2010s, Action-Adventure, Fantasy, Horror/Eerie, Political, Television

Game of Thrones (TV, 2011-19)

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Creators: David Benioff, D.B. Weiss

By Roderick Heath

For much of the past decade, Game of Thrones stood astride the popular zeitgeist as a colossus. Game of Thrones inspired obsessive loyalty and served as a flagship for a much-hailed second golden age of television allowed by burgeoning cable TV and benefiting from the new panoply of viewing opportunities. It became the arch example of a ravenously consumable “binge-watch” programme and dwarfed just about any film rival save the Marvel Cinematic Universe, setting records for Emmy wins and internet piracy. The series was adapted from an as-yet unfinished cycle of novels started by sci-fi and fantasy writer George R.R. Martin in 1991, entitled A Song of Ice and Fire, although the TV version adopted the title of the first entry in the cycle. A professional author since the early 1970s, Martin struggled to gain anything like a reputation commensurate with his ability, standing like other similar talents in Stephen King’s huge shadow. Ironically Martin’s recourse to working in television, including on the Linda Hamilton and Ron Perlman vehicle Beauty and the Beast in the late 1980s, equipped him with unusual gifts when he finally decided to tackle the kind of fantasy epic he had loved since he was a kid with a nose in J.R.R. Tolkien’s books: he added an extra ‘R’ to his penname to acknowledge the debt.

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But Martin didn’t want to write fantasy as airily mythical, idealised, and Manichean as Tolkien, trying instead to create a deeply conceived, palpable, often terrifying fictional universe governed by many of the same rules as the world we all know. The schism at the heart of Game of Thrones, a work torn between grand imaginative frontiers and a hardnosed metaphorical depiction of humanity’s often terrible march towards modernity, proved both key to the show’s addictive appeal and also the source of the often aggravating sense of grievance it could leave in its wake. Martin, who helped produce the show and wrote several episodes, had wittingly or not composed his novels in a fashion that reflected his TV experience and made them ideal for serial storytelling, with their long, overarching narratives matched to immediate vignettes tethered to the viewpoints of specific protagonists. Game of Thrones was boosted to such epochal success by several coinciding factors. As a tale of familial tribulation and communal fracture, it suited the post-Global Financial Crisis and War on Terror mood and rhymed with the more general portent of climate change and swiftly transforming economies. A generation had been reared on The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter film series and were now hungry for a new fantasy franchise, but were also ready for something gamier and more adult in the genre, and were more prepared to accept the outsized metaphors of fantasy as capable of bearing the weight of serious themes than any mass audience before.

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The show was created and overseen for HBO by novelist and screenwriter David Benioff, who had written The 25th Hour (2002) and had explored embyronic aspects of the show in his screenplay for the Homeric epic Troy (2004), along with his fellow writer D.B. Weiss. The TV series pared down the novels’ digressions into exploring the manifold corners of Martin’s fictional universe but still featured dozens of recurring characters and required filming from Iceland to North Africa. Game of Thrones unfolds chiefly on Westeros, a continent on an imaginary world where the length of seasons are capricious, and a long and mellow summer is about to give way to an unknowably long and punishing winter. The chief clan of protagonists, the Starks, were once royalty in Westeros’ north and ruled from their seat of Winterfell, but the seven kingdoms of Westeros had been united three hundred years earlier by the Targaryen family, with a mysterious magical link to dragons and who used those animals to pulverise enemies on the path to total domination. The realm’s seat of royal power, the Iron Throne, was literally forged out of the swords of defeated enemies with a dragon’s fiery breath. The oft-incestuous Targaryens gained a reputation for inherent lunacy, eventually sparking a great rebellion that saw many different great families in the realm join together and overthrow their dynasty, installing Robert Baratheon (Mark Addy) in their place. Ten years into Robert’s reign, the King visits Winterfell to ask his best friend and old ally Ned Stark (Sean Bean) to accept the post of “Hand of the King” or chief minister to replace a predecessor who has recently died. Robert is married to Cersei (Lena Headey), scion of another great family, the Lannisters, famed for their deep resources of both gold and political savvy. Robert dislikes Cersei and ruling equally, preferring drinking, whoring, and hunting. Cersei has long since found comfort in an incestuous relationship her twin brother Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), who is the true father of her three children, Robert’s nominal heirs.

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The early episodes sketch the tenuous balance of personalities and factions sustained through Robert’s reign, and how his lack of interest in the niceties of kingship sows seeds of coming conflict. Rivals like the Lannister patriarch Tywin (Charles Dance) can accrue great influence through all but subsidising the kingdom, whilst resentments build up elsewhere, including in the old North kingdom, and Dorne, in the far south, for the losses of people and honour they suffered. The friendship between Robert and Ned seems like a sturdy foundation to sustain peace on, particularly as Ned is a deeply honourable and decent leader who has tried to instil his values in his sizeable brood of children and dependents, including sons Robb (Richard Madden) and Bran (Isaac Hempstead Wright), daughters Sansa (Sophie Turner) and Arya (Maisie Williams), and bastard son Jon Snow (Kit Harington). By comparison the Lannisters have a reputation for cold-blooded conniving. Sansa is betrothed to Robert’s heir Joffrey (Jack Gleeson), but he quickly proves a budding psychopath. The tomboyish Arya’s unremitting hate for Joffrey is stoked when a playful fencing game she has with a peasant lad leads to that boy’s slaying after Joffrey starts bullying them. Arya also resents Sansa for siding with Joffrey in trying to fulfil her own dream of becoming queen and escape the comparatively dull and squalid northern backwater.

