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.

Doctor Who’s Companion Departures

Rewatching Hell Bent got me thinking about the Doctor’s companion exits. Companions who die, but not really, are like resets. They work with the right payoff and betray us when there’s no cost. No one complains about the reset in Father’s Day, because it’s so tragic the reset is invisible. Last of the Time Lords is another story. Of the six companion departures, four of them involve deaths-but-not, and you’d think the formula would have worn out its welcome by now. But three of them work very well, including Clara’s in the most recent Hell Bent.

Here’s my survey of the six departures. It’s worth noting how Moffat’s three repeated those of Davies. The God Complex, like Last of the Time Lords, was the unassuming farewell, not to mention a loose one, as Amy returned next season like Martha did. Angels Take Manhattan replayed the Doomsday tearjerker, with Amy banished to die in the past like Rose in her alternate universe. Journey’s End and Hell Bent involved quasi-Time Lord identities on the parts of Donna and Clara, necessitating memory wipes. The first two are the affectionate separations; the other four are the epics in which the companion dies but not really. Here’s how they all rank.

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Rose. Doomsday, Season 2, 2006. 5 stars. If someone spoiled the ending of Doomsday for you in advance, you’d probably cry foul. The first scene announces that Rose is supposed to die. Getting trapped in a parallel world sounds like an egregious cop-out, especially when she gets to live comfortably ever after with her parents and boyfriend. Yet even after a decade, Rose’s departure remains the best and most tragic companion departure of all time. Partly because Billie Piper is Billie Piper — her ability to channel emotional devastation could make a robot break down in tears — but also because of the way the Doctor breaks his season-long promise that she will be different and he will never abandon her like the previous companions. His plan to defeat the Daleks and Cybermen involves, rather heartlessly, sealing off Rose forever in the parallel world. Granted this pains him, but he does so resolutely true to his alien identity. Rose has learned all she can from him and needs to get on without him. Rose’s dying but not doesn’t feel like a cheat at all; it’s far more upsetting than her actual death could have been.

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Martha. Last of the Time Lords, Season 3, 2007. 3 stars. Poor Martha gets a bad rap and she frankly deserves it. She’s the least distinguished of the five companions. Her apologists try hard, but no matter how you spin her, she’s little more than an educated version of Rose, and her unrequited love for the Doctor threatened to turn the Time Lord-companion dynamic into an ongoing soap opera. When she finally gets a proactive role of leadership, it’s unimpressive because Last of the Time Lords is such a horrible episode, serving a cheap reset and pious nonsense. The Doctor becomes his own deus ex machina by repelling laser blasts and levitating like a god, all on the strength of humanity, yes, praying to him. All things considered, Martha’s understated departure was the only sensible option. She wasn’t her own character enough to warrant a grand exit. Her farewell is the best thing about the finale, and she tells the Doctor what we want to hear. If he won’t hop in the sack with her (he won’t), she’s leaving (which is just as well).
Donna. Journey’s End, Season 4, 2008. 2 stars. It’s difficult to give Donna’s departure a fair shake since it comes in the worst Doctor Who story of all time. Journey’s End offends in every frame. The return of Rose makes an unforgivable mockery of her own departure in Doomsday. The Doctor double is twice as bad, and the fact that’s he’s half human horribly contrived to provide the cheap fairy tale ending at Bad Wolf Bay. Rose gets her Time Lord lover after all, in an outrageous undoing of the season-two finale. The Doctor’s regeneration is bogus. The Daleks don’t even kill anyone. Finally there is the Doctor-Donna — an absurd concept on every level that makes me want to kick her motormouth right in. I completely lost the empathy I’d built up for her over season four; from Fires of Pompeii to Turn Left she truly shined. All of that accepted, Donna’s fate is rather tragic. Her memory is wiped, and the final scene in her parents’ house is quite sad: she wakes unable to recognize the Doctor or remember anything about her adventures with him. Thus my departure rating of 2 for a story that on whole I give absolutely 0 stars.

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Amy (I). The God Complex, Season 6, 2011. 4 ½ stars. Even if this is a pseudo-departure, it’s the best of its kind since Sarah’s in The Hand of Fear. The Doctor and Amy deliver so much in simple gestures and looks that speak volumes. There’s a real feel that they have have become great friends and find it enormously painful to part company — just like the final scene between Tom Baker and Elizabeth Sladen back in 1976. And I don’t even consider it a false departure, because it’s less the farewell to Amy and more to “Amelia”, her innocent self who until this point couldn’t let go of her childlike faith in the Doctor. The God Complex crushes that childlike faith by the brilliant device of a haunted hotel. A minotaur-beast stalks the corridors and feeds off the corrupted faith of intruders; when Amy and the Doctor see what’s inside her room of horrors, the Doctor destroys her faith in him, which saves her from the beast and herself. The farewell is metaphorical more than literal, and genuinely affecting. I almost even prefer it to…

