Game of Thrones: Season 3, Episode 2–Dark Wings, Dark Words

“I didn’t ask for black magic dreams.”

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After last week’s crowded but slow-moving scene setter, this week’s Game of Thrones was back to full on action and intrigue, as we caught up with most of the characters we hadn’t seen last week, and met a whole plethora more.

While last week saw the introduction of a few new characters – Mance Rayder and the Wildlings, for example – this week the show really cut loose with introduction after introduction. In some cases, these were characters held back from the second book, necessitating some economising on plotlines. In all cases, they were superbly cast, and it was a pleasure to see many of my favourite character actors making an appearance as new regulars.

First though, we got to catch up with some of the Stark family we didn’t see last week, and immediately I saw a looming problem. Crippled Bran Stark is still being dragged toward the general vicinity of the Wall in the company of Hodor and Osha, and beset by mysterious visions of the three-eyed raven and an oddly elfin teenage boy.

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That’s not the problem, though. I like that Bran’s journey is getting increasingly mystical and portentous. The trouble is that, brilliant though Isaac Hempstead-Wright is in the part, he’s obviously hitting puberty. He’s noticeably taller than last season, which in the show’s timeframe was only a few days ago, and his voice seems to be breaking. I’ve speculated before that the story’s compressed timeframe vs the time it takes to make a season might mean that some of the marvellous child actors may have to be recast. I’m beginning to think (much as I’d hate the idea) that Bran might be the first. When puberty proper hits him, he may well shoot up in height – and that might be tricky to explain. There’s always magic, I suppose.

Which may explain one of his new friends. The Reed children (for it is they) are related to the Stark bannermen of the Riverlands, and in the books were introduced last volume. Showrunners Benioff and Weiss, thinking season two already somewhat overmanned, held them back till this year, necessitating a different, but just as effective introduction as they caught up with Bran’s party in the woods.

There are two of them, Jojen and Meera, and Jojen is played by the elfin Thomas Sangster. Sangster appears not to have aged since his part in Doctor Who six years ago; despite now being 22, he still looks about 15. Accompanying him is his less spiritual sister/bodyguard Meera, played by Ellie Kendrick, Being Human’s nerdy werewolf Allison.

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Thankfully, Maisie Williams appears to share Sangster’s ability to not age, so there’s no danger of Arya being recast. Having escaped Harrenhal thanks to the homicidal favours of Jaqen H’ghar, she was still roaming the woods with Gendry and Hot Pie, heading for her mother’s ancestral home of Riverrun. Williams was as brilliant as ever, as Arya faced off against rebel leader Thoros of Myr, another fan favourite charismatically incarnated by Paul Kaye.

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This was another neat case of economising on George RR Martin’s occasionally meandering storylines. In the books, Arya and friends spent ages wandering the countryside having minor skirmishes; the show sensibly dispenses with that, getting them straight to where they need to be for the story proper to advance. It was ‘economised’ even further when Thoros brethren dragged their latest captive into the inn where they were all dining – the Hound.

It’s great to see Sandor Clegane again, after his disgusted abandonment of King’s Landing during the Battle of Blackwater. Unfortunately for Arya, he knows who she is – that could put the cat among the pigeons.

Also wandering in the general vicinity of Arya and co were other interested parties, most notably her mother. Still not popular among Force Stark from Winterfell, Catelyn has plunged her rep even lower by dragging the army off to her family home of Riverrun to attend her father’s funeral.

They’re really cutting the flab from Martin’s narrative here (no bad thing in this regard), as Catelyn in the book had an emotional reunion with her father then waited patiently for him to die – while, presumably, the Army of the North tutted disapprovingly and checked their watches. Here, with Lord Tully already gone, Vanessa Taylor’s script found time to give Michelle Fairlie a moving showcase speech concerning her guilt over Jon Snow.

Having first prayed for his death, then, when he became ill, making a bargain with the gods that if he recovered she would love him as her own, she found she couldn’t manage it. As a result, she thinks the various misfortunes that have befallen her family are all her fault – “all the horror that’s befallen my family… all because I couldn’t love a motherless child.” It was an obvious Big Acting moment, but so well delivered by Fairlie it was hard to begrudge. That’s the kind of character depth that sets this show apart from shallower fantasy fare.

Along with its vicious politicking, that is. There was plenty more of that to be found in King’s Landing this week, and once again, despite action, horror and magic elsewhere, it proved the most gripping part of the show.

The Tyrells have been quick to exploit the debt the Lannisters owe them for their aid at Blackwater, and wasted no time in insinuating themselves at court. We saw the beginnings of that last week, as the shrewd Margaery began her campaign to worm her way into the public’s affections with random acts of Diana-like kindness. Natalie Dormer, an old hand at this kind of thing after her role as Anne Boleyn in The Tudors, gives Margaery an obvious core of steel under that sweetly girlish exterior.

