Game of Thrones: “Breaker of Chains”

Season Four, Episode One

Written by: David Benioff, D.B. Weiss

Directed by: D.B. Weiss

Based on the novels by: George R.R. Martin

Subgenre: Epic High Fantasy

If the Internet would permit me a few brief moments of gushing, I might say that “Breaker of Chains” is, like, soooooooo super amazing and totally more awesome than seventy chocolate-dipped dance parties at the Superbowl. With Prince. But alas, we all know quite well that the Internet, having been invented by humourless Victorians in the mid 19th-century, shall have none of that sort of untoward silliness, thank you very much. It is, after all, a forum of the most laudable restraint and high-minded principles, and surely the strain of unleashing such vulgar, ostentatious verbiage upon its wholesome tubes and switches and crankshafts and what-have-you would occasion a scandal after the most dreadful style.

The Speculative Post's Review

Indeed, Game of Thrones is itself an institution of uncompromising moral decency. The sorts of narratives to which we are treated each week are chock-full of uplifting scenarios and upstanding individuals who exemplify the courtesy and chastity of our Victorian predecessors-in-uptightery. For example, Game of Thrones would never show its impressionable audience the heartless murder of a loyal retainer- oh wait… However, it certainly would never see a character robbing an innocent farmer and his adorable daughter- ah. Well, you can bet your lucky stars that D.B. Weiss and company would never stoop to wholesale slaughter and cannibalism- fiddlesticks!. Okay, okay, but at the very least, we can all rest secure in the comfortable knowledge that our beloved program would never depict incestuous rape- oh shit. Uh, that is, incestuous rape in a temple- dammit! What I meant was incestuous rape in a temple next to the corpse of an incestuous lovechild- OH FUCKING HELL, NOW REALLY THAT IS JUST TOO MUCH.

Okay, dropping the Victorian overtures, I’m just going to come out and say that the aforementioned scene really bothers me. We’re used to seeing some pretty depraved shit on Game of Thrones, but this has got to be the most disturbing thing that has ever happened. And it really upsets me, because I was sooooo looking forward to the idea of liking Jaime, a project that is not going anywhere after this.

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"It's a trick. Get an axe."

Very very disturbing content aside, “Breaker of Chains” is a magnificent episode. It hit all the right emotional and narrative notes to create a perfect storm of empathy and curiosity. For the first time since last season’s “The Bear and the Maiden Fair,” I am absolutely dying to see what’s next. Which is not to take anything away from the intervening episodes, but even the Red Wedding and Joffreycide didn’t leave me with the same burning desire to see the plot move forward as this episode did.

First off, Petry’s back! Hooray! I guess? Look, I’ll level with you guys. Every season, it seems like Aiden Gillen gets hammier and hammier, and it’s getting a little out of hand. Someone needs to sit that guy down and say “Hhey Aiden, did you hear that Christian Bale was cast in Game of Thrones!? Yeah, NEITHER DID I, so knock off the goddamned gravelly-ass Batman voice and just talk normally, like you did in the good old days of Season One when people actually liked you.” Though to be fair, Baelish IS kind of like Batman. They both have oodles of money and give off the appearance of being aloof playboys. They are both haunted by obsessive thoughts of unfulfilled past relationships with women: Bruce Wayne with his dead mother, Baelish with Catelyn Tully. And they both focus this obsession into a singular drive towards a new goal: to honour his mother’s memory, Bruce Wayne wants to fight crime; to honour his unrequited love’s memory, Petyr Baelish wants to, er, score with her daughter. He might say “keep safe,” but come on… We all know that boat trip is going to be full of phrases like “oh shoot, look at that, my robe just plum fell right off” and “just think of me as the imaginary friend you never tell anyone about”… So yeah, ol’ Pete’s basically the Dark Knight of close-talking sexual predators. And that little almost-but-not-quite-a-smirk of his totally reminds me of Michael Keaton, too.

Did anyone else get a little misty-eyed at Podrick and Tyrion’s heartfelt goodbye? I know I sure did. And the best part is that Tyrion’s development over the years has seemed organic and believable. We would normally never think of Tyrion as the type to selflessly face death in order to protect his squire when not doing that was an option. And yet, from the moment he walked into that cell I was like “oh geez, I’m going to start tearing up by the end of this, I just know it. I am no good at keeping it together when bromance is afoot!” Also, in case anyone’s wondering, I just this very moment created a Nickelback tribute band called “Bromance is Afoot.” We’re awful.

