Review: Game of Thrones, Season 7, Episode 5, “Eastwatch”

This review contains SPOILERS for the fifth episode of Season 7 of Game of Thrones entitled “Eastwatch”, and for all episodes preceding it, and for the A Song of Ice and Fire series of books by George R.R. Martin, up to and including sample chapters from The Winds of Winter.

Every so often in Game of Thrones, there’s an episode which is bound to slip under the radar, usually due to the fact that it follows a bombastic extravaganza such as “The Spoils of War”. Hence it is the highest praise that this week’s episode, the somewhat insipidly titled “Eastwatch”, is probably Thrones’s best ‘quiet episode’ since Season 3’s “Kissed by Fire”. Indeed, in terms of the sheer magnitude of the episode, it probably de-thrones “Kissed by Fire”, being an episode full of massive revelations and some of the most realistic dialogue the show has seen this season. It proves that, aside from an occasional over-reliance on humour, hell, this Dave Hill guy can write.

“Eastwatch” is a significant improvement on Hill’s three previous contributions to the show: Season 5’s “Sons of the Harpy”, where he only wrote three-quarters of a script, Season 6’s “Home”, a solid if occasionally baffling episode, and the creation of an irritating child known as Olly. Yes, it does feature some Hill-esque leaps of logic, but these can be attributed to Benioff & Weiss’s story arc more than anything else. In some regards, “Eastwatch” is an extended teaser to next week’s hotly anticipated “Episode 66” (love the title), but it stands up really well on its own, with a focus on ‘getting the gang together’, heist-style, for Jon Snow’s Stupidest Plan Ever™.

I expected Jaime and Bronn to end up being captured by Daenerys, so I was both surprised and somewhat baffled when they suddenly turned up coughing and spluttering on a riverbank and managed to stagger back to King’s Landing. Nonetheless, I think the alternative storyline would have been somewhat predictable – and hey, I’m not complaining about Jaime’s survival. It has become clear to Jaime that Cersei cannot win the war ahead, which he’s definitely correct about, but she refuses to listen, with Lena Headey channeling a strange, irrational version of Tywin Lannister. As always, Jaime and Cersei’s scenes are a delight to watch, but the real treat this week was that Jaime had – wait for it – actual character development.

At the battlefield, Dany burns Randyll Tarly and his son Dickon alive. I have to apologise for my initial disdain for Dickon – yes, his head is too small for his massive shoulders, but that doesn’t change the fact that: a) Tom Hopper played the role really well, and b) he went out like a champ. A stupid champ, perhaps, but a weirdly endearing one. And I never thought I’d say this, but I was sad to see Randyll Tarly go, come the end. This was also Matt Shakman’s finest moment of the episode; those two burning pyres in front of the kneeling Lannister men is something I fully expect to come up on the Beautiful Death poster.

Image result for eastwatch episode

Over on Dragonstone, Jon touches Drogon – not as thrilling as it might have been, since it was an obvious consequence – but still an interesting scene nonetheless because of the implications about his parentage (more on that later). Also, Jorah turns up. The scene was shot a bit strangely if you ask me – making Dany and Jorah seem like long-lost lovers rather than old friends, though Ser Friendzone lived up to his name when Dany hugged him. I’m finally starting to like Jorah, which, coupled with what seemed like a very fatalistic reunion with Dany, makes me think he’s almost certainly going to die in the next episode. And to be honest, that might be the right choice. Once he’s had a heart-to-heart with Jon about Lord Commander Mormont, I think Ser Jorah’s arc will have reached its natural conclusion.

Meanwhile, Tyrion and Varys have a heart-to-heart in the throne room. It’s a really good scene for both Peter Dinklage and Conleth Hill, with some pithy dialogue, but in the end, it fails because of a mentality of ‘telling instead of showing’. One of the areas where the Thrones writers frequently fail is in that they think their audiences are dumb; in their world, understatement is a dying art. We could have gained so much more from having the meaning of this scene injected into the performances of Dinklage and Hill than having it spelled out. But Varys got screentime, so that’s a good thing.

The best section of the episode for me was the portion taking place in King’s Landing, with the Davos/Tyrion buddy team. I was surprised that Davos seems so jovial about the man who killed his son, but that really speaks in testament to the strength of his character and the depth of his belief about the living dead. But the Davos and Tyrion buddy cop drama is fantastic. Both of them then head off to their separate meetings with Gendry and Jaime respectively. It’s always pleasing when the writers up the pace, because I didn’t think we were going to see the Jaime-Tyrion reunion until the next episode, at the very least, but in the end, it was pretty anti-climactic. Based on this, I’m almost certain that Jaime and Tyrion are going to meet again by the end of the season, probably in the finale, for an extended period of time. Meanwhile, Davos heads down to a forge to meet Gendry, because where else is he going to be. Having seen Joe Dempsie’s name in the credits, I wasn’t surprised by his appearance. I’ve always liked Gendry, even if I’m not his biggest fan, and my feelings of hype only increased when he picked up the warhammer. The warhammer! We’re in for some good times ahead, I think (providing he doesn’t die in Episode 6).

Image result for eastwatch episode

The King’s Landing section ends with a very Dave Hill scene; some gold cloaks come to confront Davos, who turns them away with bribes and fermented crab. Now, obviously, this is meant to make a point about the corruption and greed that pervades King’s Landing… nah, actually, it isn’t. It was a fun scene, but nothing to write home about. And I was glad to see that Gendry didn’t bother going along with Davos’s ruse about him being some bloke called ‘Clovis’ (gods, what a stupid name) when they got back to Dragonstone. It allows to see the Ned/Robert dynamic as it must have been, bastard and bastard. Davos, meanwhile, drops the best line of the episode – “nobody mind me; all I’ve ever done is live to a ripe old age.” I swear, if they kill off Davos, someone at HBO is getting beheaded.

Also, by the way, Cersei’s pregnant. I’m not sure I believe that, because it seems a little late in the game to be introducing a baby to the mix. Also, that would go against Maggy the Frog’s prophecy (though if the baby is born, that could be intriguing in itself because it means Maggy’s prophecy was utter bullshit, which opens up some very interesting possibilities). And if this child is born to Cersei and Jaime… poor kid. You saw what happened to the last three.

(On this note, I think a baby is only possible if GoT implements in a time-skip of a year between Seasons 7 and 8. This might sound far-fetched, but I can see it happening – the war of men and the Others reaches a stalemate, and we end up with this.)

Winterfell was the least interesting part of this week’s episode, feeling somewhat detached from the main plot. Littlefinger’s plotting something, most likely some plan to put Sansa on the throne instead of Jon, and it seems that he intended for Arya to find the letter he left in his bed. We also get a really creepy shot of him leering from behind a pillar. Other than that, though, it’s most uneventful in the castle, though Maisie Williams and Sophie Turner have really great screen chemistry. Which isn’t that surprising when you think about, though I imagine that Sansa/Arya scenes will make up 90% of this season’s blooper reel.

In Oldtown, Gilly drops the FUCKING BOMBSHELL TO END ALL BOMBSHELLS, and Sam just brushes it off, ranting about Maester Somebody and his 17,000 shits. He decides to leave Oldtown in the end, since the war in the North is more important. I imagine we’ll see him at Winterfell by the end of the season, possibly via Horn Hill and the Wall. While Sam’s venture south has been one of my favourite storylines, and I’ve loved the Citadel setting, it’ll be good to see him back with some familiar faces… unless, that is, he runs into Euron while sailing north past Casterly Rock.

Anyway, with regard to the Motherfucking Bombshell™, it turns out that “Prince Ragger” had his marriage annulled and then married another woman, presumably Lyanna Stark. In which case, R+L=J is true, and Jon is the rightful heir to the Iron Throne. Of course, Bran probably knows all of this already, and we’re just waiting for the opportune moment for the reveal, which will likely be in the finale.

Image result for eastwatch episode

Meanwhile, Jon and his allies sail to Eastwatch (the title sequence does a crazy rightwards pan from the Wall, which left me goggle-eyed), where the Fellowship of the Ring the Magnificent Seven is formed – oh, and some background extras. They set out to pursue the Stupidest Plan Ever™; at a guess, attempting to capture a wight is not going to go down well, at all. My guess is that Jorah won’t make it back, and that Beric, Thoros and Tormund will also die. Sandor’s still got a story left (Cleganebowl) so he can’t die, Jon is… well, Jon, and Gendry only just came back. Game of Thrones would surely never kill off a character in the episode immediately after they came back for the first time in three seasons…

Ahem. Osha would like to have a word with me.

So yeah, that’s about it. “Eastwatch” is a really solid episode with some great diplomacy, some high quality dialogue, and the promise of next week to live up to. Since Alan Taylor is directing this – his only episode of the season, I should add, and therefore one that seems likely to be pretty GOAT. I’m expecting big things. IMDb 10/10 rating. And for once, I think we’ll get them. This one looks to be Hardhome 2.0, even if the trailer isn’t giving anything away. And since it’s 71 minutes long, I’m looking forward to big developments in the other Seven Kingdoms, not just North of the Wall.

P.S. HBO, bring this Matt Shakman bloke back next year. Turns out he’s pretty good.

P.P.S. We don’t know the next episode title yet, but it’d better be “Wight Night”, or “Hardhome 2: Electric Boogaloo”, or for a more realistic guess, “The Night King”.

Review: Game of Thrones, Season 7, Episode 4, “The Spoils of War”

This review contains SPOILERS for the fourth episode of Season 7 of Game of Thrones entitled “The Spoils of War”, and for all episodes preceding it, and for the A Song of Ice and Fire series of books by George R.R. Martin, up to and including sample chapters from The Winds of Winter.

At just 50 minutes long – leaving me thinking, wait, is it over? – “The Spoils of War” is the shortest episode of Game of Thrones to date. Nonetheless, this episode perfectly demonstrates that quality is far better than quantity – a maxim this season seems to be taking to heart. It’s an incredibly tight piece of writing far superior to anything else this season, but though the dialogue scenes of “The Spoils of War” make up its skeleton, its heart comes from the action sequence which bookends the episode, an explosion of high fantasy action and violence that should make even the most cynical Thrones-viewers stare agape at their screens. Every time I hear the phrase “YASSSSS QUEEN” I get a slight urge to scratch out my eyes, but for once that sentiment rings true with this episode.

The ending sequence of “The Spoils of War” is the love-child of “Battle of the Bastards” and “Hardhome”; in shooting the final sequence, director Matt Shakman and DP Robert McLachlan have definitely taken cues from last year’s bloody extravaganza directed by Miguel Sapochnik, with cinematography by Fabian Wagner. That being said, Shakman and McLachlan have definitely brought some personality of their own to the early segments of the episode.