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Amy (II). The Angels Take Manhattan, Season 7, 2012. 4 stars. … Amy’s actual departure. This one is a full-blown tragedy like Doomsday, with a notable inversion. Rose was stranded in an alternate world against her will. Amy chooses to be stranded in the past against the Doctor’s will, committing a form of retro-suicide. It really is the suitable ending for Amy Pond, since the weeping angels have been her nemesis from the start. The only weakness is the double climax: the graveyard scene comes on top of Amy’s first “suicide” attempt when she jumps from the top of the building, and it’s feels abrupt and hyper-dramatized. There’s also a slightly desperate feel of trying to copy the tearjerk factor of Doomsday, which it succeeds in doing but in a competitive way. On whole it’s still very good. The Angels Take Manhattan has a bleak atmosphere and reeks of preordained disaster. Not even the Doctor can work around the fixed point of Amy’s “death” from blinking, and though I had become tired of Matt Smith by season seven, he really pulled out the stops in conveying anguish for this terrific companion he had come so far with.

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Clara. Hell Bent, Season 9, 2015. 4 ½ stars. By now the formula of “dying but not” had worn out its welcome. It worked in Doomsday and The Angels Take Manhattan, fell on its face in Journey’s End, and by God it was time for another Adric. Time to let the companion die for real, and to let the more juvenile constituents of the fanbase grow up. All the more astonishing then, that Clara’s fate works not only well, but comes close to rivaling Rose’s. First because of the amazing performances of Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman. Second because their emotions are communicated through the concept of the Hybrid, which is not, it turns out, some mythical half-Dalek/half-Time Lord, but the Doctor and Clara themselves. Their friendship has created a risk addiction that spurs each other toward disaster, with the entire universe being the collateral. This necessitates a memory wipe: one of them must forget the other so their friendship can end. It’s genuinely heartbreaking — even the scenes in the diner with the Doctor playing sad melodies on the guitar — and a vast improvement on the memory wipe theme which didn’t make sense in Donna’s case. The result is that, yes, Hell Bent reverses Clara’s death (for a time), but without undoing any pain and grief. Clara, like Rose and Amy, earns her death by the longer road.

Three ways to scare an audience: The Exorcist then and tonight

The TV remake of The Exorcist premieres tonight, and judging from trailers and reviews it will probably be rather unimpressive.

Stephen King has said there are three ways to scare an audience: “I recognize terror as the finest emotion and so I will try to terrorize the reader. But if I find I cannot terrify him/her, I will try to horrify; and if I find I cannot horrify, I’ll go for the gross-out.” The distinction between the first two levels go back to Ann Radcliffe, who defined terror in terms of a threatening potential that is unclear but present somehow, while horror crystallizes the ambiguity and brings on concrete scares. King illustrates the three levels:

(1) Terror: The gut-churning feeling of something lurking just beyond, but still unknowable. Atmospheric dread. The build up of tension. A door cracks open just a bit. The lights go out and there’s a sound behind you. Etc.

(2) Horror: The shock value of immediate dread. A door swings open and something appears (a ghost, a vampire, or hideous creature) assaulting you. Reaching out to grab something, and a fist out of nowhere grabs your arm. Etc.

(3) Revulsion: The gross-out level, or the repulsively obscene. Someone getting disemboweled. A severed head rolling down a flight of stairs. A man getting castrated and fed his genitals. The problem with this level is that it’s usually unimpressive without the supplement of at least one of the two higher levels.

The Exorcist remains the scariest film of all time because it succeeds so viscerally on all three levels. I saw it when I was 11 (about six years after its theatrical release), and nothing since has come close to matching the pulverizing effect it had on me. I suspect that tonight’s premiere will fail completely on the first level, while perhaps offering a few genuine horror shocks. Whatever it does on the basement third level will doubtfully matter.

Here is me reliving all three levels when I was 11. (Click on the images to watch the scenes.)


Regan Hypnotized

(Level 1) Terror: Regan Hypnotized. I remember thinking how stupid Regan’s mother was to let the psychiatrist do this. Talk about batting a hornet’s nest. The tension builds incredibly in the scene as Regan begins by responding timidly to the simple questions, then admits there is “someone inside her” some of the time, but she doesn’t know anything about him, and then cuts off the shrink with a firm “no” when he asks if he can speak to this entity directly. Naturally the shrink doesn’t respect her wishes and proceeds: “I am speaking to the person inside of Regan now; if you are there, you too are hypnotized and must answer all my questions.” No demon will suffer itself to be hypnotized, and when Regan slowly turns her head up to the inquisitor (the above right image), she doesn’t look timid anymore; the other doctor can barely restrain her when she (the demon) erupts in fury.


Father Merrin Dead

(Level 1) Terror: Father Merrin Dead. My young self was so terrorized at this point that if the movie didn’t end quickly I’d have probably ended up in a mental asylum. After the long horrifying ritual of the exorcism, Father Karras steps out of the bedroom to collect his wits, and probably his sanity too. When he returns, we first see an empty bed (where the hell is the demon?); then we see the exorcist-hero Father Merrin on the floor (is he dead? answer: yes); then, as Karras realizes he’s dead, the camera pans up to Regan/the demon, free of her restraints, sitting up against a bed post giggling sadistically, and we know things are about to get even worse though that hardly seems possible. (Sure enough it does, and Karras dies too.) I wouldn’t have been able to take any more after this final piece of terror. Enough is enough.


