The Venkman Argument: The Hierarchies of our Prejudices

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Stranger Things has allowed me to relive my ’80s childhood in many ways, and one of the more amusing examples is the Venkman argument between Mike and Lucas. In episode 2 the kids dress up as the Ghostbusters: Mike is Venkman, Dustin is Stantz, Will is (Egon) Spengler, and Lucas is Venkman too, instead of Winston as previously “agreed” upon. Mike is indignant about this, but Lucas says he never agreed to being Winston, who is neither funny nor even a scientist. When Mike insists that Winston is “still cool”, Lucas suggests that he be Winston, to which Mike protests that he can’t, obviously thinking that only Lucas should be the black character.

This is practically a script out of my own childhood. One of my favorite shows as a kid was The Mod Squad, a crime drama from the late ’60s which played on reruns. The series was about three criminals who worked for the police as unarmed undercover detectives instead of serving prison time. I used to play out fantasies of the Mod Squad with my sister, my friend next door, and my cousin. I usually assumed the role of Captain Greer, who supervised the three outcasts; my sister was Julie, my friend next door was Pete, and my cousin — who is African American — was Linc.

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It was the natural fit we all agreed to, but one day my cousin wanted to be Captain Greer, and suggested that I play Linc for a change. Now this was fine by me, as Linc was my favorite Mod Squad character, but my next-door friend balked at this, insisting that my cousin had to play the black character. My friend was no more a racist than Mike Wheeler of Stranger Things, but like anyone subject to the categorical ways we tend to think about people. Eventually he relented, and we has fun playing as always.

These days roles are even more malleable, particularly with gender. None of us boys would have conceived of playing Julie (nor my sister, I think, any of the Mod Squad men), but in many circles today that idea is less controversial. Perhaps about as much a white person playing a black character in the ’80s. It raises interesting questions about the hierarchies of our prejudices.


The Evolution of the Hive Mind in D&D’s Mind Flayer & Aboleth

In my last post I pointed out that the Shadow Monster of Stranger Things is much closer to an aboleth than a mind flayer. Since then I found an interview with the Duffer Brothers, who claim they designed the Shadow Monster without thinking of any creature from D&D, whether aboleth or mind flayer. This is how they tell it:

Matt: We came up with the creature and it was always called the Shadow Monster. Then we were like, “We need to come up with a proper name for this thing.” When we were going through the Dungeons & Dragons manual, I found this creature I’d forgotten about called the Mind Flayer. It was so close to the idea of our Shadow Monster. It was eerily the same. We were like, “Well, we’ve got our name.” It’s a weird-ass name, but the Mind Flayer it is.

Ross: It has nothing to do with the shape, or the way it looks, or the particles. But the fact that it moves from dimension to dimension, infecting the minds of others in order to control them and spread itself. I can’t remember everything else, but it’s everything that we were talking about with our Shadow Monster. I don’t think anyone will believe us. They’re going to think we just, day one, looked through the Dungeons & Dragons manual. I don’t know why we didn’t. But we did not.

Actually, yes, I thought the Duffer Brothers were looking through the D&D manuals, but taking clear inspiration from the aboleth, not the mind flayer. The Shadow Monster is so close to the aboleth you have to be trying to not see it. I assumed the Duffers called their creature a mind flayer because it sounds bad ass, even to an audience unfamiliar with Dungeons & Dragons. “Aboleth” sounds unimpressive by comparison, like something you’d find listed in an obscure academic journal. I have a hard time believing the D&D-savvy Duffer Brothers designed a creature that fits the aboleth almost to a tee but were unaware of it.

For the fun of it, I researched the evolution of both the aboleth and mind flayer in D&D. I’ve bolded all the relevant parts that bear any resemblance to the Shadow Creature of Stranger Things. I’m not sure what Ross means about the mind flayer’s ability to “spread itself” in the 1st edition Monster Manual. The hive mind aspect of the mind flayer was not introduced into the game until the late ’90s (see below), and certainly not in the manual Dustin reads from.

The Mind Flayer

1975. The Strategic Review #1 introduces the mind flayer: a humanoid with an octopus-like head that feeds on brains. The creature’s physical attack is by striking a victim with its four purplish black tentacles. If a tentacle hits it will reach the victim’s brain in 1-4 rounds and draw it forth, immediately killing the creature. The mind flayer then devours the brain. It can also unleash a mind blast in a 60-foot cone range, which causes death, coma, sleep, stun, confusion, or rage, depending on the victim’s intelligence.

