Stranger Thursdays Posters Rearranged

My obsession with the Stranger Thursdays posters led me to realize they could have been released in a different order. Each poster happens to fit the theme of a particular episode, but not the one it was released with. (See all of the posters here.) They came in the following order:

Episode 1. Stand by Me.
Episode 2. A Nightmare on Elm Street.
Episode 3. The Running Man.
Episode 4. Alien.
Episode 5. Firestarter.
Episode 6. The Evil Dead.
Episode 7. Jaws.
Episode 8. The Goonies.

Allow me to re-arrange as follows.

Episode 1: Stand by Me. The only one they got right. The poster is perfect for the premiere, as it introduces the boys and establishes the overall tone of the series.

Episode 2: Jaws. Released for episode 7, it would have been more suitable for episode 2, in which Barbara’s finger bleeds into the swimming pool and draws the Demogorgon to attack her.

Episode 3: The Evil Dead. Released for episode 6, it’s an excellent metaphor for the extreme horrors Joyce suffers in episode 3. Her mental breakdown gets out of hand as she speaks frantically into Christmas lights to contact Will, is derided by Jonathan for her efforts, and then finally forced to run like hell out of her house when the Demogorgon emerges from her living room wall.

Episode 4: The Running Man. Hopper goes into detective-overdrive in episode 4, and that’s where the Running Man poster belongs. He breaks into the morgue and finds that Will’s corpse is a fake, and starts to put more pieces of the puzzle together.

Episode 5: A Nightmare on Elm Street. This one is tailor made for episode 5 (certainly not episode 2), where Nancy and Jonathan brave the forest at night and are assaulted by the Demogorgon.

Episode 6: Firestarter. Made for episode 5, it fits episode 6 like a glove. It’s where Eleven comes into her own, rescuing Mike from the cliff-fall, and facing herself as a monster for unleashing the Demogorgon into the world.

Episode 7: The Goonies. Released for the finale and I can understand why, as it gathers all the characters together. But for that very reason it should have been released with the penultimate episode. Episode 7 is the only episode where all the characters do in fact come together. The three story arcs of the kids, the teens, and the adults intersect as they put Eleven in the bathtub to locate Will. In episode 8, they part ways again to play their special roles against the Upside Down threat.

Episode 8: Alien. Honestly, how can the Alien poster not come last? (It came with episode 4.) It conveys the horror of the Upside Down where Will is being held captive, facehugger style. Perfect for the finale.

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The Finest Hours in Game of Thrones

Seven seasons. 67 episodes. Here are the best. Seven are from season 1, three from season 2, five from season 3, five from season 4, two from season 5, five from season 6, and three from season 7. And then an honorable mention from season 5, and a dishonorable mention from season 7. That’s a total of 30 episodes plus the two special cases.

As far as the seasons on whole, the order is: 1 > 3 > 6 > 4 > 5 > 2. Season 1 remains the strongest by far. The overall pacing, narrative payoff, and rewatch value is pretty much beyond criticism. Season 3 is a close second. It would be premature to rank season 7 (though I rank individual episodes below) since it’s only a half-season, and it’s a rather mixed bag. Some of the long overdue payoffs are grand (episodes 4 and 7 are fantastic), but they come at the expense of a half-baked plot device to get there: the quest for a wight to prove to Cersei that the undead are real. As if that could possibly make her an ally, which of course it doesn’t.

I disagree with the detractors of season 5. Aside from the silly Dorne plot, all of the plot changes were for the better. Yes it’s a weaker season by comparison to the others, but not nearly as bad as people complain about, and in particular the outcries over Ramsay’s rape of Sansa are absurd. It was a necessary move for Sansa’s story arc, and I give that episode an honorable mention at the end. But the Dorne plot is admittedly silly, especially as it deteriorates into the “adventures of Jaime and Bronn”.

Season 2 is weakest, mostly for its lack of focus, but also for involving the worst adaptation of all: the kidnapping of Dany’s dragons and political revolt in Qarth. It was unconvincing, and even a bit silly like the season-5 Dorne plot. What makes it worse is that the book version of events are perfect as they stand. In A Clash of Kings Dany enters the House of the Undying, not on a Dirty-Harry rescue mission for her dragons, but to receive her prophecy from which we learn the identity of her nephew Aegon (“his is the song of ice and fire”), and from which she barely escapes with her life. That drama is strong enough without the artificial supplements of conniving politics and dragon-stealing. And to top it off by having the first “Dracarys” event in the House diminishes Drogon’s seminal moment in Astapor.


1. The Rains of Castamere. Season 3, Episode 9. The defining episode of Game of Thrones is the rare masterpiece that acquires instant legendary status — the equivalent of Breaking Bad’s Ozymandias and Hannibal’s Mizumono, drama that is perfectly calibrated for maximum emotional effect. The Red Wedding makes Ned’s execution seem banal by comparison for the scale and treachery involved. Walder Frey slays his guests under sacred protection, the mass murder includes innocent victims like Robb’s pregnant wife, and the backstabbing comes from even allies as the Boltons turn on their liege lord. The episode also has the best Bran scene before season 6: holed up in the lake tower, warging his brains out, when Jon saves him from the wildling attack — great wolf action from both Ghost and Summer. The Red Wedding is the reason Benioff and Weiss wanted to make the TV series and they did complete justice to it.

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2. The Kingsroad. Season 1, Episode 2. I’ve watched this episode more than any other. After the introductions of the premiere, it offers even stronger family dynamics as the Stark kids go their separate ways. It’s amazing how so many scenes in this episode resonate in hindsight in the wake of season 7. Ned promises Jon they will talk about his mother when they next meet; Jon gives Arya a sword to practice with. Ned and Robert argue about killing Dany. (Dany, for her part, suffers marital rape until she tames Drogo on her terms.) There’s a lot of wolf action, as Bran is attacked in bed and recused by Summer; on the Kingsroad, Arya stabs Joffrey, Nymeria bites him, and Sansa’s wolf ends up paying the price for it. In Lord of the Rings, the breaking of the fellowship comes long after the hobbits leave the Shire. In Game of Thrones, the breaking of the Stark family is the initial departure from home, and many of these terrific characters will die and never see each other again. It’s a precious episode that gets better each year as you look back on it and see how far the characters have come (if they are still alive). I’m surprised more pick lists don’t rank it high.

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3. The Spoils of War. Season 7, Episode 4. There are three episodes that represent what the series has been building to from the start: Hardhome in season 5, The Door in season 6, and this one, The Spoils of War, in season 7. Dany, against the advice of Tyrion and Jon, decides she’s not messing around and goes Aegon on the Lannister army. Watching the Dothraki decimate the Lannisters is incredible enough, but seeing Drogon channel Balerion the Black Dread is completely staggering. I get battle fatigue easily, but this is a battle I have watched many times, and there’s great stuff even before that. Jon shows Dany the cave drawings of the Forest Children allied with men against the White Walkers. Arya comes home to Winterfell and sword-practices with Brienne. The surviving Stark kids catch up under the weirwood tree, and it’s simply amazing how far they’ve come since their separation in The Kingsroad.

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4. The Door. Season 6, Episode 5. In the number two critical episode, Bran emerges as the greenseer-warg who can manipulate time. He wargs into Hodor to escape the white walkers, but he does so while he’s observing Winterfell in the past, which creates a psychic link between the two Hodors: past-Hodor becomes warged too and hears Meera yelling “hold the door” from the future, which he starts repeating until his mind snaps. So Bran is responsible for traumatizing Hodor and creating his mentally challenged state, which leaves open all sorts of possibilities (will Bran “become” his ancestor Bran the Builder and raise the Wall himself 8000 years ago?). The white walker assault on the Weir Tree is quite a sequence, and this where Summer dies defending Bran. The episode also has the best Ironborn scene, with Yara claiming the Salt Throne and Euron winning it, followed by his baptism by drowning.

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5. Hardhome. Season 5, Episode 8. The number three critical episode is a drastic departure from the novels, because it gets to the point in a way that Martin stalled on for too long. The undead threat beyond the Wall is what Game of Thrones is about. While everyone contends for the Iron Throne, believing that political rule of Westeros is the most important question, they are oblivious to the real threat. That the walkers have made few appearances has been a strength, to be sure; this is a patient series not given to cheap thrills. But by the fifth book, a dramatic outing was overdue, and the show writers rectified this deficiency. The battle is incredible enough as it is, but when the Night King at the end slowly raises his arms, and every fallen member of both sides of the battle rises as a wight, the look on Jon’s face as the screen fades to black is one of the most powerful in the series. Also overdue was the hookup of Tyrion and Dany, and their disputing where and how Dany should rule; it’s a great interaction.

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6. Battle of the Bastards. Season 6, Episode 9. It’s no exaggeration to say that the battle for Winterfell is one of the most incredibly choreographed battles ever done, and certainly the most impressive done for a TV series. It was only strengthened by the need to go off-script and cheat due to budget and time constraints; for example, the claustrophobic terror of Jon being trampled ended up being one of the most effective scenes. Even more than the Pelennor Fields in Jackson’s Return of the King, it immerses the viewer in the chaos and random carnage as seen from the ground. This is the long overdue payback for the Red Wedding, where the good guys actually win for a change. And what a sidebar bonus on Dany’s side of the story, as all three dragons annihilate a battle fleet at Mereen.

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7. The Climb. Season 3, Episode 6. A visual masterpiece, which for whatever reason isn’t a big favorite among fans. Ramsay’s prolonged torture of Theon is too much for some people, but that doesn’t subtract from The Climb being one of the best directed episodes of the series. I was sweating when the Wall defended itself and sent the wildlings falling to their screaming demise. Jon and Ygritte’s precious moment at the top is well earned. Tyrion and Cersei have their best moment (finding common cause in grief over the marriages they’ve been shafted with), as do Tywin and Olenna (who sling mud at each other over the homosexual/incestuous inclinations of the other’s children). The best part, however, is Littlefinger’s monologue about his own “climb” of the ladder of life. He glorifies the ruthless who are willing to do whatever it takes to get ahead, which plays over the ugly death of Ros. It’s the coldest speech of the series and steals the show.