“The Sow is Mine”

(Level 2) Horror: “The Sow is Mine.” Practically any scene involving the demon qualifies as horrifying. The exorcism itself is a twenty minute roller-coaster of nonstop horror, and those would be the obvious scenes to single out, but for me the pride of place goes to the earliest possession scene in which the demon first speaks. It’s still a shocker after all these years. Regan’s face isn’t mutilated yet, but the process of her body being invaded, tortured, and thrashed about as she alternates between screaming for help and the demon interrupting her with mocking obscenities is degrading and horrifying in the extreme. When I first saw it I was so poleaxed that I stopped breathing for close to an entire minute.



(Level 2) Horror: Spider-Walk. Cut from the original and added back in the 25th anniversary edition. What makes it extra horrifying is the invasion of the downstairs “safety zone”. In the original film, after Regan urinated on the living room floor and her possession became acute, she remained confined to her bedroom upstairs. That gave us a breathing space in the scenes downstairs. I wasn’t even aware of the “famously cut” spider-walk scene when I saw the new cut released in the theater in ’98 (when I was 30), and my heart nearly burst when Regan appeared at the top of the stairs and start thundering down bent over backwards — not least because, back when I was a kid, this is actually the kind of thing I dreaded happening in one of the downstairs scenes (see the last one I describe below). My childhood trauma came flooding back to me in the spider-walk; it was that much a horrifying assault.


Puking Green

(Level 3) Revulsion: Puking Green. This scene is so disgusting that it caused viewers to throw up, but it actually frightens on all three levels. It begins with the terror of a sinister conversation between Father Karras and the demon. Up until this point the demon has only shouted trash and vile obscenities when choosing to speak, but now that Regan has been restrained it takes a conversational approach, which is a feint and guaranteed prelude to something awful. When the demon reveals things about Karras’ mother that Regan could have no knowledge of, the terror valve cranks up even more, and Karras decides to test the demon by asking it his mother’s maiden name: “What is it?” he persists, from across the bed. The demon stares back ferociously, and then by way of a “fuck you” reply projectile vomits over the priest, which is both horrifying and nauseating at once. The scene is so heart-attack inducing because it works on all three levels of fright, a rare feat in horror films these days.


“Let Jesus Fuck You!”

(Level 3) Revulsion: “Let Jesus Fuck You!” This one also blends the three levels. It follows the visit of Lieutenant Kinderman who questions Regan’s mother downstairs about the man who “fell” from her daughter’s window and died, offering the opinion that it was more likely the other way around — that the man was first killed and then pushed from her daughter’s window by someone strong and powerful. “Except,” he says, “no one was in the room except for your daughter, so how can this be?” The dawning look of understanding look on Chris MacNeil’s face is so terrifying that I remember expecting the demon to come thundering down the stairs at that very moment to kill the meddling detective. When he finally leaves, the silence in the living room is unbearable; we know the demon is going to unleash its fury over the intrusion, which it does in a horrifying display of telekinetic chaos in the bedroom, and of course, the infamous crucifix masturbation. Without the other two levels working in tandem, the bloody and vulgar masturbation scene would seem rather cheap and exploitative. It’s actually one of the most harrowing scenes in cinematic history.

The Overnight Success of Stranger Things

Here are the 8 episodes of Stranger Things ranked.

Episode 8: The Upside Down. 5 stars. This is everything a finale should be: scary and emotional, with the right payoff and unexpected surprises on all sides of the story. At the Byers’ house, Jonathan and Nancy bait the shadow beast with blood, and when it appears (on top of a sudden visit from Steve), hell breaks loose — gunshots from Nancy, morningstar beatings from Steve, a firebomb from Jonathan — in a furious strobe effect of blinking Christmas lights. At the Hawkins Institute, Hopper and Joyce enter the shadow realm and find Barbara’s corpse and Will barely preserved alive, facehugger-style out of Alien (above image). And at the school, the kids are apprehended by Hawkins goons after El goes bad-ass and kills some of them, and while Lucas stands up to the shadow beast impressively with the slingshot, it is El who vaporizes it, sacrificing herself to an emotionally devastated Mike.
Episode 3: Holly, Jolly. 5 stars. The end of this episode is my favorite scene of the series, when the kids see Will’s body dragged from the river. They have no reason to believe it’s a fake body, and Mike’s reaction in particular — yelling at El and running home enraged — had me in tears. The use of Peter Gabriel’s cover for David Bowie’s “Heroes” over this tragedy is a genius piece of scoring. The whole episode builds to this climax in one strong scene after another: the opening sequence of Barbara assaulted in the shadow realm; the dreadful scene in which El relives her killing two guards at Hawkins Lab, when she was dragged back to her cell for refusing to kill a cat; Joyce’s powerhouse scene, as she communicates with Will through the use of Christmas-tree lights, and he tells her to get the hell out of the house as a creature suddenly bursts out of the living room wall.

