to kill a few. But the knights return in time to save him and quickly kill the rebels to secure the Bardon Pass. They take a moment to enjoy their victory, except Harwel still remains, and fires an arrow off at the king. Leontes takes notice and throws himself in front of it, mortally wounded. Gawain leaps to the defence and makes short work of Morgan's lackey.

Leontes dies, asking for a warrior's burial, and for Arthur to treasure Guinevere. The men prepare to return him to Camelot, and break apart a table in order to carry his body. The knights rejoin Lucan's family and Guinevere at the ruin, and she's forced to face the death of her husband, realizing she never got to say good-bye.

Morgan enters Arthur's chambers, wearing his royal robes and reaching for the crown. She's interrupted by Harwel's man who brings her Excalibur and word that the king is dead.

Bridget brings food to Merlin, asking him why he doesn't break free. He believes only Arthur can regain the people's trust, and not some sorcerer displaying magic and proving Morgan right. Sybil has Merlin brought to the grand hall as a teary Morgan makes her entrance, dragging Excalibur beside her and showing the people the king is dead. She makes a great show about who might rule them, so Sybil suggests she is the only option. Morgan feigns surprise and asks if that is what the people want. They say it's her obligation to her brother and father to take the crown. Morgan accepts in her brother's memory.

Morgan goes to see Igraine, whom she's garbed in a gown to look her best. Igraine tells her she can give birth to a king, or marry one, but she'll never get that crown. Morgan tells her she was the birth of all this, as she turned Uther against his daughter. That's why she was given her face in particular.

Morgan stabs her in the stomach, whispering she wants a slow death for her. As Igraine falls to the floor she tells Morgan she doesn't know the truth—that it was Igraine who saved her from her father when Uther wanted her dead like her mother. Igraine sent her away to the convent. Morgan backs away in disbelief, leaving Igraine and trying to comprehend what she just learned.

Morgan is dressed for her inauguration. Merlin remains chained up in the throne room as everyone assembles. Igraine drags herself from her chambers. Sybil is about to place the crown on Morgan's head when Arthur enters the room with a slow clap.

As she embraces him, he tells her he knows her true face, then he addresses the assembly. He lives for their hope and how to deliver on it, but he's met with their accusations. He asks for his sword and crown back, but she says it's not that easy. He's lost the will of the people.

Merlin is released, and the knights produce Wallace, who confesses that Morgan plotted against the king.  She says he's lying, but he tells her the punishment for treason is death. That's when Sybil steps up and confesses that she was behind it all and Morgan knew nothing of it. When asked, Morgan agrees she knew nothing as she meets Sybil's eyes.

Merlin finds Igraine in the corridor. She's barely alive, and he starts chanting a spell to save her. She realizes that it will cost him his own life as his eyes bleed, and she pushes him away. She tells him to protect Arthur, and dies in his arms.

Later, Merlin cleans Igraine's body and Arthur joins him. The king tells him it's not his fault, and pays his final respects to his mother, swearing he will become the king she hoped he would be.

Sybil is led to her open grave by Gawain. She kneels, and comments that she thought Morgan would come. Gawain readies to cut off her head and she looks up at the hill, where Merlin stands. "There is no god," he says. And she's executed.

Arthur comes to Morgan in her chamber, telling her he knows she killed Igraine, despite Sybil's confession. Her nun had no motive. He withdraws his protection of her castle and takes the Pendragon name from her. He no longer has a sister. But she screams he can't take her name. He's nothing but her father's bastard. She's left alone.

Leontes and Igraine are burned on funeral pyres. The knights look at the wood they used to carry Leontes body, stained with his blood. They build it into a circular table, with the bloody bit to remain empty until a worthy and honourable champion of Leontes' calibre joins them.

Merlin bids Arthur good-bye. The king says he needs him, but Merlin needs to go off on his own. Merlin tells him Arthur is perhaps stronger than him anyway.

Morgan goes to Sybil's grave and lays on the mound of fresh dirt. The wind blows through the trees and she hears Sybil's voice whispering she must give birth to the king.

Guinevere shows up at Arthur's chambers, asking not to spend the night alone. He tells her that Leontes told him to treasure her (!) so welcomes her in, and the two make love. In the night, Guinevere wakes up with a bloody nose, and quickly runs out into the corridor. She transforms back into Morgan, smiles and walks away.