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8. A Golden Crown. Season 1, Episode 6. This is a densely packed episode with constant dramatic tension. War is foreshadowed when Robert (after punching Cersei in the face) refuses to allow Ned to step down as the Hand. He gets more than he bargained for when Ned sits the Iron Throne and summons Tywin Lannister to court on pain of treason, precipitating awful events. Meanwhile, over in the Vale, Tyrion is championed by Bronn, and the duel is a ripper. Still further east, Dany gets carnivorous with the horse heart — without question the best cross-cultural scene of the series — and Viserys is “rewarded” by Drogo with a molten gold crown. His death is so disturbing that it almost plays like fantasy snuff. The Kingsroad will always be my favorite of season 1, but this one is a close second.

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9. The Mountain and the Viper. Season 4, Episode 8. The duel between Oberyn and Clegane is the best one-on-one fight sequence to date. It’s so well done that even if you read the books, it manages to make you think Oberyn might win and free Tyrion. Despite his relatively small size (compared to the Mountain), he looks entirely believable as the most lethal warrior of Dorne; his acrobatics with the spear are hypnotic. This episode also features a stellar performance from Sansa, as she tearfully recounts Lysa’s “suicide” to the nobles of the Vale — both exposing and concealing Petyr’s deceptions, and finally taking control of her miserable life. Here she shows the potential for becoming dangerous like Petyr and shrewd like her mother.


10. Garden of Bones. Season 2, Episode 4. Possibly the most underrated episode and certainly one of the nastiest. Joffrey has Sansa beaten in front of spectators in the throne room. Joffrey forces Ros to beat another whore bloody. The Mountain and his men torture young prisoners at Harrenhal. Most spectacularly, after Stannis and Renly trade public insults, Melisandre gives hideous birth to a shadow creature. It’s one demented act after another, and was scripted by Vanessa Taylor, whose other season-2 episode places on this list (The Old Gods and the New). She should have written a lot more for the series. If not for her, I wonder if anything from season 2 other than Blackwater would appear on my list. She has a gift for squeezing out dramatic tension even in the most subdued moments. Garden of Bones is a serious artistic achievement.


11. The Winds of Winter. Season 6, Episode 10. The first 20 minutes are a crowning directorial achievement, ending in the mass murder of just about everyone at King’s Landing — the High Sparrow, Margaery, Loras, Lancel, Mace Tyrell, Kevan Lannister included. In terms of sheer numbers, Cersie’s terrorist bomb kills more people than the Freys did at the Red Wedding. Whether or not that makes the entire episode worthy of the #1 slot (as many believe) is another matter. Winds of Winter is a set-up episode above all, moving all pieces into play for the final act: the Bastard King of the North, the Mad Queen in the South, the Dragon Queen sailing on Westeros — while the Night King, as we know, waits for them all. We get the supreme bonus of Faceless Arya assassinating the Freys, and finally get to see Oldtown which is incredibly gorgeous. It’s a fantastic episode and the best season finale of the series, but I don’t think it merits the #1 slot.

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12. The Dragon and the Wolf. Season 7, Episode 7. After a weak penultimate episode (see my dishonorable mention at the bottom), the half-season finale delivers as it should, with long character moments that remind us what we love so much about Game of Thrones. The council at King’s Landing is extremely well played, though I had a bad moment when Cersei announced her willingness to fight alongside Jon and Dany against the dead. It turns out she’s lying, of course, but I had my doubts given the silly decisions made by characters in the previous two episodes. Littlefinger’s end in Winterfell is very satisfying, and Bran is becoming rather unnerving when he quotes dialogue from people long dead (like his father) with his ability to see into the past. Sansa and Arya share a quiet, awesome moment on top of the walls of Winterfell that is well earned. The final act is best of all, as we watch Viserion used abominably to bring down the Wall — unquestionably the most epic scene of the series to date.


13. And Now His Watch is Ended. Season 3, Episode 4. The title refers to Lord Mormont, who is killed by his own men at Craster’s Keep. That’s explosive enough. But the real explosion comes overseas in Slaver’s Bay, where Dany comes into her own and roasts the city of Astapor. The “Dracarys” moment is almost as powerful as in the book — I say almost because of the liberties taken back in the House of the Undying, where the dragons made their first “Dracarys” kill with Pyat Pree. (The Qarth thread of season 2 has been the weakest adaptation to date.) But it doesn’t end up mattering much. This is a truly glorious episode.


14. The Dance of Dragons. Season 5, Episode 9. Drogon’s flame strike in Daznak’s Pit is the main feature, but before that comes another and more outrageous fire, and possibly the most upsetting scene of the series: Stannis sacrificing his daughter Shireen to the Lord of Light. Back to back we witness the burning-at-the-stake of a completely innocent child, and then the glory of a queen reclaiming her destiny, as her untamed baby, now of monstrous size, roasts her attackers in the arena. I’m hard pressed to say which scene is more powerful, and it’s brilliant how the “Dance of Dragons” theme weaves through both; Stannis and Shireen’s discussion of the ancient dragons is so tenderly played, and a heartbreaking prelude to a father’s despicable decision.

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15. Baelor. Season 1, Episode 9. The death of Ned Stark showed that no one is safe in Westeros, that the more you grow attached to Martin’s characters, the more likely they will be unexpectedly and unfairly slain. It’s an instant classic for good reason, though a bit overrated by those who rank it up with The Rains of Castamere. The episode on whole isn’t that strong, though certainly excellent, for in the east Dany faces the impending deaths of Drogo and Rhaego: the horse ritual that kills her husband and baby is hideous. Walder Frey makes an appropriate first appearance, negotiating with Catelyn for terms that Robb will fail to keep, precipitating his own treacherous downfall.


16. The Pointy End. Season 1, Episode 8. A lot happens in this episode, and it was written by Martin himself. Drogo is challenged by one of his men when Dany refuses to allow war captives to be raped, and Drogo rewards him by ripping his tongue out of his throat. At Kings’ Landing, Arya kills a stable boy in the chaos following Ned’s imprisonment — and after watching Syrio Forell clobber the shit out of four Lannister knights with a wooden training sword before dying under Ser Meryn’s blade. In the north, the Greatjon challenges Robb’s right to lead the clans, and Grey Wind leaps over the dinner table and bites his finger off. At the Wall, Jon kills a reanimated wight. This one gets your blood up, and is a surprisingly underrated episode; I think it about ties with Baelor.

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17. The Laws of Gods and Men. Season 4, Episode 6. Tyrion’s mummer trial, his “confession” before the court, and demand for a trial by combat harks back to his imprisonment in the Eyrie, but this time the drama is more stirring. When even Shae testifies against him with lies, his reaction to the crowd’s laughter is spot on: “I saved you all — all your worthless lives.” He confesses to the crime of simply being a dwarf, for which he’s been on trial all his bloody life. “I didn’t kill Joffrey, but I wish I had. I wish I had enough poison for you all. I wish I was the monster you think I am.” This pivotal scene is true to the book, and without question my favorite Tyrion scene to date.

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18. The Old Gods and the New. Season 2, Episode 6. Theon’s notorious capture of Winterfell. When he executes Rodrik in front of Bran, it’s a brutal hack job that takes four goddamn swings (a far cry from the single clean strokes of the Starks). In a way it’s as upsetting as Ned Stark’s beheading, because the fall of Winterfell represents the evaporation of Ned’s entire house. Things also get rough at Kings Landing, as Joffrey and his retinue are attacked by a starving mob, and Sansa nearly raped until rescued by the Hound. Meanwhile, Arya has become Tywin’s cupbearer at Harrenhal, and they have some of the best character moments in the series. Up north Ygritte makes her debut: Jon is unable to kill her, and she begins tormenting him with lewd come-ons.


19. Kissed by Fire. Season 3, Episode 5. Jon and Ygritte’s love-play in the cave pool is the heart of the episode, resonating with foreordained tragedy. Ygritte means it when she says she wishes they could stay there forever, though certainly not because she fears war. On an unacknowledged level, they both know their romance can’t last. Then there is the Karstark fiasco that cements Robb’s own doom. If breaking his marriage-oath to Walder Frey was the unforgivable offense, executing Karstark and alienating his men is what will make the Red Wedding possible. Last but not least is the duel between the Hound and Beric Dondarrion.

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20. Winter is Coming. Season 1, Episode 1. The premiere hooks you on the series whether fantasy is your thing or not. The prologue establishes the threat beyond the Wall, and the bulk of the episode showcases the Stark and Lannister characters we’ll come to love and hate. The Stark kids claiming their wolf pups is the best part. Bran climbing the tower walls and getting pushed off by Jaime is a close second, and promises that Game of Thrones won’t be generic fantasy: George Martin plays hardball.

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21. Fire and Blood. Season 1, Episode 10.  The first season finale is an aftermath that sees everyone coping with Ned’s death. Joffrey forcing Sansa to look at her father’s head displayed on the castle walls, and Ser Meryn beating her face bloody, is especially heartbreaking, and Sansa’s true gateway to a hell that will last until the end of season 5. But Dany’s side of the story upstages this as she copes with Drogo’s death, the question of her fate among the Dothraki, and finally of course, the amazing birth of her dragons. It’s an excellent season finale; usually the tenth episodes try doing too much and too superficially, but Fire and Blood is focused and transcendent.