Episode 6: The Monster. 5 stars. The title defines the episode in every frame, because the true monster isn’t what it seems. It’s neither the shadow creature (who just feeds according to its nature), nor even El (who opened the gate to the shadow world and let the creature through, in a terrifying flashback). The monsters, rather, are revealed to be people like Doctor Brenner, who recruits college kids for his nasty experiments which result in catatonic lives and child abductions. Or people like Steve, whose jealousy triggers life-threatening fist-fights. Or kids like Troy, whose bullying is carried to the extreme of forcing Mike to jump from the quarry’s cliff by by holding Dustin at knifepoint. All of these scenes are incredibly pulverizing to watch (I though Jonathan was going to literally beat Steve to death), but especially the last. Mike’s fall made my heart skip a beat, and El’s telekinetic rescue completely astonished me. And her reconciliation with Mike is simply sublime.

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Episode 1: The Vanishing of Will Byers. 4 ½ stars. The opening D&D scene is my second favorite of the series (if you need to know my third and fourth, they would be El’s rescue of Mike from the cliff-fall in episode 6, and his emotional promise to make El his girlfriend in episode 8, which is thwarted as she sacrifices herself). The boy’s 10-hour campaign is a perfect summation of my nerdy childhood and shows why the game was so fun in the early 80s. It establishes their amazing acting skills through great personas — Mike the group leader (and so of course the dungeon master), emotionally vulnerable, and the undeniable soul of Stranger Things; Lucas the pragmatic skeptic; Dustin ruled by his appetites and amusing in every frame; and Will the sensitive kid who won’t be getting much screen time. The chemistry between these kids is simply incredible, and the premiere sells their characters with ease.
Episode 4: The Body. 4 ½ stars. This is a chapter of slow-burns and stinging revelations, in which Hopper and Jonathan, along different paths, come to realize that Joyce isn’t crazy and that Will may still be alive. Hopper finds the fake body at the morgue, and Jonathan hooks up with Nancy, who has also seen the creature without a face in searching for Barbara. The kids also realize Will is alive (despite their tragic certainty at the end of episode 3), when El channels his voice over the radio. Three particular scenes stand out: (1) the gymnasium incident where El freezes Troy and makes him piss his pants; (2) the loss of Doctor Brenner’s son in the shadow realm — we don’t see anything, but his frantic cries to pull him out of the gate are terrifying and of course too late; (3) Joyce ripping down her wallpaper and seeing her terrified son shouting to her in a flesh-encased portion of the wall. That would be my fifth favorite scene of the series, and it gave me a goddamn nightmare.
Episode 5: The Flea and the Acrobat. 4 stars. In which the kids learn about the shadow realm, and others get a direct taste of it — Hopper at the Hawkins institute, and Nancy in “Mirkwood” forest. Now that everyone is on to the fact that Will is probably alive, they decide to take action, but things end badly for all involved. El sabotages the shadow gate’s magnetic field, ruining Dustin’s plan with the compasses, prompting a jealous fight between Mike and Lucas. She then smashes Lucas unconscious, driving a final wedge between them before running off. But the pivotal scene is at the end, with Jonathan and Nancy out in the woods, and Nancy enters the gate and gets her (and our) first full view of the shadow beast. There’s great exposition in this episode, as the science teacher answers the kids’ questions about parallel universes, and the kids do their own research on the shadow realm in a D&D manual.

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Episode 2: The Weirdo on Maple Street. 4 stars. The kids’ most iconic scene may well be their prepubescent horror at a girl who almost gets naked in front of them. Mike handles himself with the decorum fitting his leadership role, but the reactions of Lucas and Dustin are downright hilarious. (Lucas: “Do you think she slept naked??” Dustin: indignantly mimicks her taking off her dress.) The other thread to this episode is the party at Steve’s house, in which Nancy loses her virginity. I wasn’t a fan of Nancy at this stage, and certainly not Steve; their characters are annoying in the worst way of teens. But the later episodes pay this off incredibly well, so it turns out to be a good foundation. By the final episode, Nancy and Steve have become likeable precisely for how the horrific events force them to move beyond their hollow concerns for high school popularity and sexual esteem.

Episode 7: The Bathtub. 3 ½ stars. The weakest episode is still pretty good. The prologue is the best part: the road chase where El flips a van. But there’s something about her use of the bathtub to find Barbara (dead) and Will (alive) in the shadow realm that while creepy left me underwhelmed. I think it’s the way all the characters — Hopper and Joyce, Jonathan and Nancy, the four kids — finally come together. These characters are at their best when they’re facing challenges on their own, especially the kids and teens who have to transcend their immaturity. Here they are all basically gathered around El so she can get the information they need. The Bathtub is good, but it’s basically a pause after the fury of The Monster and a calm before the storm of The Upside Down.

TV Addictions

Here are my favorite TV shows of the 21st century, ranked in descending order. A more objective list would probably include other shows like The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, and The Walking Dead, but I still haven’t found the time to invest in them.