Even so, it was a tense scene in which she verbally sparred with capricious and psychotic boy king Joffrey. Jack Gleeson (apparently a lovely guy in real life) is so convincing as a Caligula-like despot you never know which way he’s going to jump. Margaery, it seems, can stay the right side of him – just. It took an extremely Freudian use of a crossbow as phallic symbol to pacify him, with Joffrey plainly more turned on than is wholesome by the idea of his fiancee killing things.

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This week, we also got to see where Margaery learnt her manipulative skills, with the ever-excellent Diana Rigg turning up as her grandmother Olenna Tyrell, the aptly named ‘Queen of Thorns’. Sharp-tongued, caustic yet charming, she’s plainly going to be a force to be reckoned with in the court. Drawing the truth about Joffrey (“He’s a monster!”) from the terrified Sansa, she was all sweetness throughout. Yet, even if she has a matronly care for Sansa’s well-being, you could see the cogs whirring as she processed the information for future use.

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Olenna’s not the only one to be ‘protective’ of Sansa, though, as Shae popped up to offer her some worldly advice about the sinister attentions of Petyr Baelish – “Men like that only want one thing from a pretty girl… love is not the thing.” Interesting though the character is, I’m still not sure about Sibel Kikelli’s performance as Shae – an accent can’t wholly hide a sometimes hesitant line delivery. Still, at least she had the frustrated Tyrion to play off in his all-too-brief appearance this week.

Elsewhere, there was the obligatory brief catch up with events beyond the Wall, as Sam Tarly faced the contempt of Watch brother Rast, only to be rescued by Grenn and Dolorous Edd. Jon, meanwhile, was still trekking southward with the Wildings, and the not entirely unexpected appearance of Mackenzie Crook as Orell shed some light on the destiny of Bran; Orell is a ‘warg’, one who can see through the eyes of animals. Plainly this is where Bran is heading too…

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We also caught up with Jaime and Brienne, who are presumably not far from Arya and her mother. The Riverlands must be quite big to avoid the dramatic contrivance of these three sets of characters running into each other at some point. Jaime and Brienne’s scenes were some of the best of the ep; these two characters, with their constant sniping, are plainly destined to become unlikely allies and perhaps even friends.

First though, they had to bond as warriors always do – with a bloody great swordfight. In a show that’s steeped in medieval combat, this was superb even by the high standards usually on display. I’m not sure which of them would have won, though, as their bonding exercise was interrupted by stalwart Australian actor Noah Taylor, as Locke from House Bolton, plainly intent on recapturing the Kingslayer. I’ve got the feeling this is not going to end well for him and his men next week.

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The Boltons are being quietly shaped up to be major players in the show’s labyrinthine power struggles. Lord Roose Bolton has been gradually enlarging his role from sniping about Robb Stark to the disaffected Lord Karstark to shaping strategy for the well-meaning but naive Robb. Michael McElhatton’s quiet but intense performance as Roose suggests hidden nuttiness to come.

Having already introduced enough new characters to fill the casts of several less ambitious shows, the ep surprised me by actually adding a new plotline not in the source material. In the books, it was a very long time before we discovered that Theon Greyjoy had survived the burning of Winterfell. Here, we discovered fairly early on that he’s being held captive in a mysterious dungeon and being fairly comprehensively tortured.

As usual, Alfie Allen played Theon without the hindrance of clothes, though any titillation was held off by the wince-making realism of the torture; still, how many fingernails does he really need? There’s hope for Theon yet though, as a mysterious boy claiming to be sent by his sister whispered that he’ll save him when the time is right. This being Game of Thrones, I wouldn’t trust him an inch, even if he is Simon from Misfits (Iwan Rheon).

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Despite the burden of introducing more characters than War and Peace, this somehow managed to feel like a deeper episode than last week. Yes, some of the plots were only glancingly referred to, but others were given enough room to breathe that they felt fresh and exciting. New characters always give a show like this a new lease of life; introducing a veritable army of them at the same time really helps. But with so many complicated plotlines already in progress, can the show manage the juggling act of the books and keep them all in the air successfully? On this basis, I suspect it can. There’s now so much going on the show barely has room for its trademark gratuitous nudity – the only character to get his kit off this week was Joffrey, of all people. Still, if you like that kind of thing…

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Doctor Who: Series 7, Episode 8–The Rings of Akhaten

Can you feel the light on your eyelids? That is the light of an alien sun.”

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I was a bit tipsy yesterday afternoon.

As a result, I struggled to stay fully awake during Doctor Who, and rewatched it today to properly follow it. In the interim, unusually, I was able to digest what many of my online friends thought.

The reaction from many people I knew was pretty negative. “Slow, predictable, cheap tacky sets, no larger plot arc, no character developing, cheesy maudlin flashback (wtf??), and dull as fuck” opined one friend. “They’ve given Matt Smith his very own Fear Her,” said another (damning indeed!). “Utter pigshit,” was one more blunt opinion. The only voice I heard raised in its favour was my boyfriend Barry, who rather enjoyed it, comparing it to surreal 1965 serial The Web Planet, which similarly is not well-regarded.