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Jaime, labelled “Kingslayer” by all and sundry for having delivered the coup-de-grace to the last, lunatic Targaryen king despite being his bodyguard, seems a glib and supercilious playboy. He pushes Bran off a tower where the boy spies him and Cersei having sex. Bran is left a paraplegic, and after an assassin is killed trying to finish the job, Ned’s wife Catelyn (Michelle Fairley) has the killer’s dagger identified as belonging to Jaime and Cersei’s younger brother Tyrion (Peter Dinklage), often labelled “The Imp” because of his dwarfish stature and penchant for dissolute living. Catelyn has Tyrion taken captive and transported to another region, ruled by her unstable sister Lysa (Kate Dickie). Whilst serving in the capital King’s Landing, Ned uncovers the truth about Cersei’s children and offers her a chance to flee, but Cersei, covertly a hard and vicious operator who fancies herself Tywin’s truest progeny, instead contrives Robert’s seemingly accidental death before having Ned arrested for treason. Cersei tries to arrange a swap of Tyrion in exchange for Ned’s life, but the newly-crowned Joffrey, delighting in power and bloodlust, instead has Ned beheaded. This sparks a furious continental power struggle that sees Robb leading Northerners in rebellion, whilst Robert’s brothers, the talented but glum and charmless soldier Stannis (Stephen Dillane) and the charismatic and gay Renly (Gethin Anthony), informed by Ned of the heirs’ bastardry, each raise armies to make themselves king.

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This core drama obeys a realistically nasty sense of medieval society and its dynastic players, drawn from a number of ready sources. These include Greek and Jacobean tragedy, Shakespeare’s history plays, Robert Graves’ I, Claudius novels and their 1970s TV adaptation, Maurice Druon’s French historical novel series The Accursed Kings, Frank Herbert’s Dune cycle, Michael Moorcock’s fantasy cliché-smashing Elric of Melniboné tales, and The Godfather films, from which it significantly assimilates, and recapitulates in the most hyperbolic terms, the theme of a family trying to operate in a corrupt and hostile world whilst retaining a vestige of honour. Overt fantasy elements are pushed to the far fringes at first, glimpsed in vestigial remnants and hunks of infrastructure that now seem to have no proper use, from dragon eggs long turned to stone and the skulls of the Targaryens’ conquering monsters stowed in a basement, to a colossal wall of ice built to guard the north against supernatural forces, but which now merely stands to hold out wildings, the hard and bitter peoples who subsist in the frozen wastes. The signature touch of white hair that marks the Targaryens pays tribute to Elric and to Melville, imbuing the breed with a hint of the uncanny, of extraordinary power and also a suggestion of innate decadence and inhumanity. The wall is manned by the Night’s Watch, a once-legendary band of holy warriors now mostly filled out by convicted criminals and social refuse. Jon Snow learns this to his shock and shame when he volunteers to serve with them. The very first scene of the series however has signalled something is coming along with the winter, as some Night’s Watch men are attacked by a mysterious and terrifying foe that can induct their own victims into their ranks, as glowing-eyed zombies dubbed White Walkers.

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Where most high fantasy aims to create a fabled classical past as it might have been synthesised in medieval folklore, Game of Thrones rather portrays that medieval mentality as still uncomfortably and half-sceptically infused by that past. The first season sets up the essential dramatic tensions and conflicts in relatively low-key terms, the death of the peasant boy presaging a story predicated around portrayals of aristocratic selfishness waged in general contempt for the greater populace. Here the innocent often get ground into so much mince by the machine of statecraft, where some characters defend their prerogatives with unstinting precision and others are confronted by the near-impossibility of getting anything like justice when such forces rule the world, and so must find ways to armour themselves through arts both delicate and warlike. Martin’s youth in the counterculture era informs the pervading spirit of the material in the grand-scale recapitulation of The Who’s famous lyric, “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” Ned’s effort to operate according to his scruples helps to unleash a near-apocalypse, costing him and Robert their lives, nearly destroying their families, and sparking internecine warfare that convulses across the length and breadth of Westeros. Catelyn and Cersei’s mirroring desire to protect their children and bring their enemies to book similarly fuels the carnage.

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Part of the overall narrative’s ingenious thrust was sourced in the inclusion of two major storylines that contrast the relatively petty squabbling of the Westerosi clans with momentous and slowly uncoiling threats, allowing a varied blend of not just plots but types of storytelling. One of these is the inexorable White Walker army, massing in the wait for winter’s start. The other is Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), who, along with her older brother Viserys (Harry Lloyd), is the last known surviving member of the former ruling clan. Now subsisting in exile on the neighbouring, Eurasia-like continent of Essos, Viserys tries to purchase an army to regain the Iron Throne by essentially selling Daenerys as a bride to Khal Drogo (Jason Mamoa), a chieftain of the virile nomadic warrior tribe known as the Dothraki. Daenerys manages to turn this humiliating and violating fate to her own advantage as she deftly captures Drogo’s unwavering love. When Viserys proves too big for his britches Drogo promises him a crown that will make men shudder to contemplate, and promptly has a vat of molten gold poured on his head. Drogo dies when a light wound from a duel is turned into a fatal one by the efforts of a witch from a tribe his Dothraki enslaved, leaving Daenerys with only one great act of faith to ensure the rebirth of her dynasty left to dare. She has herself and the stone dragon eggs that are the last remnant of the breed burned together with Drogo on his funeral pyre, along with the tethered witch. Daenerys emerges from the fire unharmed, proven to be the true Targaryen kind, and three infant dragons hatched and regarding her as their mother.