In the case of these battle episodes, you have to be careful not to judge the entire episode on the merits of a single sequence. In the case of “Battle of the Bastards”, the complete lack of story continuity means that I cannot in good faith rank the episode any higher than tenth in my list of favourites. But even without the final ambush scene, “The Spoils of War” is a fantastic episode. The scenes at Winterfell and Dragonstone justify that, with all the actors displaying excellent chemistry across the board. I feel like I should immediately address my comment from last week about Emilia Clarke and Kit Harrington’s chemistry. Last week they seemed awkward and stilted, as though performing against each other’s doubles and then having the pieces stitched together in post. But in this week’s cave scenes, under low lighting, careful blocking, and with a script that inferred romantic tension instead of blaring out the obvious, they were fantastic together, and I’m now thinking “The Queen’s Justice” was the exception rather than the rule.

S07E04 Dany Album Cover.jpgThe Dragonstone scenes were excellent all round. I particularly enjoyed the callback to Season 5 in the exchange between Jon and Davos – “How many men do we have to fight [the Night King]? 10,000? Less?”; “Fewer”; “What?” – which proves that Benioff and Weiss can be more subtle in their nods to the fandom than they have been previously. My only criticsm of these scenes is that the Jon/Theon scene felt a little too small in the grand scheme of things, though for the sake of pacing, I think D & D made the right choice in cutting it.

(And I’ve contradicted myself already. Great.)

Meanwhile in Winterfell, Arya comes home. Her arrival, and the subsequent challenge by the guards, is a lovely callback to a scene from Season 1 when she arrives back in King’s Landing and is similarly sent away. I liked that Benioff and Weiss made the circumstances of her arrival different to how they had been with the Jon-Sansa and Sansa-Bran reunions. I wouldn’t have complained about the usual courtyard embrace, but I think the idea of giving Arya one last trial at the end was a beautiful way both of concluding her six-season-long arc, and of illustrating the changes all the Starks have faced along the way.

Though the Stark reunion was touching, and I certainly felt something in my cold stone heart, the most emotional sequence for me this week was the parting of Bran and Meera. It’s good that D & D explained the change in Bran – “I am the three-eyed raven now” – though I still think this should have been illustrated early, perhaps instead of one of the filler scenes from “Stormborn”. Nonetheless, this is an unjust, harrowing, and horrifically inappropriate ending for Meera, one of the show’s must underappreciated and heroic characters. But this is GoT, and even moreso than in the books, heroes do not get what they deserve. There will be no Bran/Meera romance, no expressions of love or even friendship, only this moment to remember her… and the chance at living away from the horrors of the Long Night with her family, which, I suppose, is reward enough in this world.

But because someone has to say it, I will. Thank you, Meera Reed – though ‘thank you’ is not enough. You deserved better. And thank you, Ellie Kendrick. You acted your heart out of this, and didn’t get nearly enough appreciation either. I hope to see you back in Season 8, and maybe with Howland Reed at your side.

S07E04 Brienne and Pod.jpg

Brienne got a scene this week, and Podrick had his first lines of the season, which is good. While it’s a shame that Brienne hasn’t really had much to do this year, it’s good to see Gwendoline Christie putting in a performance somewhat more in line from the Brienne we know from the books, instead of the murderous killing machine from Season 5. Her sequence with Arya was also one of the best small-scale fights the show has ever done; I particularly liked Shakman’s choice of set – one where it allowed Sansa to overlook things but gave a sense of confinedness to Arya and Brienne’s fight at the same time – and his use of POV camera angles. And damn, those are some acrobatics.

But the meat of the episode is the Field of Fire, where Jaime and Bronn facedown against Dany and her dragons. Without doubt, these 15 minutes of battle are some of the most heart-poundingly beautiful and fantastically tense we’ve ever seen in Thrones.

A lot of the battles in Thrones come down to their iconic moments, and “The Spoils of War” has these in abundance. The episode is shot to make you remember these instances: the charge of the Dothraki and their yodelling war cry, the moment Drogon descends from the clouds and Ramin Djawadi’s excellent score amps it up, the shots Bronn takes at the dragon from Qyburn’s ballista, coupled with the excellent sound design of… um… burning men. The VFX department deserves all due credit for making Drogon look more realistic than ever (so that’s where the budget went) – indeed, to paraphrase Joe Bauer himself, “the best thing you can say about VFX is that you didn’t notice it”. But the thing which elevates “The Spoils of War” above “Battle of the Bastards” is its emotional through-line. Much as BotB followed Jon, we’re now encouraged to follow Jaime, Bronn, and lastly Tyrion through the battle. It’s an interesting choice to shoot Dany from a wide-shot, limited perspective, as it gives her that cold aloofness that I think we need to show her that she is not just the mother of dragons, but also that dragons are a merciless and potentially apocalyptic weapon of mass destruction. “The Spoils of War” gets this across possibly for the first time.

There were moments when I was rooting for Bronn, only to remember that without Drogon we don’t get any of these sequences, only to remember that Bronn is cool, and so on. And in the final sequence, where Jaime was charging down Dany, I admit that I was firmly in the Jaime camp at that moment… yet from a narrative perspective, we would feel so cheated if Benioff and Weiss killed off Dany here. So Dany has to live. But Jaime also has to live. But—

In the end, I think Bronn should have died. I think both he and Jaime will miraculously make it to next week, but in that case, I feel like this is ‘jumping the shark’ a little too much. Nonetheless, I can’t deny that Bronn’s epic sideways dive was among the most exciting moments of Thrones, possibly ever, next to scenes like Dany’s arrival on the battlefield… the Bronn tracking shot… the ballista scene… wait, these were all in the same episode.

game-thrones-episode-4-leaks-online

In the end, the only thing that remains to be judged is whether “The Spoils of War” is the best battle of all time. I think I’m going to have to go with “No”, since the sheer feelings of dread conjured up by Hardhome weren’t overtopped, but it’s a damned good battle, and the story and emotional moments make much more sense that “Battle of the Bastards”. However, it’s an incredible feat for 15 minutes, and when you put the rest of the episode next to it, “The Spoils of War” definitely stands up as the finest episode of the season so far, and one of the top 5 episodes of all time.

Review: “The Blade Itself”, by Joe Abercrombie

SPOILERS AHEAD for Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself, the first book in his The First Law trilogy.

I can’t claim that I enjoyed The Blade Itself, mostly finding to be a slightly amateurish slog through a fantasy world that felt a bit textureless and generic, and I doubt I’ll continue with Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy, at least not for some time. That being said, The Blade Itself has merits in its ‘gritty’ exploration of the fantasy genre.

‘Gritty fantasy’ is almost something of a cliché in itself, nowadays. Every fantasy claims to full of grit and mud and blood. With Abercrombie, this is actually true; his protagonists are all subversions of fantasy tropes adapted for the ‘real, grown-up world’. And better than that, none of his characters feel like they’ve had a ‘grit injection’, where the author stands off-page and shouts “Look, isn’t this gritty!” Abercrombie’s characters feel naturally roguish and immoral.

Unfortunately, besides their lack of morality, they’re not really that interesting, either. Inquisitor Sand dan Glokta is the standout; I thought it was interesting how Abercrombie never made some slightly soppy speech about Glokta’s disability being his strength, as many writers would have. No, Glotka is bitter as bile, and unintentionally hilarious in places. You don’t feel pity for Glokta, because I never got the idea that he was ‘a good man who lost his way’; instead, he was flawed to begin with. He is an excellent fantasy protagonist, with an acerbic inner monologue that admittedly verges on over-use.

Logen Ninefingers, ‘infamous barbarian’, also has a lot of potential, and is perhaps the best example of a protagonist who embodies ‘true grit’. And Logen’s input in the story is needed: he’s a solid, honest presence who doesn’t kowtow to bullshit, and probably the most worldly-wise of the characters. Logen has a definite sense of place – when we see things through his eyes, the world seems the most real. However, the weakness with Logen is that his story essentially descends into nothing after he meets Bayaz, First of the Magi. Yes, the incongruous nature of an uncivilized man in a civilized story creates the book’s best moments of humour, but it does nothing for his character arc. Or maybe it does. Since I haven’t read the final two books in the trilogy, I don’t know if this is the ‘bedrock’ of Logen’s arc, or something like that.

Finally we come to Jezal dan Luthar. From very early on, I hated Jezal, not just because of his abrasive arrogance, but also because he seems something like a caricature. I can see that Abercrombie’s intention was to create a Rand al’Thor/Kvothe/Jon Snow type of character, of the young man on a noble quest, but to make him completely vile. Jezal has all of Kvothe’s arrogance but none of his charm, and I never really got the illusion that I was reading some sort of warped hero. I wanted Jezal to win, but ultimately that was only because he seemed like the lesser of two evils. But Jezal is so vapid and shallow that I didn’t really care if he won or lost, because it wasn’t going to matter. Then again, I think that was the point. Which is either stupid or fantastic. I don’t know.

Anyway, for his protagonists, Abercrombie scores 2.5 out of 3. Which is pretty good, I guess. Glokta is awesome, and Logen and Jezal have a lot of potential.

However, I think the characters are the strongest part of The Blade Itself… which leaves the rest of it. Abercrombie is his worldbuilding. He unusually chooses not to put a map at the front of his book, another small way of subverting the genre. In itself that isn’t too much of an issue, but you never really get to reorient yourself within the world. Basically, it feels like medieval Europe with a big city and a big tower called the House of the Maker. There were other places too, somewhere with an emperor and ‘fucking pinks’, and the vaguely defined area known as ‘the North’, but these were just words to me.

The issues don’t stop there, I’m afraid. Abercrombie’s main characters range from good to excellent, but there were no secondary characters that popped out to me. Once again, they all seem like caricatures, particularly the ‘righteous’ Major West and his sister, Ardee. Oh, good god, Ardee. Yes, this is a medieval fantasy in a male-dominated world, but Abercrombie’s female fundamentally fail as ‘characters’; instead, they are ‘things’. We see a greatly idealized version of Ardee through Jezal’s eyes, of course, but even when we see her ‘in the flesh’ from Major West’s POV, she appears to be ‘a strong opinionated female’ instead of an actual character. Ardee is like every fantasy cliché rolled into one, yet somehow she manages to amount to nothing at all. And aside from Ferro “X-23” Maljinn and a couple of vapid Jezal-types who don’t even get proper dialogue, she’s the only female character in the book. It’s a very poor showing from Abercrombie.