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"I'm the hero Westeros deserves"

Clearly the best part of the episode is the fact that we got some more Houndrya™ material. We didn’t even get that much of it, except for The Hound robbing the Riverlands’ version of Ned Flanders and Arya predictably calling him out. But it was amazing. When Maisie Williams screeched “you are the worst... Shit... in the Seven Kingdoms!” I was filled with a greater measure of unrepentant joy than could be contained even by the lyrics to “We Are the World” written out in Comic Sans on turquoise stationery (the “i”s are little hearts too!). Williams gets better and better with each passing season. No one else could have made a kid with Arya’s horrifying past sound like a real kid at that moment. Anyways, they’re totally best buds, you guys, and it’s awesome. Yeah, I know, something’s probably going to happen to break them up or something and blah blah blah but SHUSH! For the moment, let me savour each and every moment of sweet sweet Houndrya™ goodness before some horrible thing reminds us that this is the “realistic” fantasy universe, where no one is ever happy and circumstance releases messy bowel movements all over everything we cherish all the time.

Speaking of this supposedly being the “realistic” fantasy universe, would someone mind telling what in the hell we watched in front of the gates of Meereen? Seriously guys, I’m only going to say this about two or three more times every time he appears: Daario Naharis is super lame. He’s like this series’ version of Peter Jackson’s version of Legolas. Also, why does he have so many buckles on his leather tunic? Is it made of old belts or something? Yeah, buckles are cool, but that’s clearly an unreasonable number of buckles. No way do all of those fasten something to something else. Do I need to come right out and make a Game of Steampunk joke mocking this, or can we all just imagine it in our heads? While we’re at it, in what sort of realistic fantasy universe does the most skilled single combatant in Meereen ride around like a chubby Cheech Marin and pee on things for dramatic effect (and also, why was “dudes peeing” the episode’s visual theme- there’s an awful lot of it for one hour of story)? The whole business felt so contrived that I really got yanked out of the “believability” project that the series is normally going for. The Essos scene was otherwise pretty good, though. I got a little rush of pride on behalf of Jorah when Dany called him her closest friend. Ah, Jorah… Bromance is afoot (seriously, if he ever dies this show is dead to me)!.

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"This is so demeaning. Back in Winterfell we had Fraggles to pick our radishes for us."

In other news, how about those orgies, eh? I’m a little conflicted here. I think it’s awesome that the show is not shying away from having an openly bisexual man in the cast who is also supposed to be cunning and deadly; normally, U.S. media would be loathe to depict a bisexual dude as anything but androgynous and slightly goth-y (if they would even acknowledge bisexuality as being a thing for guys at all), so Oberyn is largely a good get for the purposes of breaking up the straight white male parade. But all they ever really show him doing is having lots of sex while also making a big deal about the fact that he swings both ways. This seems to be verging dangerously close to feeding the stereotype of the hyper-sexualized LGBT dude- not to mention the stereotype of the hyper-sexualized swarthy not-quite-white dude (Oberyn is pretty much Rudolph Valentino, after all). I suppose, in the end, Oberyn was created by George R.R. Martin, who’s not exactly known for his ability to convincingly write characters who aren’t horny young white guys, horny old white guys, or old white guys who have gotten too wizened to care about being horny anymore. We’ll see how it turns out, I guess. In the meantime, despite initially finding him kind of off-putting, Oberyn has quickly climbed the ranks and I’m really enjoying him now. I think the implication that he’s older than he first appeared actually gives him some depth and gravitas, and his back-and-forth with Tywin was a veritable Masterpiece Theatre for passive-aggressive alpha males, courtesy of Pedro Pascal and Charles Dance.

I’m going to quietly pass over the fact that Hannah Murray has been added to the main cast for Season Four, because yeah, that’s really what we need is more awkward domestic comedy featuring Sam and Gilly, Westeros’ answer to the lame formulaic fish-out-of-water romance question no one asked. Something compelling better come of this eventually, because as it is, I kind of wish the white walker had gotten them.

I could go on quite a bit longer about “Breaker of Chains,” but I think I’ve covered most of the important bits (okay, I didn’t talk about Davos and Shireen’s Reading Rainbow, which I probably should have, because Davos has some good one-liners, but whatever, when something actually happens at Dragonstone besides religious executions and jokes about smugglers, then I’ll write about it). This may not go down as one of the all-time greats, but I have a feeling it will remain one of my very favourites (except the horrifying incestuous rape in a temple next to the corpse of an incestuous lovechild. That I could have done without).

