Game of Thrones S1, Ep2 – “The Kingsroad”

This episode, more than the first, really managed to convey the books’ sense of impending doom. I really got the feeling that these characters are on a long, slow road to despair and we’re going to march with them every step of the way. This tone of futility may be a hard thing to endure episode after episode. I saw someone describe the series as cheerless, and while I think that may be denying the show some its wit and charm, there’s no escaping the fact that this is grim shit and it only gets grimmer. For every triumph (see Dani’s story), there are dozens of crushing blows to the spirit. And yet… and yet…herein lies the crux of the series. In a world that is so obviously mechanized towards grinding down the weak and the unlucky, these characters will struggle and plot and fight until the last breath, and they will cling to hope that somehow justice will ultimately find those who deserve it most. That’s the definition of nobility, right there, and make no mistake – this series is all about nobility in title versus nobility in action and in character. Episode two gets that across in spades.

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Game of Thrones, S1, Ep1 – “Winter is Coming”

I often catch myself falling into that trap of “worrying” how civilians might come at something like Game of Thrones, as if it’s important to consider the show without the prejudices or predispositions of having read the books beforehand. This is silly, of course. I can’t erase the knowledge and emotional baggage of having read the books first and, more importantly, there’s no reason on earth I should even try. Beyond its success in the ratings either providing me with more or fewer episodes to watch myself, what is the value in trying to anticipate how a casual HBO viewer might respond to Game of Thrones? The opinions of non-fans can be interesting and even insightful, but trying to taper my own enjoyment or approach to the show by seeing it through freshman eyes doesn’t grant me any better appreciation of its merits…or faults.

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Dragon Age II

I’ve played Dragon Age II once all the way through, and I’m nearly done with my second run.

The game has some serious—some would say (and have) fatal—flaws.

1)      The recycled environments are disappointing at first, and gradually move on to being completely distracting. I understand that taking the time to develop fresh environments for some of these quests would have lengthened development time, and the cost-to-benefit ratio was probably deemed too marginal to do so. Still, when every mansion and cave looks exactly the same, it really yanks a fella out of the story.

2)      The new inventory system is for the birds. For me, micro-managing my companions’ armor and weapons was a big draw in the first game, and here the process has been simplified to the point where it feels utterly arbitrary.

3)      Why do potions now require a cool down period? WHY??

4)      The in-game trigger to access doors and chests and obtain loot from fallen enemies is ridiculously touchy, so much so that finding the icon that signifies you can access these things involves making your character do the hokey-pokey for a minute or two before you see the icon letting you know that, yes, you can now get your shit.

5)      The Friend/Rival system seemed really arbitrary in some cases, making appealing to any given companion character’s interests in those situations a guessing game. I had this problem with Mass Effect II’s Paragon/Renegade system as well, for what it’s worth. Sometimes you say something you think will give you some brownie points with Companion X only to see a nice little +5 Rivalry.

6)      There’s a disconcerting disconnect between your character’s appearance and actions versus the reactions you get from NPCs. As an example, my mage saved a Templar from a particularly nasty Abomination using all the wicked magic at my disposal, only to have the Templar turn and remark that we need to keep an eye on mages because “they aren’t like you and me.”

7)      Some of the mini-quests involving collecting items from dead baddies and turning those objects into random folks for cash reward is pretty pointless and ultimately a waste of time.

8)      The final moments of the game do not provide an entirely satisfactory resolution to your time spent as Hawke. After nearly thirty hours questing and killing in Hawke’s boots, I wanted a bit more from the closing coda.

Having said all that…I loved this game. Not as much as I loved Dragon Age: Origins, perhaps, but that game has a really special place in my heart; not since Final Fantasy VII have I had so much invested in a game as I did in Origins. Still, while Dragon Age II is a definite departure in several critical ways, I found it a rich and satisfying experience. The more arcade-style combat was a hoot (particularly if you play as a mage), and while the gameplay is distinctly more like a JRPG (oddly, it reminded me a great deal of Final Fantasy VIII and X) and far less open-world than Origins, the story and world were compelling enough that I never felt it was an inferior beast to its predecessor.

Now, if you want a *really* SPOILER-filled look at the things I enjoyed most about Dragon Age II, feel free to proceed. Be warned: 1) if you have any intention of playing any of the Dragon Age series but have yet to do so, don’t read any further; and 2) this is more of a reaaally long essay than a review, so if you really couldn’t care less about those sorts of things, feel free to be on your way.

Still here? Then damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!

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The Walking Dead, S1, Ep6 – “TS-19”

Way back yonder, I compared the pilot for this series to a Frankenstein monster, and that analogy has held true for the entire first season. Each individual scene usually varies in consistency, tone, and strength from the one preceding it and the one to follow (Walking Dead Shuffle, indeed). Sometimes it works, but all too often even those successes have felt more fortuitous than intentional. Episode Five was the first time an episode didn’t feel like it was 44 minutes of scenes shot by three different directors from three different scripts.  On the plus side, the final episode of season one felt like it had a singular creative vision, both in the writing and the direction. Unfortunately, it was a vision by way of Mr. MaGoo. There wasn’t a single memorable shot or sequence in the whole damn thing. The lighting was flat, and the staging was so perfunctory it felt like any directions the actors got came straight out of an IKEA box. And the writing? I was able to overlook the hoary zombie film clichés last week because they were deftly executed, but last night’s episode felt like one of those bad parties where you arrive only to discover the only folks there are the insufferable bores you try to avoid running into at other parties.

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The Walking Dead, S1, Ep4 – “Vatos”

Opening scene: Uh, what is up with the Lifetime movie-of-the-week dialog? Oh, this episode was written by comics’ own Robert Kirkman. Of course, part of how badly that played for me was the fact that both women were so heavily made-up. Who wears lipstick and mascara to go fishing? That said, Kirkman nails how to turn these things around without relying on somebody saying “Isn’t it funny how the women have become the hunters in this new paradigm?”

They did a swell job of making Merle more a force to be reconned with then just a wacko with a snarl and a KKK membership card. The entire ‘hunt for Merle’ aspect of the first half was pretty great. By the time they find the van missing and suspect Merle of the crime, I felt that there was reason to fear this dude.

And, yes, I’m now joining the Merle Will Be The Governor camp, although how he’d amass an army like that in the time frame of the series is a big question-mark. But I’m sure they can tweak that whole scenerio.

“The only reason I got away was because the dead were too busy eatin’ my family.” – As far as dialog, that’s Kirkman at his best right there.

“They took Glenn!” – Funny how one line can add some colors to a character. They’re going out of their way here to make Daryl more reasonable than his brother. Wonder how that dynamic will play out.

Oops, wrong about Ed! Thank god.

Most upsetting part of the conclusion? Carl’s tears. That reaction was the right stuff; we don’t see nearly enough child actors in horror films being allowed to melt down like that.

A strong episode that made me wish Kirkman was writing the whole damn series. Yes, there were at least three of his patent “listen while I drop some nugget of wisdom on you” moments in the episode, but I don’t mind that so much.  It’s shorthand, and not entirely elegant, but it works just fine. Sure as hell beats what Darabont was giving us for characterization in episode two.

This still isn’t “must see” television for me, but it has evolved nicely over the second episode. The horror is still on the weak side (there were some good zombies in that final attack, but the blood letting itself didn’t hit me very hard), and there haven’t been any moments to rival the most haunting shots in the pilot. Still, they’ve got me until the season ends. Let’s see how it plays out.

Other takes:

Sean T Collins

Curt Purcell