Posted in Movie Reviews, Opera

The Opera House

There’s a special pleasure in seeing a film or taped footage of an event my younger self may have experienced several decades ago. “The Opera House,” director Susan Froemke’s new documentary of the conception, construction and finally the opening of the new Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center in 1966 fits that bill to a T. It’s a fascinating saga of artistic, financial and civic cooperation, and definitely one of the most enjoyable films I’ve seen recently. A particularly refreshing aspect is its lack of villains; instead we see a cast of heroes, among whom are Met General Manager Rudolph Bing, Philanthropist John D. Rockefeller III, Lincoln Center Architect Wallace Harrison, Civic Planner Robert Moses, and, most memorably, Soprano Leontyne Price.

As the film rightly points out, the construction of New York’s Lincoln Center, and especially a new home for the Metropolitan Opera, was a national and indeed, an international event. It came at a time when opera claimed a more significant place in the American cultural consciousness than it does today. The exposure of the art form to the general public was then considerable: opera singers had frequently appeared in Hollywood films in the 1930’s and 40’s, and many had had their own radio programs. Later, when television entered the scene, opera singers were a staple on the numerous variety shows that aired; they regularly appeared on “The Tonight Show,” and Beverly Sills even filled in for host Johnny Carson when he was on vacation. The Saturday afternoon broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera, sponsored by Texaco for many years, were an institution. So even if you weren’t a fan, you were at least familiar with the name “Verdi,” and could probably hum the “Toreador Song” from “Carmen.”

I never attended a performance at the old Met at Broadway and 39th Street, but the footage of its auditorium, as Ms. Froemke shows, is breathtaking in its ornate red and gold. However, the house’s shortcomings as a theater were enormous: no room for modern stage equipment, the forced storage of scenery outdoors on Seventh Avenue due to lack of indoor space, few if any rehearsal areas (To further illustrate the point I would have liked Ms. Froemke to have contrasted the physical plant of the old Met by showing the state of the art facilities of a European opera house). As a result plans to build a new opera house were in the wind as early as 1908. A series of problems and crises, not to mention the Depression, intervened in the following decades, so it wasn’t until Robert Moses’ proposal of the cultural enclave that became Lincoln Center that a new opera house began to morph from dream to reality. However, Ms. Froemke doesn’t sugarcoat the human cost of this urban renewal; several former residents of the West Side neighborhood that was condemned and cleared for Lincoln Center express their opinions of their forced move.

A major highlight of “The Opera House” is footage of the groundbreaking ceremony at Lincoln Center in May, 1959, where a very dapper Leonard Bernstein opens the proceedings by leading the New York Philharmonic in Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man.” The event was deemed of such import that President Eisenhower attended; as he does the honors by sinking that first shovel in the earth, we hear the Julliard Choir sing out with the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s “Messiah.” Leading Met singers Risë Stevens and Leonard Warren also performed, and it’s shocking to remember that the latter would be gone in less than a year, dying of a massive heart attack on stage in the midst of a performance of “La Forza del Destino” at the old house.

Met General Manager Rudolph Bing is of course a major presence in “The Opera House.” At first he appears as almost impossibly imperious and formal, and stubbornly opposed to accommodating the “Save the Met” sentimentalists (Ms. Froemke should have provided some context for this controversy by referencing the public outcry at the significant loss of historic structures in New York City, especially Pennsylvania Station, during the late 50’s and early 60’s, and the fact that only a few years before, a public campaign had indeed saved Carnegie Hall from demolition). But in preparing to open the new house while still saying goodbye to the old, Bing emerges as a hero. What a difficult job this man had–mounting a new opera to inaugurate the Met’s new home (Samuel Barber’s “Antony and Cleopatra”), apprehensively eyeing Director Franco Zeffirelli’s creation of a massive extravaganza of a production that eventually broke the stage turntable and famously trapped Leontyne Price inside Cleopatra’s pyramid, overseeing nine new productions scheduled for that first season (four in the first week alone), and dealing with a looming strike by the orchestra musicians (though not mentioned in the film, Bing announced from the stage on Opening Night that a settlement had been reached). The tension as we see Bing deal with all of this is palpable, yet somehow he manages. Few could have handled all these crises as well.