Now, I could be wrong about all these things. Maybe a different story unravels itself in the next two books and reveals my ignorance. But I don’t want to read the next two books, and that’s because of the fact that The Blade Itself gives me no reasons to read on. It’s an extended prologue where nothing happens. It’s entirely character-based, not a bad thing in itself, but uneccesarily dangerous for the first book in a trilogy. I want things to be happening that draw me in to learn about the characters, but Abercrombie instead runs with an incredibly low-stakes plot that culminates in a big nothing. We see the House of the Maker and the Bloody-Nine and there’s a whole lot of promising stuff up ahead, and then the book just… ends. And while I appreciate the necessity of this build-up, there’s far too much of it for far too little payoff. Yes, I agree that Abercrombie’s fight scenes are fantastic, and his characters have some great moments (particularly with the dry humour), but you have to wade through so much to get there.

You might find a jewel in the end, but you still have to walk across an arid desert to find it.

Review: Game of Thrones, Season 7, Episode 3, “The Queen’s Justice”

This review contains SPOILERS for the third episode of Season 7 of Game of Thrones entitled “The Queen’s Justice”, and for all episodes preceding it, and for the A Song of Ice and Fire series of books by George R.R. Martin, up to and including sample chapters from The Winds of Winter.

Probably the fastest-paced episode of Game of Thrones yet, “The Queen’s Justice” is an episode full of big moments that really emphasises the changes in David Benioff and D.B. Weiss’s priorities as writers. Continuity and timelines have ceased to exist, in favour of getting to the meat of things. I think, in this regard, Benioff and Weiss have finally resolved the narrative problems that plagued Seasons 5 and 6: a lack of certainty over whether Game of Thrones should retain its usual slow dramatic pacing, or move on into a different type of storytelling entirely.

That being said, this ‘new era’ of Thrones is not entirely new. Indeed, the current season’s pacing can be likened to Season 1, albeit with a few more logical inconsistencies. But even then, its refreshing to have reached what seems to be a definite midpoint by the end of episode 3. Had these storylines been taking place last year, we’d be up to episode 5 or 6 by now.

“The Queen’s Justice” chooses to tell its stories in big, blocky chunks, a structure that has become characteristic of Benioff and Weiss’s writing. In the case of this episode, I think that was the right decision. Narratively, the whole thing holds together very well. However, the whole episode is underscored by a sort of staleness. You know that the writing could be better, but it isn’t. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still one of the best shows on TV, but the writing of individual scenes can be atrocious and there are some truly dreadful lines – from this episode, Euron’s crass “Does she like it gentle or rough? A finger in the bum?” was particularly abrasive.

It may sound like I am being unecessarily harsh here. I enjoyed “The Queen’s Justice”, and objectively it was the strongest episode of the season, but it did feel a little sketchy in places. Every scene had something slightly off about it, be it the actors’ performances (a couple were shaky this week), the directing, or the writing itself. There was, however, one scene that was outstanding (so much so that I’ve italicised its sheer outstandingness), but I’ll come to that later.

S07E03 Dany and Varys.jpg

We’ll start with Dragonstone, which dominated the episode. I was pleasantly surprised that this instalment didn’t delay when it came to getting to the chewy bits. Tyrion and Jon have a reunion on the beach that serves as a ‘hype starter’ before the main course, somewhat mirroring Ned Stark and Robert Baratheon’s reunion in Season 1. Director Mark Mylod makes good use of the Gaztelugatxe staircase location, though Jon and Davos’s ground dive seemed a little over-comical, and can’t have done much for the reputation of the King of the North. They then go to the throne room, where Jon and Dany are finally in the same room, and…

…it’s a little underwhelming, actually. It’s a great set, and a scene of huge significance, but for some reason it never really clicks. Mylod doesn’t really use the space well, and the actors and camera are both completely static. An empty mood isn’t really what I wanted for the first meeting of the ‘golden trio’. Oddly enough, none of the three ‘main’ performers play the scene particularly well; instead, it is Liam Cunningham who is standout as professional hype man Davos Seaworth. Missandei lists all of Dany’s titles, to which he seriously replies, “This is Jon Snow”, dialogue which serves to highlight the differences between the two rulers. The dialogue is mostly quite good on the face of things, though there are little irksome moments that validate a claim that “the show isn’t what it used to be” – the ‘figure of speech’ joke doesn’t really work, and no one appears to have told Peter Dinklage that his lines don’t always need to be funny. Also, in places it feels like Dany is spinning the same “I am the queen” yarn for the ten thousandth time, which doesn’t come across well.

S07E03 Jon and Davos.jpg

However, the real kicker of the Dragonstone scenes is that Emilia Clarke and Kit Harrington have unexpectedly poor screen chemistry. Mark Mylod doesn’t help this by constantly framing their scenes in a bland shot-reverse-shot formula, which means that the two are hardly ever in the frame at the same time. The result is that it seems like Jon Snow – still wearing his Northern clothes, which doesn’t help – has been Photoshopped into Dragonstone, but isn’t really there. On the other hand, Harrington and Dinklage have great chemistry, and their scenes were a joy to watch, though Tyrion still suffers from a sort of “my lines are always funny” syndrome.

Moving over to King’s Landing: there’s a slightly cheesy sequence with Euron, but everything with Euron is slightly surreal and cheesy, and that’s what I like about him, honestly. I’m never quite sure whether his lines are intentionally atrocious, but Pilou Asbaek sells it. The scene with Cersei and Ellaria is one of the best of the episodes, with the underrated Indira Varma perfectly matched and contrasting Headey’s Cersei. It’s a dark, tense scene, ultimately poetic if not wholly unexpected, and I have to applaud Benioff and Weiss for not succumbing to Gregor-Clegane-based bloodlust. This is something that could come straight out of Martin’s novels, and I mean that as high praise. There are two more scenes in King’s Landing – the Jaime and Cersei sex scene, where Cersei ironically becomes the only person in the episode to willingly kneel, and then the Iron Bank scene, where Mark Gatiss smoothly tells Cersei that she needs to pay back her loans. Honestly, I wasn’t paying much attention beyond trying to think up nonsensical Gatiss-based puns: “oh, you’re in the Great Game now”, “you’ll sleep no more after this”, “she’s a real crimson horror”, and so forth.

S07E03 Cersei.jpg

On to Winterfell. I think Sophie Turner is best in scenes like these, and Sansa seems to be back on a (mostly) stable character arc. Littlefinger, meanwhile, is a bit all over the place. D & D seem to have taken the description of him from the Honest Trailer – “the sneaky dude” – and have gone a bit too far with it. He’s also now “the monologue guy”, delivering a speech about Sansa fighting every battle in her mind, which sounds good in a trailer, but within the episode it seems to come out of nowhere. I think Littlefinger’s ‘great-game-based’ speech might be some sort of big thematic link across the episode, but I didn’t really pick it out here. Then he slithers off creepily back to his hole, leaving his motivations (or lack thereof) deliberately unclear. It’s all a bit weird.

Bran – not Arya – then turns up at Winterfell, which would have been a surprise if I hadn’t watched the credits sequence. Meera’s also there, looking in sore need of therapy and a spa day. Again, Turner seems to play this scene well, but someone seems to have told Isaac Hempstead-Wright that the best thing to do would be to stare distantly into space all the time. Which works fine for the three-eyed raven, but it’s a disservice to the years he spent as an actual human character called Bran Stark. Indeed, Bran doesn’t seem to really exist any more, only some weird kid with no conversational skills, which is saddening really, given how much development he’s gone through over the years. And frankly, I don’t see why Bran has been entirely consumed by mysticism. He’s still Bran, isn’t he? Isn’t he?

S07E03 Sansa and LF.jpgThere’s a brief interlude at the Citadel, which doesn’t really do much other than confirm the events of last week – a somewhat disappointing conclusion to Jorah’s greyscale arc – but I wonder if Sam might find something about the white walkers in all those papers. The episode’s concluding sequence takes us to Casterly Rock, where ‘everyone’s least favourite part of Team Dany’, the dull Grey Worm, manages a conquest of the Rock. I have several issues with the fact that the Lannisters seem to have left behind only a skeleton garrison, most notably for the implications on Lannister prestige and morale that the fall of the Rock will have. I saw the sewer conquest coming, but it was the right way to conclude this arc, and I found Tyrion’s voice-over to be an effective way of linking this isolated conquest back to the episode’s main narrative. Even so, the scene felt somewhat underwhelming, given how hyped I was about Casterly Rock, and the Unsullied charging in with their spears in narrow passages was quite irritating. As for Euron’s sudden arrival… well, I’ve given up trying to understand the passage of time in Game of Thrones.

We then cut to Highgarden, where Jaime, Randyll Tarly, Bronn, and Randyll’s goat-faced son (sorry, but he just looks like a massive twat) take the castle in an easy conquest. Mark Mylod is consistently very good at tracking shots, and the one that takes Jaime from the castle gates up to Olenna’s solar is one of my favourites.

S07E03 Grey Worm.jpgHowever, things really get going in the final scene of the episode. And I say this honestly: I think the final scene of “The Queen’s Justice” is probably the best dialogue scene since Robert and Cersei in “The Wolf and the Lion”, or possibly even better. Dame Diana Rigg proves one last time why she is an international treasure, with a single-scene performance that encapsulates Olenna Tyrell’s character in a neat, final summary. It’s exquisite to watch, and though Nikolaj Coster-Waldau plays second fiddle, the man’s reactions are legendary. You can see the horror in his eyes when Olenna tells him the truth, as he realises that nearly every event since Joffrey’s death is the result of her machinations. Should he just run her through with his sword? Yes, perhaps he should, but that would only consolidate Olenna’s victory in a moment that is just that – her final, pyrrhic victory over Cersei Lannister. She has driven a wedge between the Lannister siblings at last, and I hope this finally marks the start of Jaime’s long-delayed redemption arc. This part of the episode feels like it was written by someone else entirely. “Tell Cersei I want her to know it was me.” That is one hell of a line, and the weight of the implications it carries… it is one final thorn in the lion’s paw, and this may be the one that kills it. This is the queen’s justice, indeed. And yes, Olenna Tyrell dies, but in doing so, she denies the old adage from Season 1.

Because Olenna Tyrell dies, but Olenna Tyrell wins.

S07E03 Tyrion.jpg

Notes and Side Bits:

The biggest weakness of this episode is that Benioff and Weiss fall into the mentality of telling rather than showing. One of the few things I hate about Thrones (and this is the book elitist in me speaking) is that it constantly assumes its viewers are stupid. Obviously, this is necessary for the casual audience who don’t remember events from “The Mountain and the Viper” and “Mother’s Mercy”, but it’s still bloody irritating. Callbacks should be a treat for the astute viewer, not some big red button blaring on and off, going “DO YOU REMEMBER THIS?” Also, D & D have an irritating inability to write inferred dialogue. Everything has to be said out loud; they don’t trust their audience to make any sort of intelligent assumptions based on what they’ve seen. This is a two-way street, you know – otherwise it’s not going to be long before we get lines like “I’m Arya Stark, your sister from Season 1.”