1977. The Monster Manual canonizes the mind flayer, expanding and changing details provided above in The Strategic Review. Notably, the mind blast is now a simplified psionic blast which stuns, regardless of the victim’s intelligence. The mind flayer has the psionic abilities of domination, levitation, ESP, body equilibrium, and astral projection/probability travel. The domination ability allows it to control a victim (if a saving throw fails) as long as the mind flayer keeps concentrating on the victim. It’s also now specified that mind flayers detest sunlight and prefer habitats of subterranean places.

The Aboleth

1981. Dwellers of the Forbidden City introduces the aboleth: a gigantic tentacled monster that has strong psionic powers, and uses its mind control ability to make slaves. It’s an ancient life form, extremely intelligent, and views all other races as inferior upstarts who stole what is rightfully theirs. It attacks with its four tentacles which cause l-6 points of damage each, in addition to changing the victim’s skin into a clear slimy membrane in 2-5 rounds if a saving throw fails. Once the change is complete, the membrane must be kept damp with cool water or the victim will take 1-12 points of damage each turn due to intense pain caused by the drying membrane. (This is somewhat reminiscent of the way Will Byers needed to be kept cold.) It’s an amphibious creature, and in water it will secrete a cloud of mucus all around its body. Any creature drawn into the mucus must save vs. poison or it will inhale the stuff and become unable to breathe air, suffocating in 2-12 rounds if trying to breathe air. However, that same creature will gain the ability to breathe water, as a potion of water breathing, for 1-3 hours. The aboleth uses this mucus to give its slaves the power to breathe water. (The mucus reminds of the gooey substance from the Upside Down. Does that goo allow one to breathe the toxic environment of the Upside Down?)

1983. The Monster Manual II canonizes the aboleth, detailing them exactly as described above in Dwellers of the Forbidden City.

The Mind Flayer

1983. “The Ecology of the Mind Flayer”, in Dragon Magazine #78, offers the first suggestion that mind flayers are from another world. It emphasizes their brain-eating and domination powers in much stronger terms:

“To eat the brain of another race is the ultimate symbol of dominion over that race. They consume that which is important to them. Their tentacles have bony ridges that cut flesh and bone with ease, exposing the inside of the skull. Many collect the skulls of their victims and adorn their bodies with the trophies. They have a psionic power that especially helps them achieve their evil ends — a power of domination that they use with pleasure on their victims and those who would attack them. This domination power allows the mind flayer to control every movement of a single victim, to an unlimited extreme. Once, on a raid to an illithid lair, I saw a githyanki captain run himself through with his own sword while under the control of one of them.” (p 67)

So now the mind flayer can dominate to “an unlimited extreme”, even if the results are fatal to the victim. As presented in The Monster Manual, the domination power was the standard psionic ability and not as powerful. However, the mind flayer must still concentrate on the victim at all times, unlike the aboleth.

The Aboleth

1988. “The Ecology of the Aboleth”, in Dragon Magazine #131, presents variants that are more powerful than the common aboleth: greater aboleth (who maintain slaves gathered by the common aboleth), noble aboleth (who conduct scientific research and experimentation), ruler aboleth (who command aboleth cities or areas, and have a mental link with all their subjects), and a grand aboleth (a godlike creature that dwarfs even the rulers, but existing only in rumors). The hive mind is introduced as an aboleth feature, in the rulers, who are described as follows:

“These huge, bloated monstrosities are the largest and most intelligent of all aboleth (aside from the grand aboleth). Its telepathic link with its subjects allows it to be constantly aware of everything going on in its realm. Rulers are, in most other respects, similar to common and greater aboleth. They possess enslavement abilities equal to those of greater aboleth and can generate veil spells at will. Rulers can generate slime in a 5-foot radius, and the mere sight of one causes fear in all beings of less than 5th level or five hit dice.” (p 38)

It’s now specified that aboleth reproduce by egg, which are covered in a thick slime. The eggs hatch mini-aboleth who take about ten years to mature into adult form. (The demogorgon of Stranger Things reproduces by tentacle implantation (as it did to Will’s throat), not egg, so the eggs seen in season 1 were probably eggs for shadow monsters (“aboleth”) rather than demogorgons.)