But it’s Soprano Leontyne Price, whose career straddled the old and the new houses, who walks away with the film. At the age of 91 she’s sharply informative as well as a total hoot. I particularly enjoyed her account of what it was like to sing with Tenor Franco Corelli, with whom she made a joint debut at the Met (“We sang insane!!!,” as attested to by the recording of the “Il Trovatore” broadcast from that season), and her stories of the trials, tribulations and triumph of opening the new house as Cleopatra are terrific. As she proudly—and rightly—states, “Sometimes you sing so well you just want to kiss yourself, and I did that night.” When she breaks into the opening phrases of Samuel Barber’s “Knoxville: Summer of 1915” (“It has become the time of evening/When people sit on their porches/Rocking gently and talking gently…”) while reminiscing about their friendship, don’t be surprised if you find yourself tearing up as I did. As the possessor of the most beautiful soprano voice of my time, she remains a treasure.

“The Opera House’ will be screened once more as a Fathom event on January 17. Here’s hoping for a quick release of the DVD and a showing on PBS. It’s a marvelous film.

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Posted in Television

The Crown

WARNING–SPOILERS FOLLOW

Rule Britannia!

Late to the party as usual, I didn’t expect to enjoy “The Crown” as much as I did when I finally tuned in last month. Needless to say I wound up eating my pre-viewing impression and was soundly hooked as I binged Season One. Season Two, recently available for streaming on Netflix, has only solidified my admiration for this show.

What makes “The Crown” so addictive? There’s the obvious: American fascination with royalty, American fascination with the very rich, American fascination with scandal (real or imagined)—you get the picture. However, there’s more in play. While the dates and events leading up to and during World War II are generally known, dramas centered on life in England’s post-war period haven’t received nearly as much exposure in America. Because Elizabeth has reigned for decades, most of us have no image of her other than the formerly middle-aged, now elderly woman she is. It comes as quite a shock to realize how very young she was—only 25—when she became Queen, so seeing her at this stage of her life is certainly a new and refreshing experience.

Ah, but many ask: Is what we see on Netflix true? Aside from the fact that we’ll never really know who said what to whom in so many situations dramatized in “The Crown,” some details tend to nag. Not to be nit-picky, but I find it very hard to believe that the subject of Elizabeth’s regnant name was not discussed prior to her father’s death; she had been heiress presumptive for years at a time when George VI was not exactly in the best of health. “Spontaneity” is simply not in the monarchy’s lexicon. In addition, certain aspects of Season Two’s “Dear Mrs. Kennedy” episode were especially troublesome (and Michael C. Hall was a surprisingly awful JFK). Why was there no mention of President Kennedy’s father, Joseph P. Kennedy, American Ambassador to the Court of St. James in the 1930’s? Given the senior Kennedy’s position, JFK would have been familiar with court protocol unlike the bumbler we see on the screen. And JFK’s being jealous of Jackie’s star power? By all accounts this was a marriage shrewdly made, designed to showcase her style and sophistication as essential political assets. He knew it, she knew it, and by all means the strategists knew it and deployed accordingly.

These quibbles are relatively minor considering how well “The Crown” works as drama. Season One is one long spellbinder featuring a very young woman acceding to a position of power while her country was still coping with the privations of World War II, all at a time when her assumption of the throne put unimaginable strain on her marriage. Season Two gets off to a slow start—as Elizabeth aptly observes, Philip’s whining and whingeing is indeed tedious, and unfortunately drags on for three episodes. But then “The Crown” hits its stride, with one fascinating story after another: Philip besmirched by the scandal of the divorce of his boon companion, Mike Parker, and later, his suspected involvement in the Profumo Affair; the Duke of Windsor’s attempt to obtain a position of influence in England as details regarding his (and the Duchess of Windsor’s) involvement with Hitler and the Nazi regime before the war sour his prospects; the back story of Philip’s unhappy childhood, the shocking loss of his favorite sister and her family and his seemingly blind eye to the emotional needs of his own son; and best of all, Elizabeth’s dance with Kwame Nkrumah, President of Ghana. I don’t think we see her enjoying any other moment in this show as much as his whirling her around the floor to “Begin the Beguine.”