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Daenerys soon gains a fanatical following as she uses her ever-amplified personal legend, and equally fast-growing dragons, to attract adherents and begin assaulting the status quo in Essos. At first with guile and then increasingly with brute force, she captures several large cities with a determination to wipe out slavery, gaining help from freed slaves and obtaining the unswerving loyalty of the Unsullied, a corps of cruelly but effectively trained warrior eunuchs. She attracts loyalists including former slave and translator Missandei (Nathalie Emmanuel), and Grey Worm (Jacob Anderson), the Unsullieds’ choice for commander from their own ranks. She also has Jorah Mormont (Iain Glen), a former Westeros knight exiled for slave trading by Ned, who tried to regain his standing by spying on the Targaryen siblings but instead finds himself welded in personal loyalty and affection to Daenerys, whilst she is more drawn to the glib but romantic mercenary Daario Naharis (Ed Skrein and Michael Huisman). Daenerys’ following is built on assaulting the malign regimes both on Essos and Westeros, and holds the promise of freedom for the oppressed that Daenerys feels messianically obliged to deliver. But it remains disturbingly contingent on Daenerys’ willingness to unleash brutal poetic justice upon various collectives of malefactors, countenancing such acts as having one enemy and a traitorous handmaiden sealed alive in a vault, crucifying slave owners, and relying on the shared capacity of the Unsullied and her brood of dragons to devastate enemies with no questions asked.

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One major theme of the show is that of the repercussions of specific choices and actions, particularly when performed against the evident necessity of a given situation. The kinds of crisis of conscience and acts of defiant agency-seeking that define modern drama are often painted as indulgence in the face of foes who will gladly murder you while you sleep, and yet are eventually validated nonetheless as the only possible answer to such nihilism. Ned and Robb are joined as father and son both doomed by their incapacity to wield cunning and dexterity in concert with moral action, and so are outflanked by more ruthless foes. Arya dedicates herself to the idea of making people face the consequences of their actions, even pushing this to the point of abandoning a wounded man as she feels he deserves a slow death, and later slaughtering a knight who killed her fencing teacher with terrible relish. But when she joins a sect called The Faceless Men to learn their prodigious assassin arts she cannot give herself up to their religious dedication, a lapse that almost gets her killed. Daenerys’ attempts to end slavery constantly collide with the much deeper problem of how to revise the basics of a society, eventually driving her to conclusions similar to Mao and Stalin in her revolutionary course. When a finer quality wins out, it’s usually the cumulative result of long and demanding discipline as well as sacrifice, and the seeds of good deeds take much longer to flower than expedience. Some acts win through in a crisis of the moment but leave a lingering flavour of disgust whilst others seem to fail in the moment and yet offer the possibility of treasured worth. Thus the Starks are nearly decimated in the first half of the series and yet, finally, emerge triumphant.

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Around the central dynastic players orbits a host of ingeniously conceived and cast supporting characters. There’s Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie), a freakishly large and strong noblewoman who’s taken up a knightly creed without actually being a knight, first introduced seeking a place amidst Renly’s bodyguards. Fate drives her to the twinned tasks of avenging Renly’s assassination and protecting the Stark children, whilst also at first stuck with Jaime’s company and then doomed to linger in love with him. Varys (Conleth Hill) is a eunuch who serves the Iron Throne with his genius for gathering intelligence but considers himself far more loyal to the realm at large rather than any one ruler. Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish (Aidan Gillen) is a pimp and plotter who has risen to the royal council, harbouring a secret desire to become King and somehow win back Catelyn, his childhood love, and after she dies, setting his sights on Sansa instead. Sandor “The Hound” and Gregor “The Mountain” Clegane (Rory McCann and Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson) are husky brothers bound by shared fighting pith and deep mutual hatred, each employed as thugs by the crown. Samwell Tarly (John Bradley) is the portly, timorous scion of a macho knight bullied into joining the Night’s Watch where he’s taken under Jon’s wing, slowly blooming into a man of action and learning who also takes on a wife and her child he rescues from the frozen north.

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Davos Seaworth (Liam Cunningham) is a former smuggler raised to knighthood by Stannis who was impressed by his ingenuity, nicknamed ‘the Onion Knight’ for his sarcastic choice of emblem and who serves for Stannis, sometimes to appreciation and often to its opposite, as a voice of earthy wisdom. He loses a son to Tyrion’s explosives during the assault on King’s Landing but later finds himself allying with Tyrion as well as Jon and others as the White Walker threat becomes urgent. Melisandre (Carice Van Houten) is an enigmatic and manipulative priestess for a god called the Lord of Light who influences Stannis with sex and displays of magic, burns sacrificial victims en masse, and achieves Renly’s death through birthing a vaporous magical assassin. Gendry (Joe Dempsie) is one of Robert’s illegitimate sons, a talented blacksmith who briefly becomes Arya’s companion in fleeing King’s Landing, is tapped for his royal blood by Melisandre for her incantations, and eventually finds himself granted Robert’s old titles and lands. During a venture north to head off an imminent invasion by a massed wilding army, Jon has a passionate affair with the garrulous but deadly archer Ygritte (Rose Leslie). The fierce yet strangely likeable Tormund Giantsbane (Kristofer Hivju) eventually becomes Jon’s unshakable ally in efforts to save the wildings from the White Walkers. Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer) is the ambitious daughter of another great house who takes Sansa’s place as Joffrey’s intended and happily plays any role, from saintly princess to partner in sadism, to further her aims, backed up all the way by her formidable grandmother Olenna (Diana Rigg). Her brother Loras Tyrell (Finn Jones) is a glamorous knight who is not so secretly queer and Renly’s lover, but finds himself committed to becoming Cersei’s second husband.