The Mind Flayer

1998. The Illithiad reveals the world the mind flayers come from, a realm called the Outside. They reproduce by egg, which hatch tadpoles until they grow and are implanted into the brain of another humanoid, after which it immediately subsumes the creature’s personality, replacing it with its own awakening intellect. The hive mind is introduced as a mind flayer feature, which is called the “Elder Brain”. An elder brain is the final stage of the mind flayer life cycle, composed of the brains of long-dead mind flayers. It lives in a brine-filled pool in the center of a mind flayer city, where it guides its community by filling mind flayers with dreams of perverse domination. It has the psionic abilities of other mind flayers, but physically it is weak (unlike the powerful ruler aboleth and Shadow Monster from Stranger Things), which is why mind flayers protect their elder by securing it in well-protected caves. The elder can communicate telepathically not only with its subjects, but with any creature within 350 foot distance.  The ultimate goal of a mind flayer is to sacrifice its brain as it nears the end of its lifespan, by merging with the elder brain, strengthening the elder’s powers and intellect. Most mind flayer are unaware, however, that their personalities and consciousness are lost when joining with the elder brain, leaving only their knowledge and ideas to survive. (A closely guarded secret kept by the elder brains.)


As I said before, it’s clear that the aboleth are the closer representation of the Shadow Monster, though obviously “mind flayer” sounds sexier and was the better marketing choice. The hive mind is an anachronism for both, though it was developed first for the aboleth (in the ’80s) and only much later for the mind flayer (in the ’90s).

The Shadow Monster of Stranger Things 2: Mind Flayer or Aboleth?

The Shadow Monster

The Big Bad of Stranger Things 2 is a huge tentacled shadow monster which is eventually given a name by Dustin in episode 8: The Mind Flayer. Dustin says that’s the best analogy from the D&D world to make sense of what is going on in Hawkins. Everything from the Upside Down — the demo-dogs, the creeping vines, the underground tunnels burrowing into Hawkins, and the gate itself — seems to be under the control of a hive mind, and mind flayers are ruled by a hive mind (called an “elder brain”). They use their psionic abilities to dominate victims, which is what’s happening to Will. But there is a far better D&D comparison to the shadow monster: the aboleth.


The aboleth are huge floating tentacled monsters (see left) that are also ruled by a hive mind. Like mind flayers they have strong psionic abilities and use their mind control to make slaves. They excrete a mucus-substance which they need to breathe — the gooey substance from the Upside Down calls this to mind. The aboleth are an ancient life form and extremely intelligent, and they view all other races as inferior upstarts who stole what is rightfully theirs. In addition to being part of a hive mind, they are born with a racial memory, each one inheriting the memories of its ancestors. (An aboleth also assimilates the memories of consumed victims.) Aboleths enjoy spending time lost in the grand memories of their ancestors, and (time permitting) enjoy reliving entire portions of their ancestors’ lives. They are hermaphrodites and reproduce by egg. In season 1 of Stranger Things the Demogorgon reproduced by tentacle implantation (down Will’s throat), not egg, so the eggs we saw in season 1 were probably eggs for shadow monsters (aboleth) rather than more demogorgons.

Mind Flayer

An aboleth fits the description of the shadow monster almost to a tee, and it’s hard to see why Dustin associated it with a mind flayer instead. Mind Flayers have similar traits, as I mentioned, but their differences stand out. Significant is their positive view of magic. Mind flayers can be powerful mages. The aboleth despise all forms of magic and rejected it long ago in favor of science, which aligns with the sci-fic premise of Stranger Things. The mind flayers are humanoid in appearance (see right). Aside from their octopus-like heads, they bear little resemblance to the shadow monster of Stranger Things. The aboleth are gigantic (anywhere from 20-40 feet long) like the TV creature; mind flayers are the size of people. There’s no contest.