Netflix really shot the works in the casting department for “The Crown.” John Lithgow deserves every accolade he’s received as Churchill. I enjoy Jared Harris in everything he’s done, even (and especially) as the scheming Lane Pryce in “Mad Men.” His George VI is a solid presence, and it’s rather interesting that both he and Colin Firth (“The King’s Speech”) played the character so memorably though neither resembles the frail man who actually reigned. Pip Torrens’ multi-layered performance as Royal Secretary Tommy Lascelles, the courtier you love to hate, is fun to watch, and Greg Wise makes an incredibly suave Lord Mountbatten. Perhaps best of all, Alex Jennings’ performance as the Duke of Windsor, a man eternally denied what he wanted most and blind to the ramifications of his actions, may be the stand-out of both seasons.

But the heart of “The Crown” is its trio of core actors: Claire Foy (Elizabeth), Matt Smith (Philip) and especially Vanessa Kirby (Margaret). The gentleman goes first: Matt Smith does an excellent job with a difficult and at times impossible character. To say Philip is mercurial is an understatement, yet while Smith shows the recklessness and impatience of the man, he makes us understand his frustrations. Equally skilled at displaying Philip’s tender side, Smith delivers the character’s speech at his 10th anniversary party, in all in its complexity, to perfection.

Claire Foy’s portrayal of the young Elizabeth could not be better. Her range is a marvel–from being overwhelmed at the father’s untimely death and her assumption of the crown to issues with Philip and Margaret and the intricacies of dealing with a parade of prime ministers, competing courtiers and her own mother, she’s just about perfect. She’s perhaps at her best when an anvil falls and she can’t show emotion. Watch her gather herself in the blink of an eye and just go on. This is most evident in the “Dear Mrs. Kennedy” episode when she presses a friend to reveal the cutting things Jackie said about her at a dinner party–the merest flicker of hurt crosses her face as she struggles to shrug it off. Yet her best scene in Season Two, aside from dancing with Nkrumah, may be her discussion with Lord Altrincham (astutely played by John Heffernan), well-meaning yet vocal critic of Elizabeth’s performance and public image as monarch. While it was her choice to meet with him, she really doesn’t want to be there. Yet Ms. Foy makes it equally apparent that Elizabeth knows she must listen to this man’s suggestions in order to improve—she owes it to the country. The actor’s skill in this scene is only topped by the Queen’s delivery of her first Christmas address on television—her awkwardness and discomfort are palpable as she gamely pushes through.

But it’s the brilliantly nervy performance of Vanessa Kirby as Princess Margaret that keeps you glued to the tube for “Just one more episode!” as you binge. She delivers on a tremendous opportunity, playing a character whose existence threatens to become as empty as that of her uncle, the Duke of Windsor. What a showcase Ms. Kirby has: the Peter Townsend mess, her clashes with her sister (or, more accurately, the institutions of crown, church and government) and her involvement with and eventual marriage to Antony Armstrong-Jones (Matthew Goode). Ms. Kirby and Mr. Goode manage to maintain an exquisitely slow burn during their characters’ courtship; their interactions during the episode “Beryl,” with her insinuations and his ambiguity (sexual and otherwise) are riveting. In a way you’re sorry to see them married. And so will they be.

The next season of “The Crown” will skip ahead to the early 1970’s, and the actors we’ve enjoyed so much will be replaced. Olivia Coleman, marvelous in “Broadchurch” among many other things, will inherit Claire Foy’s tiara. I have no doubt the show will retain its quality.

Posted in Broadway Musicals, Music

The Artistry of Barbara Cook

She had the blessing of two phenomenal careers, both of which remain unparalleled.

I’ve collected Barbara Cook’s recordings for years, and started to delve into them more systematically a number of months ago after I read “Then & Now,” her almost painfully honest memoir. Following her recent passing, I returned to her catalog of work, and once again found myself astonished by her way with a song.

I was fortunate to see her live twice. The first time she performed many of the songs on her “It’s Better With a Band” album, but what remains indelible in my memory is the encore she sang—Jerome Kern’s “Long Ago and Far Away,” without a mike—just that silvery sound with no electronic enhancement whatsoever. The song just floated throughout the hall. I later heard her with the New Jersey Symphony, conducted by Wally Harper, her long-time music director, and most of the material came from her “Disney Album,” which had just been released. Was there ever a more perfect match of singer and song? The most refreshing aspect of her performance was her lack of pretense. I remember her putting on her glasses to read the sheet music during the “Disney” concert (for lyrics–she famously never learned to read music). This carried through in an interview she gave at one point on WQXR, New York’s classical music station. She was asked “How long do you warm up before a performance?” Ms. Cook replied “I don’t warm up. I just hum a few bars to see what I’ve got to work with that night.” And she was also a knowledgeable and opinionated opera fan (Is there any other kind?) whose interviews during Metropolitan Opera broadcast intermissions were a treat.