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The vast number of these and other players contribute to the constantly recapitulated theme of outsiders imbued with contrasting talents and sullen, long-foiled desires that find a stage for realisation, proto-moderns both out of time and place and yet imbued with strange grace for existing within a pre-modern world. A lot of current pop culture seeks to flatter its audience by narrowly illustrating and confirming a progressive sense of history, but whilst Game of Thrones makes is sympathies clear it also muddles easy identification and refuses easy victories, one reason why, despite its fantastical aspects, it rang true for a vast number of viewers. The show constantly indicts a certain brand of stiff-necked and abusive patriarchy as a corrosive force, presenting many septic father figures, like Samwell’s father who threatens to arrange his death if he doesn’t disinherit himself, and the brilliant but self-righteous and coldly domineering Tywin, as figures who try to impose rigorous control and yet again are destroyed by their self-delusion. The ultimate figure along these lines in the show is Craster (Robert Pugh), a wilding who’s carved out a home in the frozen wilderness and fosters a brood of daughters he keeps under an incestuous thumb, sacrificing his boy children to the evil beings who control the White Walkers. Ginny (Hannah Murray), the girl Samwell saves, is one of his daughters. Craster is eventually murdered by mutineers of the Night’s Watch, who also slay Jeor Mormont (James Cosmo), their commander and Jorah’s father, during a disastrous foray into the wastes.

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One of the more compelling characters in the suffering offspring mould is Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen), the son of the nominal king of the piratical Iron Islanders off the Westeros coast, raised as a hostage by the Starks but essentially a member of the family. Theon is initially portrayed as a cocksure bigmouth with no real character. Once Robb kicks off his rebellion he sends Theon to his father Balon (Patrick Malahide) to negotiate his aid, but Balon coldly rebuffs Theon as a foreigner, preferring his much more aggressive sister Yara (Gemma Whelan). Theon tries to prove his worth by instead leading an attack on Winterfell and pretending to kill Bran and the youngest Stark son Rickon (Art Parkinson), substituting the bodies of two slain farmhands in their place. Theon is eventually betrayed and taken captive by a mysterious young man who takes great delight in sadistically tormenting him. This man proves to be Ramsay Snow (Iwan Rheon), the bastard son of Stark loyalist Roose Bolton (Michael McElhatton), who has his own deceitful project under way. Theon inspires degrees of disdain, pathos, and admiration in the course of his experience, his fumbling efforts to prove himself worthy of his creed, his pride as a lover and his impotence as a princeling finally, terribly mocked in one swoop when Ramsay castrates him and sends his boxed genitals to his family. By the time Yara comes to rescue him, he’s reduced to such a wretched, servile thing she’s forced to abandon him.

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Theon’s capture and initially inscrutable suffering is one aspect of the show’s third season, which, with its jolting twists, served at once to disorientate a growing viewership but also sank the hooks of addiction more deeply. The malicious cunning reaches an apogee in the episode “The Rains of Castamere” where Robb tries to restitch his alliance with sleazy, aged, petty potentate Walder Frey (David Bradley) after breaking a vow to him to marry one of his daughters, having instead taken the smart and lovely foreign healer Talisa (Oona Chaplin) as a bride. During a feast of reconciliation, the Freys, in alliance with Bolton and with Tywin’s covert backing, suddenly attack and slay Robb, Talisa, Catelyn, and much of the Stark army, in an atrocity quickly dubbed the Red Wedding. This act of treachery nonetheless seems to virtually end the civil war and leaves the Lannisters in apparently firm control, as Tyrion and Tywin have already beaten off Stannis’ seaborne assault on King’s Landing. Arya, in the custody of the Hound who wants to ransom her back to her kin, barely escapes being caught up in the Red Wedding. Her near-crazed hunger for revenge begins to manifest as she recounts a list of enemies to slay before sleeping at night, and keeps starting fights with factional goons the Hound has to finish. Despite the fact he’s one of the names of Arya’s list for his role in killing the peasant boy, the Hound feels a near-paternal responsibility for the Stark girls, only to be left to die by Arya after he loses a duel after a chance encounter with Brienne. Arya refuses to go with Brienne, instead heading to Essos to join the Faceless Men, one of whom, Jaqen H’ghar (Tom Wlaschiha), she encountered as a prisoner and whose stealthy talents in killing helped save her, Gendry, and others from a sorry end.

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Martin took inspiration for the Red Wedding from events in Scottish history, although his explorations of its ramifications echo back to Greek tragedy, forging a kind of anti-Alcestis. The series charts the devolution of social and civic mores in Westeros to the point where all scales for measuring decency are broken. This theme is borrowed from I, Claudius in particular, with Joffrey and Ramsay representing the kinds of fiends who revel in the power they can indulge when such limitations dissolve, in the same way Caligula did in I, Claudius. More importantly, the Red Wedding’s bloody shock and Theon’s gruelling torture signalled a series that didn’t exactly have reassuring its audience in mind, and fulfilling Martin’s credo of trying to undercut the clichés of his chosen genre and truly portray a world completely lacking the kinds of soft landings provided by modernity and well-knit civilisation. Game of Thrones is always wise on a dramatic level to leaven the often punishing tone with flashes of droll humour, particularly from Tyrion, whose forthright tongue slashes holes in egos and pretences across two continents. At the same time, the longer arcing plotlines point towards dates with destiny in a manner that contradicts such self-detonating narrative mischief. The show sometimes even offers sourly funny inversions of its own clichés. Tyrion relies on sardonic man-at-arms Bronn (Jerome Flynn) to serve as his champion in a trial by combat to escape Lysa’s clutches in the first season, but is condemned in the fourth when he nominates the vengeful Dornish prince Oberyn Martell (Pedro Pascal) to fight The Mountain for him in a similar situation, only for Oberyn to lose the duel in a manner at once dismaying and blackly comic.