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22. Book of the Stranger. Season 6, Episode 4. In a replay of Fire and Blood, Dany emerges from an inferno to stand naked before a horde of Dothraki. It feels less like a repeat than coming full circle, since the first time was sort of a false start, taking her east instead of west and then to her crusade in Slaver’s Bay. Now she has the political gumption (and a much huger horde) to make her move. Her insulting speech is great: she calls the khals small men, and says she would make a better leader of the Dothraki than any of them; they laugh of course and threaten to rape her to death, and she looses the fire on them. There is also the precious reunion of Jon and Sansa at the Wall. After five seasons of hell Sansa deserves this relief, and I started tearing up when she begged Jon to forgive her for treating him so awfully when they were kids.

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23. The Queen’s Justice. Season 7, Episode 3. The long-awaited meet between Jon and Dany is perfectly scripted. They hold to their autonomy, hardly realizing how similar they are. And I’m not even talking about Jon’s Targaryen blood. They command the sincere love of their people, and have done the unthinkable — Dany by bringing the Dothraki to Westeros, Jon by making common cause with the Wildlings. Both have suffered for their strength of character. Dany’s crusade in Slaver’s Bay ended up collapsing around her ears, while Jon’s alliance with the Wildlings was treason which got him killed. There’s other good stuff, notably Bran’s return to Winterfell and reunion with Sansa, Cersei giving Euron command of the royal fleet, and the death of Olenna Tyrell who tells Jaime she killed Joffrey — a wonderful parting blow.

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24. Blackwater. Season 2, Episode 9. The next two are a bit overrated. They are great battles but don’t deserve top ten slots. The claustrophobic focus at King’s Landing is effective. Like the characters we feel caged inside the Red Keep, with no hint as to what’s going on elsewhere, and just because they’re Lannisters doesn’t mean we don’t feel for them. Tyrion owns the spotlight, as his cunning plans to save the city explode with an emerald vengeance. The wildfire on the river is quite a spectacle, and you don’t know whether to cheer or cringe as Stannis’ men burn like auto-de-fés. Tyrion’s reward is a sliced face, and his come-late father who will take all the credit.

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25. The Watchers on the Wall. Season 4, Episode 9. Another bottle episode and battle epic that tends to be overpraised. I will say the battle for the Wall is more impressive than Helm’s Deep in Peter Jackson’s Two Towers. It’s faithful to the book’s imagery, some of it exactly how I imagined. There are giants, a mammoth, and exploding barrels of oil; wall-scaling; the breaching of the gate. Alliser Thorne is in fine vulgar form. The deaths of Pyp and Grenn are moving. And of course Ygritte’s even more so.

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26. The Children. Season 4, Episode 10. The pivotal scene in this finale is Bran’s arrival at the weir-tree of the Three-Eyed Raven, and it’s prefaced by an undead attack sequence that sees the death of Jojen Reed and Bran warging. Then there is Dany’s dragon horror, as she finds out that Drogon roasted some poor Merenese child. Tyrion shooting his father with a crossbow is another priceless climax: Tywin is on the toilet when it happens. Shae gets her due as well. Like Tyrion, Arya sails for the east — after watching Brienne beat the Hound within an inch of his life. Only half of the season finales make this cut, and this is one of them; it exceeds expectations for an episode 10.

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27. Second Sons. Season 3, Episode 8. The theme of protective second sons plays everywhere. Mercenaries by that name rally to support Dany. Tyrion weds Sansa, and defends her against Joffrey’s bullying. Sam protects Gilly, and in a major heroic moment kills a White Walker. But the best part is at Dragonstone, where Stannis (the realm’s “protector”) leeches the deaths of the “usurper” kings. It’s creepy as hell, and implies that he and Melisandre are the true assassins of Robb and Joffrey, working their regicides through supernatural forces; Walder Frey and Lady Olenna would appear to be mere proxy killers in the grander scheme of things.

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28. Oathbreaker. Season 6, Episode 3. The episode is defined by Jon’s leaving the Night’s Watch (though of course his resurrection means that technically he did give his life to the Watch) after executing his brothers who broke their own oaths by killing him. But the best scenes are owned by Bran and Arya. Bran’s vision of the Tower of Joy is a special treat: Arthur Dayne is outnumbered by Ned Stark and his men, smashes most of them to smithereens anyway, and is finally killed not by Ned (as Bran had been taught) but rather Howland Reed who stabs him from behind. Meanwhile, Arya finishes her blind training, drinks the Kool-aid, and becomes an assassin. Tommen has a particularly good scene with the High Sparrow.

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29. The Wolf and the Lion. Season 1, Episode 5. Here we get the catalyst for the War of the Five Kings: Catelyn’s rash abduction of Tyrion. The Eyrie is spectacular, the sky cells terrifying, and young Prince Robin a piece of work. True to the book, he suckles his mother’s breast at the age of eight, and is sadistic like Joffrey. At Kings Landing there’s some intense drama: the Mountain gets thrown from his horse and chops its head off; Ned resigns as Hand when Robert condones Dany’s assassination; then he’s ambushed by Jaime, who has his men slaughtered. From here on out Westeros won’t be the same.


30. The Lion and the Rose. Season 4, Episode 2. The Purple Wedding is very overrated in my opinion, though Joffrey’s death is obviously satisfying to watch. He is poisoned by Lady Olenna, who wants Margaery to be queen of Westeros but won’t stand for her granddaughter suffering Joff’s sadism. I also like the midgets’ courtly re-enactment of the War of the Five Kings. But no, The Lion and the Rose does not belong in the top five or top ten as some lists would have it. It’s not that good, for Christ’s sake.

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HONORABLE MENTION: Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken. Season 5, Episode 6. Many lists rank this episode as the worst of the series, which is absurd. It is both a very good and bad episode, and the bad part is admittedly why it doesn’t make my cut. The gardens of Dorne scene is the silliest of the series, as Jaime and Bronn appear to rescue Myrcella and are ambushed by the Sand Snakes. The entire rescue operation is a laughable excuse to give Jaime something to do. But the scenes involving Arya and Sansa are excellent. Arya reaches the point in her training where she must learn to lie convincingly, and is whacked repeatedly for her transparencies by the waif and Jaqen. Sansa receives a much more severe whacking by Ramsay, and viewers were so angry about the rape that they threatened to stop watching the series. I wish they had stopped. If they can’t handle things like rapes and Red Weddings, they’re watching the wrong show. There is nothing gratuitous about Sansa’s assault. It is something Ramsay would do, and it’s something we need to see for Sansa’s character arc. Rape is the one thing Joffrey never did to her (I suspect because he was impotent), and it’s because Sansa has been made to suffer so unbearably under the Lannisters and Boltons that her liberation in season 6 pays off so well.

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DISHONORABLE MENTION: Beyond the Wall. Season 7, Episode 6. This one should have been the glorious moment we’d been waiting for, but for two problems. The first is the contrived reason for going beyond the Wall. In order to convince Cersei that the army of the dead is real, Jon takes a small suicide expedition north to capture a wight and bring it back to King’s Landing. Somehow Tyrion thinks this will convince his sister to see reason and stop fighting against Dany. But he, like everyone, knows that Cersei is so irrational, vindictive, and narcissistic that she wouldn’t care two shits about the threat of the dead — indeed that if anything she would view the white walkers as a godsend to oppose her northern enemies. The second problem are the cheap rescue operations. Gendry somehow manages to haul his ass all the way back to the Wall and send a raven to Dany at Dragonstone, who then flies her dragons up to lift everyone away from the wight attack just in the nick of time. When Jon gets separated from that rescue mission, Benjen Stark suddenly appears out of nowhere to save him. Beyond the Wall could have been a masterpiece — the Night King slaying Viserion and then resurrecting him as an ice dragon is epic — but it’s so poorly executed it’s impossible to take seriously.

Stranger Things “’80s Posters”

What a neat idea. The official Stranger Things Twitter account is promoting #StrangerThursdays, which involves a rewatch of each episode of the first season on every Thursday, live tweets with commentary, and behind the scenes details. The best part is that they start each episode by revealing a new Stranger Things poster inspired by an ’80s film that influenced the show. I’ll update this post as the posters roll out each Thursday.

“Stand by Us” (August 3)

Modeled on Stand by Me.

“A Nightmare on Mirkwood” (August 10)

Derived from Nightmare on Elm Street.

“Don’t walk. Run.” (August 17)

From The Running Man.

“No One Can Hear You Scream.” (August 24)

From of course Alien.

“Normal in every way but one.” (August 31)

From Firestarter.

“The Ultimate Experience in Grueling Curiosity.” (September 7)

From the smashing Evil Dead.

“Don’t Go In the Void” (September 14)

From Jaws. (“Don’t go in the water”)

“Join the Adventure.” (September 21)

From The Goonies.

The Handmaid’s Tale: An “Islamic” Republic of Gilead?

The New York Times has an interesting write-up on The Handmaid’s Tale. This TV series is adapted from Margaret Atwood’s novel from the ’80s, about a dystopian America in which Christian fundies have taken over and turned the land into a repressive living hell. The funny thing is, this new America — called the Republic of Gilead — evokes Islamic customs more than Christian ones, even by the lights of hardcore fundamentalism. Atwood’s rule for herself when writing the novel was that everything for Gilead had to be based on a real-world antecedent. She draws on many influences, and I’ll go through some of the examples mentioned in the article, then cover additional ones which surprisingly the article ignores.

Color-Coordinated Clothing

In the Republic of Gilead men wear black, women wear colors, and the colors reflect the women’s caste: red for handmaids (fertile women who bear children for the elite), green for Marthas (the house servants of the elite), blue for wives (the spouses of elite Commanders), and brown for aunts (the high-ranking women responsible for indoctrinating the handmaids, overseeing births, and presiding over “mob justice” executions). As Atwood is quoted in the article, organizing people according to what they’re wearing dates back to the Code of Hammurabi. Often we think of the Third Reich’s yellow stars for Jews and pink triangles for gays. But aside from the color, the head-to-toe garb calls to mind the Islamic chador (which Atwood wore on a trip to Afghanistan in 1978), which is probably why the handmaid dress code struck me as Islamic more than anything else.