Transcendence

Director: Wally Pfister

Screenplay by: Jack Paglan

Starring: Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Morgan Freeman

Subgenre: Drama, Mystery, Sci Fi

Last week my husband surprised me with my very first smartphone, and I love it. It rides around in my purse or my pocket, perpetually connected to the internet, keeping track of my appointments, my contacts, and my emails. It’s a friend that knows everything about me down to my google searches and doesn’t judge. It’s a partner that helps me win arguments. It keeps me organized and excels at some things I’m terrible at, and in our time together (provided my clumsiness doesn’t result in my little buddy’s early and untimely demise), I’m confident that it will help me achieve my dreams. My husband, incidentally, possesses a lot of these same qualities, and I’m obviously not the first person to notice similarities between spouses and smartphones, because a science fiction movie just came out about the husband and the hard drive becoming one. However, Transcendence is not the first in its genre to explore what happens when minds and machines meld, and it’s not the best. There are inventive moments, but ultimately, and sadly, this movie doesn’t manage to touch, much less transcend, its own high ambitions.

The Speculative Post's Review

Crimes against nature and crimes against God have provided endless fodder for speculative fiction since Icarus’ father trusted a teenager with a set of makeshift wings. As a species, humans are fascinated with technology, and just as fascinated with the hypothetical point where inventiveness slips into perversion. It happened when Dr. Frankenstein animated his creation, it happened when Jurassic Park’s power grid failed, and it happened when Joel and Clementine hired medical professionals to systematically delete the strife and joy of their relationship in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. We’ve grown accustomed to our science fiction giving us monsters that are born of arrogance and hubris, horrifying for their own merit but mostly for their origins, the best of intentions. Excellent science fiction balances progress with prudence, encouraging advancement while still respecting and exercising caution regarding forces that challenge our understanding, but it’s also the hardest formula to write successfully. Transcendence serves as a reminder of how difficult this really is by reaching too many directions at once, and not far enough into any of them.

Complex movies are the meat of the industry, but this one wanders too much, dipping shallowly into themes that it never fully explores before flinging itself at a new angle to merely glance off of.

You’ve seen it before, and you’ve almost definitely seen it done better, but the story follows a husband-wife scientist duo who work together pushing artificial intelligence to its limits. They see beauty and hope in their work; Will Caster (Johnny Depp) is brilliant but laid back, and Evelyn Caster (Rebecca Hall) is ambitious with lofty, world-changing goals. Together, they are a productive and motivated team, but after they deliver a successful presentation, a group that gives cyber terrorism new meaning attacks multiple computer labs and research teams in a well-coordinated operation that culminates in an assassin shooting Will. The bullet only grazes him, but it’s laced with enough radiation to kill him in weeks. Desperate to realize their dreams of creating an omniscient AI, as well as to save Will’s consciousness, the Casters spend his remaining time working with their doubtful colleague Max (Paul Bettany) to upload him into a supercomputer. Their efforts are successful, but it’s uncertain whether they’re dealing with the man they knew or the harbinger of a singularity-prompted apocalypse. Matters are complicated further when Will’s new incarnation goes online, where he manipulates the stock market to make money no object for Evelyn and her ambitions to change the world. Meanwhile, Max is abducted by RIFT, the same anti-technology terrorist organization responsible for his colleague’s death, and thus the chessboard is set.

Nothing about Transcendence flat out doesn’t work. Every performance has thought and heart behind it. There are haunting and memorable lines, shots, and imagery. But this is not the next Matrix; it isn’t striking, shocking, or original enough to be groundbreaking, which leaves it feeling diluted and directionless. Complex movies are the meat of the industry, but this one wanders too much, dipping shallowly into themes that it never fully explores before flinging itself at a new angle to merely glance off of. The most frustrating thing about the film is the fact that it can’t seem to decide on its own message, trying on a lot of different hats: the power of love, the seduction of extremist philosophies, the dangers of technology, attacking what one doesn’t understand, and a lot of religious allegories are all broached, but none get nearly enough time, and there’s no front runner for the ultimate theme. The protagonist is similarly ambiguous, and this isn’t a case where that’s actually a good thing. It could be Will, the formerly dying man who’s sitting firmly in the uncanny valley while healing the sick and the lame. It could be Evelyn who, torn between logic and emotion, is the film’s most compelling source of conflict. It could even be Max, who starts to sympathize with the terrorist organization that kidnaps him and collaborates with their efforts to bring down Will and Evelyn at all costs. I always applaud the effort to break free of a conventional “good guy vs. bad guy” formula, but an earnest effort isn’t necessarily a successful one. This movie wants to challenge what its audience thinks it knows about good and evil, humanity and technology, and ends justifying means, but we know what it’s up to; we already saw Blade Runner manage all of this in one poignant, brief monologue, and “tears in rain” is a tough bit of profundity for any other script to follow.

When asked by an audience member during his presentation if he’s not merely creating his own God, Will smiles and asks if that’s not what man has always done.