The Verdict:
One of the highlights of the finale was Arthur getting a chance to shine and show how tactical a thinker he is. While it was a bit much that he could solely defend the outpost that long, he was in desperate need of some kingly acts, including a near torture of Wallace. But what he gained at the beginning he seemingly lost by the end when he bedded Guinevere again after her husband's funeral. Come on! At least Guinevere herself is spared the same stain, but we're left wondering if Arthur can control his passions at all.

I've currently got a love/hate relationship with Jamie Campbell Bower. Sometimes he seems unbearable (usually when pining about Guinevere), and others he succeeds in coming across as a youthful king. Here he did the latter. Next year, grow a beard to roughen him up a bit, as he's still too much of a skinny pretty boy.

Morgan also delivered well in those scenes where she was close to having her plans come to fruition. There was less of her bombastic nature she projects on her subjects, and more of her emotions she keeps guarded. The revelation that Igraine helped save her life and losing her family name were good character moments to add to her turmoil.

Merlin's brief use of magic was welcome. But having him go off to mourn is another cop out for this character. He's just so wishy-washy when it comes to decision making, he can't be a very good advisor at all. He needs to return a stronger sorcerer (keyword—sorcerer).

Sybil was the greatest disappointment. Given all the talk of rituals and primeval forces, I was leaning towards her being some sort of dark force herself. But what we get is just an ambitious woman who hates men. That's it? The only saving grace was the angst that came with Morgan sacrificing her to save her own life. Like Merlin, we're left wondering was she a puppet or a puppeteer?

Leontes' loss wasn't surprising at all, and I really won't miss him. It's too bad that he wasn't allowed to develop in any meaningful way. Igraine, though, was a favorite, and I realize the writers needed a death with some impact on the characters and this was definitely it. 

If there is a second season, I'd like to see some time pass. Only now is Camelot feeling like it's actually got a viable population, and the knights need an army—not this handful of warriors. I don't really want to sit through a season of Guinevere and Arthur falling in love, either. With Leontes dead, the door is open for Lancelot to make an appearance (hopefully later on).

The whole season has been a mixed bag of strong episodes and wasted opportunities. The season seemed to stall in the middle with little direction on where it might go. So Camelot has definitely had its share of growing pains, but the potential is there to really hit its stride should it get a renewal.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Review: Game of Thrones "Baelor"

Non Spoiler Review:
Game of Thrones' penultimate episode left me absolutely stunned and totally ruined my Sunday night. It delivered the series' biggest shocker to date—even Cersei was horrified at the ending. Robb's army engages the Lannisters after Catelyn bargains with the lord of The Twins (now featured in the opening credits) for passage across the Trident River. Tyrion faces battle at the head of his father's army and takes a new confidant that draws out a very sad story from his past. Daenerys' plans are thrown into jeopardy when Drogo takes a turn for the worse, and she realizes her authority lasts only as long as her husband is Khal. 

This week was all about plans going well and going awry, as well as duty versus love. After last week's bounty of character scenes, Baelor brought a more intimate look to certain players, preferring to focus on the Starks, Tyrion, Jon and Daenerys. Events begin to slip out of everyone's control very quickly, leading to an unexpected conclusion for many.

It not only sets up an increasingly grave situation for Westeros, but tells us that anything goes on Game of Thrones. I have no idea what to expect with the season finale.

Spoilers Now!
Varys lets Ned know Sansa plead for his life, but Lord Stark still wants to know what he wants. Varys explains that when he was a boy (before his balls were cut off) he travelled with a group of actors, and he's learned that each man has a role to play. He's a good actor. He won't free Ned, though, as he's no hero. He just wants peace.

Varys informs him Robb is marching south with an army. Lord Stannis has the best claim to the throne, though, and he's giving Cersei sleepless nights given he's a masterful and ruthless soldier. Cersei's smart enough to know a tame wolf is more valuable to her than a dead one, so Varys urges Ned to put aside his honor and serve the realm—confess, and tell his son to lay down his sword. If he gives the queen the peace she craves, she might let Ned take the Black on the Wall and live out his life with Jon and Benjen. Ned counters that he grew up with soldiers and learned how to die a long time ago. "Such a pity," Varys says. Is his daughter's life precious to him, he asks as he leaves.

Theon shoots down a raven from Walder Frey's keep, bearing a coded message signally Robb's movements to the Lannisters. Robb needs to cross the Trident River at a bridge/fortress complex called The Twins. The Freys have held the crossing for centuries and demand a toll, so Robb must do whatever it takes to secure the crossing. Catelyn opts to go as she's known Walder since she was a child.