I have to think being Broadway’s favorite ingenue during the 1950’s and early ’60’s was excellent preparation for her second act as a solo performer. Among her many accomplishments, she created three indelible characters: Cunegonde in Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide,” Marian Paroo in Meredith Wilson’s “The Music Man,” and Amalia in Bock and Harnick’s “She Loves Me.” She also graced revivals of  “The King and I,” “Showboat” and “Carousel,” both as Carrie Pipperidge and later as Julie Jordan (she famously preferred the former). While her performances in all of the these shows have been captured on disk, the one I always return to is “The Music Man.” Is there a more evocative number than “Lida Rose/Will I Ever Tell You?,” Marian’s duet with the barbershop quartet? The real 1912 was, I’m sure, far removed from the theatrical River City, but listening to that number automatically transports you to a long ago summer night. It’s the way we always wished that era had been.

As great as her Broadway career was, she set an even higher bar as a solo/cabaret artist. What I most liked about her was the emotional level she brought to a song. Nothing drives me up the wall faster than a singer who goes dramatically over the top, pedal to the metal, when the song is not intended to carry such heavy baggage. Singers who consistently resort to that approach don’t trust the material they’re performing, which makes me not trust them. Ms. Cook, on the other hand, knew what a song was saying, and within that context illuminated the composer and lyricist’s intent. Musically she sang what fit her voice, whether it was traditionally a “man’s song” or a “woman’s song;” “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her His Face,” “This Nearly Was Mine” and “The Surrey With the Fringe on Top” were standards in her repertoire, and on “Marianne,” a lovely Jerry Herman number which surprisingly fit her voice like a glove, she didn’t bother to change pronouns, letting the music carry the emotion of the song. Few singers possess the art of illuminating both music and words simultaneously, but Ms. Cook certainly did. Listen to “I’m in Love With a Wonderful Guy” from her “Barbara Cook at the Met” album. She so obviously loved singing it–she relishes the phrase “corny as Kansas as August,” and leans on certain words to build to the eventual climax of the song: “fearlessly,” “loudly,” “flatly” finally, of course, “love.” Her musicianship was superb. I had no idea that Stephen Sondheim’s “Another Hundred People” had such lovely music until I heard her sing it.

She never remained static in her approach, instead revisiting a song to find more within. Case in point: Jerry Herman’s “Time Heals Everything” from his show “Mack and Mabel.” Her first recording of this number, on “Barbara Cook at Carnegie Hall,” presents an almost objective approach, as if she’s trying to give herself a pep talk to overcome the present grief of loss.  A number of years later, on her “Barbara Cook’s Broadway” album, she’s sadder but just as determined to survive the pain. On this recording the song is paired in a medley with a beautiful rendition of Irving Berlin’s “What’ll I Do?” in which her ability to sing legato—the smooth transition from note to note—is on full display. She could go the dramatic route—she makes her voice break twice in an even later, more pain-driven version of “Time Heals Everything” on her live “The Champion Season” recording—but it really doesn’t suit her. Nevertheless she manages to save that performance with a floated final note so ravishing that a “Lovely!” from a man in the audience is audible.

Fortunately she left a considerable body of work covering the best of the American Song Book. It’s so hard to pick my favorite Barbara Cook recordings, but I’ll try. All of these are currently available:

“Barbara Cook at Carnegie Hall.” Her return to performing after many years away. Although the lady tells the audience “I’m not as nervous as I thought I’d be,” you can tell she is at the start, though two songs in, she’s totally relaxed. “Carolina in the Morning,” with its peach of an arrangement, and “Wait Till You See Him” are tremendous.

“It’s Better With a Band.” Here she’s in full command of her resources, with excellent material, and her confidence as an artist is off the charts. “Them There Eyes,” her vocal/kazoo duet with tuba, the medley of Leonard Bernstein songs, especially “I Can Cook Too,”and the aforementioned “Marianne” are highlights. You can see her perform a number of songs from this album in “An Evening With Barbara Cook,” on YouTube.

“Follies.” With all due respect to Dorothy Collins, who originated the role of Sally Plummer, Ms. Cook delivers what may be the definitive version of “Losing My Mind.”