Well, I actually love The Web Planet. And I may be tacking into the wind of disapproval here, but I rather enjoyed The Rings of Akhaten as well. True, it was unabashedly sentimental, which I can see would put some people off. It was also heavily dependent on Murray Gold’s admittedly OTT emotion-tugging music, which as usual frequently swamped the dialogue. And yes, the show might have bitten off more than it could chew with such an effects-heavy story (though I didn’t have any complaints on that score).

But it was also, more than ever, a sign that this era of Doctor Who is very much science fantasy rather than science fiction. I’ve heard some fans carping about the scientific impossibility of the Seven Worlds of Akhaten (from the perspective of gravity, atmosphere etc), or the ‘space moped’ which our heroes rode without the benefit of spacesuits or a roof.

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Well, you could have dealt with that in the dialogue with some Star Trek-style technobabble. But why bother? Technology, in recent Who, is often a shorthand for ‘magic’ – it does whatever the plot demands. Sometimes that’s irritating, when it’s used to short circuit a proper conclusion by way of a deus ex machina. But when it’s just covering minor details, I don’t have a problem with that.

Speaking of deus ex machina, this was another story that, like a few recently, seemed to heark back to the style of Russell T Davies. It followed the established Nu-Who template for the introduction of a new companion – start with a story on contemporary Earth (where they’re always – disappointingly – from), then whisk them off to a weird future location full of a Star Wars-style menagerie of odd-looking aliens.

Kudos to the production team for not taking the ‘cheap’ option of reusing the many existing alien costumes – all the creatures on display here seemed entirely new. Indeed, the visuals seemed fairly sumptuous, from the costumes to the effects, evoking – for me – early efforts by French fantasists Jeunet and Caro, like City of Lost Children. True, the set design for the dusty streets was functional rather than inspired, but it seems harsh to criticise that when there was so much invention on display elsewhere.

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And the concepts were, for me, as inventive as the look of the thing. True, Doctor Who has done ‘false gods’ any number of times before; they almost always turn out to be power-mad computers, or, as here, parasitic aliens. We even got one last year in Toby Whithouse’s enjoyable The God Complex.

But the god here, with its domination of an entire solar system who lived in fear of it and routinely sang it lullabies to keep it asleep, seemed genuinely terrifying – signposted by even the Doctor being terrified of it. Writer Neil Cross (creator of Luther and, less favourably, recent adapter of Day of the Triffids) came up with the fascinating concept of it feeding on treasured memories and stories, to the extent that they even formed the currency of its worshippers. That’s reminiscent of a recurring theme of the other Neil – Mr Gaiman himself.

Like Neil Gaiman’s similarly inventive script for The Doctor’s Wife, this gifted Matt Smith with some cracking dialogue to get his teeth into. “We don’t walk away”, summed up the show’s philosophy nicely, as well as providing a riposte to anyone wondering why they didn’t just get in the TARDIS and leg it. But the Doctor’s final speech to the ‘Grandfather’ was obviously a showcase moment, and Smith seized it with both hands to chew the scenery (but in a good way):

I saw the birth of the universe and I watched as time ran out, moment by moment until nothing remained, no time, no space, just me. I walked in universes where the laws of physics were devised by the mind of a mad man.I watched universes freeze and creations burn,I have seen things you wouldn’t believe, I have lost things you will never understand – and I know things, secrets that must never be told, knowledge that must never be spoken…”

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Hints of things to come, I wonder? Speaking of which, the ep also gave us more of an insight into Clara, with that prologue in which the Doctor, basically, stalked her parents through from their meeting to her mother’s death. That actually could seem more than a bit creepy, and Clara was probably right to be slightly weirded out when she ‘remembered’ it – the implication being that the memories were fresh, since the Doctor had only just taken that trip.

Clara’s apparent impossibility was the only ongoing plotline here, though. That may annoy those who are fans of the ‘arc’ episodes above the others, but I’ve personally found Steven Moffat’s arc-heavy approach hard going these last couple of years, and am glad that it’s taking the more background approach of the early RTD seasons.

Clara did get to show some real mettle here, as we continue to get to know her. I still bemoan the fact that she seems like ‘Moffat spunky young woman type #23’, but her morale-bolstering heart to heart with little Merry (Emilia Jones, excellent) was a magical moment that could only be resisted by the most hard-hearted and cynical. And her ultimate rescue of the Doctor, speeding to the Pyramid on the space moped then giving up her most treasured memory, was lovely; especially the Doctor’s remark about the monumental difference between “what was and what should have been”. Could Clara’s mum, and her apparently premature death, figure in why she’s such an impossibility?