Walder Frey is a nasty, ornery old man with a lot of children and bastards. He and Catelyn talk privately and he informs her that her family has always looked down on him. Her father would never marry any of his children to his. Catelyn asks him to open his gates so her son can cross the Trident. Frey informs her Tywin can defeat them, and her husband is in a dungeon. Joffrey's king, which makes Robb a rebel. And he wonders why he should waste a single thought on any of the ruling families.

Jon's burned hand is healing, and Mormont gives him a new sword of Valyrian steal (a sword of his ancestors that was meant for his son Jorah, who brought dishonor to his family). He's grateful for Jon saving his life. He's also sent Thorne to King's Landing to lay the severed hand at the feet of King Joffrey—and also keep Thorne and Jon separated.

Jon's grateful, and he's also the new hero among his friends for saving the commander. Sam has some grave news, though, as he read a raven that was meant for Master Aemon—Robb is heading south for war. Jon wants to be there with him, of course, and his duty is brought into conflict with his family loyalty again.

Catelyn returns to camp with news Frey has granted passage, as well as sending some of his men to join their army, but in return Robb must take Frey's son as his personal squire, and Arya will marry his son Waldron when they come of age. And, when the fighting is done, Robb will marry one of his daughters (whichever Robb prefers). Robb can't refuse if he wants to cross, so consents.

Aemon is aware Jon is troubled, and tells him that love is the death of duty—that's why the men of the Night's Watch don't take wives. Honor and duty come easy when loved ones aren't in peril. Every one faces a day when they must choose. Aemon was tested late in life, when news reached him of his nephew's death, and the death of all his children and Aemon's entire family. Jon suddenly realizes who he's talking about. He's Aemon Targaryen, and the mad king was his nephew (and, in fact, had turned down the throne himself in favor of his brother). Aemon won't tell Jon to stay or go—he must make that choice and live with it, as he has.

Tywin is advised the Stark's are a day's march north of them. He admits Robb has some courage and tells his son that he and his wildings will be in the vanguard of the attack. Unfortunately, Tyrion can't control all the hill tribes as they're scrapping among themselves. He walks out in anger and returns to his tent, where Bronn is entertaining a new woman he found in camp. Her name is Shae, and Bronn leaves them alone. He promises her safety and gold if she becomes his woman, and she accepts.

As the Khalasar marches, Drogo has grown increasingly ill and falls from his horse. Daenerys tells them to camp there so he can rest, but Qotho, who is still begrudging her for taking all the slave women, won't take orders from her. She calls for Mirri, and they finally reluctantly comply, fearing Drogo's wrath when he recovers.

Drogo's wound is infected and Jorah says he will die soon. He suggests they leave him and get to the coast as fast as possible, but she won't. She's Khaleesi. Men won't honor blood here, he says. There will be fighting and whoever wins will be Khal. Her son will be killed. Mirri arrives, but Qotho is still showing Daenerys no respect and tells her if Drogo dies she will be next. She suggests Jorah wears his armour tonight, and tells Mirri to save her husband.

Mirri says she does know some magic, so Daenerys tells her to do it. This is blood magic—death pays for life. Not Daenerys' death, though, she's quick to point out. Drogo's horse is brought to her. Blood magic is forbidden, and the Drothraki are alarmed she's using it. Mirri cuts the horse's throat and all the blood flows onto Drogo, and then she sends them all away. Jorah is shocked at what Daenerys has done, and Qotho goes to interfere in the tent where Mirri is chanting. Jorah pulls his sword and fights him. Qotho is killed. Daenerys collapses—apparently her baby is coming. Jorah takes her back into the tent.

Shae, Bronn and Tyrion drink together and play a game of truth. Shae doesn't want to play, and Tyrion can't seem to guess at her history—her mother was not a whore. She doesn't want him to talk of her mother and father ever, so she asks who he was in love with, and Tyrion reveals he was once married.

He explains he and Jaime rescued a woman attacked by some men, so he took her to an inn and fed her. Her name was Tysha. He was smitten and asked for her hand by morning. They were married only a few days when Tywin found out and had Jaime tell Tyrion the truth—Jaime had arranged everything and hired the whore for his brother. To prove it, he brought Tyrion into the barracks and made him watch Tysha have sex with the men for silver coins. Shae says he should have known she was a whore.