1. Breaking Bad. 5 seasons. 2008-2013. I’m confident in calling this the best TV show of all time, and it represents the peak of the golden age. It starts out strong and gets stronger, never flags on its promises, and interrogates human evil in remarkable ways. “Breaking bad” is the metaphor for Walt’s journey from hero to moral monster, and basically means “raising hell”. It’s a revenge tragedy for a man who feels that he’s been emasculated by the fate of cancer, on top of being screwed out of a business partnership that could have made him millions. He’s a chemistry genius but an under-achiever, and puts up with endless teasing by his family, especially his DEA brother-in-law. By season five he’s a killer and a drug-lord, and people have learned to respect him — or else. The suspense levels are insane. Even the worst episode is superior, though I did rank the best.

2. Hannibal. 3 seasons. 2013-2015. I consider Hannibal the poster child of TV’s golden age. The aesthetic is overwhelming. Think how David Lynch might reinvent Hannibal Lecter, and then throw in some of Cronenberg’s body horror and Argento’s insane imagery. The result is the impossible: Silence of the Lambs has been shown up, and Anthony Hopkins superseded by Mads Mikkelsen. Mutilations and gore are given transcendence. The first two seasons consist of original material taking place before the events of the novels. The third is really two mini-seasons, the first half covering Hannibal (reversing the chronology of the books with Lecter’s exile in Italy and Mason Verger conflict; these are set in the time of Will Graham instead of Clarice Starling), the second half Red Dragon. There were supposed to be six seasons altogether, and it’s criminal the show was cancelled. If you had told me back in ’91 that something of this astonishing scope and quality would ever make cable network, I wouldn’t have believed it.

3. Game of Thrones. 6 seasons (so far). 2011-2016. This has been a serious game-changer in the fantasy genre. There is unpredictable plotting, understated magic, and heroes indistinguishable from villains, all set in a world with history and geography as detailed as Middle-Earth. But this is a Middle-Earth with the seedy reality of sex, constant backbiting, and protagonists who die unfairly. It’s about court intrigue and politics, with a supernatural threat in the background that no one takes seriously. The story is essentially about power, and what happens when nobles pursue ruthless ambitions, and what it takes to make people see beyond their local interests if they can. The sixth season that finished last week was the best since the first. See how the episodes rank.
4. Stranger Things. 1 season. 2016. The overnight success that is called Stranger Things was surely scripted by an alternate version of myself from a parallel universe. It’s a perfect summation of my nerdy childhood and by far the best homage to 1st edition Dungeons & Dragons to be found in any film or TV series. Aside from perhaps The Americans, no show allows us to relive the early ‘80s with such ease and precision. It reminds me of how lucky I was to grow up in this era, when kids were more independent and didn’t have to suffer helicopter-parents hovering about, and there were no digital techno-gadgets which make today make it impossible to be alone. The kids in this story encounter a monster from a nasty alternate dimension. The monster abducts one of them, and the quest is to learn that he’s really not dead, where he’s imprisoned in the shadow realm, and how to get him back. These kids are simply fantastic, and their acting skills are amazing for their age.

5. The Fall. 3 seasons. 2013-2016. Don’t be put off by the controversy. In its unflinching look at violence against women, The Fall never glamorizes the the issue. I can see why some people think it does. As in Hannibal the aesthetic is intoxicating while the serial killer is less distant. Lecter sees his victims as mere pigs for food; Spector has grievances about justice. He’s protective of vulnerable people, especially children. He hates particular women, wants to “transform” them, and the intimate way he goes about his obscene killings makes us feel somehow complicit. Things get even creepier in season two when Spector bonds with a young teenager who craves sadomasochistic thrills. The performances from this girl are as brilliant as the lead actors. The atmosphere is brilliant too.

6. Doctor Who. 9 seasons (so far). 2005-2015. Let me make clear that I’m as much a fan of the reboot as I am of the classic years. But here’s what you should understand about the new series: the highs are high and the lows really low. Classic Who had its lemons, to be sure, but at least it was its own thing. The new series has been in thrall to Joss Whedon-style storytelling, which means that it plumbs kitchen-sink soap opera at its worst. At its best, it’s downright epic. It can be dark for a family show, and profoundly tragic. The latest incarnation of the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) is the darkest and best yet. After the season-seven disaster, I thought the series had finally run out of steam, but season eight was a raging comeback and the ninth, while somewhat lackluster, at least went out on a jaw-dropping double-bill.