There was some creepy stuff too, which was still in keeping with the imaginative visuals here. The Mummy in the Pyramid was pretty standard Who-fare, but the creepy looking Vigils will probably have given many a young child a few bad dreams. With their blank faces and Graf Orlok costumes, they were again reminiscent of the creations of Jeunet and Caro, not to mention David Lynch. Indeed, their apparently sound-based weaponry called to mind nothing so much as Dune.

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I found The Rings of Akhaten to be a visually sumptuous, life-affirming piece of fantasy, very much in the style of the work of Neil Gaiman. I wouldn’t want Who to be like this every week, lest it turn into Farscape or Lexx, but that’s the beauty of the show – its flexibility. Next week, it looks like we’ve got a trad submarine thriller (albeit with aliens). That’s good too; but I’ve always got time for some out and out fantasy, if it’s done well, and I thought this was. Still, what do I know? I like The Web Planet Smile

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Game of Thrones: Season 3, Episode 1–Valar Dohaeris

“Big men fall just as fast as little ones – if you put a sword through their heart.” – Jon Snow

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It’s a solid if unspectacular start to the much-anticipated third season of Game of Thrones, with an episode that has to establish where its growing army of characters are and what they’re doing since we last saw them. With the ever-increasing roster of main characters and ever more complex plots within plots, this is no small task. It’s unsurprising that, while it’s full of intrigue, the season opener has to take in so many subplots that it doesn’t deal with any of them in more than cursory detail. Even then, there’s one or two important subplots that showrunners David Benioff and DB Weiss, scripting this week, couldn’t actually fit in.

This is hardly surprising – George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, the book series on which the show is based, gets ever more labyrinthine as it goes on. Recognising this, Benioff and Weiss have sensibly decided that this year’s ten episodes will cover roughly half the third book, A Storm of Swords. That equates to its book publication, in the UK at least, where the paperback was also split into two volumes.

It might, therefore, give greater room for the characters and plots to breathe. On this week’s evidence though, I wouldn’t guarantee that. Still, the script sensibly kept any new characters to a minimum, which meant that even if we didn’t see much of the ones here, we already had a handle on who they were and what they were about.

A fair chunk of this ep focused on events Beyond the Wall, where the big threat of Ancient Unstoppable Evil is. To my mind, while they’re clearly the most dangerous of the show’s antagonists, the mysterious White Walkers and their army of slavering zombies are less interesting than the political machinations elsewhere. But we’d been left with the big cliffhanger last year of an apparent army of the devils marching on the band of Nightwatch camped in the wilds, so necessarily we had to deal with that first.

Gotta say, after the buildup in the season finale, the lack of an actual big battle was a bit of a disappointment. But lavish though it may be, Game of Thrones doesn’t have the budget to stage a Battle of Blackwater every week. Besides, it played out here much as it did in the book, with Samwell Tarly finding a corpse, assuming everyone was dead, then being rescued from a (fairly unconvincing CG) zombie by the survivors of the Watch.

That being dealt with, we didn’t return to them – there wasn’t really time. It was swiftly on to the Wildling camp, where the captive Jon Snow was ushered into the presence of ‘King Beyond the Wall’ Mance Rayder, making his first appearance here. Ciaran Hinds was as impressive as ever as Mance – another good piece of casting from a show that tends to do well here.

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Jon won his confidence with a sincere-sounding speech about recognising the real enemy and not being convinced the Watch had their hearts in dealing with it. It sets up an interesting scenario; Jon originally ‘joined’ Wildlings as an inside man for the Watch – will his loyalties genuinely change?

We won’t find out this week, as it was swiftly off to King’s Landing to catch up on the aftermath of the Joffrey/Lannister victory at the Blackwater. It wouldn’t be Game of Thrones without some utterly gratuitous sex though, so we were reintroduced to Jerome Flynn’s charismatic sellsword Bronn in the usual brothel, where he was most displeased at being distracted from a whore’s crotch by the unexpected arrival of Tyrion’s squire Pod.

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Tyrion himself had a few interesting confrontations this week. First, it was his sister, popping by his dingy new quarters to verbally fence; Tyrion has good cause to be wary of her, as it was one of her men who tried to kill him under cover of the battle. Luckily for Peter Dinklage, the TV version has backpedalled somewhat on the extent of his injuries, leaving him with a scarred cheek where in the novel he’d lost most of his nose. Cersei even alluded to that in a nice in-joke, commenting that she’d heard he’d lost his nose, but it was plainly an exaggeration.

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Their father Tywin was no more forgiving. Confronted by the irked Tyrion  asking to be recognised as heir to Casterly Rock in gratitude for his action in saving the city, the frosty Tywin told him, basically, “over my dead body”. It was an excellent scene, as well-played as ever by Charles Dance and Peter Dinklage; one of the few scenes, in fact, that had room to breathe in the multitude here.