That isn’t to say that Transcendence never approaches the profound. Early in the movie, the most memorable and daring line is spoken by Will. When asked by an audience member during his presentation if he’s not merely creating his own God, Will smiles and asks if that’s not what man has always done. It’s just arrogant and clever enough to set the tone for Will’s own journey into godhood, performing scientific and medical miracles with Evelyn in the desert and gathering followers who, it must be noted, come to him of their own free will. Sight is given to the blind, those near death are revitalized, and the crippled walk again… and run, and jump, and lift things that weigh nearly a ton effortlessly. Many are employed by the scientists who gave them a new lease on life, as well as brain enhancements that connect their consciousness to Will’s. These super resilient, self-healing “hybrids” might protect Will and Evelyn from RIFT because they are part of a disturbing and repugnant hivemind; they might also protect them because they have incredible jobs and peerless healthcare. They’re nice people, and they seem happy; if they’ve lost some of their humanity as a result of their healing and enhancements, the movie never touches on it sufficiently enough to matter. The only people who claim that inherent humanity is being compromised are RIFT members, also known as the kooks who blew up computer labs to protest research and progress. Though a few scientists get scared enough to side with them, they never quite wiggle out from under the violent and ugly image that’s established early and makes them so very unlikable. That’s really the biggest problem with Transcendence: if moral ambiguity was the goal, and challenging perceptions about good and evil and the nature of humanity, maybe a terrorist organization that operates under PETA levels of sensationalist logic wasn’t the best counterpart to Will and Evelyn’s objectively benevolent cause. RIFT kills innocent people and is motivated wholly by fear, whereas Will doesn’t even allow death to touch the people who are actively trying to destroy him, differentiating him significantly from a lot of other cold, robotic villains who cite “the greater good” to justify murders.

Transcendence works best when it focuses on the dynamic between Evelyn and Will post-upload. Evelyn can no longer touch or hold her husband, but she can carry him around on her iPad while he continues to provide for her, speak to her, protect her, and ensure that her dreams become reality. As he evolves from pixelated and crude to smooth and polished, he becomes, in a sense, the perfect husband: helpful, attentive, and apologetic when accused of intrusiveness. Unsurprisingly, it starts to drive Evelyn a little crazy; Will is flawless, and Will is everywhere, and the relationship becomes claustrophobic. This is actually an interesting story, and it’s even a bit of a tearjerker. In the real world, psychics and self-proclaimed spirit channelers notoriously take advantage of grieving people who are desperate to hold onto their departed loved ones, so Evelyn’s conviction that her husband’s humanity truly exists within the machine feels real. I would have actually liked Transcendence better if it eliminated the majority of the characters and the obligatory external conflict. A character study documenting a scientist’s unraveling sanity while existing in a vacuum with her computer-god husband would have been sufficiently fascinating for most of this movie’s target audience. I refuse to write it off as too cerebral for the masses in a world where geek is chic and “the masses” are clamoring to identify with Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory for some elusive reason.

Everything Transcendence borrows from or pays homage to shares something important in common: the message that freedom trumps perfection, and that a utopia lacking that streak of individualistic, selfish rebellion ceases to contain humanity.

Transcendence is very beautiful. Visually, it’s state of the art, but it’s 2014; most theatrical releases are. Looking good is no longer a selling point for a movie, it’s assumed to be on-par with everything else with strong budgets and talent behind it. The downside to progress is that the bar for “impressive” is set continually higher, but this film keeps up with industry standards without a problem: a scene that eerily calls to mind a Biblical plague of Egypt is stunning. Even sans IMAX, the light tossed off of water droplets looks sharp and clear enough to cut. Depp’s face for much of the movie appears on a computer screen, and seems like it was specifically designed to dance on a tightrope over the Uncanny Valley; the pixelated edges of his form and slightly laggy movement of his features are chilling and genuinely inspire questions regarding the true nature of Will’s existence. Special effects, unfortunately, are not the only high bar Transcendence aspires to reach. Story-wise, it’s restricted to standing on the shoulders of giants like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, The Matrix, everything by Isaac Asimov, and a dizzying array of others. Everything Transcendence borrows from or pays homage to shares something important in common: the message that freedom trumps perfection, and that a utopia lacking that streak of individualistic, selfish rebellion ceases to contain humanity. This is a great movie for machines who want affirmation that the world would really be better in their unchallenged hands, but not so much the humans who, while not as intelligent as their smartphones, actually occupy those theater seats and have a desire to see conflict, emotion, and art presented on a screen before them for two hours. Luckily, I don’t think that anyone’s mad enough about how disappointing Transcendence is to give its screenwriter Jack Paglan radiation poisoning.



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