7. The Man in the High Castle. 2 seasons (so far). 2015-2016. This is an incredibly bleak look at an alternate America that lost World War II. The Germans rule the eastern United States, the Japanese the West Coast, and the Rockies in-between serve as a kind of no-man’s land. The show has the balls to make Hitler the guy you root for against his upstarts who think he’s gone soft. John Smith is the oddly likable Nazi officer, ruthless in his career but a caring father and husband. The show’s genius is to portray Nazi America as a creepy “Leave it to Beaver” world where rock n roll was never born, girls don’t wear pants, and boys graduate straight from high school to the military. But my favorite character is on the Japan side: Tagomi the Trade Minister, and the final scene which sees him waking up to something unexpected is one of the greatest epiphanies I’ve seen in a TV series.
8. Regenesis. 4 seasons. 2004-2008. Forget Orphan Black. The next two are the gems of Canadian sci-fic. Few Americans have even heard of Regenesis, about a group of Toronto-based scientists who work against bio-terrorism, disease, and environmental dangers. Some of the threats are deliberate and man-made; others come from the cold chaos of Mother Nature. Unlike most sci-fic thrillers, Regenesis isn’t so much about saving the day as learning to live with irreversible damage, and there’s a high body count among the main cast. It’s probably the most realistic ever seen in the genre, thanks to the scientific advisor who insisted on it. The first season features Ellen Page who plays the daughter of the lead scientist, and her story-arc practically steals the show: she befriends a dying boy who thinks he’s a clone. I love her scenes with Peter Outerbridge. See, for example, her ice cream scene (they talk about ebola) and her grief scene (when Mick dies).
9. Dark Matter. 2 seasons (so far). 2015-2016. I liked the first season so much that I watched it again right away. I’ve never done that with any TV show except Stranger Things. There’s something uniquely compulsive about Dark Matter. Objectively it may not be the most outstanding show, but it works for me in all the right ways. Six people with no memory of who they are wake up on a starship. They travel to planets and space stations and get involved in nefarious plots, and slowly learn who they are (or were). As characters, they are simply terrific. Two is a matriarchal badass, with an incredible secret. One and Three distrust each other constantly, and their bickering sessions are hilarious. Four is the lone samurai. But the tender moments between Five and Six are my favorite – she the underage geek who wants to be part of the team, he the man who hates what he’s done. Here’s how the episodes rank. Season two is almost as good, and has some real fun with alternate versions of these characters in parallel universes.

10. Dexter. 8 seasons. 2006-2013. Dexter is somewhat like Doctor Who: the highs are really high and the lows abysmally low. Seasons two, four, and seven contain some of the best TV drama I’ve ever watched, and seasons one and five are really good too. But seasons three, six, and eight are bad — even atrocious at times. Another reason Dexter is at the bottom of my serial-killer trio (Lecter, Spector, Dexter, in that order) is because he’s too good to be true. This is a hero-vigilante who channels his urges against the worst scumbags so as to make us cheer. Once you accept the premise it works well, and the characters are compelling. Dexter’s inner voice has become legendary, our means of seeing the world through a disturbing perspective we wouldn’t get otherwise. Here’s how the seasons rank.

The Best Game of Thrones Episodes

Six seasons. 60 episodes. Here are the 30 best, ranked in descending order. Eight of them are from season 1, three from season 2, five from season 3, five from season 4, three from season 5, and six from season 6.

As far as ranking the seasons on whole, the order is: 1 > 6 > 3 & 4 > 5 > 2. I can’t choose between 3 and 4, which are really two halves of an extended season representing the third monster novel A Storm of Swords. That’s the best book of the novels. In the TV series, however, season 1 remains the strongest, and season 6, which overtook the books, a close second.

Season 5 is the inverse to seasons 3 and 4. It condenses two novels, A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons, both of which needed serious editing, with rather good results. I disagree with the detractors of season 5. Aside from the silly Dorne plot, all of the plot changes (especially Sansa’s) were for the better.

Season 2 is the only one I would call less than excellent. It was still very good, but something about it lacked impact, and it also involved the worst adaptation from the novels. The kidnapping of Dany’s dragons and political revolt in Qarth was unconvincing, and even a bit silly like the season-5 Dorne plot.
1. The Rains of Castamere. Season 3, Episode 9. (5+ stars) The series’ most unforgettable chapter, and the rare episode that acquires instant legendary status — like Breaking Bad’s Ozymandias and The Sopranos’ College. The Red Wedding makes Ned’s execution seem almost banal by comparison for the scale and treachery involved. Walder Frey slays his guests under sacred protection, the mass murder includes truly 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 surpassed even the nihilism of the book.

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2. Battle of the Bastards. Season 6, Episode 9. (5+ stars) 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. If the Red Wedding is quintessential Game of Thrones, the Bastard Battle is the rare payback for characters we love, though at hideous cost (Rickon, Wun-Wun). And what a sidebar bonus on Dany’s side of the story, as all three dragons annihilate a battle fleet, and then later Dany finds common cause with Yara Greyjoy.
3. The Kingsroad. Season 1, Episode 2. (5+ stars) I’ve watched this episode more than any other. After the introductions of the premiere, we get stronger family dynamics as the Stark kids go their separate ways. Ned promises Jon they will talk about his mother when they next meet; Jon gives Arya Needle. Ned and Robert argue about killing Dany. (Dany, for her part, suffers marital rape until she tames Drogo on her terms.) There’s major wolf action, as Bran is attacked in bed and recused by Summer; on the Kingsroad, Arya stabs Joffrey, Nymeria bites him, and Sansa’s poor 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, and I’m surprised more pick lists don’t rank it high.
4. The Door. Season 6, Episode 5. (5+ stars) This is the episode Game of Thrones has been building to from the first frame. You could make a case for Hardhome, but that was a contest of muscle. As important as Jon is, I’ve always viewed Bran as the most critical character, and here he 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 creating Hodor’s 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?). In any case, the white walker assault on the Weir Tree is mind-blowing. This 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. (5+ stars) The most drastic departure from the novels results in one of the best episodes, 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.