Another was a very uncomfortable dinner with Joffrey and Cersei being visited by the Tyrells. Margery, having basically been anointed future Queen at the end of last season, was living up to the role by doing a Princess Diana – visiting orphanages, feeding the poor, and genuinely trying to become as well-loved by the people of Westeros as Joffrey is well-hated. The dinner was a scene of subtextual verbal jousting; almost every word spoken was a subtle jibe, while on the surface everyone was perfectly civil, even Joffrey for a wonder.

We also caught up with the losing side, as Liam Cunningham’s Davos Seaworth was revealed to have survived the battle by dint of hanging on to a handy rock. Rescued by charismatic pirate Salladhor Saan, Davos wasted no time rushing off to Dragonstone in a doomed attempt to free Stannis from the evil Melisandre. No dice – Carice van Houten continues to rival Lena Headey’s Cersei for the crown of Most Evil Woman in the show. A decent bloke like Davos doesn’t stand a chance against her.

The  very briefest of visits to the army of Robb Stark revealed that he’d reached Harrenhal, where the Mountain had slaughtered hundreds of prisoners. The main discontent in Army Stark, however, remains the freeing of Jaime Lannister by Catelyn. It looks like that’s going to lead to trouble for Robb, but he at least had the nous to have his mother clapped into a dungeon. I wouldn’t bank on that appeasing his bannermen for long though…

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And lastly, a slightly more detailed visit to Essos caught us up with the doings of Dany Targaryen and her loyal (if seasick) Dothraki. Her dragons are getting bigger, and continue to be one of the show’s better effects. But they’re not big enough to win a war, so it was off to the slave markets of Astapor to buy a few thousand of ‘the Unsullied’ a Spartan-like band of slave soldiers hardened by castration, brutal training and the requirement to kill a baby to graduate.

The scene in which Dany’s disquiet with slavery is counterpointed with humorous translation gags between her, the slave dealer and cowed translator girl Missandei was faithfully transcribed from the book (“tell the old man he smells of piss”). As was, wince-makingly, the moment where slave dealer Krazis demonstrates how bloody hard the Unsullied are by chopping the nipple off one of them while he doesn’t even flinch. He may not have, but I certainly did.

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Plainly, Dany has a problem with slavery. Equally plainly, the slavers have a problem with her (“tell the Westerosi whore to pay attention”). This may not end well.

First though, she had other enemies to deal with – namely the blue-mouthed warlocks of Qarth, one of whose number she unceremoniously burnt to death with her dragons last year. This has not pleased them, so an assassin was dispatched, in the shape of a creepy little girl with a blue mouth. As horror fans know, you can’t go wrong with a creepy little girl. Especially if she’s carrying a fearsome looking scorpion-style thingy.

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Luckily for Dany, another long lost character reappeared to save her by impaling the beastie on a short sword. Yes, it was none other than Ser Barristan Selmy, last seen being fired from the Kingsguard by the petulant Joffrey. Repenting of his allegiance to the Baratheons and the Lannisters, he’s  turned up to help the last Targaryen, who he sees as the true heir.

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In the books, Barristan spent most of the length of one novel not revealing his identity, instead going by the name Whitebeard. The producers of the show have sensibly dispensed with this, as the viewers would undoubtedly recognise actor Ian McIlhenny unless he was heavily made up. Rather than going through that, they’ve clearly decided it was a plot thread they didn’t really need.

They may well have to edit out quite a few others, with this adaptation being probably the most ambitious of all. Even in such a crowded opening episode, there were several important plot threads that we didn’t catch up on. Where are Bran and Hodor? What’s become of Brienne and Jaime Lannister? How’s Arya Stark doing?

This was a solid enough season opener – for many shows, you’d think it outstanding. For this one though, it merely felt functional; a necessary catchup and scene setting for the advancement of the multifarious plots this year. Game of Thrones is never less than compelling, but it’s at its best when concentrating on just one or two of its plot threads, or a handful of its characters. For the beginning of a new season, that’s not really possible, but this was probably the best compromise we could hope for between drama and story advancement.

In the Flesh: Episode 3

“You want me to stay – when I’m like this?”

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All that repressed emotion, Northern stoicism and air of impending tragedy paid off in this week’s final episode of BBC3’s almost too brief In the Flesh, as all the resentment and prejudice the town of Roarton bore towards the ‘Partially Deceased’ boiled to the surface. The result, inevitably, was tragedy and heartache – and yet also some genuinely warm moments that were, curiously in a show about zombies, quite life-affirming.

The tragedy, inevitably, centred on unrepentant anti-Rotter bigot and HVF supremo Bill Macy (Steve Evets, superb). Even with his own son returned from the dead as a Partially Deceased sufferer, Bill couldn’t come to terms with his feelings towards the ‘Rotters’ he’d fought in the Rising; a fact not helped by Rick being every bit as in denial as his father. In a show full of allegories, Bill stood out as a war veteran unable to deal with the changed reality of peacetime. It was a status that put him on an unavoidable collision with the new world, and led to tragedy for all the characters we’d met so far.