I loved the end credits theme, a new rendition of “The Rains of Castamere”. RoC always gets me in the mood.

Mylod was alright this episode, but I thought his work was stronger on “Stormborn”. The episode ends on a weird wide shot that is held for a couple of seconds too long to let the RoC motif play out. I think an Olenna close-up would have suited better, but choosing to show Jaime’s departure from the room means Mylod has to switch to the wide.

The best acting this episode comes courtesy of Dame Diana Rigg as Olenna Tyrell, of course. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Jaime Lannister) was also very good, and Peter Dinklage (Tyrion Lannister) had his finest performance in ages.

Review: Game of Thrones, Season 7, Episode 2, “Stormborn”

This review contains SPOILERS for the second episode of Season 7 of Game of Thrones entitled “Stormborn”, and for all episodes preceding it, and for the A Song of Ice and Fire series of books by George R.R. Martin, up to and including sample chapters from The Winds of Winter.

It’s Olenna Tyrell (Dame Diana Rigg) who makes the defining statement on the themes of “Stormborn,” the second episode of Game of Thrones Season 7. “I’ve outlived many [clever men],” she tells Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke). “I ignored them.” Throughout this episode, we see characters deviating from the advice they are given and following their gut feelings – Jon conflicts with Sansa over his decision to accept Daenerys Targaryen’s offer of a meeting on Dragonstone, and Sam goes against Archmaester Ebrose/Professor Slughorn when he decides to treat Jorah Mormont’s injuries despite better advice. “Stormborn” is about the characters stepping up to the plate and making risky decisions for themselves which they come to regret, all without looking back.

Fittingly for an episode titled “Stormborn”, we open on Dragonstone in the midst of a storm. The Painted Table set is fantastic as always, but the low light leaves everyone looking a little wan in their ghoulish black clothes – though that might well have been the intention of director Mark Mylod. Dany and Varys share some awkward dialogue that seems to have been shoehorned in; it seems unreasonable that they would not have mentioned Varys’s betrayal at any point during the journey from Slaver’s Bay. Of course, the structure of Thrones seasons necessitates that Dany and Varys have this conversation now, on-screen, instead of at some unspecified point during their off-screen journey to Westeros. Bryan Cogman’s dialogue is solid, if slightly bland, but Peter Dinklage and Conleth Hill make the scene work with their distinctive screen presences.

S07E02 Dany

Our characters then proceed to the Great Hall set to talk with the newly arrived Melisandre (Carice Van Houten). The performances of the actors are passable, but not up to the usual quality expected on Game of Thrones, and everything feels a bit dreary and lifeless. The dialogue scene is very static – possibly a result of poor positioning on Mylod’s part – and book-readers in particular will find it tedious as it does little more than set in stone what we already knew. And, with all due respect, Emilia Clarke’s acting in the opening scenes was wooden. We know that Clarke is capable of non-verbal performances like the one we saw in last week’s “Dragonstone”, but in this episode she retained the same vacant, flat expression she’s been wearing for three seasons. I think she needs to be careful not to let Daenerys’s impassive style of leadership deteriorate into a complete lack of emotion. Peter Dinklage also struggles a little with the lines he’s given, which require him to act as little more than a placeholder.

A little while later, we return to Dragonstone, and this time a few more characters are present. The performances of the actors and actresses are… mixed, to say the least. Clarke and Dinklage dominate the scene, but they still seem a little flat. Gemma Whelan and Indira Varma are (perhaps unexpectedly) fantastic – more on that later. And Diana Rigg’s script material is a little weaker than usual, but there’s a certain ruthlessness about post-Season 6 Olenna that shows substantial development of the character, even if her transition from semi-comedic to entirely dramatic is a little jarring.

S07E02 Dany and Tyrion

Something I found interesting was the dichotomy between Dany’s council and Cersei’s. Even though Dany’s council takes place privately whereas Cersei announces her intentions before the court, Cogman’s script subverts the idea that Dany is a more grounded and personal ruler than Cersei. The script calls for Dany to make sweeping, grand power plays with a lot of autonomy for her allies and an apparent lack of judgement, while Cersei seems a lot more personal in her pursuit of allegiance. She uses Jaime to enforce a policy of personal diplomacy on lords such as Randyll Tarly, and demands considerable sovereign oversight. This is achieved through lighting: by contrasting the cold blues of Dragonstone with the warm hues of the throne room, Mylod presents Dany as a harsh, callous ruler against whom Cersei seems unexpectedly friendly. Maybe it’s my pro-Lannister bias creeping in, but I think this episode made Dany seem much more like the ‘mad queen’ than it did Cersei.

The King’s Landing storyline is fairly straightforward: Cersei appeals to the loyalty of her lords, while Jaime confronts Randyll Tarly in attempt to make an alliance with the lord of Horn Hill. Though it only lasts a couple of minutes, this sequence has some of the episode’s best writing and acting, even if doesn’t really do much for Jaime as a character. But it raises interesting questions about Lord Tarly and where his loyalties lie.

Meanwhile, over on Dragonstone, Grey Worm and Missandei continue their romance. I’ve never really understood why the show devotes so much attention to these two, but it was a much-needed chance for Nathalie Emmanuel and Jacob Anderson to show that they are both accomplished actors, and gave them a chance to actually act beyond their limited roles as Daenerys’s (arguably) least-important advisors.

Back at the Citadel, Sam – who has already become my favourite character this season – cures greyscale. It’s unsatisfying from a plot perspective, but my physical revulsion at this scene is testament to its effectiveness. John Bradley and Iain Glen have good onscreen chemistry, and the sterile environment of the Citadel remains a welcome oasis from the frenetic pace of the other storylines.

There’s a flawless cut from Sam scraping pus out of Jorah’s greyscale patches to a man breaking the crust of a pie. There weren’t as many moments of cinematographical note this episode as there were last week, but I applauded this one.

S07E02 AryaThe ensuing scene of Arya meeting Hot Pie for the first time since Season 3 is a brilliantly understated one. Maisie Williams channels the Hound, trying to act tough, but there’s a fantastic moment here which acts as the crux of the episode, where she decides that returning home to Winterfell is more important than achieving her vengeance. I liked the contrast between Hot Pie – ever unchanging, with his allusions to Season 2 (“she was a knight because she had armour on”) – and Arya, who has been through so much in the last three seasons. This scene also serves to remind Arya that some things, like friendship, are unaffected by the distance between her and Hot Pie, and by extension, that the love between her and her family is also unaffected by distance.

Arya heads out on the northern road and encounters Nymeria. The CGI giant direwolf is a little shoddy, but other than that, it’s a suitably impactful scene, with just the right amount of poignancy. And then they go their separate ways, and that’s that. I never expected Nymeria to go with Arya, so kudos to the writers for not taking the easy way out and giving Arya a giant direwolf buddy in the Riverlands. That being said, I don’t think we’ve seen the last of Nymeria in this show.

There are still two elements of the episode to be talked about: the first of these is Winterfell. While I felt the scenes here were perfectly fine, and consistently well-acted, they were my least favourite part of the episode. These scenes have the unfortunate role of telling us things we can already deduce – it’s like when you collect facts for an essay, and have to endure the tedious process of summarising them. That’s what Jon’s doing in the council scene: summarising what he knows for the viewing audience, and then acting on those intentions in a way that is entire predictable. The Northern lords are pissed off. Predictable. Sansa is taken off-guard. Predictable. Littlefinger sees an opportunity. Predictable. Jon leaves Sansa in Winterfell. Predictable. Of course, the episode couldn’t have functioned without these scenes, but it can’t have been much fun for Bryan Cogman to write them.

S07E02 Jon and LFSadly, an overabundance of exposition characterises the episode as a whole, which makes it frustrating – almost every event in “Stormborn” is something we could have predicted in advance. It sounds like a harsh critique, but aside from a few areas – at the Citadel, for example – the episode doesn’t exactly push the boundaries of storytelling.

Until the ending, that is. We open on the Sand Snakes, who – oddly enough – are at least tolerable in their one expositional scene. Even Obara (of “I AM OBARA SAND” fame) is less irritating than in any of her previous episodes. However, I was massively surprised by Indira Varma’s performance as Ellaria; with material better than the Season 5 & 6 Dornish fiasco to work with, Varma lives up to her acting reputation with a spirited performance as a character who, despite being completely unrecognisable next to her book counterpart, is interesting in her own right. I almost wanted to see more of her, and I hope Cersei doesn’t kill her outright next week.

S07E02 Yara and Ellaria.jpgAnyhow, Ellaria has some good banter opposite Yara (Gemma Whelan) and Theon (Alfie Allen), and then – boom – the ship suddenly jolts, we follow Yara up onto deck, and Euron’s Silence looms out of the fog. Though it lacks the horror of “Hardhome”, the sudden escalation of events far outpaces even the sudden arrival of the white walkers in that episode.

If Miguel Sapochnik’s “Battle of the Bastards” is a fine wine, then Mark Mylod’s battle on the high seas is a sudden shot of vodka. The night shoot surely posed its own technical problems, but it allows Mylod and his team to hide any imperfections lurking in the darkness, and it makes the use of CGI replication (of Euron’s ships) less obvious. Beyond that, it manages to be “Bastards” in miniature, compressing the explosive action and emotional resonance of that battle down into a frenetic 6 minute sequence.

S07E02 Yara and Theon.jpgWhereas “Battle of the Bastards” is organised chaos, “Stormborn” throws away the ‘organised’ part and lets the scenes flow however they will, with some fantastic editing in between. It’s a classic Mark Mylod battle – full of quick, sometimes confusing cuts, but in this case, that amplifies the drama rather than diminishing it. Yes, it looks a little bit like Michael Bay, but honestly, I think that’s the effect Mylod was going for. Nothing is held back. More than any of Thrones’s other battles, which have always felt a bit too performance-like, this one felt real. The scene is perenially lit in orange smoke and embers, chaining several powerful images together: Euron descending on a corvus, laughing like a lunatic, lugging a battleaxe into battle (presumably an homage to his brother, Victarion, from the books); Yara’s leap from the bridge onto her uncle; Tyene fighting off her foes below deck.

But in the midst of all this chaos, Mylod is careful not to lose the narrative thread which first uses the deaths of Obara and Nym for emotional effect. If the Sand Snakes had been better employed in previous seasons, I might have felt bad at their loss; instead, I cheered, which probably wasn’t what the writers were hoping for. However, the second part of the battle – the conflict between the Greyjoys and Theon’s eventual reversion to his Reek persona (one of Alfie Allen’s best moments) – successfully Yara’s mix of shame and sorrow, Euron’s glee, and Theon’s emerging weakness to the reader. The ending image of the Silence sailing away into the darkness successfully gets across the scale (and awe) of the physical destruction, mirroring the emotional damage that has been inflicted on Theon.

