4. True Detective- “Who Goes There”
True Detective may have disappointed in the end, and it’s certainly one of the more overrated series of the year, but that didn’t stop “Who Goes There” from blowing me away. This is essentially my “Technical Achievement” award for the year, as while I never got emotionally involved in anything that happened to Matty or Woody, I was blown away by the acting, direction and most notably, the cinematography.
I’m a sucker for intense action scenes and particularly single-take sequences. I love Children of Men and am a Gravity apologist. The single-take concept doesn’t work for every scenario, but when used correctly it can add extra vigor and intensity to a well-choreographed action scene. Almost all are faked to a certain degree, but when the transitions are seamless the viewer is tricked into thinking it’s all just movie magic.
Honestly, I don’t remember much about this episode except that Rust had to infiltrate a biker gang he once went undercover with so he could get information on the King in Yellow. In order to get that intel, he had to assist the gang with a stick-up job in one of Louisiana’s predominantly black ghettos. It would have been nice if True Detective had addressed the racial politics of the region more directly, but that was never its focus and the closing action scene of the ep does do a good job of viscerally illustrating said tension.
I love the slow buildup of the sequence. As soon as the gang arrives at the stash house you know shit is going to go south but by that point you’re locked in for the ride. That tension finally explodes and we’re given a frontline view of a quickly-escalating gang war. I also appreciate action sequences that are more about survival and less about body counts, hence my love for Children of Men. Clive Owen rarely handles a weapon in that film and is generally just trying to not get killed. Rust is armed in “Who Goes There” but since he’s a cop on an unsanctioned undercover operation, he can’t fire his weapon, and instead has to stealthily navigate the back alleys of the ghetto and get to safety. It makes for one of the most thrilling sequences ever aired on television, and proof that TV can achieve the same level of grandeur as its big screen sibling.
3. Fargo- “Morton’s Fork”
I’m pretty sick of TV shows based on books and even more so of those based on movies. I hear 12 Monkeys is good but why should I bother? I already saw the Terry Gilliam film and no one can replicate Gilliam except Gilliam. I had a similar opinion of Fargo when I first saw posters for it early last year. I assumed the series would just be a drawn-out version of the Coen Brothers film and thus did not see the appeal. However, the more articles I read and the more trailers I saw, the more it became apparent that it was really an original story inspired by the film and made in a similar style. That could work, I thought, and besides, it had a great cast, namely Billy Bob Thornton and Sherlock’s Martin Freeman.
On an episode-by-episode basis, this was the best show I watched in 2014. It had very few dips, never spun any wheels, and certainly didn’t dress any windows. It captured the spirit of the original film and the Coen Brothers’ general style without aping it, and had a tangential connection to the source material that felt meaningful but not forced. Lorne Malvo is one of my favorite TV villains ever, equal parts terrifying and hilarious. I love that he just enjoys fucking up people’s shit for no reason, like in this episode, when he informs the new occupants of Lester’s house that someone was murdered there, just to traumatize some kids. Evil can be scary, but I like my evil to have a little fun.
Martin Freeman also nails it as Lester Nygaard. In the hands of another actor, the character could have been silly, but Freeman is so talented he manages to get the audience to sympathize with Lester even in his most despicable moments. The series ends in much the same way as the film, with the criminals receiving their just desserts and life in Minnesota trucking on. At times surreal, at others truly touching, Fargo was a joy to watch and I’m very excited for season 2, which goes back to the 1970s. I prefer original programming to adaptations, but if a network is determined to adapt a film into a series, Fargo is the prime example of how to do it.
2. Game of Thrones- “The Children”
I have so many thoughts and feelings about Game of Thrones’ most recent season that it’ll be a real feat to fit it into this one post. In 2011, fresh off the failure that was LOST, Game of Thrones gave me faith in television and reminded me of what fandom is.
Four years later, Game of Thrones and more so, A Song of Ice and Fire, remain my main source of fandom, but the former has taught me that I don’t really like fandom or want to be a part of it anymore. Fans are gross, and GoT fans are some of the worst. In 2011 I felt cool. I was watching this weird fantasy show that was a cult success back then, not a worldwide phenomenon. Then I read all the books and felt even cooler. Now I just feel like some asshole in a sea of assholes.
The fact of the matter is, the books are far superior to the show. Whether you care for the fantasy genre or not, whether you can stomach Martin’s writing style or not, to me this is not a subjective opinion but a declaration of fact. The books may be overlong, complicated and stuffy, but everything the show attempts they do better, and everything the show adds pales in comparison to the things it cuts. I am a book fan first, a show fan second.
I am a serious fan of the books. I think they are the pinnacle of high fantasy, better than Lord of the Rings or any of Tolkien’s influences or protégés. They have deep themes, namely about the nature of power, but the one that really resonates with me is the deep anti-war message. A Song of Ice and Fire depicts a fantastical version of real medieval conflicts, but its meaning is universal. War is nothing more than a game of power played by a select few, and the greatest casualties are the smallfolk, who wish for nothing but rain and a long summer, but receive only death and misery.
The show however, is a borderline guilty pleasure for me. All of the books’ most famous moments are depicted fairly accurately and with great respect for the source material, and every once in a while David Benioff and D.B. Weiss hit the highs of Martin’s works, for example Littlefinger’s season three “Climb” speech, which while flying in the face of the books’ lore, is probably my favorite bit of non-book dialogue and perfectly sums up the point I illustrated in the previous paragraph. Generally however, the show is tits and gore and dragons, three things I adore, but cannot label as “art” while keeping a straight face. The books are art, the show is equivalent to a Christopher Nolan film—artsy entertainment with a bit more to say than your average blockbuster.
But I love to be entertained, and while this was a very uneven season overall, it was probably the series’ most entertaining to date. Joffrey choked on his own blood, Jon Snow stabbed a sword through a dude’s mouth, Drogon ate some sheep, Daario peed on a corpse, Littlefinger pushed a lady out a window, a guy’s head LITERALLY EXPLODED, and to top it all off there was a battle so epic as to rival Helm’s Deep. All of that awesomeness culminated in “The Children,” a finale that while divisive among book fans, to me represents the pinnacle of what this show can achieve.
I cried when Daenerys chained up her dragons and almost did again when Jon laid Ygritte to rest. I was on the edge of my seat when Brienne and the Hound dueled even though I already knew the outcome. I clapped with geeky glee when skeletons rose out of the snow and laughed at the absurdity of an elf girl detonating Jojen’s corpse with lightning bolts. This episode drew me in and left me pining for the next chapter, but more than that, it transported me to a mental headspace I find increasingly difficult to return to the older I get.
When I was younger, storytelling was capable of absorbing me completely, and quite easily at that. Characters weren’t actors, they were people I came to know and love, and I found myself reacting to their struggles and triumphs as if they were my own family or friends. Film school showed me the seams and the cracks but still, I could lose myself in these wonderful worlds. Now I’m more cynical and more aware of the realities of the world, and it is harder for me to leave that behind and let go when the house lights dim. It still happens but it is a rarity, and when it does I relish the experience.
There are so many different methods of storytelling, so many mediums and genres and tastes and opinions, that nothing is truly universal. Joseph Campbell may have shown us the DNA that connects all myths, but he didn’t account for personal taste. I appreciate technical prowess, philosophical musings, political commentary, aesthetic beauty and more, but what I really want my stories to do is make me feel something. I want that physiological response, I want to be reminded of my humanity, and when a story does that, that to me is the ideal to strive for. To draw the viewer in so completely that they forget what they are watching is an illusion, that is, for me at least, the greatest achievement.
Favorite show/episode of the year coming tomorrow…