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Tyrion is the show’s heart, played with true brilliance by Dinklage. Tyrion, hated by his father and sister because his mother died giving birth to him but held in bonds of affection to Jaime, has a humanistic mind to which he adds, when Tywin decides to make him Hand of the King whilst he’s busy fighting the war, a talent for ruling and Machiavellian plotting. Long used to indulging bought sex and wine to compensate for his failings in physical and dynastic stature, Tyrion is often regarded as the real monster by the populace, blaming him for crimes and misdeeds actually committed by Joffrey and others, whilst Tyrion desperately tries to conceal his one vulnerability, the prostitute Shae (Sibel Kekilli) he’s fallen in love with and manages to conceal in the royal castle by posting her as the captive Sansa’s handmaiden. Tyrion’s inspired and valiant defence against the attack of Stannis’ force is overshadowed by his father’s charge to the rescue, and he’s soon faced with many humiliations, losing his post and being forced to marry Sansa, whom he dedicates himself to protecting from Joffrey’s harassment. When Joffrey is fatally and gruesomely poisoned at his wedding to Margaery, Tyrion is blamed, and he soon realises he’s going to be framed by Cersei and Tywin and is devastated when Shae helps get him convicted. Jaime helps Tyrion escape with Varys’ aid, but before fleeing Tyrion sneaks into his father’s chambers: when he finds Shae in his bed he strangles her, and then shoots his father on the toilet with a crossbow.

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Tyrion’s swerves of fortune and many goads to such homicidal rage and his attempts to live with himself after are charted with a precise sense of emotional calumny, his actions entirely understandable and yet once again damaging to what he means to protect: leadership of the Lannisters is left in Cersei’s tender care. Whilst talented in some of the same ways as her father and younger brother in plotting and manoeuvring, Cersei lacks Tywin’s cool sense of proportion and tries to make up the difference with unswerving bloody-mindedness and a tendency to mistake the needs of her ego for sovereign necessity. Her one saving grace is her maternal care, a grace she is relentlessly stripped of when Joffrey is poisoned and her daughter Myrcella (Aimee Richardson and Nell Tiger Free) is slain by Oberyn Martell’s lover and bastard daughters in revenge for his death. Margaery deftly pivots to marry Tommen (Dean-Charles Chapman), Joffrey’s decent but naïve younger brother, so Cersei, desperate to rid herself of the Tyrells, fosters a fanatical religious group that crops up in King’s Landing called the Sparrows. This sect is led by a saintly and shrewd former merchant turned monk (Jonathan Pryce), who proposes to cleanse the kingdom of its sins. Cersei arms the Sparrows and gives them power to seek out and prosecute the immoral: she get what she wants when Margaery and Loras are imprisoned but realises her terrible mistake when they arrest her too, whilst convincing the new king to support them. Cersei weathers her own perfect humiliation in being forced to walk from the Sparrows’ abode back to the royal residence, naked and abused by a gleeful crowd.

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The religious and spiritual motifs in Game of Thrones are, like its politics, generally cynical but also more disjointed and curious, and it highlights an area where the show is fails to offer a coherent sensibility despite leaning heavily on the mystical throughout. The Seven Kingdoms exalt the nominal modern religion of the Seven, a group reminiscent of the Greco-Roman and Norse pantheons, although many still also hold to an older creed more closely connected to a shamanic sense of natural forces. Those forces prove to have been destabilised millennia before through human pressure, driving the “Children of the Forest”, figures akin to the Dryads of Greek myth and the Green Men of Celtic, to create the first White Walkers and possibly also cause the mysterious imbalance behind the distended seasons. The sight of Daenerys after surviving her husband’s funeral pyre, naked and cradling her dragon offspring, is one that might have come right out of some ancient folktale, one radically at odds with the structured, socially reflective faith of Westeros. In further competition is the monotheistic faith of the Lord of Light practiced by Melisandre and fellow ‘red priest’ Thoros of Myr (Paul Kaye), who is also a member of the Merry Men-like Brotherhood Without Banners, who inconstantly try to fight for the peasantry. These two priests prove to have the ability to revive the dead through invocation to their deity, a seemingly definitive capacity for miracle that nonetheless remains confusing even to those revived.

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Various motifs, like Melisandre’s penchant for the auto-da-fe and the Sparrows’ righteous warpath that targets the powerful but likes singling out gay men and wilful women, evokes the darker side of medieval Christianity and doesn’t entirely fit with the generally pagan mores of Westeros, stretching to encompass such commentary. The narrative coldly undercuts any sense of certainty in spiritual power and justification in fanatical conviction when Melisandre convinces Stannis to save his failing campaign against the Boltons by sacrificing his young, disfigured daughter Shireen (Kerry Ingram) to the Lord of Light, Iphigenia-like, only for the spectacle to cause half his army to desert in disgust, leaving the rest to be hammered by Ramsay. The closest the series gets to defining the meaning of the flashes of the miraculous is when the Hound grimly notes of the Lord of Light, “Every lord I ever fought for was a cunt, why should he be any different?” This nonetheless does hint at an amusing metatextual joke, as the Lord of Light’s purpose in reviving the dead is conflated with authorial prerogative. By rights Jon, who gets assassinated by some of his fellow Night’s Watchmen who revile his attempts to make compact with the wildings, should die as the result of his choices as per the series convention, but the plot still needs him, so arise, spunky Lazarus. Likewise the slow process that sees many different and far-flung characters slowly drawn together to battle evil is informed by a wry conflation of a divine plan with storytelling felicity.

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The show is more confident and coherent in wielding the symbolic as well as narrative potency of the more clean-cut fantasy elements, which are ultimately far more palpable as expressions of human and natural phenomena. The White Walkers encapsulate an evocation of existential threat applicable to just about any great danger up to and including death itself, presenting a foe so frightening that it demands unity, trust, and unselfish heroism, the things that just happen to be sorely missing from Westeros life. Daenerys’ dragons describe at first the formidable strength located in a more ancient ideal of society then the henpecked feudalism of Westeros, as devices that can unite tribal peoples behind a god-ruler fuelled by a sense of divine mission, but also by series’ end cunningly link such atavistic power with nuclear weaponry, the most modern expression of such potency. They’re also tethered to Daenerys’ psychology as surrogate children and functions of her psyche, as a woman who sustains herself through initial degradation and later tribulation through conviction she is destined to rule, but also wants that conquest to have meaning, meaning she seeks to fulfil in freeing slaves and punishing the iniquitous. As she attempts to get down to the finicky business of actually ruling cities she captures, she locks away the dragons or lets them fly off, essentially castrating herself and trying to ignore her most prodigious talent, for unleashing destruction and wrath. Eventually, when she’s obliged to wage war with the dragons let loose in their full, mature fury, it seems like a heroic moment of revealed power, but also symbolises the tipping of a balance in Daenerys’ mind towards a darker conviction that in the end her might makes right.