“Oscar Winners,” consisting entirely of songs with lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein, on which Ms. Cook sings a stunning “All the Things You Are” and “The Gentleman is a Dope.”

“The Disney Album.” “Lavender Blue” alone is worth the price of the CD, though hearing Barbara Cook in triplicate, courtesy of over-dubbing, on “When I See an Elephant Fly” is an absolute treat. I love songs from the older Disney films, and I only wish she had recorded “Never Smile at a Crocodile.”

“No One is Alone,””Rainbow ‘Round My Shoulder,” “You Make Me Feel So Young,” and “Loverman.” These four recordings date from 2007 to 2012, and though she was pushing 80, she could still sustain a phrase. Her voice maintained its quality, and in fact only became warmer when she lowered the keys in which she sang. If your only acquaintance with “I’m Through With Love,” is hearing Alfalfa sing it in an old “Our Gang” short, you need to hear Ms. Cook’s version on “Rainbow ‘Round My Shoulder,” as well as her superlative rendition of Sondheim’s “I Wish I Could Forget You.” That last song also appears on “No One is Alone,” which features a lovely medley of “Long Before I knew You”/”I Fall in Love Too Easily,” as well as Sondheim’s “One More Kiss.””You Make Me Feel So Young,” from a live 2011 performance, has some great up-tempo numbers on which she clearly has a ball—“Frim Fram Sauce” and “Love is Good For Anything That Ails You,” plus her discourse on how difficult it is to find a good kazoo. “Loverman” contains an arresting a capella version of “House of the Rising Sun.” While her voice by then was not what it once was, what she did have was far more than most singers, and she makes it work.

One last compelling example of Barbara Cook’s way with a song: “For All We Know,” on the “Rainbow ‘Round My Shoulder” album (I had always thought of this as the quintessential World War II song, and was surprised to learn it had been composed in 1934). Accompanied on piano by her then-music director, Lee Musiker, Ms. Cook delivers an indelible performance. It’s easy to go over the top with this number, but she underscores the sentiment with just a touch of sorrow. She tells you volumes, not only about the woman who’s able to face such a parting while keeping it together, but also about the man she’s singing it to, who inspired such emotion.

Two minutes of heaven.

Posted in Television

Beginning of the End

Shock and awe, particularly the former, have been the hallmark of “Game of Thrones” from the very beginning. Ned Stark’s execution, Tyrion’s regaining consciousness on the slanted perch of the Eyrie’s Sky Room, the Red Wedding, the sacrifice of Shareen…all these and so many more. And the warfare—with or without dragons. What bothered me about this season was the absence of a “Wow!” element of surprise, even with last week’s Battle With the Wights. Instead there’s been a pervasive feeling of fulfillment, as if the show runners were simply ticking items off a “To Do” list. That is, until this season’s final episode, “The Dragon and the Wolf.”

Few events have been as satisfying as Littlefinger’s demise, not even Ramsey Bolton’s metamorphosis into doggie dinner. I literally applauded the confrontational sleight of hand Sansa managed to pull off. While I suspected Stark blood would prove thicker than water, I must admit the show runners had me second-guessing their intentions with their ambiguous build-up in the last couple of episodes. I thought Arya’s twirling the dagger and handing it off to Sansa last week was nothing short of “Kill me if you dare.” The tip-off in the final confrontation should have been the sight of Bran the Three-Eyed Raven at Sansa’s side, but Arya is such a commanding figure that all eyes were on her. Kudos to the show runners for such a delightful payoff.

It’s hard to pick Littlefinger’s worst crime: The attempt on Bran’s life? Lying about it to create eternal warfare between Starks and Lannisters? Betraying Ned Stark? Selling Sansa to the Boltons? For my money the most pathetic was dropping poor addled Lysa Arryn through the Moon Door. The one swift slash by Arya that ended his life was too good for him.

This episode also proved to be Old Home Week in the reunions leading up to the Big Confab: Tyrion and Bronn, Bronn and Podrick, Brienne and Jamie of course, but Brienne and the Hound was one for the ages. I half expected Brienne to sing that wonderful line from the Leonard Bernstein musical, “Candide”: “You were dead you know.” It was wonderful to see the Hound smile like a proud papa over Brienne’s testimony to Arya’s duelling prowess. I only hope his threatened fight to the death with Brother Mountain, sure to be a highlight of next season, finds him the victor.

