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Taboo Season 1

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Ugliness is an integral part of the aesthetic in Taboo. The take on early 19th century London it presents is not a pleasant one, all mud, blood, offal, corruption, and horror. Even its characters are a parade of grotesques, looking like they just stepped out of the pages of a Mervyn Peake novel.

It’s a fascinating world we’re thrust into, though: the tail end of the 1812 war between Britain and the US, at the dawn of modern corporate dominance in the form of the British East India Company, the powerful merchant concern who are our villains here. Our “hero”, for want of a better term, is Tom Hardy’s James Keziah Delaney, long thought dead in some African hellhole and greatly upsetting the apple cart when he returns to London to claim his inheritance upon the death of his father.

Part of his inheritance is a vital spit of land on the Canadian/US border, which will be of strategic import in coming negotiations. The East India Company, largely represented by Jonathan Pryce’s conniving chairman, are of the opinion that the world would be a better place if James wasn’t in it, but they haven’t reckoned with the kind of man who has returned from Africa: tattooed, scarred, and a rumoured cannibal. But is James’ pragmatic savagery any match for the monolithic Company?

Taboo is OTT in the best and most gloriously Gothic sense of the word, offering up a feast of brutality and sensuality as our enigmatic hero, cutting a menacing figure in his stovepipe hat and long coat, negotiates high society and low in his quest for allies and advantage. He’s more at home in the gutters, it seems, winning Stephen Graham’s criminal Atticus to his cause, but is just as formidable cutting a deal with American spy Dr Dumbarton (Michael Delaney), or getting up in the grill of Thorne Geary (Jefferson Hall), upper class husband to his half-sister, Zilpha (Oona Chaplin).

Is there incestuous desire between James and Zilpha? Of course there is, because Taboo throws every Gothic and Victorian literature trope into the blender and then spills it all out on the screen, like the result of Charles Dickens and Horace Walpole going on an absinthe bender together. What elevates it is a modern political sensibility that approaches topics such as class, race, colonialism, and corporate malfeasance with an astute eye – while still allowing space for the odd disemboweling.

At the centre of it all is Hardy, giving a performance as magnetic as any other in his career as the opaque and ruthless James. He’s ostensibly our point of view character, but for much of the series he remains as much a mystery to the viewer as he is to the rest of the cast of characters – Hardy’s sheer watchability carries us through, though, even if we’re left as witnesses rather than participants in the drama.

A grim romp with plenty of secrets, lies, violence and the odd grand guignol sequence, Taboo is an enjoyably idiosyncratic drama –  call it Peaky Blinders: The Early Years, or Boardwalk Empire 1814 if you need a quick shorthand. Such glib descriptions do it something of a disservice, though; while the ingredients might be familiar, in combination they result in a fresh flavour that is unlike anything else we’ve yet seen in the increasingly popular “adult historical melodrama” genre.

 
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To The Bone

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Writer/director Marti Noxon draws from personal experience to tell a story about a young woman battling an eating disorder. While To The Bone’s dramatic strength lies in its first-hand immediacy, the meandering tale fails to engage. That’s largely due to Lily Collins’ inscrutable performance as the unlikable main protagonist Ellen – later adopting the name Eli.

After being kicked out of therapy yet again, 20-year-old Ellen joins a purportedly unconventional group therapy home. It’s run by a no-nonsense yet compassionate doctor, played with rugged charm by Keanu Reeves. Ellen briefly impresses with a parlour trick; her eidetic memory for the calorie count of all foods. All the other inhabitants of the home exhibit varying degrees of malfunction, but there are few dramatic moments or profound breakthroughs. The story just ambles along in a banal fashion.

With her gaunt gaze and horrifyingly skeletal frame, Emma’s default mode appears to be that of dispassionate sarcasm. Each of her family members remark on the negative affect her illness has had on them, but Ellen seems unfazed and unmotivated to improve. There’s a dark backstory about Ellen’s illustrated blog being blamed for a reader’s suicide, but even that storyline goes nowhere. Nor do we gain any insight as to why Ellen fell ill, although her father’s frequent inability to show up is suggested as a factor. Above all, Collins never seems to convey authentically the isolation that plagues many who are afflicted with this mental and physical disorder. She effortlessly wins the heart and affections of the only male patient in the house, a British dancer named Luke (Alex Sharp), whose career has been derailed because of a knee injury.

Eventually Ellen/Eli re-forges a bond with her estranged mother (a criminally under-used Lili Taylor) in a ludicrous scene towards the end that is best left undescribed.

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The Tick

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First created by Ben Edlund (Firefly, Supernatural) as an affectionate parody of superheroes back in 1986, that big, blue, boisterous bastion of heroism, the Tick, has been standing tall for truth, justice, and all that good stuff ever since. The bouncing behemoth has hit our TV screens twice before, in a three season cartoon series debuted in 1994, and then in a brief and much missed 2001 live action series starring Patrick “Puddy” Warburton, which managed to chalk up a mere nine episodes. Now he’s back, he’s streaming on Amazon, and his latest incarnation might just be the best yet.

As played by the brilliant Peter Serafinowicz, the Tick a blue-suited, muscle-bound “nigh-invulnerable” superhero possessed of the strength of “…ten, perhaps twenty men – a crowded bus stop of men.” Given to spouting straight-faced but absurd aphorisms about justice and destiny, the Tick has come to The City to protect it from evildoers of all stripes – and to act as conscience, role model, and life coach to depressed accountant Arthur (Griffin Newman).

Despite who’s hogging the title, The Tick is actually Arthur’s story, with Edlund and his co-conspirators recognising that as much fun as the blundering, not-too-bright Tick might be, he doesn’t have much of an arc – and, in fact, he’s better off without one. Arthur, by contrast, is a fallible, empathetic, and somewhat tragic figure. He lost his father to collateral damage from a super-powered battle involving villain The Terror (a wonderfully hammy Jackie Earle Haley), and has since been plagued by unspecified mental health issues and relies on his nurse sister, Dottie (Valorie Curry), to keep him from getting too caught up in his conspiracy theories and superhero obsessions.