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Bran’s story sees him gifted with great psychic abilities, like the ability to enter the bodies of animals and people, which emerge after his paralysis. After being driven away from Winterfell by Theon’s attack, he follows a recurring vision northward with the aid of his hulking manservant Hodor (Kristian Nairn), a man who’s plainly not an idiot and yet can speak no word other than his name, Osha (Natalia Tena), a former wildling and Stark servant, and Jojen and Meera Reed (Thomas Brodie-Sangster and Ellie Kendrick), another seer and his huntress sister who obey the cryptic urge to help Bran. Bran finds himself anointed to take the place of the “Three-Eyed Raven” (Max Von Sydow), an ancient oracle who stands as the interlocutor of the human and natural worlds and receptacle of all memory past and action present. Bran’s storyline is less incident-driven and more subtly conceived than much of the rest of the show, and is even absent from a whole season at one point, and its purpose doesn’t entirely become clear until the very end. In the meantime he presents a tempting target in the war against the White Walkers and their terrifying, seemingly unstoppable commander, the Night King (Vladimir Furdik), who wants as death incarnate to annihilate what Bran contains.

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Bran’s story links his evolution to a pantheistic concept of a world unified on a fundamental, natural level, but the connection between it and the other spiritual motifs is never clarified, a disappointment given the seemingly great expanse of time available to the series: it’s hard to shake the feeling the show, and through it Martin, wants his cake and to eat it. Nonetheless it pays off narrative-wise when Bran has to flee the invading White Walker force, requiring Hodor to jam shut a door and give Bran and Meera time to escape, his constant utterance revealed to have been sourced in the literal order to hold the door communed into his head as a teenager by Bran, indicating his entire life has been subsumed to the purpose of protecting Bran and sacrificing himself in this moment. A potentially silly culmination that nonetheless reaches for and achieves operatic force. Bran’s new awareness lets him easily solve hidden mysteries, allowing him to indict Baelish for his many crimes, and uncovering the great truth of Jon’s real parentage. But it also renders him a veritable void of personality, to the point where Meera abandons him in grief after realising the Bran she knew has essentially died.

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The show’s more satirical edge evokes a wry despoiling of the familiar motifs of the medieval morality play, particularly in the way characters like Tyrion and Varys contradict common depictions of physical deformity and peculiarity as markers of bad character. Dinklage had played Richard III on stage before being cast in the role, and Tyrion resembles a take on the Crookback king rendered according to a revisionist impulse, whilst Varys mocks the common figure of the untrustworthy eunuch. Arya’s training with the Faceless Men puts her in contact with a group of actors whose play converts recent history into fitting melodrama but also reproduces a version of reality both the current wielders of power and the audience with its inbuilt prejudices fondly wishes were correct, where Joffrey was a fair and noble king slain by his grotesque and malevolent uncle, and political and social truths work in the same way as feudal banners, clear in symbolic import. Game of Thrones undoubtedly attracted a great amount of its audience through its willingness to offer lashings of sex, bloodshed, and vulgarity in a gaudy manner denied to much contemporary big-budget cinema, freely exploiting the flexibility of subscription television in this regard as opposed to the mass audience aim of current Hollywood. The show took a lot of sardonic criticism in its time for an approach to plotting labelled “sexposition,” often having characters explain themselves and situations whilst fornicating enthusiastically and otherwise.

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One much-mocked example in the first season when Baelish schools Ros (Esmé Bianco), a newly-arrived northern lass joining his brothel, in the fine arts of seduction sexual and political, is actually a rather smart and feverishly erotic illustration of the theme of power applied through the deft use of puppetry, an art Baelish is dedicated to. That said, much of the bawdiness seen in the series does prove forced and impersonal, although to its credit it tries to be even-handed in servicing the audience, most gleefully in portraying the bisexual orgy Oberyn and his paramour indulge, and it also taps it for some humour value, as when Tyrion is bewildered to find his squire Podrick (Daniel Portman) a sexual prodigy after buying him an interlude with prostitutes as a reward. The sexuality exists in constant relation to violence, which borders on the genuinely off-putting at times, particularly as Joffrey gets his brutal jollies with prostitutes, in Ramsay’s torment of Theon and, later, Sansa, and sequences like one where prisoners are killed by bored Lannister soldiers who contrive to have live rats eat through them, a genuinely Sadean touch. The idea of violence as a universal trait is certainly at the core of the series, sometimes an art wielded with purpose and discrimination and at other times just a way of releasing boredom and frustration for men weathered well beyond empathy, but always with a fervent sense of its ugliness.

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Arya’s storyline contends with her efforts to transform herself into the perfect engine of violence, applied with a surgical skill and in accord with the precise arithmetic on the moral abacus, as she evolves from a rough-and-tumble teenage girl delighting in learning swordplay for its own sake with a vague ambition to avoid becoming another castle lady, to a brilliant, rather frightening killer who nonetheless achieves a level of self-direction and freedom none of the other characters gain. Amongst all the characters on the show Arya has the widest purview on the horrors unleashed by the war, spending time amongst slaves and then as the oblivious Tywin’s servant, experiencing disillusion on all levels save faith in a personal god of vengeance. Her spell with the Faceless Men sees her eventually rejecting their amoral service to Death as an anonymous and disinterested “many-faced god.” This puts her in lethal conflict with a fellow waif (Faye Marsay) whose motivations may, or may not, rhyme with her own but are not accompanied by any scruples or sense of empathy. Arya is punished by Jaqen for her refusal to follow orders by taking her sight away and forcing her to learn to fight the waif blind, a gift that ironically allows Arya to defeat her later in a true duel as her foe, who delights in indiscriminate death, has never broken the rules and therefore never been trained this way. Arya’s return to Westeros is announced in the most sublimely Jacobean fashion when she slaughters Walder Frey after fooling him into eating his sons baked into a pie, before then taking on Walder’s appearance and poisoning all his underlings at a feast.