If nothing else, “The Dragon and the Wolf” proved how many events in this saga were the result of lies and evasions. Littlefinger’s plotting put so much in motion, but on it goes: Jon needs to know that his real name is Aegon Targaeryan (normally I’d say “Too late, he’s already bedded his aunt,” but incest is coin of the realm on GoT), Sam needs to be told he’s really Lord Tarly and should be in a command position. By the way, it seems to me that Bran’s Three-Eyed Raven radar needs fine-tuning if he didn’t see that Rhaegar Targaryan and Lianna Stark were secretly married. Is it possible that the maester’s diary Sam read was just a fantastical allegory? Maester-time could get pretty dull, I would imagine, and spicing things up with tall tales could be great entertainment. And speaking of wrong-number prophecies, I fully expect the first big “Wow!” of next season to be the reveal that Danaerys is pregnant. The show runners love to bookend, and this twist would be the perfect companion to both Cersei/Jamie and Rhaegar/Lianna. Though I have to say the moral might be a little odd: “See, incest can be good”?

Two other developments did surprise me (no, not Jon and Danaerys—if you didn’t sense bedtime was on the horizon, you need a new show). I never expected Jamie to leave Cersei under any circumstances, particularly now that she’s pregnant. It’s true that he’s always tried to uphold honor, but still, given all he’s done on her behalf in the past, his riding North to presumably join up with his brother was a huge surprise.

As was the destruction of the Wall, which proved to be a fitting end to this season. How is it the dragon Viserion can still spew fire after he’s been frozen? And what’s the Night King’s secret command to get him to do so? It sure isn’t “Dracarys!” I only hope Tormund survived the debacle, just so we can see him with Brienne once more.

Another long lonely winter without “Game of Thrones” awaits. Only six more episodes to savor.

Posted in Television

Gendry Redux

“By George, she’s got it!”

I’m surprised the “Game of Thrones” showrunners haven’t stuck it on a billboard by now.

In case you were busy, unconscious or otherwise occupied during GoT’s Episode 5, “Eastwatch,” Gilly’s perusal of a musty text at the Citadel revealed that Rhaegar Targaeryan was both divorced and immediately thereafter married on the same day in a secret ceremony in Dorne. And who do you think the (un)lucky lady he took to the altar was? Could it—no, it couldn’t be!—Lyanna Stark?!?! Well, duh. Those signals have been blaring for months, and this latest felt like being hit over the head by a 2 x 4. If true, Jon’s not really a Stark bastard, but the rightful and legitimate Targaeryan heir. And if any doubt at all remains, notice how he made friends with Drogon. Awwww, cute puppy! So, Danaerys—who has to bend the knee?

This penultimate season keeps chuddering along with relatively few surprises to date. Notice how quickly both news and people travel these days–this show seems to be on speed dial. It used to take Jorah Mormont half a season to travel from Point A to Point B, and here he is, from Citadel to Dragonstone in the blink of an eye. Fortunately things are kept lively by choice one-liners from our favorite quipsters. Tyrion to Jorah: “Nobody glowers quite like you–not even Grey Worm.” And Tormund remains in rare form. When he’s not lusting after Brienne, he’s getting straight to the heart of things, as witness his attempt to clarify Jon’s mission to north of the Wall: “How many queens are there now?…And you need to convince the one with the dragons, or the one who fucks her brother?”

Speaking of which, Cersei is once again with child, cooking up more Lannister devil-spawn. Jamie may be a proud papa, but I’m not so sure he’s looking forward to being paraded about in public as Cersei’s incestuous brother. He’s got the smarts to realize that even a queen may not be able to get away with this one.

Other developments that bear watching: As the result of yet another dragon barbeque, Sam, no longer an apprentice maester, is the new Lord Tarly though he doesn’t know it yet. I suspect the bookworm will eventually turn warrior. And with the return of Gendry, we now have a Baratheon in the mix who wields a hatchet like nobody’s business. If he keeps a list like Arya does, I would imagine Cersei and Melisandre are Items 1 and 1A on that document.