6. The Dance of Dragons. Season 5, Episode 9. (5+ stars) If Hardhome is the ice we’d been waiting for by season five, this episode is the fire. Drogon’s dance in Daznak’s Pit is everything I hoped for and more, 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 I love 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.
7. The Climb. Season 3, Episode 6. (5 stars) 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.
8. A Golden Crown. Season 1, Episode 6. (5 stars) A densely packed episode with nail-biting drama. 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.

9. The Mountain and the Viper. Season 4, Episode 8. (5 stars) 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. (5 stars) By far the nastiest episode to date and an underrated gem. 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 be writing 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.

11. The Winds of Winter. Season 6, Episode 10. (5 stars) 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 fans 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.

12. And Now His Watch is Ended. Season 3, Episode 4. (5 stars) The title heralds the death of Lord Mormont, 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.
13. Baelor. Season 1, Episode 9. (5 stars) 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.

14. The Pointy End. Season 1, Episode 8. (5 stars) A pure bad-ass episode. 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 like no other.
15. The Laws of Gods and Men. Season 4, Episode 6. (5 stars) 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.
16. The Old Gods and the New. Season 2, Episode 6. (5 stars) 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.
17. The Watchers on the Wall. Season 4, Episode 9. (5 stars) The next two battles are slightly overrated. They are excellent but don’t belong in the top 10 where many fans place them. 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 even more so.
18. Blackwater. Season 2, Episode 9. (5 stars) Another bottle episode and battle epic that’s slightly overpraised. 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.
19. Winter is Coming. Season 1, Episode 1. (4 ½ stars) 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.
20. Fire and Blood. Season 1, Episode 10. (4 ½ stars) 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 by far the best season finale; usually the tenth episodes try doing too much and too superficially, but Fire and Blood is focused and transcendent.

21. Book of the Stranger. Season 6, Episode 4. (4 ½ stars) In a replay of Fire and Blood, Dany emerges from an inferno to stand naked before a horde of Dothraki. It doesn’t exactly feel like a repeat, because the first time was sort of a false start, taking Dany 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. Over in Mereen, Tyrion in tense negotiations with slavers from Astapor and serving Dany’s cause well. And a most 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.

22. Kissed by Fire. Season 3, Episode 5. (4 ½ stars) 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.
23. The Wolf and the Lion. Season 1, Episode 5. (4 ½ stars) 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.

24. The Lion and the Rose. Season 4, Episode 2. (4 ½ stars) Joffrey’s death is a scene you can replay over again, just like the scenes of Tyrion slapping his face in episode 2 of the first season and episode 6 of the second. Except Tyrion isn’t the offender this time, much as he will pay dearly for it. The culprit is sharp-tongued Lady Olenna, who obviously wants Margaery to be queen of Westeros, but won’t stand for her granddaughter suffering Joffrey’s sadism. (She’s undoubtedly in league with Littlefinger, who has in hand in every nefarious plot.) I also love the midgets’ courtly re-enactment of the War of the Five Kings.

25. The Children. Season 4, Episode 10. (4 ½ stars) 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. Not many episode-10s make this cut, but the season four finale exceeds expectations with a vengeance.
26. Second Sons. Season 3, Episode 8. (4 ½ stars) 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 Ghilly, 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.
27. Oathbreaker. Season 6, Episode 3. (4 stars) 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.

28. High Sparrow. Season 5, Episode 3. (4 stars) The first seven episodes of the fifth season aren’t quite as weak as people complain about, and this one is especially good. There is Jon’s beheading of Janos Slynt, which is fantastic, but it’s really about the Stark girls and the hardest decisions they’ve yet faced. Sansa enters into a marriage pact with Ramsay Bolton, and this radical departure from the novels is an excellent move, as it promises Sansa a pro-active role in payback for the Starks. Meanwhile over in Essos, Arya is initiated into the Faceless Assassins — the first of her ongoing sessions with the waif who beats down her ass every time — and she makes the painful choice of putting her old life completely behind her. And of course the titular theme involves Cersei promoting the Faith Militant, replacing the High Septon with the High Sparrow, a decision she will most sorely regret.
29. You Win or You Die. Season 1, Episode 7. (4 stars) Two scenes sell this episode with a vengeance. The first is Drogo’s vow to avenge the assassination attempt on Danerys: “I will take my khalasar west to where the world ends, and ride wooden horses across the black salt sea as no khal has done before! I will kill the men in iron suits and tear down their stone houses! I will rape their women, take their children as slaves, and bring their broken gods back to Vaes Dothrak! I swear before the Mother of Mountains as the stars look down in witness! As the stars look down in witness! As the stars look down in witness!” (Dany’s renewal of that pledge on the back of Drogon in season 6 is pretty damn good too, but it doesn’t top Drogo’s original.) The other, of course, is Littlefinger’s betrayal of Ned Stark in the throne room.

