Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Television Recap: "Mad Men", "Game of Thrones", "Fringe"

I now feel comfortable in once more sharing my thoughts on the latest happenings in television with you guys! This is mostly due to the return of two shows that most deserve review: "Mad Men" and "Game of Thrones". I already launched my sparse opinions on the former's two hour season premiere, and it seemed like too much of a tease not to delve even further into my obsession with the guesswork and continued passion involving this unique form of entertainment. And it would of course be nice to get back home to a place of talking about "Fringe", whose prospects for a final season 15-episode pickup are looking unexpectedly bright. It's a win in all corners. Well, not all corners. "The Killing" is still on the air.

"Mad Men: Tea Leaves"
Directed by Jon Hamm

Oh Betty, what has this world done to you? It seems that when most television actresses become pregnant, they factor that quite literally into the show. Leave it to a genius like Matthew Weiner to not cop to that and instead go for something more dynamic to Betty's character: She's let herself go. It's an eerie move that strikes me like a dagger, since it seems so natural for her to eventually become that sort of overweight mother. It's the start of a story arc that will prove quintessential to her character, I'm certain already. Though it is admittedly an overt move for the show, but it pays off broadly, and not quite so dishonestly. The cancer scare is somewhat too much of a push, even if it does strike a desire for death in Betty.

The other two plotlines seem secondary to a degree, if only because we hadn't seen Betty last week, so she took a sort of center stage. Harry and Don went off to seek the Rolling Stones in a futile move to impress a client, and even Don knew it was pointless before they got there. The point was to bridge them towards the youth of the age, which was significant in how profoundly contemplative they are and how careless and freely ambitious the young girls are. There's a sexual undertone to it, and Don isn't ignorant of the fact that he is married to somebody who is also young. It's a small storm that gives him pause to his happiness, and sees how easily it could come undone.

And the third prong of the week is Peggy, who is commissioned by Don and Roger to bring in a new guy to deal personally with the Mohawk Airlines account. This is an odd little attachment to the story, because at first it's Peggy looking for the most skilled person, and then she finds that he's as typically insulting as the rest. No surprise there. It's another Jimmy from last season, but Peggy has no choice but to hire him. It's simple, and though it's engaging onscreen, it's not so engaging on paper. It's the actors that pull this episode off in an unusually off week for the writers. Here's hoping they pick it up in coming weeks.

"Game of Thrones: The North Remembers"
Directed by Alan Taylor

In comparison, "Game of Thrones" premiere was much more together than "Mad Men"s continuation. No, we didn't get massive strokes of actions happening, but the table is indeed being set for a season of conflict. They are now at war, which isn't as filled with battles as it is with politics. And even more than politics is the matters of people in their little worlds. "The North Remembers" isn't about war as much as it is about the separate kings, with Robb struggling to find a way of getting his sisters back, while acknowledging that he is fighting for more than just that. He's not in the war for the Iron Throne. He couldn't care less for King's Landing. He wants to sever the connection that killed his father in the first place, and to ensure his family's safe return home.

It's clear that that plan won't go by quite so cleanly as he hopes, not least because of Joffrey, but also on account of Stannis Baratheon. Long talked about in the first season, but never seen, we are shown a man who very much does not inspire love from his followers, but he is undeniably as strong a king in this war as any. His alliance with the priestess Melisandra is one that doesn't go without dispute by some of his loyal followers, but he doesn't even scoff when one of his men falls dead on the floor on her account. P.S. I don't think she can die, and I'm pretty sure she's going to be a thorn in our sides before this is over.

And then there's King's Landing, where Joffrey is... er... "ruling the kingdom"... by throwing parties where his great soldiers kill each other. That's great kingsmanship right there. Wasting all their resources. So the entrance of Tyrion into this landscape is a much welcome lift, and gives us an opportunity to sink into the feud between him and Cersei. Meanwhile Cersei displays "power" over Littlefinger, showing how thin a wire he's on, despite all the control he's displayed over events this season. And then Joffrey shows Cersei that as much as she thinks she's in control, she's put a little brat on the throne and is incapable to stop him now, both emotionally and politically. And then the episode ends with a bloodbath of bastard killings, and the reveal that Arya may not be so safe as she thinks with Gendry.

"Fringe: Nothing as it Seems"
Directed by Frederick Toye

I've been silent on my thoughts for most of this season of "Fringe", not out of disinterest, but simply because I was in a state of watching without commentating. Last episode ended a significant arc of redefining the confines of the new timeline, and brought us back around to the realization that this is Peter's home and it is his Olivia. The show has mingled around with many different themes from season to season. The second season was largely about Walter and the consequences of his actions. The third season was largely about Olivia, as well as what comes from the choices we make. This season is about how important our relationships are, and it has focused on Peter in a bid to show how significant he is.

Restoring him effectively to the timeline was one thing, but the world is far from perfect. David Robert Jones is still scheming, and in a world where characters have been adrift without Peter, the porcupine monster has taken a new shape under this season's primary villain. Previously it was a drug that they were synthesizing to be marketed, and now it has been given greater significance to this group. It is their fuel to become "children of the new world", and leave humanity behind in lieu of something better. This makes an already creepy case even creepier, and thusly more awesome. After all, turning into a hideous were-porcupine isn't exactly the best thing that could happen to you.

But in Olivia's case, she is still more than willing to leave behind her former life to regain her relationship with Peter. Fact of the matter is that she is now realizing how different this world is from what she remembers. Her spunky return to this world isn't without the realization that she is in somebody else's life. Rachel never got divorced, and Ella has a younger brother named Eddie. It's that biting fact of how Peter's not being there has fundamentally changed their lives. Nina taking them in must have had some positive function on Rachel's marriage. The thing is, Olivia is dealing with sadness that the world isn't the way she knew it, as well as hidden joy that things are better in this world.

There are consequences even beyond her, and Peter notices that with him restored, the role Lincoln was playing is now somewhat superfluous. Throughout most of the episode he is rendered Walter's test subject, which is a hilarious bit of retooling. Lincoln's feeling of exclusion from the group is only slightly remedied by Walter's encouragement, even if it's not much. They want him there, but he doesn't feel there. In the car when Peter inevitably confronts Lincoln about his feelings and Lincoln swallows his pride, Peter says "You're a good guy". That's a statement that Lincoln reciprocates, but with a dose of resentment in that statement. He wishes he wasn't so good.

And then there's Peter, and you could say that this is the happiest he's been all season. Things have been in some sense restored, though not precisely. The perfect iteration of that is when Walter gives Peter the birthday presents he's been accumulating throughout the years of his absence. It's a scene of pure catharsis, with Walter officially accepting Peter as his son, just as Peter accepted Walter as his father last season. The relationship couldn't be perfect unless it was brought full circle with both. And now we're just waiting to see where the spare cards land, mainly Lincoln, but also Jones' plan. The ending is straight up menacing, with two lovers turning themselves into hideous monsters with hopes of leading the new world, only to be locked in cages. Pan out to reveal that Jones has been collecting Fringe cases in this ship, including the monster from "Unleashed" and the worm from "Snakehead". Whatever he's planning, it's what the show has found a way to quietly build to.

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