All that changes when Arthur finds himself in possession of a high tech power suit that, for reasons never entirely explored, looks, like a moth, and in the orbit of the gleefully heroic Tick, who urges Arthur to take of the never ending battle against evil. The show toys with the notion that the Tick is actually a manifestation, Fight Club style, of Arthur’s mental issues, before wisely discarding the idea. No, he’s just the leading edge of the weird wider world the show inhabits; a world that has had superheroes since the Tunguska blast of 1908 (shout out to X-Files and Ghostbusters fans alike), and contains Egyptian-themed crime syndicates, at least one talking dog (who has written a memoir about his time as a superhero sidekick) and a dark and brooding vigilante (Scott Speiser as Overkill, a riff on the Punisher, Batman, and all points in between) whose base of operations is a Knightrider-esque talking boat voiced by Alan Tudyk.

It’s gloriously silly stuff, using the whole swathe of superhero lore as grist for the comedy mill. It’s impossible not to crack a smile when Serafinowicz’s Tick forces his four-colour worldview onto the more drab everyday milieu around him, at one point annoying a shopkeeper who really just wants to give his protection money to the local goons rather than get caught up in all this heroic nonsense, at another delighting Arthur’s stepfather simply by turning up to his 60th birthday party and just being himself.

There may not be method to this madness, but there is a thematic point. “What if Arthur is awesome?” the Tick muses to Dottie at one point, who is dead set against all these super shenanigans. “What if you are, too, and you just don;t know it?” For all its absurdity, Both the Tick and The Tick are big on heart and heroism, and that’s what makes it special. Yes, it’s incredibly funny; yes, it has nerd cred to spare, but it’s those punch-the-air moments of triumph that really bring the show home. “The hero inside all of us” is a hell of a cliche, but The Tick revels in both mocking such cliches and then reminding us that such homilies are well-worn for a reason. It’s a tough trick to pull off, and it requires absolute sincerity in order to stick the landing. Like Mystery Men and Galaxy Quest, this is a parody that absolutely adores the genre it’s ripping strips off of, bombastic excesses and all.

Broadly speaking, such genre-specific parodies are only successful when the conventions they’re lampooning are widely enough known for a big audience to get the joke. Given that we’re about 20 years into the Modern Age of the Cinematic Superhero, the time is right for The Tick to rise again. Let’s hope he sticks around.

 
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Game of Thrones S7E7: The Dragon and the Wolf

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[SPOILER WARNING: Please don’t read unless you’ve seen the episode. I mean, come on, you know how this works]

Season seven of Game of Thrones has whipped past quickly, some have opined too quickly. We’re in the show’s third act now and on occasion logic and consistency have been sacrificed at the altar of momentum. Nevertheless, here we are, at the finale of the penultimate season. So does “The Dragon and the Wolf” manage to live up to the heaviest of expectations? Let’s have foaming tankard of recap first.

The episode begins with The Unsullied arriving at King’s Landing. Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and Bronn (Jerome Flynn) have some delightful patter about being surrounded by an army of “men without cocks”, but they’re just bantering to hide their nervousness. Today is an important day for the realm and things could go very badly.

Jon Snow (Kit Harington), Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) and Davos Seaworth (Liam Cunningham) share their nervousness as they’re landing deep in enemy territory. Sandor Clegane (Rory McCann) checks to see if their “special” zombie cargo is still a screamer. It is.

Everyone’s heading for the important parley in the Dragonpit, you see, and no one’s quite sure what the other will do. On the walk there we have a few nice moments with Podric (Daniel Portman) and Tyrion, Bronn and Tyrion – it’s good to see these two together again – but the best moment by far is with Brienne (Gwendoline Christie) and Sandor. The Hound actually smiles when Brienne explains that Arya (Maisie Williams) is safe and with her family at Winterfell. Honestly, the Hound having a cheeky grin is probably the most unexpected thing to happen all episode.

Still, the friendly banter can’t last and the world’s deadliest staff meeting is about to begin, with a very well-armed HR department ready to enforce the rules. Cersei (Lena Headey) arrives and scowls fiercely. Euron Greyjoy (Pilou Asbæk) has a smirk-off with Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen). The Hound checks out his brother, The Mountain’s (Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson), bold new zombie look and thinks it’s a bit tacky. Everyone manages to behave themselves for the moment and then Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) arrives on a dragon. The lady makes a hell of an entrance.

The meeting gets off to an awkward start. Euron starts to heckle Theon and Tyrion, but Cersei and Jaime shut him down. They want to hear what Tyrion has to say, or at least, they want to appear that way. Tyrion makes his pitch about the army of the dead, but it’s clear visual aids are needed. Rather than go with pie charts and graphs, The Hound brings out the blue-eyed zombie captured in last week’s ep, “Beyond the Wall”. The screechy dead thing takes a run at Cersei but The Hound clefts it in twain. “There is only one war that matters,” Jon explains, “The Great War – and it is here.”

Euron claims to be terrified and buggers off back to the Iron Islands, which seems suspiciously out of character. Cersei seems convinced of the threat, and more than a little freaked out, and says she’ll fight with Dany and Jon as long as the latter stays in the North. Jon tells her no, he’s bent the knee to Dany and Cersei storms off.

Tyrion wryly tells Jon that sometimes it’s a good thing to fib a little. Jon gives (yet another) impassioned TED talk about being honest in a post-truth Westeros, but maybe pick your moments, eh? Tyrion decides he should be the one to talk with Cersei. Seems like you’d be safer with the wights, mate.

In the episode’s best scene we have a long-awaited one on one with Cersei and Tyrion. Lena Headey is particularly effective in this scene, bringing genuine pathos to her character, as she lashes Tyrion with words regarding the death of her father and children. Peter Dinklage brings his usual wounded dignity to the table, offering his life if Cersei really wants to take it. She doesn’t, not really, and they both calm down, a little. The turning point is when Tyrion works out that Cersei is pregnant.