S07E02 Theon 2

Notes and Side Bits:

I don’t think “Stormborn” was one of Bryan Cogman’s best-written episodes. Of the show’s four main writers, Cogman is the one who usually sticks closest to book canon, often lifting whole lines or sequences which a few subtle tweaks to make them his own. This makes his episodes a special treat for book-readers… only for “Stormborn”, we have no book to compare it to. This episode doesn’t hold a candle to Cogman’s finest, Season 3’s “Kissed by Fire”, possibly because it doesn’t have that ‘classic Thrones’ feel that he put across so well in last year’s “The Broken Man”.

The music for this episode was great, especially the battle theme, which led into the end credits, and Cersei’s new theme, based on “Light of the Seven”, which played during the scene in the crypts.

This is unquestionably Mark Mylod’s finest hour as a director on the show, though. He converts his weaknesses – most notably his tendency to direct Thrones as if it were either an action movie (“No One”, “Sons of the Harpy”) – into his strengths.

The best acting this episode comes courtesy of Alfie Allen (Theon), mostly for his transformation from Theon into Reek. Second place goes to Maisie Williams (Arya) who displayed an impressive range. Both James Faulkner (Randyll Tarly) and Jacob Anderson (Grey Worm) put on impressive performances as supporting/guest actors.

Review: Game of Thrones, Season 7, Episode 1, “Dragonstone”

This review contains SPOILERS for the first episode of Season 7 of Game of Thrones entitled “Dragonstone”, and for all episodes preceding it, and for the A Song of Ice and Fire series of books by George R.R. Martin, up to and including sample chapters from The Winds of Winter.

“Shall we begin?”

So says Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) in her only line of Season 7’s premiere episode, somewhat oddly titled “Dragonstone”. The idea of new beginnings is prevalent in Dragonstone, which starts again after last year’s finale wiped the slate clean and concluded storylines that had been building up for the better part of six seasons.

The episode’s new beginnings come from vastly different quarters: Cersei Lannister, having gained a throne and lost everything, continues her trail of vengeance. Jon Snow, King in the North, establishes his new leadership. And for Dany, the new beginning is also an ending, of a sort; she has come full circle, returning to the island where she was born, and back to the beginning of the Targaryen story.

The cold open of the episode is somewhat at odds with this theme of new beginnings, though: we open at the Twins, where David Bradley – who can now sort-of add ‘Arya Stark’ to his list of onscreen roles – delivers one of Thrones’s most satisfying speeches. It was obvious from the first moments of the scene that Arya was wearing his face, but in a way that made the gradual reveal even more enjoyable to watch. There’s a brilliant shot of Arya (now wearing her own face) walking through the Twins’ hall through the mass of bodies that brings to mind an iconic shot from Season 3’s “The Rains of Castamere”.

S07E01 Arya

In the credits sequence, Oldtown gets a nice clockwork animation complete with a spinning astrolabe, and Essos is omitted entirely. Arguably, the omission of Essos is what makes this episode so thematically focused – in previous seasons, shoehorned scenes from Meereen often disrupted the flow of the episode.

The episode properly opens with a lovely atmospheric shot of the dead marching on the wall. Jeremy Podeswa excels at these sorts of scenes – his directorial style is suited to dark, moody silence. I half-expected to see a wighted version of Hodor marching through the snow, but ultimately I think that would have distracted us from the sheer gravity of the situation. Podeswa, with input from composer Ramin Djawadi, constantly reminds us throughout the episode of the mounting threat. Notably, the sequence with the Hound and the Brotherhood (more on that later) is made even more tense by the muted percussion of Djawadi’s “Three Blasts” theme, and the framing of the characters with a great deal of empty, mysterious, cloudy space behind them. Even though I knew white walkers would not suddenly materialise on Riverlands, the scene still had me on edge.

Bran and Meera’s scene was fairly standard. It was good to see Dolorous Edd again, but it was exactly what I expected. There’s not much to say here.

Over in Winterfell, Jon sits down to his first proper council meeting. He decides that the Karstarks and the Umbers should be allowed to retain their lands in spite of their parents’ failings. Perhaps Jon’s feelings about this matter stem from his relationship with Lady Catelyn, who despised him for his (supposed) bastard parentage. I was a little disappointed by Alys Karstark, who was quite a major character in A Dance with Dragons, but from what I understand of casting news, she has a larger role going forwards. I felt this sequence was slightly over-dramatic, and the Umbers and Karstarks swearing their fealty to Jon probably didn’t merit the dramatic reprisal of his theme from “The Winds of Winter”.

S07E01 Sansa and LF

Sansa puts up an argument, but Jon upholds his decision. Here, we see Sansa being the more reactionary and directly antagonistic member of the pair, a trait she’s had ever since “Book of the Stranger” in Season 6. This ties in nicely to her later point that she “learned a lot” from Cersei, who is similarly reactionary and vindictive when it comes to dealing with her enemies. Sansa’s decision to punish people for their crimes is not innately in her nature; in A Game of Thrones and Season 1 of the show, we see that, unlike Arya, she doesn’t hold to ideas of retribution, and believes Joffrey when he says he will forgive her father (though arguably this is because of her naivety more than anything else). Sansa’s understanding of, and desire for, retribution has grown throughout the series, shaped by Cersei, Littlefinger and Ramsay, who – however hard she tries to deny it – is “a part of her”.

Despite her arguably flawed logic, Sansa makes a convincing case, and this is testament to Sophie Turner’s acting ability. Turner has a tendency to overact at times, and her early seasons as Sansa required her to maintain a blank, impassive expression at all times. However, when she strikes the balance between these two extremes, she’s a fantastic actress. Her performance in “Dragonstone” is one of her best. Despite her somewhat confusing public messages about Sansa, Turner definitely understands her character.

Moving on: in King’s Landing, Cersei proves her general awfulness by walking over wet paint. The courtyard scene makes fantastic use of natural lighting, and the shot of Jaime and Cersei standing on the map is one of my favourites of the episode – with Cersei symbolically standing on the Neck of Westeros, placing it in a sort of stranglehold. Lena Headey and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau have some of the best chemistry of any two actors on the show, and both are individually fantastic, so it goes without saying that their performances here are great. The main emotion that comes through in this scene is how far detached Cersei has become from the reality of the situation facing her. I love Headey’s Cersei; her generally unhinged view of the world makes her a joy to watch. With Tommen gone, hopefully we’ll see some of Cersei’s deranged alcoholism from A Feast for Crows slipping through in future episodes.

S07E01 Cersei and Jaime 1.png

Unfortunately for Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Jaime’s character development is still stuck in a rut. Yes, he’s saying things that suggest character development, but these are things we’re intelligent enough to imply, and like most of Jaime’s characterization since Season 4, they appear to have no effect on his character. For the majority of the story he just limps around looking like a whipped dog. Show Jaime has served almost exclusively as either a plot device or as a foil to Cersei these past two seasons. Dorne was a pointless heap of shit, and while “Blood of My Blood”, “The Broken Man” and “No One” offered some depth to Jaime in Season 6, this episode doesn’t suggest that Jaime has any lasting horror at Cersei’s destruction of King’s Landing. That being said, it is still early days.

Cersei and Jaime stand next to a nice wall in Dubrovnik or Sevilla or wherever the hell they’re filmng it this year, and watch as Euron arrives. Podeswa echoes a shot he previously used to show Jaime’s arrival in the Season 6 premiere, “The Red Woman”. Euron’s navy is fantastically well-done by the FX teams, and his flagship (possibly the Silence), looks very foreboding in black wood and black sails. I’ll gloss over the fact that Euron supposedly built a thousand ships in a year, on an island with very few trees, and cut straight to the throne room scene.

S07E01 Cersei and Jaime 2 (throne room).png

It’s very rare that Michelle Clapton’s costuming goes wrong. In this episode alone, Cersei gets a new gown similar to the one she wore for her coronation; Sansa puts her ring necklace on again, and the whole of Dany’s crew – all dressed in black – look amazing. But Euron looks like an alcoholic misfit from a second-rate punk rock band who accidentally time-travelled into the Middle Ages. Pilou Asbaek is better than he was in last year’s travesty of a kingsmoot, but he still lacks proper menace, and comes off as more comedic than scary. Euron is one of a few characters for whom I can say that I prefer the book adaptation in every way. Presumably, the decision to keep his men outside the throne room is intended to make him seem more intimidating, but overall, he seems more like a deranged hobo than the King of the Iron Islands. Nonetheless, the trio of actors manage to salvage a good scene, helped along by good writing and clever use of lighting to heighten the tense mood. Cersei talks about the risks of Euron betraying her, but we know she would be just as likely to betray him. Either way, the chance of these two ruling side-by-side is nonexistent.

S07E01 Samwell 1.jpg

The next scene takes us to Season 7’s first new location: the Citadel in Oldtown. I like the Oldtown sets and the sense of loneliness and hostility we get from them, even though they’re places of learning. It’s very different to the Citadel presented by GRRM in A Feast for Crows, where Pate (from the prologue) and Sam both find companionship early in their time there. The Citadel in ASOIAF pretends to conform to the ‘Hogwarts model’, of a school/university for the protagonist to have exciting adventures in with a cast of new friends, with a suggestion of mystery beneath. The Citadel in GoT doesn’t even bother with that veneer. In Sam’s scenes, no one talks to him outside of Archmaester Slughorn and Gilly, and while the corridors are bright and airy, there are secrets hiding everywhere: in the depths of the library, and in the mysterious quarantine room where Jorah Mormont is kept.

This comes across especially well when contrasted with Sam’s homely scene with Gilly towards the end of the episode. Sam might have friends outside the Citadel, but he has none inside it. In a way, the Citadel have forbidden him from having companionship, forcing him to become one of an order of like-minded individuals. This links nicely to what Barbrey Dustin says in A Dance with Dragons about the maesters being entirely focused on the preservation of order.

S07E01 Samwell and Gilly.png

Archmaester Slughorn (who may or may not be Marwyn the Mage) is an interesting new character. Jim Broadbent fits the role well – it’s almost as if he’s been asked about restricted sections in libraries before. Though I think he had good screen chemistry with John Bradley’s Sam, I have to wonder whether Slughorn’s character is, like Marwyn, different to the other archmaesters, or if he represents the popular worldview at the Citadel. If it’s the latter, it’s a bit baffling that the Citadel hasn’t given Sam any help already. But if Slughorn/Marwyn is viewed by the ‘grey sheep’ as a brain-addled outsider, it could open up some interesting plotlines about a rogue, slightly crazed maester.