I have to confess I had my hands over my eyes during the Arya/Littlefinger mutual spying scenes. It’s my fervent hope that her time as “No One” will tip Arya off that he’s manufacturing the basis of a split between her and Sansa, leading not necessarily to Arya’s death but more likely, to her banishment from Winterfell. Trouble is already outpacing Littlefinger. Arya has always had Sansa’s number, even when the two were children. Arya rightly senses that Sansa wants that crown as Queen of the North—“You don’t want to, but you’re thinking it right now.” Despite their history, my money’s on the Stark girls to prove that blood is thicker than water, with Littlefinger as the loser (And if the girls don’t come through, I suspect Bran the Three-Eyed Raven will).

So we end with two major events pending: a confrontation between Jon’s ragtag army of Tormund, Ser Jorah, the Hound and the Dondarrian boys with the Army of the Dead, and a sit-down between Danaerys and Cersei. The suspense is building.

Posted in Television

Home At Last

Girls Just Wanna Have Fun

What riches in this week’s “Game of Thrones” episode, “The Spoils of War:” Arya back in Winterfell! Theon washed up (in more ways than one) on Dragonstone! Bran knowing Arya’s list without even peeking! Historic cave hieroglyphics! Dragons incinerating an entire Lannister army! Jamie dunked!

Arya’s long-awaited return to Winterfell is one of the Top Ten highlights of the entire show. Her verbal sparring with the sentries was delicious, though her uncertainty as to who was currently wearing the title of “Lady Stark” underscored a bit of vulnerability (I suppose as a non-head of House she’s merely “Lady Arya”). Her sad gaze around the castle courtyard spoke volumes—see what happens when Greyjoys and Boltons don’t bother with upkeep? Her reunion with Sansa was chock full of treasures. When Sansa, referring to Jon, remarked, “When he sees you, his heart will probably stop,” did you yell at your screen “It already did”? However, there was a superb moment of ambiguity that followed Arya’s reference to her list. At first blush she’s a deadly serious adult thirsting to kill her remaining enemies. Sansa’s reaction is pure shock, then riotous laughter. Does she see this as a joke, or is she taken aback by the gravity of her sister’s intentions? Or both? At the sound of Sansa’s laughter, Arya suddenly smiles, a truly rare reaction from her, as we see her instantly revert from experienced killer to cute younger sister. Kudos to Maisie Williams and Sophie Turner for realizing the subtleties of this scene.

This could only be topped, and it was, by Arya’s training session with Brienne. Remember Catelyn’s smile when she first met Brienne back in Season Two? You knew exactly what she was thinking: “This is my daughter in ten years,” though she had no way of knowing it wouldn’t take quite that long. The Brienne/Arya sparring match was made even more impressive (and amusing) by the fact that Gwendoline Christie is about a foot and a half taller than Maisie Williams, though the latter can definitely twirl a sword like nobody’s business. A mutual appreciation society is born. And aside from their fighting prowess, the ladies obviously share the same view of Littlefinger. If looks could kill, their mutual glare at him would have made him an undertaker’s delight. By the way, that dagger Bran gave to Arya? He might as well have instructed her: “Go, sis, and plant it in Littlefinger’s chest.” I doubt Lord Baelish is long for this world.

One by one the loose ends are being tied up. When Theon came ashore at Dragonstone, I expected Jon to kill him in short order for selling out brother Robb. I would have thought Theon’s leaping rescue of Sansa did nothing more than square Greyjoy debt vis-a-vis House Stark, not created a Stark I.O.U. However, Jon evidently has his own bookkeeping system and thinks otherwise. And speaking of what is owed, Bran’s send-off of Meera Reed was awfully harsh. I’m glad she read him the roll call: the deaths of her brother Jojen, Hodor and his own direwolf Summer in his service, not to mention the numerous times she risked her own life to save his hide. I know the Three-Eyed Raven is taking over Bran’s consciousness, but that’s no excuse for treating her without a breath of empathy.

Catching up on Lannister business, they continued to pay their debts…with the money of other Houses. Given the extensive pillage at Highgarden of both gold and grain, it appears there wasn’t even a Tyrell second cousin once removed left to fight back—Lady Olenna was evidently the last of her House. While we’re on the subject of Lannisters, does anyone really think Cersei’s going to go through with a marriage to Euron Greyjoy, war trophies or no? They may make it to the Sept, but you can bet her apothecaries are already whipping up a wedding night special.