Jon and Dany have a bittersweet bit of business amongst the stunted dragon bones when Tyrion returns… with Cersei following. “The darkness is coming for us all… we will face it together” Cersei proclaims. “And when the Great War is over, perhaps you’ll remember I chose to help.” This is actually a great bit of character work for Cersei, if true, but can we possibly trust a word she says?

In Winterfell, Sansa (Sophie Turner) has the shits re: Jon bending the knee to Dany. Petyr Baelish (Aidan Gillen) continues to implicate Arya and isolate Sansa. Collectively GoT fans pray that Sansa hasn’t suddenly become stupid enough to believe him.

Battle plans are made in Dragonstone, and Dany announces she and Jon will sail together to the North. Afterwards Theon talks with Jon, trying to make him understand that he seeks redemption. Jon tells Theon it’s not for him to forgive, but maybe rescuing his sister, Yara Greyjoy (Gemma Whelan) would be a good start.

This plan proves less popular with Theon’s crew and he cops a savage beating. However this time he doesn’t turn tail, and after taking a misplaced knee to the not-cock (seriously, it’s a running theme for this episode) Theon triumphs and re-baptises himself in the sea. The crew are now with him (fickle bunch) and will follow his lead to rescue Yara.

At Winterfell, Sansa and Bran (Isaac Hempstead Wright) have Arya sent to the great hall, where armed soldiers surround her. “You stand accused of treason and murder,” Sansa says imperiously, “how do you answer these charges… Lord Baelish?” Yes, in a twist that isn’t terribly surprising but quite cathartic we find out Sansa, Arya and Bran have been aware of Littlefinger’s fuckery to at least some degree. His charges reveal that Petyr is responsible for much of the chaos in Westeros, including Ned Stark’s death. Littlefinger begs for his life, but Sansa calmly intones: “Thank you for all your many lessons, Lord Baelish, I will never forget them.” Then Arya slits his throat and he bleeds out on the cold ground.

Meanwhile Jaime is planning on moving his army North, when Cersei interrupts asking him what the hell he’s doing. Turns out Cersei has no intention of sending anyone northwards and will, instead, keep on being a cartoony supervillain – using Euron to bring a bunch of bad arses called The Golden Company, who have elephants apparently. It’s a shame and Jaime can no longer handle it. Jaime heads to the door and for a moment we think Cersei will have The Mountain kill him… but no. She’s not ready to do that, not yet. As Jaime leaves King’s Landing it begins to snow.

Up North, Samwell Tarly (John Bradley-West) arrives at Winterfell and visits Bran. The subject soon turns to Jon, and Bran is desperate to tell Jon the truth about himself. “No one knows, no one but me,” Bran says incorrectly (Gilly, you never get any respect), “Jon isn’t my father’s son. He’s the son of Rhaegar Targaryen and my aunt, Lyanna Stark.” With some extra exposition from Sam (which, again, Gilly gets no credit for – sorry, Hannah Murray!) it becomes clear that “Rhaegar didn’t kidnap my aunt or rape her, he loved her, and she loved him.” Which of course means: “[Jon’s] never been a bastard, he’s the heir to the Iron Throne.”

This information would have come in really handy for Jon, because at the same time as Bran and Sam are figuring all this out, he and Dany are getting it on. What’s he going to do when he finds out he’s shagging his aunt? And how will Dany react when she realises she’s not the rightful heir to the Iron Throne after all?

Arya and Sansa have a proper bonding moment, thank God, and it’s so sweet it almost makes up for the protracted silliness of this sister vs sister subplot.

Bran wargs to the Wall and we see what we’ve been dreading since the end of last episode. Tormund (Kristofer Hivju) and Beric (Richard Dormer) watch in horror as the army of the dead arrive… with the Night King (Richard Brake) riding a freaking zombie dragon! Everyone tries to flee as the dragon breathes corrosive blue fire all over The Wall but many die as a huge section of The Wall collapses. More importantly – the wights now have unrestricted access to the realms of men. Looks like Tyrion was right when he observed earlier, “we’re fucked.”

Just how fucked will our heroes be? We’ll have to wait until the next and final season but it’s sure to be epic.

Ultimately “The Dragon and the Wolf”, and indeed season seven of Game of Thrones in general, has been more action blockbuster than political drama or character-based thriller. It’s exciting and engaging and occasionally a bit silly, but unique in the televisual landscape.

One thing’s for sure it’s going to a long, cold, wintry wait to see how this sprawling tale ends. Until then, thanks so much for reading these reviews and we’ll see you next time when this song of ice and fire comes to a close.

 
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Game of Thrones S7E6: Beyond the Wall

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[SPOILER WARNING: Please don’t read unless you’ve seen the episode. I mean, come on, you know how this works

The penultimate episode of each Game of Thrones season tends to be a biggie and holy crap, this is no exception. After a somewhat rushed, piece-moving affair with last week’s “Eastwatch”, GoT delivers a tense, action-packed heartbreaker of an episode with massive ramifications.

We open where we ended last week, heading north of the Wall with Jon Snow (Kit Harington), Jorah (Iain Glen) The Hound (Rory McCann), Berric (Richard Dormer), Gendry (Joe Dempsie), Thoros (Paul Kaye) and Tormund (Kristofer Hivju), plus a bunch of redshirts, traipsing into the unknown.

Lots of character work takes place: Tormund being hilarious, Gendry being pensive, Snowy being serious – everyone gets a nice character moment, leading us to question – who the hell is going to die? Most telling is Tormund’s chat with Jon. They discuss bending the knee regarding Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) and Tormund has a surprisingly layered take on it, referring to Mance Rayder as the King who would not bend the knee, asking: “How many men died for his pride?”

Back at Winterfell, Arya (Maisie Williams) reveals to Sansa (Sophie Turner) that she has the hostage note. Sansa tries to explain herself, but Arya is playing a darker game. She understands the context of the note but wonders if the Northern Lords will be so kind. It’s a tense back and forth between the sisters, but to what end? Where is this subplot going?