Those characters were, without an exception, well-drawn. In many ways, they were familiar from many dramas set in small Northern towns, and there was fun to be had from seeing that juxtaposed with the unusual fantasy backdrop. Hence the amusingly awkward moment when Philip’s mum Shirley found him sneaking out from the house where he’d just slept with Rotter Amy, and each avoided telling the other the truth – despite the fact that it was painfully obvious to both of them.

The Walker family, meanwhile, were still eking out revelations about what had happened during and since the Rising, secrets that had festered for all of them, even Kieren. Luke Newberry showed how good he was this week, as the increasingly confident Kieren developed from timid recluse to a young man with his own sense of self-respect – even as he faced up to his own personal guilt. The flashbacks to his ‘rabid’ self killing young Lisa Lancaster were expanded as he remembered that his sister had been there, and been unable to kill him.

This gave Jem too a chance to resolve what was eating away at her. Not just her hatred of the Rotters, but her inability to put down one that had been her brother, and her own feeling of guilt at having failed to save Lisa. Thus reconciled, the Walker siblings went to tell Lisa’s parents the truth, in a scene that was both affecting and full of surprise. Not only did Mr and Mrs Lancaster unexpectedly forgive Kieren straight away, they refused to give up hope for their daughter, preferring to believe that she would return from the grave as a result of Kieren’s bite.

This allowed writer Dominic Mitchell to shed a bit more light on his mythology. We’d already heard last week that bites don’t cause you to turn; this week, Kieren sadly explained that it was only those who’d died in a particular period that came back.

It was telling that Jem sensitively downplayed this, to leave the couple with the hope that they might still see their daughter again. “You’ve got to have faith, haven’t you?” commented Mr Lancaster. Faith, it turned out, was a major theme of the story this week, and it was left very much ambiguous as to whether it was a good or a bad thing. You could argue that Jem’s sensitivity to the Lancasters left them incapable of moving on and accepting that their daughter wasn’t coming back.

Similarly, it was Rev Oddie’s faith (based on the sort of interpretation of the Bible that you’d expect) that there would be a second Rising, as predicted in Revelations, which would bring back the pure and the good. With no explanation forthcoming for the original Rising, you can see why that might seem plausible, particularly in a society that had seen a resurgence in religious belief.

All of these factors came into play in tying together the various plot threads we’d established for some hard-to-watch resolutions. Rick, pushed too far by his father into trying to kill Kieren, finally embraced what he was and confronted Bill in his true, unmade-up state.

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This felt like another layer to the allegorical depiction of the zombies here – the scene was played very much like a young gay man coming out to his violently homophobic father. And indeed, the implication that Kieren and Rick were more than just friends hung heavy throughout. Kieren’s guilt and suicide over his best friend’s death, Bill’s hatred of him even before the Rising, the graffiti on the cave wall saying ‘Ren and Rick 4 Ever’ – if the pair of them weren’t supposed to have been lovers, I’d be very surprised. Kieren might have had a proposal of marriage from the flighty Amy, but he didn’t seem that jubilant about the idea…

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As the defiant face of ‘zombie rights’ Amy had a hard time this episode. Having slept with ‘pillar of the community’ Philip, only to be told by him that nobody should find out, she had to contend with being assaulted in her own home by the HVF’s Gary, trying to slap her makeup on, after having painted ‘PDS’ on her door.

This latest development, apparently passed by the Parish Council, was another uncomfortable parallel with the ostracisation of certain social groups. Most notably, it reminded me of the way certain newspapers often call for all convicted offenders to be identified to their local communities, even if they’ve served their sentences in full and been rehabilitated. Here again, the script didn’t overtly condemn this sort of thing, though the use of the phrase “only obeying orders” made Mitchell’s feelings on the issue fairly clear.

No wonder Amy was fed up enough to leave Roarton and head off to the ‘commune’ of the Undead Prophet, as advertised on the ‘Undead Liberation Army’ website. This was an intriguing idea – could that really work? Amy was convinced there was plenty of Neurotryptiline there to keep the residents from turning rabid – but wasn’t that the defiant aim of the ULA? If the concept does stretch to a second series, that would be an interesting avenue to explore.

Though I’m not sure it will, as from a character perspective it felt like this story was pretty complete. Bill went into full-on denial, ‘killing’ what he assumed to be an ‘imposter’ rather than his son and dumping the body on Kieren’s driveway. Kieren went ballistic (kudos to Luke Newberry for that scene, which made me want to give him a great big hug) and stormed over to the Macy household for a cathartic shouting match with Bill, now so far removed from reality he was calmly watching football and claiming not to have seen his son for five years.