Dustin reads the information on the mind flayer in the D&D Monster Manual (1977), but there is actually no mention of a hive mind in this manual. The hive mind (elder brain) feature of the mind flayers would not be introduced into the game until 1998. So that’s a 14-year anachronism in the TV show. The aboleth first appeared in an adventure module called Dwellers of the Forbidden City (1981) and then were officially categorized in the Monster Manual II (1983), both of which predate the 1984 setting of Stranger Things 2. So they’re not an anachronism; Dustin would know about the aboleth, unless these kids never got around to buying the second Monster Manual, which I rather doubt. If they’re obsessed as I was with the game, which they clearly are, they would have obtained that manual in ’83 when it was hot off the press.

Late in the ’80s, Dragon Magazine #131 did a special feature on the aboleth, describing them as follows:

“In general, all aboleth are cruel, emotionless, and logical. All are extremely intelligent — some even more so than the most ancient of elven mages. They are believed to live for thousands of years, but exact information is difficult to gain. Over their many years of existence, the aboleth have developed a society which far exceeds that of humans in efficiency. In this society, each aboleth has a specific duty which it performs with the utmost skill. There are four major roles in the aboleth society. In increasing order of importance, these roles are: slave gathering, slave maintenance, scientific research and experimentation, and ruling. An aboleth feeds mainly on microscopic organisms which abound in its natural habitat, but it can also consume larger prey if necessary. Aboleth can survive in both air and water, but prefer water for obvious reasons. It is worthy to note that rumors exist of a grand aboleth, a creature so immense that it dwarfs even the rulers. If so, then perhaps it is better that surface and subterranean dwellers alike leave the aboleth to do as they please.”

Perhaps the shadow monster that possessed Will — and remains at large at the end of season 2 — is a grand aboleth. Not a creature I would mess with under any circumstances, unless I was ultra-high level and had an army at my back. Eleven crossed it badly by shutting the gate. I suspect she will reap devastating consequences in season 3.