At Dragonstone, Dany and Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) talk about heroism, morality and Jon Snow’s relative hotness. The pair clash even though they’re quite closely aligned philosophically. Dany’s pride and temper gets the better of her, especially when Tyrion brings up the topic of who will sit on the throne when Dany has died. “We will discuss the succession after I wear the crown.” Meeting over!

Up north the time for talk is over and shit pops off. In a blizzard of blinding snow, bears attack. Correction: ZOMBIE BEARS! A brutal fight begins with some of the no name extras getting ripped apart. Thoros saves Sandor from a burning bear but gets mauled in the process. The bears are killed (or re-killed, I guess) but Thoros has been gravely injured. He’s alive, for now, but odds on he won’t be making it to the episode’s end.

At Winterfell Sansa turns to Baelish (Aidan Gillen) for help. Oh Sansa, that’s not a good call, mate. Hopefully Sansa or Arya (or preferably both) can see through this scam. Petryr manages to convince Sansa to send Brienne away and lo did the eyes of many a Game of Thrones fan roll.

Team ‘Pretty Fly for a Wight Guy’ finds a smallish group of the dead. It’s now or never. Using a clever trap involving a campfire, the lads demolish all but one screamy zombie who wouldn’t look out of place on The Walking Dead. The zombie is captured but not before he calls for his mates. Jon sends Gendry back to Eastwatch to raven for help. The rest take their captured dead fellow and run as about a million zombies pour after them. They make it to a rock in the middle of a frozen lake. The ice protects them, for now… but the dead are patient and the weak ice will refreeze before too long.

Gendry makes it to The Wall and collapses.

It’s morning back on the tiny island of the dead. Thoros has died in his sleep. No more extra lives for Berric. RIP Topknot. His corpse is burned but things are looking grim. The Night King (Richard Brake) watches from a nearby ridge. Berric reckons the Lord of Light brought him and Jon back for a reason, and perhaps it’s to defeat the blue-eyed commander of the dead. Sandor opines: “Every lord I’ve ever met’s been a cunt. I don’t see why the Lord of Light should be any different.”

Frustratingly we’re back at Winterfell again where Sansa receives an invitation to King’s Landing. Sansa sends Brienne (Gwendoline Christie) off in her place, but this has the stink of a Littlefinger plot. Brienne tries to give Sansa the good oil on Baelish but Sansa doesn’t listen.

Up north, Clegane starts fanging rocks at a zombie. And then it’s on, you guys. It’s ON. The dead attack. It’s an exciting, messy scrap and our heroes fight hard but they can’t possibly last. The dead are simply too many. The remaining extras are whittled down but before any of the named cast can bite it… DANY COMES STORMING IN WITH HER DRAGONS! Honestly, it’s amazing that after “The Spoils of War” a somewhat expected dragon attack can still be so effective, but it’s an absolute goosebumps-running-up-your-arms moment.

But ol’ mate Night King has an ice spear ready and as Jon Snow fights off more dead – when frankly he should just be getting on the damn dragon – The Night King throws the spear and kills Viserion the dragon! Viserion goes down and sinks beneath the ice and it’s weirdly heart-breaking. Jon is also grabbed and pulled beneath the ice by the dead. Dany, our heroes and her remaining two dragons flee, narrowly dodging another ice spear.

Jon emerges from the water and the dead attack but he’s rescued but ol’ Uncle Benjen Stark (Joseph Mawle). Uncle B gives Jon a horse and faces the dead, a battle he swiftly loses but he’s saved his nephew.

Sansa searches Arya’s room for the note but instead discovers her Mission: Impossible face-changing kit. Arya springs her and goes full menace mode. Arya implies she could kill Sansa and take on her identity and then hands her a knife. I’m guessing we’ll see how this all turns out next week, but for the moment this whole subplot feels like a dud note and a forced conflict.

Dany watches over Jon as he recuperates. It took a dead dragon to convince her, but now Dany knows the army of the dead is real. “We are going to destroy the Night King and his army and we will do it together, you have my word.” Dany tells him. Jon then bends the knee, metaphorically (he’s stuck in bed) and the pair have a moment… but despite Jon’s enthusiasm now’s probably not the right time for some loving. Still their alliance is strong.

In the final scene the dead are dragging Viserion’s corpse from the ice and … oh Jesus, The Night King is making a zombie dragon. A ZOMBIE DRAGON, PEOPLE. THIS IS NOT A DRILL. Viserion’s dead eye opens and the episode ends.

Well, holy fucking shit. Game of Thrones promised a third act full of epic battles and shocking developments and thus far has been delivering in a big way.  “Beyond the Wall” is quite simply a brutal, exciting, oddly emotional hour-and-a-bit of television. The battle scenes are superb, Viserion’s death quite shocking and his subsequent resurrection horrific and full of menace for the future.

The Arya/Sansa B-story is less successful, but perhaps it will have more room to breathe next week. You better believe we’ll be here in seven days for the season finale!

 
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Marvel’s The Defenders

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And so after five seasons of Marvel Netflix superheroic shenanigans, from the highs (Daredevil Season 2, Jessica Jones) to the lows (goddamn Iron Fist), we come to the inevitable culmination: Marvel’s The Defenders, which sees our four street level vigilantes come together to take on – who else? – The Hand, the shadowy organisation of ninjas, zombies, and ninja zombies intent on taking over New York City.

The good news: it’s a damn sight better than the woefully misjudged Iron Fist. For one thing more care has gone into the production of The Defenders – it lacks the rushed, haphazard, undercooked feeling that marred poor Danny Rand’s first TV outing. For another, Danny (Finn Jones) is a much more appealing protagonist when he’s got other characters sharing the spotlight – especially when they’re a blind guy, a woman, and a black man who are all more than happy to tell the rich white kid when to check his privilege when the need arises.