30. No One. Season 6, Episode 8. (4 stars) The major event signaled by the title is actually a let-down. I loved Arya’s scenes with the Faceless Ones throughout seasons five and six, but her final showdown with the waif is banal. It’s an otherwise strong episode and contains my favorite scene between Jaime and Brienne. Jaime at his most caring (with Brienne) and most contemptuous (with Edmure). Then there is the Hound, who kills the outlaws who massacred the pacifist community before joining Beric’s group. The Mountain meanwhile kills one of the Faith Militant — his first kill since being worked over with sorcery. And finally, Tommen outlaws trial by combat, to a horrified Cersei who feels the walls closing in.

Race and Gender in The Hateful Eight

the-hateful-eight1Tarantino doesn’t try to please social critics, and The Hateful Eight is his boldest effort of that in-your-face artistry. In some ways it’s my favorite of his. I love bottle dramas, slow burns, and murder mysteries, and when you put all this in a Tarantino stew, it’s hog-heaven. The film is basically Twelve Angry Men, except these men will do exactly what Juror #3 pretended on Juror #8 with the knife. They are despicable killers, trapped together in a roadhouse during a blizzard; only two are alive by the end, and even those two just barely. Some are calling it Tarantino’s most indulgent film, which it certainly is, but the indulgence works for rather than against. Some are also calling it his most political film, but that’s a supremely relative statement; this isn’t a political film.

Nonetheless, there is implied commentary on race relations after the Civil War, and a wonderful use of the female lead as a blood-drenched punching bag. This may not be a film “about” racism and misogyny, but it has some fun working with the ideas. At a certain point there is a shift from a heavy deployment of the n-word to a vengeful use of the b-word, the subtext being that while men may be divided by racism, they can at least bond over a shared contempt of a woman. Daisy is the one character whose backstory remains elusive. We know she’s a killer and there’s a bounty on her head, but that’s it. What little we do learn is relayed by her captor John Ruth, and the other men in the roadhouse accept what he says with an air of indifference. Daisy doesn’t get a voice in anything spoken about her. She’s trivial, or at least rendered so through the perception of the men; in actuality she’s the reason for the whole mystery that explodes in a bloodbath.

The Hateful Eight2Long before that end game, we learn plenty about the men, especially the two pairs from opposite sides in the Civil War. Bruce Dern plays the crotchety old Confederate general. Walton Goggins plays the son of another Confederate legend, also steeped in southern values. Kurt Russell and Samuel Jackson are the two northern bounty hunters, and the closest thing The Hateful Eight has to offer as heroes. Russell plays the more traditional American hero (John Ruth), with a moral code that dictates he bring in his captives alive rather than dead, despite the dangers and personal inconveniences; yet he also dishes out extreme violence to his woman captive, Daisy. Samuel Jackson plays the rugged individualist hero (Marquis Warren) willing to do anything to survive. He’s a decorated soldier of the war, but forced to live in a world with white men (on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line) who regard him as his natural inferior. He carries around a personal letter to him from Abraham Lincoln, which he finally admits is a fake that he forged to impress white people — which Ruth takes as the ultimate betrayal and falls back on racist indictments: “I guess it’s true what they say about you people; you can’t trust a fucking word that comes out of your mouths.” Warren retorts with a speech about black people having to survive in a white man’s world, which they can only do by disarming white people, both literally and figuratively. His “Lincoln letter” had the latter effect — awing people by its proof that he’s a pen-pal of the American president — which is indeed precisely what enabled him to bond with Ruth in the first place.

Right after that stirring speech comes a most ugly one, as Warren proceeds to explain to the old Confederate general what he did to his precious son: forced him to march naked in the freezing snow for hours, and then give Warren a blowjob. This comes in a long, drawn-out, mean-spirited delivery by Warren (if you really want to watch the outrageous scene, it’s here), and ends in the enraged general going for a gun, with Warren shooting him in self-defense.

the-hateful-eight3Then comes the intermission, and when we return, the film turns. As I said, the n-word suddenly takes a back-seat to the b-word, as the Daisy plot revs up. People die; an Agatha-Christie like murder mystery ensues; more people die. By the final chapter, blood, puke, and brains are sprayed everywhere, and Warren has bonded with the young Confederate against “the bitch who must die”. They recline on the bed together, bleeding like pigs, in a hilariously demented face-off against the remaining survivors in the roadhouse. For whatever reason, I was reminded of an All in the Family episode from 1973, in which Archie and Henry engage in their usual race wars, in this case the question of a black president. Suddenly they find themselves allies against Gloria and Louise over the question of a woman president. Here’s the clip:

This was the sort of thing All in the Family did so well — shifting expectations, reversing allegiances, showing victims of bigotry to be bigots just as bad. (Side-note: this clip is fun to watch in light of contemporary politics, with our first black president on his way out, and the first likely woman waiting in the wings.)

The Hateful Eight is no mere social satire, any more than Inglourious Basterds is about the fetishizing of violence. Tarantino’s stories are too immersive to be nailed down that way. But it incorporates satire and suggests that none of us is terribly clean.