The Episodes of Stranger Things 2 Ranked

To honor Noah Schnapp who stole this season, I used shots of him in all of the images, except for the finale, which is an Eleven episode all the way, and the abysmal episode 7, which is also an Eleven episode. (See here for the season 1 rankings.)
Episodes 9: The Gate. 5 stars. The finale starts on Mike’s strongest moments, finishes on his earned reward, each involving the re-entry of Eleven into his miserably shattered life. It’s everything I hoped for in his story arc, and the right place to reconnect El with the main cast. Any earlier than the finale would have cheapened her sacrifice in season 1. Mike and El’s reunion is powerful because he’s been an empty shell for a year; to see him come alive again is sublime. In a particularly heart-rending scene, he goes ape-shit on Hopper, screaming at the sheriff and physically attacking him for keeping El hidden all this time. The reunion is short lived, of course, as Eleven must leave right away with Hopper to close the gate. But first Will needs an exorcism, since closing the gate will kill everything the Mind Flayer controls, including Will himself. Throughout this season I kept expecting Will’s possession to turn lame and laughable, but it remains dreadful to the end. Having just been strapped to a chair and worked over in episode 8, he is now tied to a bed, and Joyce proceeds to burn the Mind Flayer out of him by shoving three electric heaters close to him on full blast it’s a wonder his skin doesn’t fry. As both Will and his possessor roar in agony, Jonathan begs Joyce to stop, and Nancy seems equally appalled by this humiliating cruelty, until she outdoes Joyce by grabbing a hot poker and jabbing it into Will’s gut (a scene that still astounds on repeat viewings). Meanwhile, Steve and the kids do their part by going down into the Mind Flayer’s tunnels and burning the hub, which draws most of the demo-dogs away from the lab to attack them, giving El and Hopper some breathing room. El’s closing of the gate is a wondrous moment, but believe it or not, the Snow Ball epilogue is the series’ best scene, as we see all the boys ending up paired with the “right girl” in the right ways, dancing to the creepy ’80s stalker song, “Every Breath You Take”. It’s so moving, so right, and far more than I dared pray for this season.
Episode 4: Will the Wise. 5 stars. After the first three episodes comes a shift in tone. Will, having taken Bob’s well-meaning but stupid advice, is no longer just infected by the Upside Down. He’s possessed by the Mind Flayer. Possession is a scary concept to put on screen, but it’s also the riskiest because it’s hard to do right. Thankfully the Duffer Brothers know what they’re doing, and Noah Schnapp nails it in every frame, with subtleties Linda Blair could have never pulled off in The Exorcist (which demanded the more overt approach to possession). He deserves an Emmy for his scenes in this episode; they’re that good. There are no jump scares here, just the slow creep of dread as Will alternates between being shaken and terrified, to making resolute demands (that his mother run him a freezing bath, because his possessor “likes it cold”), to stalking about the house confused. Eleven also gets in her best scene of the season, as she and Hopper have a shouting match when she returns from stalking Mike in episode 3. They’re both trapped: Hopper keeps her confined under strict rules for fear of losing another “daughter”, while Eleven accuses him of being no better than “papa” — she feels just as caged in the cabin as she was in the lab — resulting in her telekinetic tantrum of hurling things at him and shattering windows. Finally, the episode ends on the first death of the season: Dustin’s cat, devoured by his pet pollywog that’s molted into its next stage — a baby fucking demogorgon. Will the Wise is easily my second favorite episode, even if there’s not much action, and I could make a case for it being number one. Will’s and Eleven’s scenes contain some of the best moments of child acting ever seen on television.
Episode 6: The Spy. 5 stars. There’s a heavy Exorcist vibe running through this season, but it becomes most blatant in the medical scenes of The Spy. The opening scene (above pic) is clearly inspired by Regan McNeill’s hideous PEG procedure (which drained fluid from her head so that her brain would show up more clearly on an X-ray image), and Will Byers is having it even worse, convulsing under the doctors who ask him where it hurts, to which he can only scream “Everywhere!” Winoda Ryder, for her part, plays the hysterical mother as convincingly as Ellen Burstyn did, and Joyce even shouts down a table of doctors for their incompetence as Chris McNeil did when professionals tried explaining Regan’s possession as mental illness. “What are you even treating him for? What is wrong with my boy?” practically channels the famous Exorcist line, “Eighty-eight doctors, and all you can tell me with all your bullshit is that you’re sorry!” Later it seems that Will is working against his possessor. He tells Mike he knows how to stop the creature: that there is a location in the tunnels which his possessor “doesn’t want him to see”, and so a team is sent to investigate. The location is the same hub where Hopper was attacked in episode 5, and it turns out to be a trap — Will was just lying, almost completely possessed now, and an ugly slaughter ensues. The episode is a ripper in other parts too, notably Steve and Dustin’s, who are now joined by Lucas and Max in a rather foolish attempt to bait Dustin’s demogorgon into the open and kill it. When a whole pack of demogorgons shows up, Steve and the kids become the bait and trapped inside a bus as the beasts assault them, another intense scene in an episode that stays in full throttle. The bonding between Steve and Dustin is handled extremely well, and involves some of the season’s best character moments.
Episode 2: Trick or Treat, Freak. 5 stars. The Halloween episode has tremendous rewatch value. I get a fever for Ghostbusters every time the theme song plays over the montage of the kids in costume, and Mike hilariously bitching at Lucas for dressing up as the leader Venkman instead of (the African-American) Winston, to the latter’s indignant cries of racism. Mike is right, Halloween is the best time of the year, and here the frights are out in full force: Max scares the shit out of them with her Michael Myers costume, and Will gets the biggest scare of all, as he gets knocked over by a group of bullies and then finds himself in the Upside Down being chased by the tentacled Mind Flayer blotting out the sky. I had a bad moment when Will crouched behind the building and the creature funneled its way down the stairs to grab him… until it turned out to be Mike in the Rightside Up. Mike takes him home (with a rude parting blow to Lucas, Dustin, and Max that he’s bored with them anyway), and back at the Byers’ house, the two boys have a touching moment (above pic). It’s my favorite Mike-Will moment as they take some comfort in each others damage. Mike thinks he’s losing his mind — knowing Eleven is dead but that he can sometimes hear her — and offers Will the companionship of “going crazy together”. I also love the initial flashbacks which pick up right after Eleven banished the Demogorgon in season 1. She barely escapes from the Upside Down and returns to Mike’s house (the only place she’d ever felt safe in her life), but finds the police all over the place, and Mike being grilled on her whereabouts. As she spies through the living room window, it’s hard to say if she thinks that Mike has sold her out or not, but her look of pain is heartbreaking as she realizes she can’t return to him yet.