It’s Danny who drives the plot engine, in fact; he and Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick) have been hunting down The Hand around the world, and it’s their crusade that brings them back to NYC and into the orbits of lawyer/vigilante Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox), private eye Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter), and ex-con Luke Cage (Mike Colter), none of whom really want to get mixed up in any kind of shadowy back alley war. Murdock has given up his Daredevil persona (shades of The Dark Knight Rises there), Jones is content to drink and take the odd PI gig, and Cage is focused on tracking down a Harlem teen who has gone missing after taking a mysterious job (again, shades of DKR). It takes a bit of maneuvering to get them all in the same place and punching in the same direction, but it’s worth the wait.

In the blue corner we have Sigourney Weaver’s Alexandra, the face of The Hand, pursuing a mysterious but doubtless world-threatening agenda. Weaver’s no stranger to genre fare – she’s Ellen Ripley, for crying out loud – and she’s never less than watchable, but seems a little ill at ease with the often portentous dialogue she has to get her mouth around. She’s also ill-served by the glacial, repetitive way that we’re introduced to her character, a series of brief scenes, isolated from the main story, that are determined to drop veiled hints at a character trait we’ve all guessed long before the show deigns to tell us.

Indeed, pacing remains an issue with The Defenders, even though it runs at a cut down eight episodes rather than the usual Marvel/Netflix 13 episode season. As has been the case with every series so far, there’s simply not enough story to stretch comfortably over the allotted hours. Happily, the character interactions are enough fun to keep you interested – at last we get the Luke Cage/Iron Fist meet-cute/punch up we’ve been waiting for (it’s a thing), and streetwise Jessica Jones telling Matt Murdock his secret identity isn’t much of a secret is never not funny.

We also get cameos from the supporting casts of every preceding series, including Rosario Dawson’s Claire Temple, Simone Missick’s Misty Knight, and Elden Henson’s Foggy Nelson (Cage marveling that Foggy lets people call him that is a riot). However, the key returning players are from Daredevil’s neck of the woods: Elektra (Elodie Yung), now a living weapon wielded by The Hand, and grumpy old ninja master Stick (Scott Glenn), who remains a curmudgeonly delight in every scene he’s in.

The action, when it hits, is pretty great – and certainly an order of magnitude better than Iron Fist‘s disappointing choreography. Part of the fun in these sort of things is seeing how the different characters’ power and abilities compliment or contrast with each other, so we get to see what happens when Iron Fist’s, er, iron fist, meets Luke Cage’s unbreakable skin, and how martial artists match up against opponents with super strength. For all that, the feeling remains that Marvel/Netflix are still chasing – and falling short of – the high watermark that is Daredevil Season 1’s hallway fight, but not for want of trying.

Perhaps inevitably, it lacks the thematic and narrative cohesion that defines the better works in the overall series, but based on the four episodes released for review, The Defenders does exactly what was promised, delivering the requisite action, quips and character interplay, but not quite managing to push into any new territory. Everyone already on board will be well satisfied, and newcomers should find enough to keep them engaged, too.

 
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Game of Thrones S7E4: The Spoils of War

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[SPOILER WARNING: Please don’t read unless you’ve seen the episode. I mean, come on, you know how this works]

 Ever since Game of Thrones’ first season finale, “Fire and Blood” – when Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) birthed her wee dragon babies – there has been an expectation that we would, at some point, see Dany use her scaly children to wreak fiery retribution against her enemies. Although that expectation has been met to a certain degree on smaller scales (hoho), it’s really tonight’s episode, “The Spoils of War” that delivers in full.

 The episode begins with Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and Bronn (Jerome Flynn) in the aftermath of the battle for Highgarden, divvying up the literal spoils of war, as a wagon laden with gold is being sent to pay off the Iron Bank. Bronn is grousing about his share of the pay and informs Jaime he wants a castle. Jaime rolls his eyes and tells him to bloody well wait. It’s a small and seemingly inconsequential moment that becomes much more important before the ep’s conclusion.

Elsewhere, Petyr Baelish (Aidan Gillen) gives an iconic dagger to Bran (Isaac Hempstead Wright). It’s the very one used by the assassin who tried kill him in season one, which seems an odd choice for a gift. Bran looks like he’d rather be elsewhere, probably listening to The Smiths, and tells Littlefinger, “chaos is a ladder”. Righto, Bran, give it a bone, mate. To further Bran’s douche tour, Meera (Ellie Kendrick) bids the lad a farewell to which Bran barely responds. He’s gone full Doctor Manhattan from Watchmen: he sees too much to properly connect with humanity anymore. Either that or he’s just a wanker. Jury’s still out to be honest.

Meanwhile, Arya (Maisie Williams) finally returns to Winterfell! She’s greeted by a couple of incompetent guards who don’t believe she is who she says she is, but rather than kill them she tricks them and slips past. That’s personal growth, lady! Sansa (Sophie Turner) knows just where Arya will be and the pair reunite at the statue of Ned Stark (Sean Bean). It’s not exactly the warmest of reunions – Arya and Sansa never got along all that well – but it’s nice to see them together even if they’re awkward. Arya looks at Ned’s statue, complaining that it doesn’t look like him.

“Everyone who knew his face is dead” says Sansa.

“We’re not” Arya replies.

The sisters visit Bran in the Godswood where he regifts the dagger to Arya who looks delighted. You can almost see her thinking up people in whom to shove it. Bran also manages to avoid talking about Sansa’s rape this time, so that’s positive.

Brienne (Gwendoline Christie) and Podrick (Daniel Portman) observe the three Stark Children together. “Catelyn Stark would be proud,” opines Pod and Brienne allows herself a slight glimmer of happiness.

On Dragonstone, Dany gets a tour of the dragonglass mine via Jon Snow (Kit Harington). Jon really wants Khaleesi to pay extra attention to the cave paintings, daubed by the Children of the Forest so very long ago. The pictures show the children and the first men fighting together against their common enemy: the army of the dead.

“The enemy is real,” says Jon, “it’s always been real.”