Some might compare the garb to the habit of a Catholic nun, but that’s a weaker analogy. Like priests, nuns take on a religious vocation and assume their dress code voluntarily. In Gilead, the handmaids are a class of women through no choice of their own, imposed on them by their fertility. They are like everyday Muslim women who are forced to wear the veil, chador, hijab, etc.

Mob Justice

Because the handmaids are so repressed, they need occasional release, which they get when they are allowed to torture and execute criminals. In the premiere episode they beat to death a rapist (read: a “low-life” rapist of elite wives, not a state-sanctioned rapist of handmaidens like themselves). The handmaidens basically stand in a circle and violently abuse the offender until he is dead. As Atwood says, the precedent goes back to the Dionysian revels of ancient Greece, in which the Maenads (female followers of the god Dionysus) tore apart sacrificial victims for their deity.

Mob justice obviously doesn’t need religion to drive it, and there are many examples throughout history that set the example. However, there is another scene of handmaid execution that comes in the season finale, and which requires the particular punishment of stoning. Stoning is not a Christian punishment but an Islamic one, and has been common in Islam throughout all its history. (See below, “Death by Stoning”.)

Declaring Women Barren

In the Republic of Gilead, it is blasphemy to suggest that a man could be sterile. The fertility problem is on women alone, and this idea derives from all three Abrahamic faiths. In the Judeo-Christian Bible and Qur’an, the male never comes under judgment for sterility. Barrenness falls on the woman’s shoulders and is a curse from God. That’s what people thought for centuries, and why Henry VIII kept changing wives, unable to credit that he might have been the problem, and not them.

Why Ofglen Does What She Does

When things look bad for Ofglen, she resorts to a final desperate act of resistance against the state of Gilead, taking out a few guards with a stolen vehicle — a stupid thing to do, but which Atwood compares to Buddhist monks who set themselves on fire. It’s a weak analogy, because Ofglen wasn’t religiously inspired. While Buddhism frowns on suicide for the most part, in some cases it can be seen as a deed of self-sacrifice, as when the 109 Tibetan Buddhists burned themselves as a sacrifice for the Tibetan people. These self-immolaters were acting similarly to the Buddha, who in one of his incarnations offered his body as food for a hungry tigress.

There is room for selfless suicide in Buddhism, just as there is an imperative for suicide bombing in Islam, and those religious differences matter since what nominally calls them forth is exactly the same: China has oppressed the Tibetans as horribly as Israel and western powers have done in the Muslim world — yet there are no Tibetan suicide bombers. Religions aren’t the same, despite what we’re often told. Buddhist suicide is purely self-sacrificial; Islamic suicide is also homicidal, and the more people killed, the greater the glory in paradise; Christian suicide is sinful in the extreme. What Ofglen does in The Handmaid’s Tale is simply a (non-religious) human response to a tyranny that cannot be defeated; a protest that will perhaps be remembered and inspire others down the line.

And what about these…?

Female Circumcision

The New York Times article fails to mention one of the most arresting scenes in The Handmaid’s Tale: Ofglen’s gentital mutilation in episode 3. There are misunderstandings about female genital mutilation (FGM) that need clearing. We are often told that FGM isn’t an Islamic problem but an African problem. While it’s true that some African countries do this, most female circumcision occurs either in Islamic countries or close to them. Moreover, Islam is the only religion that officially mandates it: “Circumcision is obligatory, for every male and female, by cutting off the piece of skin on the glans of the penis of the male, but circumcision of the female is by cutting out the bazr clitoris.” (Umdat al-Salik e4.3)  The problem goes well beyond Africa in any case. Indonesia’s largest Muslim organization declared female genital mutilation a “human right”. Muslim clerics have defended it around the globe. It’s a huge problem in Britain, and a huge percentage of the Muslims in Britain are not from Africa. It’s common in Iraq and in the Maldives. 40 percent of Kurdish women have been victims of it. It is actually very accurate — if not politically correct — to say that FGM is an Islamic problem.

Even where Christian groups practice FGM (in Egypt, Nigeria, Tanzania and Kenya), it is not prescribed religiously. There is no Christian analogue to either the Muslim hadith in which Muhammad approves FGM “if the cutting is not too severe”, or to the Umdat al-Salik (Reliance of the Traveler), cited above, which is the authoritative source on Islamic law. Put simply, FGM has never been a Christian requirement. So this part of The Handmaid’s Tale evokes Islam — and mainstream Islam at that — more than fundamentalist Christianity.

The Ceremony

Even more curious is that the New York Times ignores the central plot device: the Ceremony, which we get a graphic view of in episode 4. The ritual is based on the account in Genesis 30:1-5 where Rachel is unable to have children and so she gives Jacob her handmaid Bilhah as a surrogate for him to have sex with. This story becomes the basis for the class of handmaids in Gilead, which are needed because of the declining birth rate among humanity caused by toxic environment. Fertile women are taken to become sex slaves of Gilead’s political elite, and their sole purpose to produce babies for the elite women, being shuffled from one home after another to bear children.

Now, the handmaid text of Genesis 30 has never in Christian history been interpreted as religiously prescriptive, but in The Handmaid’s Tale the Christian authorities of Gilead have run wild with it, making the basis for their Ceremony. It proceeds once a month, whereby the Commander stands in front of his bed while banging his handmaid as she lies in the lap of his wife. This is supposed to make the act an intimate affair for all three parties involved. I admit this is an ingenious idea for a dystopian setting, but in reality preposterous as a fundamentalist Christian belief that could ever become the rule of law. First of all, just because something happens in the bible doesn’t mean that it’s prescriptive. Most of the Israelite holy wars, for example, were understood to be acceptable for the Israelites alone, not later Jews and Christians — God, in other words, approved slaughtering the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Jesubites, but none after, and his commands never amounted to “marching orders” for believers. Unlike Allah in the Qur’an, Yahweh never commands his subjects to fight unbelievers as a general rule or to subjugate infidel nations. (He does command, prescriptively, that the promised land be kept pure and free from idolatry, which serves as the basis for modern Zionism.) Most warfare in the Bible is descriptive, while in the Qur’an it’s prescriptive.

Likewise, the text of Genesis 30:1-5 isn’t prescriptive, and it’s no wonder Jews and Christians have not felt compelled to do as Jacob and Rachel did. The closest thing to the handmaid ceremony in today’s world is garden-variety sex slavery and/or concubinage, which is prescribed in the Qur’an and Islamic law (Qur’an 4:3, 4:24, 33:50; 23:1-6; Umdat al-Salik O9.13). So when people say that the Ceremony of Gilead comes across as more Islamic than Judeo-Christian — even though it’s based on a text from the Bible rather than the Qur’an — they actually have a good point.

Death by Stoning

In the finale (episode 10) the handmaid Janine is found guilty of trying to harm the baby she gave birth to, and so is sentenced to death at the hands of her fellow handmaids (per “mob violence” above). In the Republic of Gilead, the punishment for trying to harm a child is death by stoning. Stoning has never been a Christian practice, though it derives from the Old Testament and was used in ancient Judaism. On the other hand, it has been a consistent Islamic practice throughout history, prescribed by the Qur’an and many hadiths.

Stoning continues to be the law in Islamic countries like Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Iran, Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan, and the United Arab Emirates — especially for men and women caught in adultery, and for women who refuse to wear the veil. All versions of sharia law, in fact, require stoning for those who commit adultery, and for women don’t wear veils. There are Muslim countries that don’t implement these particular sharia punishments, but those countries are not operating according to a supposed “moderate” form of sharia; such does not exist. So this scene in the finale evokes Islam without question.

Conclusion: An “Islamic” Republic?

While it’s evident that Margaret Atwood drew on all sorts of antecedents, religious and secular, I was getting heavy Islamic vibes from the Republic of Gilead. I haven’t read the novel, and so I don’t know the source material, but I wonder if either Atwood and/or the series writers were trying to imply that religions carry an equal potential for harm — in this case that a nation under Christian fundamentalist rule can turn out just as bad as, say, a place like Saudi Arabia. Critics are also saying that The Handmaid’s Tale is a “timely warning about the Trump administration”. That too is nonsense. For all of the threats Trump presents — and he indeed presents many — he has not, and will not, come anywhere close to endorsing the notion of a government so crushing (like that of Saudi Arabia and other Islamic nations) that it is able to mandate repressive class divisions, state-sanctioned rape, and the obliteration of individual identity. I really enjoyed The Handmaid’s Tale as a dystopian fantasy, but as a speculative outcome of Christian America at its worst, it’s impossible to take seriously.

The Best Scenes in Stranger Things (Prepare for Halloween)

Season 2 of Stranger Things is officially wrapped up and many of the cast have been promising it will be even better and darker than the first. This seems too good to be true, so I’m keeping my expectations modest, but one thing can be said: Halloween/my birthday can’t come soon enough. Here’s a list of what I consider the best scenes of the first season. (Click on the images for the youtube clips.) I have to say I’m still in awe of Millie Bobby Brown’s performance as Eleven. All the actors are top notch, and especially the kids, but Brown conveys more with her silences than most professional actors do by speaking. The writers scored big time by giving her a limited vocabulary, and I’m a bit worried how that aspect of her character might change in season 2.

Will’s corpse

1. Will’s corpse. Episode 3. When it’s dragged from the quarry no one has any reason to think it’s a fake body, and at this point even I wasn’t sure what was going on. For all I knew Will was dead and it was just his spirit contacting Joyce through the Christmas lights. Mike’s fury at Eleven (“What is wrong with you??”) is one of his best moments. The “Heroes” song playing over this scene is a genius piece of scoring, and the way it meshes with Joyce and Jonathan from the “Run” scene (see #10 below) adds up to what I consider the strongest and most emotional scene of the series: Mike sobs in his mother’s arms and Joyce sobs in her son’s, each helpless against the night that has brought pain and rage to them both.