I’m not going to say much about Jorah or Gilly, as I don’t think their scenes were substantial enough to warrant lengthy comment. However, it’s good to see that they’ll (hopefully) have bigger roles this season than they did in the previous one, where they were only in 3 episodes apiece.

I haven’t forgotten the ‘shitty montage’ that opened the Oldtown storyline. I found it hilarious, both because it’s so anachronistic compared to the rest of Thrones, and partly because of John Bradley’s mildly disgruntled ‘this is turning out to be a shitty day’ face. However, I do think the montage has some sort of significance. It sets the world of the Citadel (more like Shittadel, amirite?) apart from the rest of Thrones. Even though this whole plotline is based on Sam finding out about the white walkers, it instead focuses on the menial jobs Sam has to complete to reach his goal. You can almost hear Yoda saying, “to become a Jedi master, through a field of shit you must wade.”

As much as I enjoyed our brief foray to Oldtown, my favourite part of this week’s episode was the time we spent in the Riverlands. Benioff and Weiss put together two truly remarkable scenes here. The first features Maisie Williams’ Arya coming upon half a dozen Lannister soldiers in the wood. Podeswa does a great job in making the scene feel tense, and we, as skeptic Thrones-watchers, are waiting for the soldiers to suddenly jump up and try to rape her at any minute. We’ve got so far into the ‘Lannisters are evil’ mentality, that we, like Arya, are instantly suspicious, and only too ready for the approaching swordfight. There are prolonged shots of Needle, and just when we start to feel settled there’s an odd, jarring piece of dialogue – “a nice young girl” – that brings the tension back all over again. It’s a fantastic scene, and wonderfully meta; the audience, as well as Arya, has become conditioned to violence. True, there is a slightly anachronistic line in there as well – “are you old enough to drink?” – but it’s not enough to diminish the effect of the scene. Oh, and Ed Sheeran’s there, too. He looks weirdly Photoshopped into the scene, even though I know that’s not true.

game-of-thrones-ed-sheeran-arya

The best scene of the episode is the one that follows this, though. Sandor Clegane is a character who frequently slips under my radar, but Rory McCann’s performance in this episode is so good that it’s cemented him as one of my favourite characters all over again. The Hound’s wit is positively acerbic, and he gets all the best lines – “you think you’re fooling anyone with that topknot? Bald c*nt.” But on top of that, the scene continues the Hound’s personal development from “The Broken Man”. He has been spiritually reborn, and you can tell. McCann expertly portrays his genuine sorrow at the deaths of Sally and her father (from “Breaker of Chains”), but honestly I think credit is due here to Benioff and Weiss more than anyone else. This isn’t a scene that needed to exist, but I’m so glad it does. The Hound’s attempt to recite a prayer he clearly doesn’t know shows the extent of his goodwill, and his willingness to stare into the fire shows how far he’s come from a time when he regarded fire as his greatest enemy.

And this scene has some of Podeswa’s finest directing: dark, sobering and reflective. For the record, I think “Dragonstone” is actually the least Podeswa-esque of this director’s five offerings for Game of Thrones so far, and the least visually compelling, but it’s still damn good, and honestly I think Podeswa is better than Sapochnik or Michelle MacLaren when it comes to sequences like these.

S07E01 Sandor.jpg

And then we come to the grand finale: a majestic visit to Dragonstone which is a triumph of production design. The whole thing is borderline orgasmic, a grandiose ‘look-at-me’ scene, piling iconic shot on top of iconic shot. The sets are among the best Thrones has ever produced, and it’s clear where the episode spent most of its increased budget. Dragonstone looks better than ever, and it’s a triumph of cinematography as well as visual and special effects – once again, some of my favourite shots from the episode are in here.

The final sequence is thematically significant too. It’s key to the scene that Tyrion walks a few steps behind Dany, allowing her discovery of home to be a significant individual experience. You can see Missandei holding Grey Worm back: this is Dany’s place, this is Dany’s time. It’s one of Emilia Clarke’s best sequences as the character (without being unecessarily unkind, that’s possibly because she doesn’t say anything). The lack of dialogue, coupled with Ramin Djawadi’s dramatic continuation of the ending soundtrack from “The Winds of Winter”, allows us to experience the same awe that Dany is feeling. And in this silence we can more easily appreciate the moments of significance. The most obvious of these is when Dany rejects the throne room for the Chamber of the Painted Table; she heads straight to war, following the destiny Daario Naharis laid out for her: “you’re a conqueror, Daenerys Stormborn.”

“Shall we begin?” she says. And begin we will.

S07E01 Dany 2.png

Notes and Side Bits:

Bloody hell, this was an easy paycheck for Peter Dinklage. $1 million plus first billing, and he doesn’t even have to say one line.

Maester Wolkan (at Winterfell) has visibly aged, quite a bit.

Despite initially disliking Lyanna Mormont, I’ve really enjoyed her part in this season.

Ed Sheeran sings “Hands of Gold”, which Symon Silver-Tongue wrote about Tyrion and Shae in A Storm of Swords. Given that Symon doesn’t appear to exist in the show’s universe, I have to wonder where the song came from.

My favourite line of the episode is one I haven’t really discussed, a meta reference to one of Littlefinger’s more irritating habits. “No need to seize the last word, Lord Baelish,” Sansa says. I’ll assume it was something clever.”

For me, the best actor of the episode was Rory McCann (the Hound), with second place going to Lena Headey (Cersei), and the best guest actor was probably Richard Dormer (Beric Dondarrion), with Paul Kaye (Thoros of Myr) in a close second.

 

 

Ranking the Peter Capaldi Episodes of Doctor Who, 2014-17

The following is a mostly subjective ranking of the Doctor Who episodes during Peter Capaldi’s run as the Twelfth Doctor, 2014-17. The rest is self-explanatory.

34. “In the Forest of the Night” (8×10)

Image result for in the forest of the night

Every series of Doctor Who has a dud episode. But “In the Forest of the Night” isn’t so much an episode as a collection of nonsensical plot elements, unfulfilling emotional beats, and ridiculous over-the-top child acting – ‘the foughts, the foughts’. It ends with a lot of flapping about at fireflies and there’s something to do with a forest and the Doctor’s role in the episode is basically nonexistent. Also, Danny Pink fights off a tiger. In most DW duds, you can at least tell what the writer was intending to do. But “In the Forest of the Night” is an utter mess, with its entire premise summing up to “Oh look, the trees are at it again!” and “Protect the environment, kiddos!” Not a bad message, overall, but it’s as much a coherent story as it is a peanut-butter sandwich.

33. “Sleep No More” (9×09)

Image result for sleep no more doctor who

While “Sleep No More” experienced… hmm, mixed success, you can’t fault Mark Gatiss for being brave here. Unfortunately, “Sleep No More” resolves itself by boldly proclaiming that the episode itself makes no sense. It’s less of a cohesive narrative, more of an excuse for Gatiss to shoddily stitch together a series of vignettes about a generic base-under-siege and say, “Oh look, here’s a gimmick for you!” It feels lazily made, with a collection of dull guest characters and a conclusion that doesn’t really conclude, well, anything.

32. “Kill the Moon” (8×07)

Image result for kill the moon

Managing a trifecta of ham-fisted, barely hidden pro-life commentary, some of the stupidest science to ever appear in a Doctor Who episodes and a dismal ending, “Kill the Moon” is the BBC’s annual expedition to some grey waste of a quarry (only this time it’s in Lanzarote, not Wales!). But while other episodes have made the best of their undesirable backdrops, “Kill the Moon” literally reflects its scenery in being a grey waste of screentime. Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman’s final scene saves the episode, but only barely. Admittedly not as bad as its reputation suggests, but far from good, or even average.

31. “The Lie of the Land” (10×08)

Image result for the lie of the land

The first half of “The Lie of the Land” is very good, fraught with post-apocalyptic imagery and the dismal horror of a police state, but the awful second half sadly overshadows it. Steven Moffat confined Toby Whithouse to a corner and forced him to cut a two-parter down to 45 minutes. I can almost feel Whithouse’s pain as he cuts out line after line of character-building and necessary exposition, crying all the while. The result is a half-baked and stupidly paced episode with an entire scene of trailer-bait and a dismal power of love ending. If only they’d just kept the first half, featured Missy as a companion rather than a banque de exposition, and portrayed the Monks as a race of Earth-conquering genius-intellect warlords instead of twelve slightly incompetent retail developers.

30. “Robot of Sherwood” (8×03)

Image result for robot of sherwood

This episode’s low ranking is more an issue of personal taste than with the four episodes preceding it. If you like Gatiss’s signature campy style, you probably have no issue with “Robot of Sherwood”. But this is peak Gatiss, and beneath its hackneyed, deliberately cheesy jokes, it is a bit thin on substance – and it lacks the quality of his stronger character work. That being said, if I watched “Robot of Sherwood” again, I would probably enjoy it, unlike the four preceding episodes on this list.

29. “Knock Knock” (10×04)

Image result for knock knock doctor who

Missed potential is the order of the day here. “Knock Knock” suffers from a rushed and unsatisfying ending, and even with binaural audio it isn’t particularly scary, as the episode’s villains aren’t very memorable. David Suchet put on a sophisticated performance as the Landlord, but ultimately he was underused and his presence wasn’t enough to sell the horror-movie-feel writer Mike Bartlett and director Bill Anderson were going for in this episode.

28. “The Woman who Lived” (9×06)

Image result for the woman who lived

The relationship between Peter Capaldi’s Doctor and Maisie Williams’s Ashildr/Me/Time-Lady-Arya-Stark/whatever she’s calling herself now in this episode is its finest quality. Unfortunately, it suffers from odd pacing and the presence of possibly the worst Doctor Who villain since the Abzorbaloff in the weird lion-monster-thingymabob. While “The Woman who Lived” had its great moments – Sam Swift’s scaffold jokes, for one – its ending, however convincingly played, is very clichéd.

27. “The Caretaker” (8×06)

Joining the lion-monster-thingymabob in the list of bad Doctor Who villains is the Skovox Blitzer, a Tesco own-branded Cyberman-on-wheels, which also happens to be ‘the deadliest predator in the universe’. “The Caretaker” allows Peter Capaldi to demonstrate his comedic timing, and Gareth Roberts does what he does best in this grounded minor-mystery episode, but it falls foul of Series 8’s greatest trap: Danny Pink. While Moffat and Mathieson were able to confine him to a tiny corner of their episodes, “The Caretaker” heavily features nobody’s favourite character, Danny Pink, and more Danny Pink, and even more Danny Pink, the most exciting thing since a bottle of pills and a loaded revolver.