“I will fight for you,” Dany replies, “I will fight for the North… if you bend the knee.”

Honestly at this moment the UST is so thick in the room you could carve it. Just get married, you guys. Perfect solution.

Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) pops in to deliver the bad news about their battle plans thus far and Dany starts to get the shits, seriously contemplating reducing King’s Landing to bubbling slag. Jon advises caution because of course he does.
At Winterfell, Brienne and Arya have a wonderful “training” session where the two appear well matched, fighting back and forth with skill and style.

“Who taught you how to do that?” Brienne asks, breathing hard.

“No one.” Arya cheekily replies.

Meanwhile Sansa watched with wide eyes, thinking what the fuck happened to her bratty little sister?!

At Dragonstone we have a sweet moment where Davos (Liam Cunningham) advises Jon to follow his heart (or boner) for Dany. Missandei (Nathalie Emmanuel) chats with the pair about how great Dany is, and then Theon (Alfie Allen) arrives on the beach. Jon angrily informs Theon the only reason he’s not dead is because he helped Sansa, but Theon wants to know where the queen is. Actually that’s a good question…

Back where we began, with Jaime and Bronn. Things appear normal for a few moments but then… what’s that sound? Horses. A shitload of horses. The exhausted Lannister troops try to rally as best they can but the sight of a bunch of Dothraki riders approaching isn’t great for morale. Also bad for morale? DANY RIDING A FUCKING DRAGON INTO BATTLE!

Yes, it’s the moment we’ve all been waiting for, Dany flies into battle, scorching her enemies with long plumes of dragonfire and reducing those who would oppose her to ashes. Not only is the sequence cathartic and well-directed, it’s also layered. From Dany’s perspective the battle is a glorious triumph, but when we’re at ground level with Jaime and Bronn, we’re watching people scream in agony as they burn to death. It’s sweeping and beautifully executed and one of the most memorable moments in GoT history.

The battle rages back and forth, with the Lannisters taking the brunt of the losses. Bronn attempts to use the big dragon-killing crossbow but while he lands one hit, the dragon rallies and destroys the contraption. Spying an opportunity, Jaime attempts to kill Dany but is almost charbroiled – and in fact would have been, had Bronn not knocked him out of the way. Are the sellsword’s efforts all for naught? The episode’s final moments have Jaime sinking into the water of a lake, weighed down by his armour.

Wow. Despite the fact none of our primary characters are killed in the big battle it’s an amazing sequence, showing Dany’s determination but also hinting at a possible madness that may manifest itself more acutely in the future. Bronn lives (yay!) and Jaime probably will too (kinda… yay?) but make no mistake, the game has been well and truly changed and Cersei (Lena Headey) is gonna be maaaaaaaaaaad.

Interesting side note: “The Spoils of War” is just 50 minutes long, GoT’s shortest ep to date, and in fact feels more like 20. It’s an effective, lean, focused episode and the highlight of season seven so far.

 
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Game of Thrones S7E3: The Queen’s Justice

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[SPOILER WARNING: Please don’t read unless you’ve seen the episode. I mean, come on, you know how this works]

 The latest episode of Game of Thrones is titled “The Queen’s Justice”, which is loaded with potential meaning. After all, Westeros currently has two queens – Cersei (Lena Headey) and Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) – not to mention Sansa (Sophie Turner) who is acting Queen of the North. All three ladies are very different people, with vastly opposing views on what justice can and should be.

The hour’s first queen is Dany. Jon Snow (Kit Harington) and Davos Seaworth (Liam Cunningham) arrive at Dragonstone to be greeted by Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) and Missandei (Nathalie Emmanuel). At first things proceed well with Jon and Tyrion talking about old times, and Davos admiring the changes to Dragonstone. Although the change he seems to admire most is Missandei, with whom he awkwardly flirts. The trip down memory lane is sullied somewhat by Jon’s first up close experience with a dragon hooning through the sky.

Watching from a safe distance, Melisandre (Carice van Houten) pats herself on the back for “[bringing] fire and ice together” and tells Varys (Conleth Hill) that it’s time for her to go. Varys suggests that she should stay gone, but the red woman tells him she’ll be back one more time, to die, just like Varys. Ominous, portentous music plays, suggesting at least one of this pair won’t be making it to season eight.

In the throne room Jon finally has a little chat with Dany. It does not go well. The pair are simply mismatched in how they view the world. Dany is here to take back her birthright and Jon wants to save the world from ice zombies. They’re like ebony and ivory, or perhaps obsidian and dragon bone. Point is, Jon won’t bend the knee and Dany doesn’t really believe in monsters – which is an odd philosophical position for a fireproof lady with three dragons.

“I was born to rule the seven kingdoms, and I will.” Dany tells Jon with imperious fury.

“You’ll be ruling over a graveyard if we don’t defeat the Night King.” Jon replies.

The meeting is over and Jon goes to his room to sulk.

Dany has more immediate problems, however, as Varys reveals the defeat of the Greyjoys by Euron (Pilou Asbæk). We cut quickly to Theon (Alfie Allen) who is rescued from the water, looking like a wet, whipped dog. The men of the Iron Fleet are disgusted by his pathetic presence.

Euron, on the other hand, gets a very different reception at King’s Landing. The swarthy pirate drags a chained Yara Greyjoy (Gemma Whelan), Ellaria Sand (Indira Varma) and Tyene Sand (Rosabell Laurenti Sellers) through the streets and jeering crowds. Tell you what, it must be great to be a peasant in King’s Landing – naked queens, exploding Septs and now beaten enemies! Euron delivers the bested foes to the episode’s second queen, Cersei, who claims she will indeed marry Euron “after the war is won”. So Euron will command the ships and Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) will lead the army. However it’s hard to imagine Euron (who quietly asks Jaime if Cersei likes “a finger in the bum”) will remain disciplined and obedient for long.