“Good-bye, Mike”

2. “Good-bye, Mike.” Episode 8. No sooner does Mike declare his romantic intentions to El (see #20 below) than his plans are cruelly smashed. Using every last filament of her power, El begins to disintegrate the Demogorgon and shut the gate for good. Knowing this is enough to consume her too, she turns back and says good-bye to Mike, which of course destroys him. It is a hugely rewarding departure for the amazing character of El, obviously a tear-jerker, and you can easily make a case for it being the #1 scene, though I favor the episode 3 ending above.

Will’s rescue

3. Will’s rescue. Episode 8. The other side of the finale climax occurs in the Upside Down, where an Alien-hosted Will is barely alive. Even after many viewings I still find the resuscitation scene incredibly powerful, as Hopper replays the death of his daughter, and Joyce is about to lose her mind if her son doesn’t start breathing. It’s the moment the series has been building to, and even if it’s not clear how Will could have survived so long in the Upside Down (while Barbara and well-armed professionals from the Hawkins institute were instantly slain), his rescue pays off without feeling like a cheat.

D&D campaign

4. D&D campaign. Episode 1. The first scene of the premiere sums up my nerdy childhood and why D&D was so fun in the early ’80s. I fell in love with these kids right away: Mike the group leader (and of course the dungeon master), Lucas the skeptic, Dustin ruled by his appetites, and Will the sensitive kid whose character gets thrashed by the Demogorgon. As does Will himself, and it’s a brilliant way of introducing the Upside-Down creature, by anticipating it through the kids’ imagination of the demon-lord.

Wallpaper Will

5. Wallpaper Will. Episode 4. Everyone talks about the “Run” scene (see #10 below) but I consider this one better. It’s far more distressing and actually gave me a nightmare. Joyce rips down her wallpaper and sees Will in a flesh-encased portion of the wall, crying desperately for help. Through the whole series Winoda Ryder holds her role as the hysterical mom, but in this scene she is especially convincing. Imagine if you caught a glimpse of your child being terrorized in a hellish domain while being powerless to do anything about it. It’s one freaky scene.

Mike jumps

6. Mike jumps. Episode 6. Of course he’s saved mid-fall, but it pays off El as she deserves at this point in the story, as the boys finally accept her as one of them. The scene also contains the pivotal flashback in which El accidentally opens the gate to the Upside Down and unleashes the Demogorgon, which has fueled her guilt-trips and caused her to believe — as she says in tears to Mike — that she’s the real monster. Flipping the van (see #11) is arguably El’s grandest feat, but the cliff rescue of Mike is her most important and dramatic.

“She tried to get naked!”

7. “She tried to get naked!” Episode 2. Classic 12-year-old reactions to the intrusion of a girl. When El tries to disrobe, Mike handles himself with the decorum fitting his leadership role (“That’s the bathroom — privacy, get it?”), while the reactions of Lucas and Dustin are hilarious (“She tried to get naked!”, indignantly mimics her taking off her shirt). After the D&D campaign (see #4), this is the best character moment of the series, and can be watched on replay. Poor El doesn’t even want the bathroom door closed, she’s so terrified of closed spaces, and Mike’s halfway measure is precious.

Nancy, Jonathan, and Steve against the Demogorgon

8. Jonathan, Nancy, and Steve against the Demogorgon. Episode 8. This scene could have failed in so many ways, and I was expecting it to. Steve turns up at just the wrong moment, and so of course he would be the convenient throw-away. The Demogorgon would kill this asshole, leaving Nancy and Jonathan to survive, and of course Jonathan would replace Steve as Nancy’s boyfriend. Instead we end up cheering Steve for the first time as he proceeds to unload a can of whup-ass on the Demogorgon, switching from villain to protagonist in a completely believable way. The showdown is a ballbuster and the Christmas strobe-lights make it twice as intense.

The Vale of Shadows explained

9. The Vale of Shadows (the Upside Down) explained. Episode 5. Any D&D moment in this series is a treat, and I love the homage to The Expert Rulebook from the ’80s, which yes I still have, and for that matter even an earlier edition. The subsequent scene at Will’s funeral is a particular favorite of mine, where Mr. Clarke — by far the best adult character in Stranger Things — explains the logistics of traveling to a hypothetical shadow realm. It’s morbidly ironic, as the kids discuss the issue at the funeral of their friend they know is alive.

“Run”

10. “Run.” Episode 3. This is a fan favorite and I expected to rate it higher, especially since the ouija board idea hits close to home (I had an unpleasant experience with one in my college years). But as I said, the Wallpaper-Will scene (#5) is superior. The idea here is that Will communicates from the Upside Down via electricity, whether by inaudible phone calls that roast the handsets, or in this case lamps and lights that flicker frantically. In the Wallpaper-Will scene, by contrast, it’s more than communication going in, since El is channeling a window to the Upside Down, so that Joyce can see and hear her son directly. But “Run” is still a great and scary scene.

Road chase

11. Road chase. Episode 7. This prologue sequence to episode 7 reminds me of the scene of Arwen being chased on horseback by the Nazgul in Fellowship of the Ring. It’s that intense. The Hawkins goons tear up the road in vans, which the kids evade by cutting through neighbors’ lawns over narrow paths. When they’re finally cornered, El flips the van barreling towards them. As if that weren’t sweet enough, it ends on reconciliation, as Lucas repents of distrusting Eleven so much and shakes with Mike.

Jonathan wastes Steve

12. Jonathan wastes Steve. Episode 6. I was expecting Jonathan to get the shit kicked out of him, and this is one of many instances in which the Jonathan-Nancy-Steve triangle subverted my expectations (see #8 for another example). The Asshole vs. the Nice Guy is cliche, but Stranger Things gives that formula the finger. Jonathan may be nice and sensitive, but he has a psychotic side, being a stalker and all, and the way he lets loose here is pretty alarming. Steve may be an asshole, but he’s a believable one with a redeemable side, and it made sense that Nancy stayed with him in the end; the bond she shared with Jonathan was a different kind.

Barbara’s death

13. Barbara’s death. Episode 3. If the series has one liability, it’s that none of the main characters die. Benny Hammond was a nice guy but so minor that we hardly noticed when he got shot. Barbara was a minor character too, and yet her death really upset people, probably because she’s a genuinely decent person and the best friend of Nancy who we are so invested in. I’m not sure what the writers intended, but Barbara’s fate turned out to be the much needed tragedy to make us feel the threat of the Upside Down. Her death runs parallel to Nancy and Steve fucking in bed — a brilliant juxtaposition.

El flips the gaming board (no video clip)

14. El flips the gaming board. Episode 2. The Upside Down is telegraphed in this early scene without naming it, as El tries to convey the fact that Will is trapped alone somewhere dark. She says he is “hiding”, but not from the “bad men” she is avoiding, rather from a nightmare creature which she represents on the bottom side of the gaming board by the D&D figurine of the Demogorgon. It’s a creepy foreshadowing of the Upside Down, and makes clear that Will is in serious shit. (Unfortunately I can’t find a youtube clip of this scene.)

Castle Byers

15. Castle Byers. Episode 7. When we finally see where Will is hiding in the Upside Down, we’ve come a long way with El since she flipped the gaming board. The shadow version of Will’s tree fort is one of the most atmospheric set pieces in Stranger Things and a literal living nightmare. It’s not the most reliable hiding place either, as the Demogorgon finds him at the end of the episode — and whisks him away to be cocooned and impregnated Alien-style.

Will’s slug

16. Will’s slug. Episode 8. The beauty to this scene is that it teases the next season but can just as easily be taken as a dark ending to a single season that leaves Will’s fate to our imaginations. And it’s entirely appropriate, because the show has asked a lot of us to believe that Will could have survived so long in the Upside Down, while Barbara and militant goons from the Hawkins institute were killed right away. This is the payoff: Will was transformed in his prolonged captivity, and is now part of the Upside Down, as he seems to live in both dimensions simultaneously.

Dress up

17. Dress up. Episode 4. I think El is prettier without the wig and dress, and I’m pretty sure Mike does too. But they do catalyze his feelings for her. It’s an homage to E.T. (Gertie dressing up the alien), but as with many of the homages in this series they are given weight in their seriousness. The E.T. scene is pure comedy, and while there’s some levity here as well, the boys are dazzled by her transformation, especially Mike who calls her “pretty” before catching himself and following the compliment with “good”. We know what he means.

Nancy in the Upside Down

18. Nancy in the Upside Down. Episode 6. Nancy has the best story arc of the series, because she begins annoying and ends solid, and her journey between these points is completely organic and believable. Her best moment is against the Demogorgon in the finale (see #8 above), but this is a great scene too. She and Jonathan are stalking the beast late at night, and when it snatches a bloody deer from under their noses everything goes to hell. Nancy wanders into the Upside Down and gets lost there and it’s pretty unnerving as she hides behind trees from the Demogorgon running wild.

The cat

19. The cat. Episode 3. Aside from her calamitous opening of the gate (see #6), this flashback is El’s most intense. She tries to make a cat’s head explode, ultimately refuses to go through with it and is dragged off to solitary confinement for her misbehavior. It’s a genuinely upsetting scene that puts the Hawkins institute into perspective for the first time. It’s nice to see El thrash her abusers, and “Papa’s” reaction says it all, as he marvels in awe over her powers no matter what it does to people. (In the youtube clip, the scene starts at 3:21.)