Episode 8: The Mind Flayer. 5 stars. The first half combines Aliens and Jurassic Park, neither of which I’m a big fan of, but which are used effectively for the season’s crowning action sequence. It results in the death of Bob, and the sight of him being torn apart by a pack of demo-dogs is almost enough to turn Joyce into a gibbering lunatic. The only weakness is that Bob’s death is telegraphed a little too obviously (at three particular points I said to myself, “He’s not going to make it”), but other than that, the lab siege is superbly executed. We — like Dr. Owens, Hopper, Joyce, and Mike — watch the cameras in horror as the demo-dogs feed on corpses in every other corridor. The second half of The Mind Flayer is even better. All the main characters come together at the Byers house, and Mike gets the idea that if they kill the Mind Flayer, which functions like a brain, they can perhaps kill the army it controls, and stop its tunnels from burrowing into the town of Hawkins. He suggests that Will may know how to kill the Flayer (given the intimate connection to his possessor), and thus begins an emotional ordeal by which Will is strapped to a chair and worked over in turns by Joyce, Jonathan, and Mike. They share intimate memories with Will, and in particular Mike’s recollection of becoming friends with Will on the first day of school is a tearjerker. Will continues to speak like the damned, but these stories do break through and allow him to tap a message using Morse code, which is to “close the gate”. That will apparently kill the Mind Flayer, or at least everything it controls, and it is at this moment — rather conveniently, but without feeling like a cheat — that Eleven makes her glorious re-entry, to an overwhelmed Mike.
Episode 3: The Pollywog. 4 ½ stars. Of all the episodes in season 2, The Pollywog channels the spirit of season 1 most visibly. The boys are in fine form working tightly together, and even Mike comes out of his shell to take a proactive role, as he chastises Dustin for harboring a creature from the Upside Down. Sensing hostility, the thing makes a dash for the corridor, and the boys engage in a mad chase through the school halls, and into bathroom stalls, until Dustin secretly finds it and smuggles it under his cap. The Stand-by-Me bickering is what we loved so much about these kids, and it’s on full display here, as Dustin is willing to defend his new pet against the others no matter the cost. Then there is Mike’s jealousy over Max; he tells her point blank that she’s not welcome in their party. It would be an amusing hypocrisy given Lucas’ jealousy over Eleven last year, except that it’s genuinely sad. That sadness is compounded when Eleven, furious with Hopper, decides to break his rules and pay Mike a visit at the school. She sees him in the gymnasium with Max and draws the wrong conclusion, and it’s truly heartbreaking. Up until now she has been using static from the television in Hopper’s cabin to “visit” Mike telepathically — the same way she used sensory deprivation tanks in season 1 to locate people without them seeing her — but a year’s worth of stalking Mike on the shadow plane has grown old. Now in the gym, it looks like Mike has moved on and forgotten about her. The final scene announces serious business ahead, as Will (very foolishly) faces down the Mind Flayer and gets possessed for his efforts.
Episode 1: Mad Max. 4 stars. Let’s be clear that the arcade is not the table top, and our first sight of the kids playing Dragon’s Lair doesn’t have the same magic as their D&D game of season 1. That out of the way, the arcade is still an inspired setting, and is put to good use in showing us how Will remains infected by the Upside Down. Suddenly the arcade shifts into the shadow realm, and the world outside becomes an apocalyptic hell. It’s clear that everything will revolve around Will Byers as before, but this time by inverting the premise: instead of him vanishing into the Upside Down, the Upside Down is coming to him. He won’t become possessed until episode 4, but he’s in a bad way suffering PTSD on top of these hellish visions. Worse still is that Joyce and Jonathan condescend by treating him with kid gloves, which pisses him off, and it doesn’t help that nasty kids at school leave him taunting “zombie boy” notes in his locker. Joyce, for her part, has become the Helicopter Mom from Hell, which to be fair is more than understandable; I wouldn’t want to go chasing after my kid in the Upside Down ever again either. What the premiere establishes above all is the cost of last year’s events. The innocence of Hawkins has been lost. Mike is still pining for Eleven and calls her in vain on his walkie talkie; Nancy hasn’t gotten over Barb; and Hopper is guilt-ridden for being complicit in the oath of silence the government demanded of them at gunpoint. This all adds up to a fine way of reintroducing us to the old characters who will never be the same. New characters, like the titular Mad Max, seem rather extraneous by comparison.
Episode 5: Dig Dug. 3 ½ stars. The middle episode is pretty good but brought down by the obnoxious character of Murray. I have to say he almost ruined Nancy and Jonathan’s story for me. He’s a conspiracy theorist who plasters his apartment walls with misinformation and crackpot ideas about a mystery girl (Eleven) in Hawkins who is a Russian plant. When Nancy and Jonathan enlighten him with the truth, he hatches a plan to sell their story to the media, but only if they leave out the wild parts no one will believe, which is pretty much everything pertaining to the psychic realm and the Upside Down. By watering down the truth (suggesting that Hawkins Lab is guilty of poisoning people) they stand a better chance of convincing the public. Which is all fine and well; it’s his zany and obnoxious behavior that grates, and he somehow feels misplaced in a Stranger Things drama. Meanwhile Hopper has discovered the Mind Flayer’s underground tunnels, which are spreading into the town, and he becomes trapped and incapacitated. This allows the character of Bob to show his use, as he realizes that Will’s drawings of “vines” are actually tunnels under Hawkins connecting to lakes and quarries, which enables them to go rescue Hopper. Eleven gets the best part of this episode, as she flees Hopper’s cabin in search of Terry Ives. When she finds her mother, she obtains more misery, as if that were possible; Terry has been living a waking nightmare ever since being electroshocked into a blank state.
Episode 7: The Lost Sister. 2 stars. As someone who loves bold episodes that go outside the box — like Breaking Bad’s Fly and Doctor Who’s Love and Monsters — it pains me to say that The Lost Sister is an embarrassing misfire. As an excuse to give Eleven something to do before reuniting with the other characters, we’re treated to an excursion to Chicago where she finds her long lost “lab sister” Kali, who also has telekinetic abilities, but instead of moving objects she makes people see things that aren’t there (or not see things that are). She leads a street gang who hunt down and kill scientists who worked for Doctor Brenner, and the episode focuses on Eleven coming to terms with her power and ultimately rejecting the use of that power for murder. It’s a fine enough idea, but Kali and her crew are thoroughly uninteresting characters, and most of them painfully annoying. On top of that the episode is horribly placed, coming in between the episode 6 cliffhanger which demands an immediate follow up. I understand what the show writers were trying to do here, by holding off El’s reunion with the others until the final episode. That was the right move, since El’s sacrifice in season one doesn’t mean anything if the others don’t suffer through her absence, especially Mike. But this detour to Chicago was a poor way of going about that. I hoped that The Lost Sister would get better on more viewings but it hasn’t. It feels like a pilot for a lame spinoff series. I give it 2 stars instead of 1 because Millie Bobby Brown is always good, even in a bad script.