It was an intense scene that called out fine performances from all concerned, and again reminded us that this is a writer from a theatrical background – he knows how to make such emotional moments truly powerful in a small setting. Confronted by his wife’s sobbing hatred, Bill seemed to realise what he’d done – just in time to be blasted with a shotgun by the vengeful Ken Burton. The ever-excellent Ricky Tomlinson may have been used sparingly for this series, but always to great effect.

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And as if that wasn’t intense (and grim) enough, it was followed by another ‘act’ in which we finally learned the circumstances of Kieren’s suicide, and his family began to come to terms with it.

Perhaps it’s because a few people I’ve known have committed suicide, and I’ve seen  the wreckage left behind, but I found these scenes almost unbearably moving. They were, basically, what those left behind would always want to say to the one who’d died – but this time, he could answer them. It was the kind of resolution that, in real life, is effectively impossible. Seeing it played out like this was a kind of wish fulfilment that was simultaneously emotionally affecting and hard to watch.

It’s been a very good series, In the Flesh, despite its too-obvious similarity to the recently departed Being Human. Unlike that show, it was rather more grim and certainly slower-paced, but the characters and backstories built up were very convincing and well-played. There was always the sense that under the genre trappings was an original story that was more of a straight drama; but the fantasy backdrop gave it a resonance that, paradoxically, it might not have had without it.

As I say, it seems to me that this story is very definitely finished. I’ve no idea whether writer Dominic Mitchell is planning to write more of this world; perhaps, like George Romero’s zombie films, with different characters in the same situation. If he does, I’ll definitely be coming back for more. For all my misgivings about ‘humanising’ zombies, the premise here not only worked, but served to shed plenty of allegorical light on the real world. Only the best fantasy does that.

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The Walking Dead: Season 3, Episode 16–Welcome to the Tombs

“In this life now, you kill or you die – or you die and you kill.”

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And so, the generally enthralling third season of The Walking Dead has come to an end with a surprisingly low-key – even anticlimactic – finale. Matters finally came to a head between the armed forces of Rick and the armed forces of the Governor. And yet, despite a very heavy buildup in the preceding episodes to an apocalyptic final battle, this ep centred more on the characters than the action – and left unresolved the expected showdown between main hero and main villain.

Not necessarily a bad thing, but I have to admit, I was expecting a little more action than this. True, there was a battle, but it took place mid-episode and was, if anything, less tense than the Governor’s previous assault on the prison folk. Most of the story concerned itself with the ongoing intrigue in the Woodbury community, and for that at least there was some kind of resolution; though I’m not sure it really made sense.

Strategically, a lot of this made little sense, though the Governor at least had the excuse of being utterly unhinged. The ep began with some nice pov shots leading the viewer to believe he was beating and torturing Andrea, though it quickly became obvious that it was the treacherous Milton who was the object of his ire.

As Milton had become, effectively, Woodbury’s conscience, it was a foreshadowing of the Governor’s fast-crumbling sanity that he was prepared to torture his old friend, then force him to prove his loyalty by killing Andrea, still cuffed to the Dentist Chair of Doom. Predictably, Milton took the opportunity to turn the knife onto the Governor himself, who equally predictably used it to stab Milton. He then left him to die, so he would rise as a Walker and kill Andrea anyway – after last week, he’s plainly got a taste for that particular cruelty.

It was a setup for a tense series of scenes spread throughout the episode, as Andrea struggled to reach the unnoticed pair of pliers on the floor, while we wondered exactly how long it was going to take Milton to die and reanimate – as long as was convenient to wring the maximum tension from the scenario, as it turned out.

Rick and co, meanwhile, appeared to be preparing to abandon the prison – surely the only sensible decision when faced with the overwhelming numbers from Woodbury, however many guns they may have got from Morgan. It was at this point that I had an inkling the heavily implied pitched battle might not be in the offing after all, though abandoning the prison was the realistic, sensible thing to do.

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So when the Governor did turn up, in armoured column with rocket launchers and grenades, it seemed like the explosive carnage he wreaked on the prison watchtowers and the Walkers between the fences might all be for naught. The pyrotechnics were cool, and it was fun seeing so many Walkers withering in a hail of high-calibre gunfire, but it seemed lacking in drama if Rick and the gang had already fled.

Except, as it turned out, they hadn’t. It was a good bit of misdirection to have so thoroughly convinced us they’d gone. And yet, it seemed a bit of an anticlimax that the Governor’s forces could be so easily routed once in the prison’s dingy corridors. A couple of the usual smoke bombs, a few Walkers and some loud sirens had them running like rabbits, at which point the armoured Glenn and Maggie let rip with some machine gun fire. Already confused, the fleeing Woodbury-ites went into full retreat.

OK, it’s a fair and realistic point that most of the Governor’s forces were not from the military, and would have been ill-prepared for actual combat. In that sense, their reaction was perfectly believable. But it didn’t jibe with their previous attempts, nor with the Governor’s established ability to whip them into a propaganda-inspired fervour, that they would give up quite so easily.