In the morning, Tyrion is woken by Bronn that Robb marched all night and is nearby. He rallies his troops but Tyrion gets knocked out in the mad rush to battle. He awakens to Bronn dragging him through a field. They apparently won, and the hill tribes are pillaging the corpses. Tywin marches up. There were only 2000 Stark bannermen, not 20,000 as their scout had said. Robb wasn't there, either. So where are the 18,000 men, Tyrion wonders.

Catelyn and Rodrik watch as her son returns from the woods from another battle. They have Jaime Lannister captive. Catelyn demands he give her her husband and daughters back. Jaime suggests he and Robb fight and decide the war here and now, but Robb knows Jaime would win, and he's not doing it his way. Jaime's taken away and put in irons. Robb realizes he sent 2000 men to their graves for his ruse. One victory does not make them conquerors, he tells them all. The war is far from over.

Arya is on the streets, killing pigeons for food. Some children run by, saying the Hand of the King is being taken to the sept of Baelor. She follows the crowd to the assembly and takes a perch on a statue. Ned is led out and he manages to spy her. He passes Yoren in the crowd, and whispers "Baelor" to him, indicating where his daughter is, then goes on to the sept where Sansa and the council await.

Ned says he's come before them all to confess his treason. He announces he betrayed the king, the trust of his friend, and plotted to murder Joffrey and seize the throne for himself. He declares Joffrey is the one true heir of the Iron Throne. Pycelle tells the crowd that Stark has confessed his crimes and the gods are just. Baelor also taught them the gods can be merciful. He asks Joffrey what is to be done with the traitor. Joffrey says that on the wish of his mother Ned can join the Night's Watch in permanent exile, and Sansa has also begged mercy for her father. But those are the soft hearts of women, he declares, and treason will not go unpunished. He demands Ned's head.

Cersei is completely caught off guard, and the crowd goes wild. Arya runs out through the masses with her sword as the executioner comes out. Ned stares silently as Sansa screams, and he sees Arya is gone. Yoren has grabbed her and held her back. And Ned is executed.

The Verdict:
Wow. I'm feeling fortunate I never saw a hint of a spoiler for this. The careful plans of Varys and Cersei were undermined by their insane boy king (even mother was taken aback). And poor Ned, who made his choice to sacrifice his honor for the greater good, was killed for it. What a tragic way for his character to end. Dying is bad enough, but giving up all he represented in the hopes of saving his family, only to realize it was all for nothing at the end. So sad, and with that, HBO sends a clear message it's not pulling any punches with this show.

In contrast to Ned, Jon's struggle with his new duties versus helping his family was brilliantly outlined by Maester Aemon. His revelation that he is one of the last Targaryen's, who chose his duty to the Black over the destruction of his family was quite touching. I'm still not sure what Jon might do, but it was a great scene, as well as to see him rewarded by Mormont—who could very well become his surrogate father figure given both are in need of a father/son replacement.

I'm left liking Varys even more. If he truly does love the realm (which means some splainin' is in order about his comments with Mopatis some weeks back), Ned's death will leave him struggling to find a new hope. The mention of Stannis may mean Robert's brother may soon be making an appearance. Surely after all these weeks have passed there would be some news of this? But Ned's influence may reach from the grave, given the contents of his mystery letter to Stannis that could still bring his revelations about the Lannisters.

Robb's quickly proven himself now to anyone who might question his strategy. Together with his mother they make a good team, and the messy politics and responsibilities of being one of the great houses really hit home this week. Though, chances are there likely won't be a need for those weddings by the time everything is done with. 

We got Tyrion revelations too—his mother dying in childbirth, and the terrible story of his first love. Shae's introduction as a foreigner made me suspect she might bring news of the Dothraki. It's obvious she's got her own story to tell.

Joffrey's megalomania threatens everyone now. What will Cersei's move be if she realizes she can't control her son? What will happen when news of Jaime's capture reaches King's Landing? Could he actually be killed, as well? Coming off the heals of Ned's death, I'm now wondering how Drogo is going to fair. The prospect of Daenerys ruling the Dothraki is pretty compelling, but she's certainly going to face opposition. We also get more magic this time around, too, with whatever craziness Mirri is conjuring in the tent. Will it even be Drogo that returns, if he does awake?

I asked for some reference to time last week, and we certainly got it with Daenerys going into labor. It looks like nearly a year has passed since the series began. No wonder Bran and Rickon are furious with their parents. 
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