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Sansa, by contrast, seems for much of the series to be the most passive and hapless of the Starks, paying the endless price for being, in Arya’s view, a pretty airhead with princess fantasies. Joffrey takes delight in forcing her to look upon her father’s severed and impaled head. She’s eventually sold by Baelish, after he spirits her out of King’s Landing, to Ramsay as a bride, despite his affection for her, to buy Ramsay’s good will. The heartless scion rapes and tortures Sansa, eventually rousing Theon from his traumatised state: he helps her escape whilst Ramsay cleans up Stannis’ army. Sansa, robbed of any last remnant of her naivety, soon evolves into an imperious force in her own right, even making a deal with Baelish despite knowing what he is to help save the day when she and Jon lead an outmatched army against Ramsay. Ramsay’s end, with Sansa feeding him to his own hungry hounds, is another pure Jacobean moment. The series is ultimately, despite its ambiguities, most essentially a cracking good melodrama replete with bad baddies and breathless last-second rescues. But it also tries to complicate its morality to a bracing degree. The series constantly tries to imbue its many moments of relished payback with a note of discomfort as we see once good people, however justifiably, pushed into similar zones of subterfuge and cruel relish as their tormentors. It votes its many devils like Tywin and Cersei, Baelish and Ramsay, flashes of sympathy in comprehending how they’ve been formed by their eternally dogging and unanswerable desires. A figure like Olenna, as ruthless, murderous, and Machiavellian in her way as any of her enemies, nonetheless comes across like a positive character for her assured sense of just ends and distaste for posturing of any kind.

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Notably, the narrative repeatedly extracts payment for redeemable characters who do evil things by robbing them of precious things, particularly body parts. Jaime is the most successful of the series’ ambiguous characters. Introduced as a golden boy nonetheless held in contempt by all and sundry for his killing of the “Mad King,” a man who casually tries to kill Bran whilst fucking his own sister and strangles a cousin to escape the Starks’ clutches, Jaime nonetheless is slowly revealed to be a complex man capable of great decency, and whose deeds reflect the often impossible positions he’s thrust into: he killed the king to save King’s Landing from general immolation, and made the choice to protect his own family rather than the Starks. His road movie-like travels with Brienne, tasked with taking him back to his family, sees him forging a genuine camaraderie with her, and his attempt to save Brienne from being brutalised by some Bolton goons who capture them results in his getting his sword hand hacked off. Jaime, greatly weakened as a fighter but shocked into a new gallantry, saves Brienne again and dedicates himself to trying to head off ill fate, freeing Tyrion and heading off to try and save Myrcella, before eventually committing himself to the battle against the White Walkers despite Cersei’s refusal to help.

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The show’s incredible production values often pay off in truly impressive spectacle, particular in the episodes directed by Neil Marshall, maker of cult works like Dog Soldiers (2002), The Descent (2005), and Centurion (2010): his “Blackwater” in season 2 and “The Watcher on the Wall” in season 4, where Jon emerges as a great leader figure as he and the Night’s Watch fight off the wildling horde, are superior in filming and dramatic tension to most blockbuster movies in the past decade. A terrific action sequence in a fourth season episode sees Meera, Jojen, and a Bran-possessed Hodor battling off a gang of animated skeletons, paying cutting-edge tribute to the famous climax of Jason and the Argonauts (1963), whilst the thunderous climaxes of the seventh season depict Daenerys using her dragons to great effect against earthbound foes both living and dead. Game of Thrones eventually ran into a great deal of vexation and disappointment from viewers as it reached its final seasons, with many finding the last in particular hurried and flimsy. To my eye, the show’s wobbles come rather earlier, around the fifth and sixth seasons, as so many of its driving plotlines demanded resetting or replacement following the fourth, and several elements are set up only to be left hanging, all whilst still trying to maintain the same sense of velocity. Tyrion and Varys’ journey east to meet up with Daenerys and seek employment with her, whilst Daenerys herself is obliged to flee political enemies and is snatched away by the Dothraki, opens up great new vistas for these characters.

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And yet this hemisphere plays out in a herky-jerky manner, failing to build storylines as effectively as before, and resolving with Tyrion picked to be Daenerys’ Hand without much good cause. That said, these seasons still offer some very effective movements, including Jon’s murder and resurrection, and the climax of Cersei’s conflict with the Sparrows. The latter is dealt with in an aptly megalomaniacal manner as Cersei blows up the cult and sundry other enemies in one colossal blast, finally achieving agency to match her willpower but also foiling herself, as the spectacle drives Tommen to kill himself in grief. Cersei becomes queen in her own right and sets about ruling with an iron hand, allying with Euron Greyjoy (Pilou Asbæk), a charismatic and well-travelled rogue who has murdered his brother Balon and driven Yara and Theon into exile, and falling pregnant to Jaime again. Season 6 concludes with Daenerys and her entourage and army finally arriving in Westeros, taking over Stannis’ old castle and making punishing war on Cersei’s forces. Her awesome campaign is forestalled as Jon comes to her and asks for her help against the White Walkers, and the two handsome young monarchs quickly fall in love, although the underlying tension of their political mating remains rather less pliable.