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The Governor at least was more consistent. Faced with mutinous troops who wouldn’t carry out his personal vendetta for him, he took the predictable choice of every discerning psychopathic dictator and slaughtered the lot of them. The scene was less shocking than it could have been, as it had been telegraphed long before that the Governor was fast becoming utterly unhinged; under the circumstances, his “WTF?” strategy of destroying his own army didn’t come as too much of a surprise. It didn’t carry much dramatic weight either, as the only character in the group who we even knew by name was Allen, and he didn’t feel like much of a loss.

With that, we pretty much lost the only possibility of a major conflict; though I’ll admit that, had the expected apocalypse happened, I wouldn’t have expected many from Rick’s gang to survive. Nonetheless, it felt like a bit of a dramatic cheat that the Governor, accompanied by the ever-loyal Martinez and one other unquestioning henchman, then sped off into the distance, not to be seen again. I can understand the desire to keep him around; the comic has never managed to come up with an antagonist to match him. But surely, the finale of a season that’s been all about the conflict between him and Rick deserved at least some kind of dramatic payoff in the form of a showdown. This just felt disappointing.

The show has never clearly established exactly how many people were in Woodbury, and certainly the conflict must have taken its toll. But it seemed a little implausible (and convenient) that the only people left on watch in the town were Tyreese and Donna, especially since we’d already established that they were deeply suspicious of the Governor. So it was that Rick and co, trying to take the fight to the enemy, found first the massacred remains of their former foes and were then able to walk into their HQ with barely a shot fired.

Again, I had to quibble with the overall strategy. With most of the Governor’s forces committed to the prison attack, why didn’t Rick make his move on Woodbury then? He could have been in charge of the town before the Governor’s forces even got to the prison.

Still, cop he may be, but Rick’s not a soldier either. So I could forgive him having missed that option. But it seemed baffling that, with the Governor gone and Woodbury having pretty much welcomed Rick, Daryl and Michonne with virtually open arms, they all chose to move back to the dingy, less than secure prison, the town’s remaining population in tow. Why not move everyone into the still-fortified Woodbury? Do they actually want to make their lives as difficult as possible?

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There were, at least, some good dramatic payoffs. Carl shockingly gunned down a scared young guy from Woodbury who was trying to surrender, much to Hershel’s disquiet. When Rick learned the circumstances, he was less than pleased either, but Carl was unrepentant. His argument – that Rick’s mercy in not killing Andrew had led to the death of Lori, and not killing the Governor had led to the death of Merle – made worrying sense. And was further evidence that the ruthless pragmatism formerly embodied by Shane hasn’t died with him. I suspect we’re going to see a very ‘dark’ Carl next year.

The biggest dramatic payoff, though, was of course Andrea. Having eked out the tension of her situation throughout the ep, director Ernest Dickerson cleverly let the action happen offscreen when Milton finally did revive as a Walker. Thus it was that when her erstwhile friends found her, with Milton’s corpse in the background, we still didn’t know whether she was alive or undead.

It turned out to be a bit of both; yes, she’d offed the Milton-Walker, but she’d been bitten and was in the feverish stage of dying from the bite. The ensuing last scene between her, Rick, Daryl and Michonne was not as moving as it could have been if Andrea hadn’t been so wilfully dumb all year long. She asserted that she’d just wanted to save everyone, even the Governor – that worked out well, then.

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Michonne at least got one of her rare displays of actual emotion (beyond surly anger), and Danai Gurira was quite affecting as she cradled the head of her former friend. Points also for her managing to resist saying, “I told you so”, which certainly would have been most people’s temptation at this stage. Rick and Daryl left them alone for Andrea to perform the final act,though the inevitable gunshot was merely heard offscreen. I think we have seen the last of Andrea though, which despite her being so annoying this year seems a bit of a shamed; Laurie Holden is a talented actor given the right material.

The ep faded to black with everyone back at the prison, presumably about to rebuild. No cliffhanger, no sense of what might be due to happen next. It almost felt like the show was hedging its bets against not being renewed by providing an actual ending of sorts; though given its success this year, I’d be amazed if it wasn’t back for another season.

This year has been, generally, a superb season – I think that’s why such a low key season finale felt like a bit of a disappointment. With episode after episode having ramped up the dramatic stakes continuously, it was perhaps impossible for anything to top the season overall as a final payoff. Nevertheless, I have to say I found it curiously unsatisfying after the show has barely put a foot wrong all year. There was nothing really wrong with it, but somehow it felt like an anticlimax, and the lack of a Rick/Governor showdown is hard to forgive.

Overall, though, this year has let the show truly show what it can do given a decent budget and a reasonable season length. It’s become the weekly post-apocalypse zombie show I always hoped it would be. Reason enough for me to forgive a somewhat disappointing finale and still eagerly look forward to next year. It is hard to see where they can go from here, though…

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