The end of the episode was worth waiting for. A full twelve minutes of screen time, from first rumble of dragon thunder to a sinking Jamie, Dany’s unleashing her dragons for a Lannister army stir-fry proved to be one of GoT’s epic battles. There was even a blink-and-you-missed-it guest appearance by GoT fan and Mets pitcher, Noah Syndergaard, who at 6’6″ made the perfect Lannister spearchucker (Celebrity has its perks). Nevertheless, it was slightly ridiculous to see everything surrounding Jamie go up in flames while he remained untouched. I was hoping to see Bronn incinerated—his constant kvetching about being awarded a castle has become tiresome—though upon repeat viewing this did not seem to happen. A pity.

Although the next episode seems to be North-centric, here’s hoping we learn Jamie’s fate in short order, not to mention that of poor Drogon (can he still fly?), the cured and presumably homeward bound Ser Jorah Mormont and the still missing in action Gendry (Remember him? Robert Baratheon’s bastard). And when oh when will Dany give up her obsession with knee-bending and rule the school as co-equals with Jon?

Only three more episodes in this season.

Ride ’em, Dragon Girl!
Posted in Television

Endgame

Don’t Fight, Kids–You’re Family!

 

There’s a scent of inevitability in the “Game of Thrones” air, isn’t there? The longed-for meeting of Daenerys Targaryen and Jon Snow. Yet another Stark family reunion. One more harbinger of the end: “Epigramish” seems to have displaced the Common Tongue as the main language on this show, not always for the better.

Cersei may have settled a ton of Lannister business in last night’s episode, “The Queen’s Justice,” but the GoT audience knows that such relief is usually transitory at best. Whipping up a batch of Dorne Killer Lip Balm, Cersei’s favorite apothecary provided the means for his boss’ squaring accounts with Ellaria Sand. In an excruciating scene, Cersei gets her revenge for the murder of daughter Myrcella by not only assuring a slow, painful death for Ellaria’s daughter, but forcing her mother to witness it and live with her rotting corpse, all the while chained to a dungeon wall. The Sand Snakes were not among my favorites, but that’s somewhat beyond the pale, even for Cersei. While GoT periodically tries to remind us that Cersei’s one redeeming feature is her love for her children, it’s hard to keep that in mind in the face of how she spends the rest of her waking hours.

On the bright side, the Targaryen/Snow confab was really a master class in the subtleties of diplomacy, as conducted by Tyrion and Ser Davos. How both strived to keep the dialogue going in the face of mutual refusals by their leaders to acknowledge the other’s sovereignty made for instructive viewing (Washington, take note). At least good intentions were displayed on both sides: Dany apologized for her mad father’s burning Jon’s grandfather and uncle to death, and he acknowledged Ned Stark’s breaking faith with the centuries-old alliance between the Houses Stark and Targaryan. Their interests are similar to the extent that both want Cersei’s head on a spike, but who gets to rule the schoolyard Seven Kingdoms?

At least both houses came away with something they wanted, unlike Varys, who received a very unwelcome prophesy from Melisandre. Evidently dying in Dragonstone is not what he envisioned—for the first time in ages, he looked afraid. On the other hand, Littlefinger not only remained in character, he somewhat upped the ante. The man loves to speak in riddles, but the advice (?) he gave to Sansa was so obscure, I still need a translation. Speaking of Sansa and riddles, I loved the expression on her face when she walked away from her conversation with Bran, the Three-Eyed Raven: It screamed “My brother is a weirdo!” Ah, siblings.

I’m going to miss Diana Rigg’s presence on this show. What a tough old bird Olenna Tyrell was, and how right she’ll be about Cersei’s eventually being the death of Jamie. Cersei may be queen, but it’s not a good idea to have your waiting woman catch you in the sack with your brother. That kind of behavior usually has a tendency to make you vulnerable to wannabes, no? (Hello, Euron Greyjoy!) Olenna’s pre-death conversation with Jamie was a refreshingly civilized bookend to Cersei’s dispatch of Ellaria Sand. One thing about Jamie—unlike his sister, honor means a great deal to him (See “Edmure Tully, Defeat of”). However, Olenna’s needling confession about Joffrey’s murder confused me. Didn’t she have a collaborator in Tywin Lannister? I’m surprised she didn’t skewer Cersei further by dropping that bit of information.

So…Will Dany’s dragons carry the day and destroy Euron Greyjoy’s fleet? Will the newly-cured Jorah Mormont arrive in time to help? Will Theon ever stop being a wimp?

Only five episodes left in the season.

I Hope Not!