Mike and El kiss

20. Mike and El kiss. Episode 8. How can I possibly omit this one? Mike promises that his parents will adopt El and take care of her, and that he will be her boyfriend and take her to the school dance. Then he gives her a proper smooch. It’s simple and sweet — though a rather cruel set up, as only minutes later El will be sacrificing herself and leaving poor Mike devastated and bereaved.

13 Reasons Why

As a rule I avoid teen dramas but couldn’t resist the lure of 13 Reasons Why. I expected a lame story that was poorly acted, but that would perhaps examine high-school bullying and suicide in ways that lived up to the hand-wringing hype. I got the opposite. 13 Reasons Why is an astonishingly well-acted TV series with cracking mystery and intrigue, and boasts many effective stylistic choices. Unfortunately its message is the wrong one. And yet the premise for that message works dramatically well, which makes the series rather interesting to assess.

For those who know nothing about it — and keep in mind I’m describing the TV series, not the book which I haven’t read — the story is narrated by a girl from the grave, who has killed herself for “13 reasons” (read: 13 assholes) which she has recorded on old-fashioned audiotapes so there’s no chance of her indictments going viral. She blames 13 people for her decision to kill herself, or perhaps only 12, since one of the kids (Clay, the main character, in the above pic) is very nice and sensitive; Hannah admits he doesn’t deserve to be on the tapes, yet she also implies that his failure to be more assertive in pursuing her romantically was a severe push to her suicide. Her other reasons for killing herself run the gamut: she was bullied, slut-shamed, stalked, lashed out at unjustly, assaulted, and then finally raped. The tapes function as a psychotic chain letter calling out everyone who did these things to her. The tapes are then passed from one asshole to the next, so that each has to look in the mirror and confront the beast within. Which means that each kid gets to hear Hannah’s judgments on the other twelve, and as a result these jerks come to share an unspeakable secret. Hannah has taken careful measures to be sure that her tormentors will indeed listen to and pass on these tapes in sequence as she instructs them to do, and not destroy them or throw them away.

As I said, the acting performances are great, and the two leads Katherine Langord (Hannah) and Dylan Minnette (Clay) deserve special praise. Every time they’re on screen together they channel the right chemistry, unable to admit their feelings but plainly drawn to each other. Every step in their relationship feels like a weird success story that doesn’t go anywhere, which only tightens the tragedy in the present. Flashbacks can be an annoying device, but 13 Reasons Why uses them brilliantly, and they occur frequently and without warning. As Clay listens to the tapes, the past peels away like an onion, revealing more and more ugly secrets. The show takes bold risks for a teen drama — the kind we need to see more of in the genre. But as I also said, there are problems, which I will address in turn.

Problem #1: The “power of kindness”

The gravest flaw is the lead premise: that if kids stop bullying and start being more kind to their peers, suicides will drop. The fact is that the vast majority of teen suicides are the result of mental illness, not external problems like bullying, which may contribute to suicide but are very rarely the root cause. An analogy would be mass shootings, for which gun control is often seen as the remedy. We do need tighter gun laws for many reasons, but mass shootings isn’t one of them. (Mass killers almost invariably use firearms that wouldn’t be restricted by an assault-weapons ban; mass killers plan months ahead and find illegal ways of obtaining what they want, just as drug buyers do; improved background checks are useless since most mass murderers don’t have criminal records or any history of psychiatric hospitalization. Etc, etc.)

Bullying is like easy gun access, a serious problem, and to its credit 13 Reasons Why portrays bullying in realistic ways that I hope will prompt more discussion and paths to remediation. But however effective we become at abuse management, it will hardly make a dent in suicide. Depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress, and bipolar disorders are what need heavy attention, but in 13 Reasons Why mental illness is not presented as the reason — or even a reason — for Hannah’s desperate decision. Her classmates get all the blame, to the extent that one of them is even driven to say that, “We all killed Hannah Baker”. While it’s good to see bullies and jerks own up to their actions, it’s the wrong message to send that they all (and in more or less equal measure) caused Hannah’s death.

Even the protagonist Clay berates himself, in his case for doing the right thing! As they are kissing and about to have sex, Hannah suddenly has flashbacks to her bullies, and tells him to stop, which he does. Everyone knows that’s the right thing. Then she tells him hysterically to leave the room, which he also does after repeatedly asking if she’s okay. She has to repeat her dismissal multiple times because he’s so worried about her, and yet his implied “crime” is that he finally obeyed her instead of defying her and staying in the room to insist on consoling her and explaining that he loves her. On the tape Hannah says this is what she really wanted him to do. That’s a grossly irresponsible message. It’s hard enough to educate people that “no means no”, and here we have the double standard that “no means no” when it comes to sex, but the opposite when it comes to what follows.

The show condemns Clay repeatedly for not being proactive enough, and he accepts full blame: “I cost a girl her life,” he says, “because I was afraid to love her.” That’s a realistic reaction owing to survivor guilt, but Clay is wrong to blame himself. The guidance counselor Mr. Porter is condemned similarly, when he refuses to chase after Hannah when she flees his office in frustration. The show writers operate out of a surprisingly judgmental framework made worse by their mistaken assumptions about kindness.

In sum, by focusing on everything the 13 kids did (or supposedly didn’t do enough, in the case of Clay and Mr. Porter), to the exclusion of any mention of mental illness on the part of Hannah, 13 Reasons Why vastly overrates the power of kindness. Hannah’s suicide is presented solely as the result of external causes. Even rape is rarely, in and of itself, the cause of suicide. (Rape can cause post-traumatic stress disorder or major depressive disorder, which are mental illnesses, and in those cases 13% of rape victims will indeed attempt suicide.) Being kind is obviously a good message, but in a drama about suicide it becomes misplaced.

Problem #2: Glorified Hannah, demonized peers

If kindness is the (supposed) antidote to suicide, then suicide can be seen as an act of righteousness to wreak vengeance on one’s bullies. This is what critics of 13 Reasons Why complain about: that the novel and TV series glorify teen suicide, and that the example of Hannah may even inspire copycats. First of all, any real-world copycat of Hannah is about as likely as a serial-killer inspired by a film like Seven, or a cop killer inspired by Breaking Bad to dissolve the corpse in a bath of acid. Yes those sort of things happen but only extremely rarely. No matter how graphic and sensational, literature and film seldom gives people homicidal or suicidal ideas they feel compelled to enact on. (The exception would be philosophical or religious scripture, as for example the Qur’an which inspires daily routine mass-murder activity, and even then we don’t condone the banning of holy writ.) Censorship is never the answer, and shame on the school administrators and librarians who have advocated removing 13 Reasons Why from circulation.

There is some truth to the claim that the TV show glorifies Hannah. Her suicide, after all, is portrayed as a form of empowerment, as she exacts retribution from the grave against those who were nasty to her. It’s unrealistic but works as a dramatic narrative, because as the tapes proceed Hannah becomes as much a “villain” as a tragic protagonist. The narrative is so consumed by her over-heaping guilt trips on these kids that it loses sight of her as a person and her mental problems (again: the show doesn’t indicate that she has any). Most of the 13 kids aren’t so bad. They’re jerks in varying degrees and misguided in the ways of teenagers. Four of them even commit crimes: Tyler stalks Hannah and photographs her through her bedroom window at night; Marcus assaults her publicly, just to show off for his friends; Sheri drives her home from a party, accidentally knocks over a stop-sign, and then ditches her by the side of the road without reporting the accident to the police as Hannah urges, thus later causing the death of a classmate at that intersection; Bryce rapes her, after already raping another another girl days before, in his home swimming pool. Everyone agrees that Bryce should fall off a cliff, and I might be inclined to push Marcus over with him, but Tyler and Sheri are sympathetic characters even if their crimes are inexcusable.

Justin is particularly well-used. In the early episodes I couldn’t stand him, but we later learn that he comes from a hideous home life, where his mother is a drug addict and his stepfather is physically abusive. Justin “allowed” Bryce to circulate the photo of Hannah’s legs, and then to rape Jessica at a party, without trying to stop him in either case, and he genuinely beats himself up for the latter. He feels guilty to the point that he will do anything for Jessica to atone for his inadequacy — even offering to kill Bryce for her. This doesn’t make him decent, but I did feel for him as he deteriorates into an emotional wreck. Then there is Alex, a sensitive guy, but whose father is a macho police cop who encourages Alex to be aggressive to prove his manliness. Alex is the one who most regrets mistreating Hannah, to the point, in a ridiculous shocker, that he ends up taking his own life at the end of the show. My understanding is that Alex doesn’t commit suicide in the novel, and indeed this was a very poor adaptation on the part of the script writers; I didn’t buy Alex’s suicide at all. But aside from that, his character is handled well; there’s nothing especially reprehensible about him. He just acts childish in a way that Hannah takes to heart.

In my opinion, only three of the 13 are truly heartless: Bryce, Courtney, and Marcus (in descending order of assholery). Bryce is a remorseless rapist, Courtney a vile backstabber, and Marcus a despicable save-ass. Ryan is soulless too though harder to gauge. (For my grades of the 13 in terms of the damage they cause to Hannah vs. how bad they are as people, see the appendix at the bottom of the post).

What I’m saying is that the glorified hyper-vindictive Hannah, while problematic in a real-world way, has the advantage of not letting us off the hook. We lose sympathy for this tragic heroine when her bullies emerge as fallible and in some cases likeable enough kids who make naturally stupid mistakes. And that’s very realistic. It may not be the message the show writers intended, but it comes through against the grain of their “We all killed Hannah Baker” nonsense. Hannah turns out to be a great character, if you look at it the right way.

Problem #3: The character of Tony

Clay speaks for many viewers, and certainly for myself, when he scorns Tony as an “unhelpful Yoda” who does little more than appear out of nowhere, look down on Clay with patronizing condescension, and offer nothing by way of wisdom other than tell Clay he must listen to the tapes to learn everything for himself. I understand he’s the guardian of Hannah’s plan so that everything goes according to her wishes, but he should have been kept off-screen more instead of repeatedly turning up just at the right moments in this melodramatically contrived way. There were times, frankly, when Tony almost ruined the show for me.