Stranger Things 2: Better than before

Fans will debate for a long time which season of Stranger Things is better, and while it’s a close call, for me season 2 is the winner. It upped the ante with a Bigger Bad, pushed the kids into darker places, and had more emotional power. And that’s saying a lot.

Season 1 was better with the micro plotting, and left not a single scene feeling wasted. Even the quietest character moments advanced the story. Season 2 has a killer macro plot, and its big moments are even more impressive than the previous season’s. It’s true that some of the narrative arcs move sluggishly in the first three episodes, but from a binge-watch perspective this didn’t bother me as much as it would have otherwise. I love these characters so much that I didn’t mind the time spent in low gears.

Those who were enchanted by the first season might have some trouble with this one. Last year blended Stephens Spielberg and King evenly. Season 2 weighs far more heavily on the King side, as a dark horror piece, which obviously is a big score for me. The innocence of Hawkins has been lost. The intrusion of the Upside Down has taken a toll on everyone. Mike is depressed over the loss of Eleven and little more than a shell; Nancy hasn’t gotten over Barb; and Hopper is guilt-ridden for being complicit in the oath of silence the government demanded of them at gunpoint. Season 1 made us long for the simpler times of youth. There’s some of that still here, but the kids are more vulnerable now as worse horrors begin to escalate.