26. “Smile” (10×02)

Image result for smile doctor who

“Smile” isn’t bad, and for the first 25 minutes it’s a perfectly palatable story showing Peter Capaldi and Pearl Mackie at their most likeable. It’s well-directed, and Cottrell-Boyce proves his skills at writing realistic dialogue that adeptly establishes the Doctor-Bill relationship. Unfortunately, it has a horribly rushed dumpster-fire of an ending, and its premise, though not entirely bad, is perhaps best summed up as “meh”.

25. “The Return of Doctor Mysterio” (2016 Christmas Special)

After 12 long months of waiting, “The Return of Doctor Mysterio” was something of a festive/not-really-that-festive. There’s a lot of charm in this episode, which pays homage to the classic era of comic books… perhaps too much of an homage, to be honest, as the episode is rather predictable and a bit too cheesy, even for Christmas. I remember being distinctly disappointed with this one at first, but upon rewatching I found a few saving graces: Matt Lucas’s first full performance as Nardole turned out to be endearing whereas I initially found it irritable, and it plays upon one of Who’s simplest and most effective mantras: “Everything ends, and that’s always sad. But everything begins again, and that’s always happy. Be happy.”

24. “Into the Dalek” (8×02)

Image result for into the dalek

Although “Into the Dalek” is one of the more original explorations of the Doctor’s most recognisable foe, it doesn’t change the facts that a) the Daleks have been milked to the point where they are honestly more comedic than scary, and b) any story featuring a Dalek is bound to end with plenty of “EXTERMINATE!” and lots of explosions. And honestly, the “Am I a good man?” angle is slightly overdone, making Capaldi seem a little bit too intimidating and one-note.

23. “Empress of Mars” (10×09)

Image result for empress of mars

“Empress of Mars” is an homage to classic Who, plain and simple. And though it has some of the worst dialogue I’ve ever heard, it’s all good fun, and the guest cast is quite memorable given their short screentime. The Ice Warriors weren’t quite as intimidating as they might have been, and the ending was arguably lackluster, but I wasn’t bored by this episode, and I found both its Britishness and classic monster-appeal rather charming.

22. “The Eaters of Light” (10×10)

Image result for the eaters of light

“The Eaters of Light” isn’t a standout adventure, but it’s certainly enjoyable. The mystery of the Ninth Legion is a premise which is perfect for Doctor Who, and the time period and both the Roman and Pictish way of life are explored very well. Admittedly, the monster is a bit disappointing, both in its questionable CGI and the vague, unexplained nature of its threat. This episode is in a very similar vein to “Empress of Mars”, a definite homage to classic Who – which is unsurprising given its writer, Rona Munro. It moves above the previous entry by virtue of its slightly stronger writing and the ending scene which perfectly sets up the season finale.

21. “Last Christmas” (2014 Christmas Special)

Image result for last christmas doctor who

Capaldi’s first Christmas Special had to be changed late in production when Jenna Coleman decided she would stay on the show for another year, and it shows. The ending of “Last Christmas” is slightly little inconsistent with the episode’s theme of dreams and departures, which undercuts some of its poignancy. It would have been a perfect departure episode for her character, but instead it ends up feeling a bit awkward. Still, Nick Frost is well-cast as Santa Claus, and it has a good Christmassy spirit, a certain magical quality that some of Moffat’s specials have lacked. This is more of a matter of personal taste than objectivity, admittedly – a lot of people seem to really like this one.

20. “Deep Breath” (8×01)

Image result for deep breath doctor who

“Deep Breath” is a rollercoaster, with lots of ups and downs and dramatic moments, but a rollercoaster that only runs at two-thirds speed. Running at 76 minutes, this supersized behemoth of an episode is intended as an introduction to Peter Capaldi’s Doctor. Admittedly, its opening minutes are a bit of a slog, but it evens out and Steven Moffat should be commended for effectively telling multiple character arcs over the course of one episode. Clara’s arc, with her skepticism of the newly-regenerated Doctor, is a bit cliché, but Jenna Coleman sells it well. The monster is a bit meh, too, but that doesn’t really matter, because this episode is really about Peter Capaldi. Admittedly, his introduction isn’t as good as Matt Smith’s, but it shows a lot of promise as the show charts a fresh new course. And any episode which stars the Paternoster Gang of Madam Vastra, Jenny and Strax, as well as introducing Missy and featuring a cameo appearance from Smith’s Eleventh Doctor, is a win in my eyes.

19. “The Pilot” (10×01)

Image result for the pilot doctor who

Our introduction to the Doctor’s new companion, Bill Potts, takes place over an episode that could have come straight out of the Russell T Davies’s era. Admittedly, “The Pilot” doesn’t have a massively compelling storyline, but in terms of introducing us to the new TARDIS team, it certainly accomplished its task. It’s one of those episodes I’m certainly grateful for, but don’t feel a massive urge to rewatch.

18. “The Pyramid at the End of the World” (10×07)

Image result for the pyramid at the end of the world

It’s quite difficult to judge “The Pyramid at the End of the World” as a standalone, as it has the unenviable position of being at the middle of the Monks Trilogy. It’s got a belter of the ending and a fantastic soundtrack, but other parts of the episode are distinctly odd. Unfortunately, “Pyramid” loses a few places by failing to explain… well, anything. (Admittedly, this failing is partly due to the rushed nature of the following episode, “The Lie of the Land”). “The Pyramid at the End of the World” is like digging in the desert for ancient buried treasure, gold and jewels, and instead finding a cashmere sweater and some twenty-pound-notes. It’s not really what you wanted, but, hey, it’s better than nothing.

17. “The Girl who Died” (9×05)

Image result for the girl who died

I’m still not really sure whether or not this episode was intended to be a romp. The vastly overexaggerated bravado of the Mire warrior race suggests that it was, but it deals with some pretty serious issues on the side, namely the cost of immortality and the extent of the Doctor’s duty. Jenna Coleman and Maisie Williams were both standout in this episode, both alone and in their interactions with one another. Unfortunately, “The Girl who Died” doesn’t have a hugely thrilling premise or interesting setting, which means that despite the fantastic story, it’s somewhat lacking in excitement and repeatability. It’s a little bit like a Diet Coke.

16. “Time Heist” (8×05)

Image result for the caretaker doctor who

Boasting the dubious honour of having the worst episode title of Capaldi’s run, “Time Heist” falls foul of the Doctor Who writer’s oldest foe: the 45-minute timeslot. As a result of this, the main characters feel a bit static, the guest characters lack development, the Teller feels like a plot device, and Keeley Hawes is criminally underused as Madame Karabraxos. But… these failings ultimately dwindle into insignificance, because more than anything else, “Time Heist” is good old-fashioned fun. This is what Doctor Who is supposed to be. It’s a pastiche of the bank heist genre with a clever bit of time-travel as the framework, and it’s infinitely rewatchable, which makes it the perfect episode to entice your friends to watch the show.

15. “Mummy on the Orient Express” (8×08)

Image result for mummy on the orient express

I think this episode is a bit overrated, but there’s no denying that “Mummy” is good. Jamie Mathieson’s first effort for Doctor Who is a fun, easy romp without an overly convoluted plot to follow. Frank Skinner is predictably excellent, and the ’66 seconds’ thing is a clever twist… but I always feel like I’m missing something when people tell me that “Mummy on the Orient Express” is the greatest episode in this series. And… that’s about it. I don’t really have anything else to say, so I’ll just repeat the ludicrously long title a few times: “Mummy on the Orient Express”, “Mummy on the Orient Express”, “Mummy on the Orient Express”…

14. “Thin Ice” (10×03)

Image result for thin ice doctor who

“Thin Ice” is fantastic both in its development of the Bill-Doctor relationship and as a standalone adventure in Series 10. Granted, the monster is a bit weak, but “Thin Ice” is really about people, and the attitudes of Victorian London – indeed, it’s one of the show’s best explorations of human nature – of racism, regret, loss, love and prejudice – since… well, since Series 3’s aptly named “Human Nature”. And Sarah Dollard manages a mighty feat of storytelling by condensing such a multifaceted episode down to 45 minutes. It’s not exactly standout, but it’s pretty damn good.

13. “Under the Lake” / “Before the Flood” (9×03/9×04)

Image result for under the lake

Also known by its working title, “Toby Whithouse and the Bootstrap Paradox”, this two-parter is simultaneously not as good as you remembered it being and better than you remembered it being. This weird dichotomy characterises the story: Whithouse’s use of paradoxes is masterful, but also incredibly confusing. The supporting cast are very well written, with two romances that for once don’t come off as ham-fisted, but the Doctor’s characterization is a bit all-over-the-place – he’s fun to watch, but there’s no real progression. The ‘ghosts’ in “Under the Lake” are intriguing, but the Fisher King in “Before the Flood” is an oddly disappointing villain, effectively defeated by being loudly shouted at. The underwater base location is original(-ish) and a very clever way of moving the plot forward, but by God these episodes are ugly, with horribly clashing colours and a colour palette consisting mostly of murky green and Soviet grey. Then again, the pluses outnumber the minuses, and it has Peter Capaldi breaking the fourth wall and playing the electric guitar, which is cooler than a fez, a bow tie and a Stetson put together.

12. “Oxygen” (10×05)

Image result for oxygen doctor who

A horror story in space, “Oxygen” sets a frenetic pace and never lets up. It’s a brutally punishing ride, with real, lasting consequences from its cliffhanger that starts an arc lasting through to “The Lie of the Land”. Charles Palmer’s directing is fantastic, with sequences that leave us both breathless from the action and marvelling at the expansive wonder and cruelty of space. Yes, it’s heavy-handed with its commentary on capitalism, like “Kill the Moon” (which is not really something to emulate) but this episode is so much more than that. It’s about the unglamourous side of space: the cruelty, the loneliness, the empty, chilling fear.

11. “Dark Water” / “Death In Heaven” (8×11/8×12)

Image result for dark water / death in heaven

“Dark Water” is GOAT. It’s completely ruthless and utterly harrowing, and arguably far too dark for children. But as an episode, it is full of great and unexpected moments: Danny Pink’s sudden demise, Clara’s dark moment with the TARDIS keys, the ‘do you think I care for you so little?’ speech, 3W, and of course, the Cyberman twist and the Missy reveal at the end of the episode. It’s a work of art, in truth… and then we have “Death In Heaven”, which isn’t nuWho’s worst finale episode, but is certainly it’s most disappointing, somehow managing to throw away loads of brilliant setup with the intent of messily merging the plot to a single point: a non-existent final showdown in a bleak London graveyard, with characters variously being carried by Cybermen and thrown out of the sky to get there. It manages to avoid being a complete trainwreck by having a fantastic denouement, featuring a final tribute to Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, the Doctor’s anger at not finding Gallifrey, the resolution of Danny and Clara’s relationship (incidentally, Jenna Coleman was fantastic in this episode), and a beautiful final shot which mirrors the ending of “Deep Breath”, and proves that Series 8, while questionable in places, was essential to the growth of both characters. “Death In Heaven” reaches a proper and emotional conclusion in the end, but its path to that conclusion is a bit messy. Do the ends justify the means? I don’t know.