The upshot is that I really liked 13 Reasons Why and may even read the book to see how the source material differs. It’s a well-crafted drama with moral missteps, but those errors have been forcing the right questions on a massive scale. From that point of view I could judge it a complete success.

 

Appendix: The Rogues Gallery

In rating Hannah’s tormentors, I assign “damage” and “asshole” grades, each on a scale of 0-10. Sometimes both grades are high, but some of the kids are relatively decent (low asshole grades) even if they did something which really hurt Hannah (high damage grades). The damage points are interesting to consider, bearing in mind that despite Hannah’s accusations, none of these offenses usually cause suicide in the real-world, or at least without the presence of mental illness.

Episode 1: Justin Foley (Tape 1, Side A)

Damage grade: 7
Asshole grade: 6

He sneaks a photo of Hannah’s spread legs while they’re in a park, and then allows Bryce to send it viral around the school, thus starting the chain of rumors and slut-shaming. Justin however is more weak and ineffectual than a really bad person. He’s guilty mostly of what he allows Bryce to do (as also in episode 9). In later episodes he becomes a much more sympathetic character as we learn about his abusive home life.

Episode 2: Jessica Davis (Tape 1, Side B)

Damage grade: 4
Asshole grade: 3

She wrongly blames Hannah for her boyfriend breakup, smacks Hannah hard across the face, and ends their friendship. The result is that Hannah retreats into loneliness and never makes any friends after Jessica. But Jessica isn’t malicious, she’s just bitchy and insecure. Losing friends — even unfairly — is a part of life unfortunately. Though getting belted in the face when you don’t deserve it is rather uncalled for.

Episode 3: Alex Standall (Tape 2, Side A)

Damage grade: 3
Asshole grade: 1

He makes a list of “bests and worsts” in the school, and includes Hannah as having the best ass, thus aiding in the ruin of her friendship with Jessica, while also lending credence to the rumors started by Justin. Alex is actually a decent kid (especially considering the macho dad who raises him), and he very quickly becomes sorry for his childish behavior and the impact it has on Hannah. His “bests and worsts” list doesn’t single out Hannah for special shame, and in my view his act is comparatively mild as pranks go.

Episode 4: Tyler Down (Tape 2, Side B)

Damage grade: 8
Asshole grade: 4

No one likes a stalker, and Tyler (like Hannah) takes abuse from the entire school for his ongoing photography efforts. He stalks Hannah and takes pictures of her at night through her bedroom window — which is a crime and scars Hannah since she can’t feel safe in her own home. On the other hand, as a person, Tyler is motivated by sincere affection for Hannah, and I see him more as a pathetic loser than a genuinely dangerous creep. Thus my low asshole grade compared to the serious damage he causes.

Episode 5: Courtney Crimsen (Tape 3, Side A)

Damage grade: 8
Asshole grade: 9

After Bryce I consider her the worst of the 13. At first she fills the friendship void left by Jessica, in addition to being a fun lesbo-lover on the side. But when Tyler takes photos of their sexual activities in Hannah’s bed and then sends them viral around the school, Courtney not only shuts Hannah out but throws her under the bus in the worst way just to keep her lesbian orientation secret. She passes off her affair as someone else having sex with Hannah (since Tyler’s photo is unclear), slut-shaming Hannah with a vengeance. It would be one thing if Courtney’s fear of homophobia were more understandable. But she has two gay fathers, it’s the 21st century, and the student body doesn’t seem disproportionately bigoted. She gets even worse in later episodes, denying Hannah’s claim that Bryce is a rapist in order to shield herself when she is subpoenaed for a deposition. Courtney is a true asshole, and one who repeatedly shocked me in watching this series.

Episode 6: Marcus Cole (Tape 3, Side B)

Damage grade: 8
Asshole grade: 9

He’s a close rival to Courtney, and I score his points the same. He’s a positive role model for the school with a respectable image, but behind that facade he’s vile. He tries to finger Hannah while sitting with her at a diner, and more to show off for his friends who are watching nearby than to gratify himself. This is the first time Hannah is sexually assaulted and it does considerable damage to her self-image. Also like Courtney, by the end of the series Marcus is hell-bent on saving his ass and reputation at all costs, even if it means siding with a rapist like Bryce. I would rank Courtney slightly worse than him by the margin of her treachery — she became Hannah’s friend for a short time before shafting her mercilessly, while Marcus was never Hannah’s friend to begin with — but it’s admittedly a close call.

Episode 7: Zach Dempsey (Tape 4, Side A)

Damage grade: 7
Asshole grade: 4

He may be part of the Justin-Marcus-Bryce circle, but I actually think Zach is a pretty decent guy. He does something cruel to Hannah and it wounds her, but I see him as going against his nature on this point. He sabotages her (stealing and destroying the comfort notes left for her in the Brown Paper Bag Program), not out of malice but because he’s unable to cope with rejection. Because he’s rich and popular and good looking, he’s probably used to getting his way all the time, so when he extends a kind hand to Hannah (and to his credit he is genuinely upset by Marcus’ outrageous’ assault on her), he can’t get over it like he should when she spurns his intentions.

Episode 8: Ryan Shaver (Tape 4, Side B)

Damage grade: 2
Asshole grade: 8

I see Ryan as the inverse of someone like Tyler. What he does is less bad than who he is. He’s on the tapes for publishing one of Hannah’s personal poems in the school’s literary magazine. He published it as an anonymous piece, but some students guessed Hannah wrote it, which embarrassed her. Frankly I don’t see this as a terrible injustice against Hannah (especially since it’s anonymous), though it’s true he should not have published it without her permission. More insufferable is Ryan’s arrogance. His superiority complex makes him thoroughly immune to complaints about the way he offends and bothers people. That’s basically the definition of an asshole.

Episode 9: Justin Foley (Tape 5, Side A)

Damage grade: 5
Asshole grade: 6

Episode 9 is unique, not only for taking a second swing at one of Hannah’s tormentors, but this time for something that doesn’t even effect Hannah directly. Jessica is the victim here, not Hannah, who is a hidden observer. Hannah is effected in terms of the guilt she suffers for staying quiet and hidden as Jessica is raped before her eyes, which in my view makes her worthy of as much blame as Justin.

So again, as on his first tape entry (episode 1), Justin is indicted by Hannah primarily for what he allows Bryce to do, which in this case is criminal. He lets Bryce enter the bedroom where Jessica is lying drunk-unconscious, and of course Bryce rapes her. Hannah is hiding (she has just thrown Clay out of the room after almost fucking him) and so witnesses the rape. As stated before, Justin is weak but not nasty, and while that doesn’t excuse his unwillingness to oppose Bryce, he later beats himself up for Jessica’s trauma. I give Justin a damage score of 5, in reflection of how his ineffectual behavior against Bryce’s rape of Jessica impacts Hannah. (It would be a 10 if it was Bryce’s damage score as it impacts Jessica, and perhaps a 7 or 8 if it were Bryce’s score as it impacts Hannah.) But Hannah is a colossal hypocrite for coming down hard on Justin when she is guilty of the same thing. If she wasn’t willing to club Bryce over the head with something, she should have at least yelled and gone for help.

Episode 10: Sheri Holland (Tape 5, Side B)

Damage grade: 9
Asshole grade: 2

She’s the inverse of Ryan: a good person on the inside whose single lapse in judgment results in disaster, namely the death of a classmate. She drives Hannah home at night from a night party and crashes into a stop sign, but instead of calling the police as Hannah urges, she panics and ditches Hannah by the side of the road. That night someone is killed driving through the intersection. Sheri is so appalled by her error that she eventually goes out of her way to do things for the grieving parents of the classmate.

Episode 11: Clay Jensen (Tape 6, Side A)

Damage grade: 10 (*)
Asshole grade: 0

There’s not an asshole-bone in Clay’s body, and Hannah acknowledges that he doesn’t deserve to be on the tapes. But he’s on them anyway because Hannah wishes that he had ignored her demand that he leave the bedroom after she freaked out during their foreplay. For this he blames himself (“I killed Hannah because I was too scared to love her”), and this is clearly the show writers’ message which crops up elsewhere. It’s an irresponsible message. No means no, and Clay was correct to do exactly as Hannah told him — stopping the sex and leaving the room.

As Hannah tells it, I would have to conclude that the damage Clay did to her by not staying in the room and pursuing his romantic intentions earns him a score of 10. It clearly tore her to pieces. But since he did what can only be construed as the right thing, he doesn’t really deserve any damage points. If guys are expected to do the opposite of what a girl tells them in one case, then there’s no reason they shouldn’t act the same way when it comes to sex.

Episode 12: Bryce Walker (Tape 6, Side B)

Damage grade: 10
Asshole grade: 10

No commentary required. Bryce is an unrepentant rapist who belongs in jail.

Episode 13: Mr. Porter (Tape 7, Side A)

Damage grade: 5 (*)
Asshole grade: 1

The guidance counselor is like Clay. His moral compass is perfectly fine, and he tries to convince Hannah that life is worth living. His fault, as Hannah sees it, is that he failed to chase after her and beg her to come back when she flees his office in frustration. Which is uncharitable of Hannah in the extreme. Counselors and therapists shouldn’t be expected to chase after patients like this, any more than guys like Clay should be expected to flout a girl’s command to get lost and leave her alone. I do give him one asshole point for suggesting that she could “just move on” if she isn’t willing to name her rapist. Even if that’s pragmatically what some rape victims choose to do (not file criminal charges), one should never use the phrase “just move on” with a rape victim. I give him a damage grade of 5 right down the middle; on the one hand, his counseling failure is portrayed by Hannah as the last straw and a big one, but in essence she had already made her decision after Bryce; Mr. Porter was a last-ditch effort.