Noah Schnapp must be singled out for special praise. He practically carries the season in a reversal of his limited role last year when he was held captive in the Upside Down. Now he’s suffering PTSD until he becomes possessed by the Mind Flayer (by episode 4), giving poor Joyce the same amount of respiratory failure he caused her when he went missing and everyone thought he was dead. If Schnapp doesn’t get an Emmy for his performance, my piles will burst. He plays the possessed child with ferocious conviction, running the gamut of emotions. He throws convulsive fits one moment, trembles in terror the next, and then stares down people with the calm of a hellish monster. The hospital scenes in particular evoke The Exorcist as he screams in agony under medical treatment, while Joyce can only watch horrified, and she later shouts down a table of doctors for their incompetence as Chris McNeil did when professionals tried explaining Regan’s possession as mental illness.

In accordance with this, season 2 scores massively for its Big Bad: the Mind Flayer that possesses Will is sentient and driven by an evil purpose. In season 1 the Demogorgon was scary but ultimately a mindless beast acting on instinct — a shark preying on blood. That doesn’t hold a candle to the Mind Flayer which is thoroughly evil, but in a Lovecratian way so that no one can grasp its cosmic intentions. In the D&D game, mind flayers are humanoid monsters with a tentacled octopus-like head reminiscent of Lovecraft’s Cthulu (see here). They roam networks of underground tunnels and sadistically feed on the brains of sentient creatures, and use their telepathic abilities to possess others and make slaves of them. Their communities are controlled by an “elder brain”, the last stage of the mind flayer life cycle which is essentially a massive brain with tentacles. Such an “elder” mind flayer (see top image in the red clouds) seems to be what possesses Will in season 2.

The only true weakness in season 2 is Episode 7 (“The Lost Sister”), which is being rightly slammed by many reviewers. It’s the only bad episode in the series’ two season stretch, and a misfire in the Duffer Brothers’ attempt to think outside the box. As an excuse to give Eleven something to do before reuniting with the other characters, we’re treated to an excursion to Chicago where she finds her long lost “lab sister”, Kali, who also has telekinetic abilities. Kali leads a street gang who hunt down and kill scientists who worked for Doctor Brenner, and the episode focuses on Eleven coming to terms with her powers and rejecting the use of those powers for murder. It’s a fine enough idea, but Kali and her crew are thoroughly uninteresting characters, and most of them painfully annoying too. On top of that the episode is horribly placed, coming in between the episode 6 cliffhanger which demands an immediate follow up. I understand what the show writers were trying to do here, by holding off El’s reunion with the others until the final episode. That was a good move. In order for El’s season-one sacrifice to mean anything, the others have to suffer through her absence, especially Mike. But this detour to Chicago is a poor way of going about that.

When Mike and El finally do reunite, their moment is even more emotional than last year’s farewell. What makes it so is that Mike has been so irritable and depressed for the whole season — in some episodes barely there, it seems, as he wallows in self-pity. He prefers the morbid company of Will over that of Lucas and Dustin (at one point he tells Will, “If we’re both going crazy, let’s go crazy together”), and has no use for the new girl Max, whom he resents for trying, as he sees it, to fill Eleven’s shoes. He’s not the spirited kid we loved, and while it’s painful to see this, it was the right move for Mike’s character. It makes the payback of El’s return in the final episode well earned, which is quite a tear-jerker. And it’s not just Mike’s reaction to the shocking sight of Eleven. I was even more affected when he went ape-shit on Hopper for keeping El hidden all this time.

The Snow Ball Dance epilogue is my favorite scene of the series, so I guess I’m a sap after all. All the boys end up paired with the “right girl” in the best ways. Lucas gets Max after a clumsy proposal, Will gets a bashful admirer, and poor Dustin is rejected by every girl he asks until the elder Nancy comes to his rescue. Finally, Eleven arrives, and she and Mike dance to the Police’s “Every Breath You Take”. Some critics have decried the use of this creepy stalker song for Mike and El’s long-overdue reunion, and it’s hard to believe they can be so clueless. The song is a perfect fit for Mike and El, not only because their relationship has always been rather weird, but because El has been stalking Mike for a whole year while he pined for her in agony. On top of that, there is the running stalker theme between Lucas and Max. On top of that, the final shot “underneath” the school in the Upside Down shows the Mind Flayer looming over the school, which aligns with the song’s theme: “I’ll be watching you, every breath you take, every move you make,” and especially the final ominous lyrics we hear as the music fades, “Oh can’t you see, you belong to me…” From here on, I will always think of “Every Breath You Take” as Mike and El’s (and the Mind Flayer’s) love song.

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.

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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.