Later in Cersei’s torture palace, Lena Headey gets to chew on a truly delicious monologue to Ellaria. Cersei laments her lost daughter, Myrcella (Aimee Richardson), who was poisoned by Ellaria. Cersei kisses Tyene, Ellaria’s daughter, using the same poisoned lipstick. Ellaria will be forced to watch Tyene slowly die and then stay in the cell with the body. “You will live to watch your daughter rot.” Jesus fucking Christ, Cersei. We’re not sure if this will be the last time we see Ellaria, but that’s probably a wrap for Tyene. RIP Sand Snakes.

Briefly, Tycho Nestoris (Mark Gatiss) comes debt collecting for the Iron Bank, but Cersei reminds him that a Lannister always pays their debts and gets a two week extension. Tyrion manages to play diplomat and helps forge an uneasy alliance between Jon and Dany – with the latter providing access to dragonglass. Oh, and Queen #3 Sansa gets a surprise visit from Bran (Isaac Hempstead Wright), who manages to creep everyone out by claiming to see all, and adopting the Three Eyed Raven moniker. No one likes a goth who takes themselves too seriously, Bran, come on, mate.

In lighter news Samwell (John Bradley-West) appears to have cured Jorah (Iain Glen), and even manages to earn the grudging respect of Archmaester Marwyn (Jim Broadbent) who nevertheless sets the lad to some heavy duty photocopying. Not much of a reward for such good work, but Jorah thanks him profusely and is off to track down Dany and hey, this will probably lead Sam to an eventual promotion.

This all leads, in classic GoT style, to the final moments when all the action-related business occurs. Narrated from the war room by Tyrion, we see the Unsullied attack Casterly Rock. Lead by Grey Worm (Jacob Anderson) the army makes use of Tyrion’s secret prostitute entrance and manages to beat the Lannisters… but something’s wrong. There are two few soldiers and the victory was too easy. As Grey Worm looks out at his ships being attacked by Euron, we know something has gone terribly wrong.

The Lannister army are, in fact, taking out the Tyrells. This will take another enemy off the board and give them enough gold to pay the Iron Bank. It’s a cunning plan and another dispiriting defeat for the “good guys”.

In the episode’s best scene, Jaime and Olenna Tyrell (Diana Rigg) have a civilised drink. Olenna is beaten and she knows it, but she’s curious as to what happens next. After reminiscing about Joffrey (“He really was a cunt, wasn’t he?”) and advising Jaime about Cersei (“She’ll be the end of you”), the grand dame is ready to meet the reaper. Jaime tells her Cersei wanted it to be bloody and painful, however Jaime talked her down to a poisoning. Jaime spikes her wine and, like a champ, Olenna downs it in one. As the poison kicks in, Olenna reveals – rather proudly – that is was she who killed Joffrey. “Tell Cersei,” Olenna says with the hint of a smile, “I want her to know it was me.”

Honestly Olenna, you’re the real queen of the episode and you shall be missed.

Overall “The Queen’s Justice” is a solid episode, marred slightly by an underwhelming battle sequence. Dany has suffered another loss and Cersei’s forces are growing ever stronger. Jon may have access to dragonglass but unless he can convince everyone the army of the dead is real it will all be for nothing. Dark times ahead and, hopefully, occasional moments of light.

 
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Atypical

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Created by sitcom veteran Robia Rashid, best known for her work on How I Met Your Mother, Atypical strives to offer an authentic portrayal of the autism spectrum. As shown through Sam (played superbly by Keir Gilchrist), we get a series of embarrassingly awkward social situations coupled with an all-too-familiar need for independence and love. His mannerisms, mainly his fixation on his favourite topics and his very to-the-point way of talking to others, ring true of my own experiences. I was diagnosed with autism at an early age, and through all the support groups and social gatherings I’ve been a part of, I’ve met more than a few people that would see something of the familiar in Sam. Consulting real professionals in the medical industry for reference, Rashid creates Sam as a depiction of autism that may come across as a caricature, but carries enough of his own character to make it fit. He’s unflinchingly honest, to the point of inducing cringe comedy with his matter-of-fact statements in almost every scene, but nevertheless, this rings true.

However, more so than the accuracy, it’s the fact that his condition informs his character, rather than solely being his character, that deserves praise. Representation of people with autism in the mainstream still has a long way to go in terms of proper acceptance, given how the mostly erroneous stereotypes attached to the term ‘autistic’ still exist, but it seems that Rashid’s intent has paid off.

If only the rest of the show was as finely-tuned. For a show literally called Atypical that has a tagline of ‘normal is overrated’, it is quite frustrating that this show feels as tired as it does. Outside of Sam, the rest of the cast is populated by stereotypes that have been regular staples in film and television for a very long time by this point. The overworked mother, the distant father, the abrasive and bratty sister, the best friend whose dialogue is 70% sexual innuendo, the high maintenance girlfriend; after a while, it becomes less a show about autism and more a standard sitcom that an autistic character just happened to wander into.

To make matters worse, the fact that such a frank and honest depiction of autism is sided with so many characters that rarely feel connected to the same level of reality induces cringe in the worst way possible. Any scene that doesn’t involve Sam’s sister (made into the most watchable character of the lot thanks to Brigette Lundy-Paine’s performance) ends up feeling like this is a show that wants to understand autism but apparently still hasn’t figured out basic human interaction itself yet. Then again, when your comedy reaches the point of comparing people with autism to meth addicts, chances are that human interaction wasn’t on the cards in the first place.

Atypical, for as faithful and (mostly) considerate that it is concerning autism, is swimming in too much of the same old junk to really stand out.

 
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Game of Thrones S7 E2: Stormborn

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[SPOILER WARNING: Please don’t read unless you’ve seen the episode. I mean, come on, you know how this works]

Last week’s episode of Game of Thrones, “Dragonstone”, put all the pieces in place and today’s episode, “Stormborn”, is all about taking the first faltering steps on the march to war. So what happens? A shitload, so let’s recap.