Great Performances from Kids

It’s hard for kids to act naturally, but some are truly born for it. These are my ten acting picks from young actors, by which “young” means the actor was no older than 14 when playing the role. So for example, one performance that didn’t qualify is Ellen Page as the 14-year old Hayley Stark in Hard Candy, since Ellen was actually 17 (believe it or not) and thus had more resources to draw on than a younger actor. (Ellen does make the cut for another role.) Natalie Portman takes the top slot in a slam dunk.

Mathilda (Click for video)

1. Natalie Portman (12), as Mathilda in Leon the Professional (1994). If Natalie Portman killed her image in the Star Wars prequels, she made up for it a thousand times before in Leon. I’m glad I missed the film when it first came out, because the American version wrecked it by removing 25 minutes that are the whole point of the love story. Alas, Americans aren’t equipped to handle that sort of thing between a 12-year old girl and a man in his 40s. The international version of the film is an uncensored masterpiece. Portman plays a girl whose parents, older sister, and 4-year old brother get gunned down by corrupt DEA agents, and so she hooks up with a hitman in her distress. She gets an instant crush on him and he doesn’t quite know how to handle it, but before long, he’s training her how to kill and taking her along on his hit jobs, while she takes every blatant opportunity to hit on him. Mathilda is Portman’s best performance (which is saying something, given Black Swan) and I’m in awe of the emotional range she summons here. She’s vulnerable and tender, sensuous, moved by inner furies, and none of it ever goes over the top. You believe her in every frame.

The kids of Stranger Things (Click for video)

2. Finn Wolfhard (12), Caleb McLaughlin (14), Gaten Matarazzo (13), and Millie Bobby Brown (12), as Mike, Lucas, Dustin, and Eleven in Stranger Things (2016). All four of these kids come in at a close #2. They’re incredibly natural actors and the boys represent my ’80s childhood — the hours-long D&D campaigns being the obvious point of contact. It’s almost impossible to say whose performance is the best as they complement each other with personas just as striking. Mike is the group leader, the most sensitive, and the soul of Stranger Things; Lucas the pragmatic skeptic; Dustin a non-stop riot ruled by his appetites. The chemistry between them is extraordinary to watch. Their most iconic scene is probably their prepubescent horror at Eleven when she starts to take off her clothes in front of them. Mike handles himself with the decorum fitting his leadership role, but the reactions of Lucas and Dustin are gut-busting hilarious. (Lucas: “She tried to get naked!” Dustin: indignantly mimics her taking off her dress.) Eleven herself is no less brilliant, and she conveys far more in her silences than most gifted actors do speaking. Simply put, there has never been a group of kids who set the screen on fire like the quartet of Stranger Things.

Mattie (Click for video)

3. Hailee Steinfeld (13), as Mattie in True Grit (2010). The role of Mattie Ross, like Mathilda in Leon, depends on just the right casting that makes or breaks a film. Which is ironic considering the two characters are so opposite. Mattie is completely unsexualized and humorless, living by a stern Presbyterian ethic which allows her to hold her ground in the face of adults who are otherwise inclined to dismiss her. Young characters who bark orders at adults are usually a fail in cinema, and scenes like Mattie running roughshod over a colonel in a horse-trading transaction by rights shouldn’t work. And yet they astonishingly do; at no point is Mattie anything less than 100% believable. When she and Rooster go off into Indian territory to hunt down the bad guy, the result is one of the best sidekick-adult relationships in movie history. Think how awful Short Round was in Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom. He gave youthful side-kicks a silly reputation. Steinfeld proved that kids can hold their own as the right-hands of heroes on missions of dirty work.

Danny (Click for video)

4. Danny Lloyd (6), as Danny in The Shining (1980). The youngest entry on my list places high. Lloyd was perfect in this horror classic, able to focus beyond what most six-year olds are capable of. Jack Nicholson may be the star of The Shining, and obviously very good, but he did go over the top; I always thought Danny Lloyd and Shelley Duvall were the true stars for the way they acted (reacted) to their maniacal father/husband, but especially Lloyd. Duvall gave an emotional performance that wiped her out; Lloyd portrayed the inner terror of a child so convincingly and under Kubrick’s careful guidance didn’t for a moment overact as kids this young inevitably do. It’s interesting that Lloyd was apparently not aware he was acting in a horror film — told by Kubrick that this was a “family drama” — which I find rather hard to believe given some of his lines and action sequences. Like when he’s being chased by the ax-wielding Jack, or when he conveys how terrified he is to his imaginary friend Tony, or when he’s shaken by his crying mother who wonders why he’s battered and bruised.

Jake and Tony (Click for video)

5. Theo Taplitz (13) and Michael Barbieri (13), as Jake and Tony in Little Men (2016). I have strong attachment to these boys, because I watched Little Men the day after the election (Nov 9), when I was feeling suicidal over Donald Trump’s victory. This was just the movie I needed to see — a film that celebrates difference despite the avalanche of parental roadblocks. Taplitz plays the shy Jake, Barbieri the uninhibited Tony; Jake is Caucasian and middle-class, Tony is Chilean and poor. The boys are allowed to play their roles with simple and understated tones that makes you feel you’re watching the everyday lives of real people. Their friendship grows the more their parents become enemies — they go so far as to boycott their parents by refusing to speak to them — but in the end, Tony and his mother are evicted for not being able to keep up with rising rents. I cried with Jake at the end; after election day this film was a serious trigger for me in light of Trump’s screeds against Hispanic people.

Iris (Click for video)

6. Jodie Foster (12), as Iris in Taxi Driver (1976). It’s funny how Foster has played against the very best and been terrified for her efforts. In Silence of the Lambs she never spoke to Anthony Hopkins off-camera (until the last day of shooting) because he scared her so badly in his Hannibal Lecter role. And that was when she was an adult. As a kid in Taxi Driver she was intimidated by Robert DeNiro — as she tells it today, he was “even quieter and more strange” back then — but I suspect it’s precisely this sort of thing that has always summoned the best out of Jodie Foster. After all, her roles as Iris and Clarice Starling are her best, and she deserves extra accolades for Iris given that she was only twelve. Both her real and in-character attempts to act and appear older as befitting a prostitute underscore all the more that she’s a child.

Maggie (Click for video)

7. Ellen Page (11), as Maggie in Pit Pony (1999). Here’s a family-friendly entry, just to prove I have a soft spot: Ellen Page’s first role on Canadian TV. I wish I’d grown up on Pit Pony instead of Little House on the Prairie, which was made insufferable by the self-righteous figure of Michael Landon’s Pa. The parental figures in Pit Pony are fallible and likeable. The locale is better too, set in Glace Bay, Nova Scotia, in the time before unions (1901) when men and boys — and ponies — had a rather nasty time working in the coal mines. Ellen Page is the hidden gem, playing the younger sister of the boy who does more than his share in the mines. It’s amazing to watch her before she became famous as the castrating psychopath of Hard Candy and the pregnant teen of Juno. In this series she’s positively endearing — and even more tiny, as if possible — and I chose a clip from the episode where she runs away from her aunt and comes home to find that things have changed, which she doesn’t handle well.

Jack (Click for video)

8. Jacob Tremblay (7), as Jack in Room (2015). Like Danny Lloyd (#4), Tremblay played a five-year old confined in a horrible place, though I think I’d take the 400-plus room haunted hotel over a one-room tool shed. Tremblay had a tall order in Room. He had to convey a belief that the entire universe consisted of a single room that he never left, and then, in the second half, a child’s reaction to the real world never seen before and zillions of people living in it besides his mother. He nailed it; when Jack sees the sky for the first time, Tremblay looks genuinely poleaxed. Even more convincing and disturbing is the deeper sense he conveys at having been deprived of life’s necessities for the first five years of his life, he doesn’t want them when they finally come. They’re just too overwhelming for him — living in a big house with toys and a backyard — and it’s heartbreaking when he asks his mother if they can go back to live in “Room”.

Regan (Click for video)

9. Linda Blair (13), as Regan in The Exorcist (1973). It’s easy to overlook this one, but Linda Blair did a lot of Regan’s scenes. Her stunt double (Eileen Deitz) only stepped in at a few points. Even the crucifixion masturbation scene was done mostly by Blair. And she did, after all, win a Golden Globe, a People’s Choice Award, and an Oscar nomination. So even if most of her performance comes filtered through the mask of demonic makeup in the latter half, she deserves high praise. And some of her early scenes are frankly as disturbing without the demon involved, as notably when she is strapped down in the hospital getting an arteriogram. Friedkin used real doctors to get the arteriogram procedure exactly right, and it’s just as painful for real-life patients as it looks for Linda Blair. It requires the patient to be conscious. And doctors have actually used that footage to train radiologists who will perform arteriograms, because the procedure — and Linda Blair’s tormented reaction — are so accurately depicted.

Alexander (Click for video)

10. Bertil Guve (10), as Alexander in Fanny and Alexander (1982). I have difficulty assessing performances in foreign films, because when I don’t know the language I’m often clueless as to whether or not the actor is using poor inflection or overacting. But I’ll say this about Bertil Guve: he was obviously a natural. Bergman chose him because he “acted with his eyes”, and I never needed to understand Swedish to see that. And any boy who can act the Ishmael scene is top notch. It’s the pivotal scene where the androgynous figure physically caresses Alexander, encloses the boy in his arms, and together they will the death of Alexander’s abusive stepfather. Speaking of which, the scene in which Alexander defies him and gets beaten for it is also a stand-out, for his non-verbal cues as much as verbal. Because the film is ultimately about what Alexander perceives is happening, it depends on Guve being able to make us believe in the magic — that ghosts and such really exist. That’s what he does, and it’s a first-rate performance.