10. “The Zygon Invasion” / “The Zygon Inversion” (9×07/9×08)

Image result for the zygon inversion

This two-parter is where Peter Harness wrote a dramatic post-9/11 war documentary, and then remembered that the Doctor needed to fit somewhere in it. For most of the “The Zygon Invasion” and about half of “The Zygon Inversion”, the Doctor, Kate Stewart and Clara strut around in three godforsaken hellholes: Turmezistan, a generic Middle Eastern country with an abundance of barbed wire and Stinger missiles; Truth or Consequences, a dusty, middle-of-nowhere, far-too-hot New Mexico town with no personality but a whole lot of guns; and those flats in suburban London which the BBC use to film basically everything, complete with creepy horror movie lifts and an underground Zygon base on-site for your convenience. Jenna Coleman has far too much fun playing Bonnie/Zygella, who is basically Series 8 Clara but with more makeup. Fortunately, Moffat (and Osgood) are on hand to pull Harness back into a relatively restrained mood. The episode culminates in an epic showdown where Capaldi engages in a very loud and very Scottish rant which reduces everyone to squalling children, and we all come away vaguely self-satisfied. “You don’t think he’s the Doctor?” we say to our fez-toting, Converse-wearing friends. “Well, watch this.

9. “Face the Raven” (9×10)

Image result for face the raven

“Let me be brave,” Clara Oswald says, arms spread as she makes her final sacrifice, “let me be brave.” The genius of “Face the Raven” is that it acts as a microcosm of Clara Oswald’s character development throughout Doctor Who, perfectly demonstrates the threat that arises from pretending to be the Doctor, and thinking that you’re invincible. It acts as a blunt and brutal doorstop to Clara’s meteoric rise throughout the Capaldi era. “Face the Raven” is probably nuWho’s most appropriate companion exit. And on top of that, it has a wonderful setting, permanently shot in some sort of strange, ethereal twilight, with a sense of underlying threat that fills you with dread.

8. “The Magician’s Apprentice” / “The Witch’s Familiar” (9×01/9×02)

Image result for the magicians apprentice

The first two-parter of Series 9 is also its best. “The Magician’s Apprentice” is a re-orientation in the world of Doctor Who, based around some snake-monster thing hissing “Where issssss the Doctorrrr?”, a refreshing twist on the Doctor’s encounters with Davros, and the all-new, shiny Series 9 Peter Capaldi, a mid-life crisis Doctor whose idea of a quiet farewell includes tanks and an electric guitar. (Unfortunately, this episode loses points for introducing the sonic sunglasses.) “The Witch’s Familiar” re-invents the Daleks as monsters that are at least vaguely frightening, and has a smart, mostly-not-hamfisted resolution. However, the high-point of these two episodes is the golden trio of the Doctor, Clara and Missy. Michelle Gomez takes on the role of a vaguely sympathetic companion, and the odd mixture of selfishness, sympathy and self-confessed evil marks one of her very best turns in the TARDIS.

7. “Flatline” (8×09)

Image result for flatline doctor who

With a brilliant monster concept and a savage wit in the writing, “Flatline” proves that the boring-bottle-episode-set-in-a-depressing-English-city can be done in such a way that it sets new expectations for the ‘subgenre’ as a whole. This is Clara Oswald’s finest hour in the TARDIS; Jenna Coleman’s performance is both a satire of the Doctor’s mannerisms, and a showcase of Clara’s most endearing traits. Some of the guest cast are a bit flat (if you’ll pardon the pun), but Coleman’s performance, the Boneless monsters, and the ingenuity of the script make this episode worthy of its high placing on this list.

6. “The Husbands of River Song” (2015 Christmas Special)

Image result for the husbands of river song

Capaldi + Kingston = quality. “The Husbands of River Song” is Doctor Who’s best Christmas episode, full of the usual Moffat-isms. There are many brilliant moments – the Doctor’s reaction to entering the TARDIS ‘for the first time’, the comic relief provided by Greg Davies’s King Hydroflax (though the less said about Nardole in this episode, the better) and the sheer ridiculousness/uselessness of the Doctor’s sonic trowel – but really, it’s the chemistry between its two leads that makes this episode great. River Song may belong in the Smith era – that cannot be denied – but Alex Kingston’s acting ability is timeless. This final salute to one of Who’s most divisive characters is arguably her best episode, and the way Moffat wove this story into her grand narrative is both heartwarming and heartbreaking.

5. “Extremis” (10×06)

Image result for extremis doctor who

Crazy but brilliant is a cliché term that is used far too often, but it has never been more appropriate than with “Extremis”, the latest in a line of downright odd conceptual episodes by Steven Moffat. The Doctor’s blindness (carried over from “Oxygen”) provides an interesting new dimension to this story, and this, along with Daniel Nettheim’s superb directing and the fantastic use of lighting, makes the introduction of some of Who’s most visually impressive and shadowy monsters even more intriguing. So, “Extremis” is visually and conceptually impressive, but it’s Moffat’s writing which really elevates it. As the opening to a three-part story, “Extremis” has the luxury of slower pacing than most Doctor Who stories, giving it ample character-building opportunities, as well as the Da Vinci Code style mystery buildup that leads into one of the Capaldi era’s greatest twist. And though I found it a little underwhelming at the time, Michelle Gomez’s role as Missy in this story is far more signficant in the shadow of “World Enough and Time” / “The Doctor Falls”. “Extremis” gives rise to one of the show’s best ever lines: “Without hope. Without witness. Without reward… Virtue is only virtue in extremis.”

4. “Hell Bent” (9×12)

Image result for hell bent

Look, you probably just don’t understand “Hell Bent”. And that’s okay; not everyone can have the same understanding of ‘dank Kino’ that I possess. So let’s go back to basics: this story is set on Gallifrey, but it’s not about Gallifrey – and to be honest, why would you want it to be? Call me ignorant, but there’s enough time for dusty Time Lord politics in the future, but there’s only one chance to say goodbye to a companion, and in the Capaldi era, there was only one chance to see the Doctor teetering so precariously on the brink of morality. “Hell Bent” is not only a fitting farewell to the days of Twelve and Clara Oswald in the TARDIS; it’s a pitch-perfect character study of the Doctor in crisis, a counterpart to the beautiful, almost romantic idealism of “Heaven Sent”. It’s a story of bitter scorn, verging on self-destruction and occasionally even hatred, next to the loving devotion of its predecessor. The Hybrid arc comes to a fitting conclusion, and Rachel Talalay directs this one impeccably right up until the second-to-last scene (if you really want me to criticise “Hell Bent”, I’ll say that the TARDIS stock-footage shot and the spinning diner was a bit much). There are some standout cinematic moments – the Doctor’s wordless defiance of Rassilon being the most notable – but the morals of this story are really what puts it so high on the list.

3. “Listen” (8×04)

Image result for listen doctor who

Steven Moffat has written some brilliant monster stories over the years, but “Listen” is all about the characters, and it’s so well done that purely from a writing perspective, it deserves to be at the top of this list. The wonder of “Listen” is that it manages to completely tell a story arc for The Doctor, Clara, and Danny Pink (who is somehow not boring in this episode, I repeat, Danny Pink is not boring) in the space of 45 minutes. I’m not sure this is a good thing, but “Listen” accounts for about half of all character development in Series 8. Many have compared this episode with “Blink” – personally, I refute this idea. “Blink” and “Listen” are two very different episodes, with very different strengths. I don’t think the monster (or lack of monster) is there to make you feel scared, but it doesn’t need to. “Listen” is pure psychological horror, the deepest sort of all. Instead of making you afraid of statues or clockwork droids or monks, it forces you to look inwardly. It gets inside you, and forces you to re-evaluate your own life, because this isn’t even Doctor Who anymore; it transcends the screen and becomes part of the real world. And I guarantee you’d go to bed with nightmares about it if you skipped the ending, which brings the story full-circle with an absolutely stellar monologue/life lesson.

2. “World Enough and Time” / “The Doctor Falls” (10×11/10×12)

Image result for the doctor falls

If you ever feel like making a tribute video, you’re in luck. Of all of Moffat’s stories, “World Enough and Time” / “The Doctor Falls” is the most emotionally compelling. On top of that, it remembers to be fun, something these conceptual episodes often forget. “World Enough and Time” has Michelle Gomez to provide a healthy smattering of humour, before throwing us into a bleak, austere, heavily chloroformed underworld. Rachel Talalay is at her best here, discreetly putting together the individual elements of what makes a Mondasian Cyberman before the big reveal. John Simm is excellent both in his Mister Razor costume and outside of it, and Pearl Mackie’s final journey as Bill is just a bit heartbreaking. “The Doctor Falls” sees Simm and Gomez come together, with some of the best chemistry ever seen on Doctor Who, and an ending to the character of the Master/Missy which is so fitting and so impeccably executed that you don’t really want him/her to come back for fear of ruining its significance. There are suitably emotional sendoffs for Bill and Nardole, but really, all this is just windowdressing. “The Doctor Falls” is, as the title would suggest, about the Doctor, and Peter Capaldi acts his heart(s) out here. In retrospect I think his speech from “The Zygon Invasion” is slightly better, but it was here, in these circumstances, that he truly became my Doctor. And you can’t really get much better than that. “The Doctor Falls” is also to be rewarded for subverting the expectations of a Moffat finale – rather than being forced to avert/fulfil a prophecy and save the Universe, this episode sees the Doctor sacrificing himself and everything he is for the sake of one spaceship. Peter Capaldi is the Twelfth Doctor, and he saves people.

1. “Heaven Sent” (9×11)

Related image

Kino (noun): a work of art, usually television or film, so intellectually and artistically stimulating that it transcends the medium in which it takes place and becomes an ideology. Known examples include Doctor Who’s “Heaven Sent”.

There is a world out there, somewhere, where people go down on their knees and pray to their DVD copies of “Heaven Sent”, where pilgrims attempt to recreate the Doctor’s labours by punching diamond walls and incinerating themselves, where every house has “how many seconds in eternity?” written on their mantelpieces, and churches are modelled on the castle in the Doctor’s confession dials, where Peter Capaldi, Rachel Talalay, Murray Gold and Steven Moffat are revered as prophets. There is such a world. I live in it. And honestly, I’m struggling to find anything else to say about “Heaven Sent”. It’s just so, so, so impossibly brilliant, and none of my descriptions can do it justice. It’s Kino. As the Doctor famously said in “The Pilot”, “Series Nine. Episode Eleven. Heaven Sent. It means life.”