We open with a storm lashing Dragonstone. There’s a war room meeting with Daenerys (Emilia Clarke), Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) and Varys (Conleth Hill). There’s little love lost between Dany and Varys, the former believing the latter to be disingenuous and disloyal. Varys delivers a typically eloquent rebuttal and an uneasy alliance is formed between the pair, on the condition that if Varys betrays Dany she’ll burn him alive. Classic Targaryen.

Next minute Melisandre (Carice van Houten) pops in to hitch her wagon to Dany’s team. Her prophecy has been amended from “the prince who was promised will bring the dawn” to “the prince or princess who was promised will bring the dawn”. Tyrion observes that it’s something of a mouthful but Dany approves. Melisandre suggests Dany forge an alliance with Jon Snow (Kit Harrington) and Tyrion chimes in, saying he likes and trusts Snowy and “I am an excellent judge of character”. Dany agrees, on one condition: Jon has to bend the knee. Tyrion gets an uncomfortable look on his face. Always with the knee-bending, these people.

Meanwhile, at King’s Landing, Cersei (Lena Headey) is laying on the anti-Daenerys propaganda from atop the Iron Throne. Afterwards, Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) impresses upon Randyll Tarly (James Faulkner) the wisdom of choosing to side with the Lannisters and the queen. More specifically Jaime reckons it’d be pretty great if Olenna Tyrell (Diana Rigg) would meet with a messy end. Tarly is tempted by Jaime’s silver (or should that be golden?) tongue, so Olenna better watch her back.

Winner of ‘Westeros’ Most Creepy’ five years running, Qyburn (Anton Lesser) shows Cersei what he reckons is the perfect solution to their dragon problem. He unveils… a big, fuck-off crossbow and has Cersei fang a bolt into a massive dragon skull. Cersei approves.

Back in Dragonstone’s war room a plan is beginning to emerge. The Iron Fleet will take Ellaria Sand’s (Indira Varma) Dornish soldiers to King’s Landing to lay siege alongside Olenna Tyrell’s army. “Two great kingdoms united against Cersei” is how Tyrion pitches it. Olenna is salty and wants to know exactly what he and Dany bring to the table. Tyrion answers that they’re going to take out the Lannister’s seat of power: Casterly Rock. Everyone grudgingly admits that, yeah – that’s actually a pretty good plan – although Olenna doesn’t trust Tyrion or “clever men” in general.

Later Grey Worm (Jacob Anderson) and Missandei (Nathalie Emmanuel) end their will they/won’t they arc by falling squarely on the former. Certainly Grey Worm may be lacking in the penis department (such is the price of being an Unsullied) but he can use his mouth quite well, judging from Missandei’s reaction, and we’re treated to an oddly tender sex scene that is consensual and no one dies. Which in GoT is a huge win.

Elsewhere Samwell (John Bradley-West) has decided he’s going to use a banned technique to cure Jorah Mormont’s (Iain Glen) greyscale. Archmaester and fantasy-version-of-a-climate-change-denier, Marwyn (Jim Broadbent) has specifically forbidden Sam from doing so but the big fella will not be stopped. Sam begins to pick Jorah’s scabs, politely asking him not to scream, and we’re treated to the grossest segue way in the show’s history as we juxtapose scab picking and pus to a close up of moist pie crust.

Speaking of pie, it’s Hot Pie (Ben Hawkey)! Remember him? Well Arya (Maisie Williams) does and the pair exchange pie-cooking tips in a tavern. Hot Pie express surprise at Arya’s destination being King’s Landing, after all Jon Snow is back at Winterfell. Arya is shocked and happy to hear this news and leaves the tavern, mounts her horse and has a moment of indecision. Does she head to King’s Landing to kill the queen, or see Jon? It’s a choice between revenge and family and – this time at least – Arya chooses family. It’s a sweet moment.

Speaking of Jon, Samwell’s message regarding the mountain of dragonglass at Dragonstone has arrived. This makes up Snowy’s mind, and despite the protestations of almost everyone at court, he’s off to see Dany. Sansa (Sophie Turner) is particularly adamant that Jon shouldn’t go, asking who the hell he’s going to leave in charge! “Until I return, the North is yours.” Jon replies, which does rather suit Sansa if we’re being completely honest.

Before Jon departs, Petyr Baelish (Aidan Gillen) tries to ingratiate himself to Jon by mentioning Catelyn and Sansa. It doesn’t go well. Jon gives Littlefinger a big choke, and tells him to stay away from his sister unless he wants a savage beatdown out the back of Macca’s carpark.

Finally, aboard the Iron Fleet, Theon (Alfie Allen) and Yara Greyjoy (Gemma Whelan) share a cabin with Ellaria. Yara and Ellaria get along like a house on fire – a sexy house, mind you – and try to enlist Theon in a threeway. As we’ve already seen this episode, lacking a todger doesn’t need to end the boudoir activities, but before anything can happen the whole caper is savagely cockblocked by Euron Greyjoy (Pilou Asbæk) who smashes fair into the fleet.

We’re treated to the first large scale battle scene of season seven and it’s as bloody and visceral as you could hope for. The casualties of the battle include two of the Sand Snakes – Obara (Keisha Castle-Hughes) and Nymeria (Jessica Henwick) – with Ellaria and Tyene (Rosabell Laurenti Sellers) captured by Euron’s men. Could this be his gift to Cersei? Euron also manages to best Yara in battle, holding her at knife point and goading Theon into action. This is Theon’s moment to prove his redemption arc is for real… but instead he turns craven and dives off the side of the boat.

Theon survives but the Iron Fleet is in tatters, proving that the best laid plans can go tits up when you’re up against a sexy pirate man.

All in all “Stormborn” is an effective and surprising hour of television. Everyone’s motivations feel faithful to the characters and the battle has genuinely changed the stakes, reminding us that everything is up for grabs and no one is safe in Westeros. Euron continues to feel like a fresh, vital character and his barnstorming battle scene is as exciting as it is dismaying.

Hopefully next week team Dany will have more luck with Casterly Rock, and we’ll be here to chat about it.