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Game of Thrones ultimately ran into a problem of expectations in a narrative that built its initial appeal around willingness to confound expectations. And confound it did. Ned, played by the nominal series lead and best-known cast member, doesn’t survive the first season, and subsequent plot strands zigzag with roguish energy, managing the tricky task of satisfying without doing so obviously. Joffrey’s sticky end, the object of fervent wishing from both other characters and viewers, not only comes with an unexpected jolt of pathos but also invests a host of new story reverberations. Yet most of Martin’s desecrations of plot actually service his longer games, like clearing away relatively superfluous or over-familiar and stolid characters like Robb and instead obliging the survivors to enact stranger paths to victory that make their eventual triumphs all the sweeter. The TV series moves from being a reasonably intimate political thriller where no-one is safe to a spectacular fantasy war epic where all your favourite characters are pitched in together. One risk, evidently, lay in continuing the series past where Martin had reached, especially considering that many of the best scenes in the early seasons had been copied almost verbatim from the books. But sooner or later the storyline had to deliver on its most essential promises, or dissolve into a mass of self-defeating gamesmanship, or else a total embrace of anarchism. The dichotomy here perhaps accounts for why Martin has failed thus far to resolve the novel series.

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That said, I didn’t really feel upon watching the series right through that the later seasons represented any precipitous drop in quality. Rather on the contrary, they deliver as both spectacle and drama and manage the unenviable task of focusing such a sprawling tale to crucial focal points. Some aspects do certainly feel ungainly, like the blinding speed with which Euron builds a powerful new fleet and the way he seems able to make it turn up anywhere by surprise (Asbæk’s outsized performance in the role does however give the later episodes a jolt of much-needed roguish energy). But the degree to which they hurt the show has been often ridiculously overstated, and I’ve seen some other promising series of recent years that bellyflop far more painfully. Perhaps it’s an indication of where pop culture is these days, preferring the open road of narrative rather than firm conclusions and attendant ideas. Game of Thrones remains propulsive and underlines its cumulative concepts and messages lucidly. One significant aspect of the show’s overall sweep is the way it takes up Thomas Hardy’s dictum that character is fate. Figures like Ned and Robb die precisely because they cannot act against their inner natures. Whilst most of the characters experience transformations of one form or another, such evolution is more a function of the inner person than something imposed from without. Jaime emerges as a weirdly heroic figure and yet cannot finally escape his bond with his utterly hateful sister. Daenerys tries to describe a legend and an ethical scheme for herself that flies in the face of her actual proclivities. Tyrion finds something close to a faith in dedicating himself to Daenerys but ultimately finds his cynical, honest, defiant self is ultimately worth more. The younger Starks, who grow up in the course of the series and so are formed by their reactions, can be said to be forged by such circumstance, and even then their eventual personas reflect where they’ve come from. Most pointedly, all are ultimately left to act out their own pathologies once the great existential business of defeating the White Walkers is dealt with.

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Jon is the most traditional hero figure, sent down from heaven’s central casting with his defining sense of eternal psychic conflict (compulsory for a proper modern hero) matched to a consistently valiant and honest outlook, as well as his emo-dreamboat good looks. The show takes some time to make a real case for Jon being at all interesting, partly because his growth process is from a callow youth who’s talented and well-trained in fighting to one with authentic and genuine self-reliance and wisdom. Jon proves himself in the course of nominally betraying his vows to fulfil them, becoming one who constantly attempts to act on his most honourable and humane impulses even whilst never shying away from the risks he faces. Those risks run from standing up for Samwell at the outset to eventually making compact with the wildlings, and his strength, both in body and in mind, ultimately sustains him where many others fall. His punishment is to be robbed of nearly all he holds dear. He falls in love with Ygritte and then Daenerys but his dedication to the greater good ultimately costs each woman’s life, and at the end he is left the same man, ruefully aware of the punishing nature of identity and duty in both the immediate and philosophical senses, bereft of home if not purpose, as he was at the start. He’s not blessed with levels of impossible wisdom, either, assassinated by his comrades and suckered in by Ramsay’s sadistic showmanship in their epic grudge match “Battle of the Bastards” to the point where he almost blows the battle. The theme of facing consequences is returned to in the very climax of the story where Jon prepares with equanimity to burn in a fiery blast from a dragon’s maw in fair payment for a foul deed, perhaps the first person in the saga to ever face up in such a fashion.

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But Daenerys is the one figure whose sense of inner being is most thoroughly assaulted as her “children” are killed along with her most loyal friends. The key to her sense of mission as the anointed Targaryen, her great salve, is voided when she and Jon learn that he is in fact her nephew, the secret offspring of her long-dead older brother and Ned’s sister. Daenerys’ crisis is then enacted on city-levelling terms, in a bitter punch-line that underlines the dubiety the narrative always warned in regarding self-nominated heroes and dynastic rulers claiming divine right. Before that, Daenerys is seen at her most gallant as she puts aside her own mission and joins the Westerosi in the great fight against the White Walkers around Winterfell. Jon and his comrades have already tried to convince Cersei to help in the fight by capturing and exhibiting a White Walker, and Daenerys loses one of her dragons to the Night King’s ice lance in trying to rescue their raiding party. The Night King is able to induct the dead dragon into his force, using its power to break through the Wall. The great climax to that aspect of the story comes half-way through the final season in “The Long Night,” a unit of action brilliantly orchestrated by director Miguel Sapochnik, one that struggles to deliver a strong piece of spectacle despite the way an inherent aspect of the battle is blizzard-furled chaos, the army of zombies attacking on the ground whilst the dragon-riders do battle in the sky. Jorah and Theon die most heroically in the last stand of humanity before cold fate, and the Night King makes his remorseless march up to a solitary and exposed Bran in a sequence of excruciatingly well-sustained, mournfully-scored tension, also a particular highpoint for series composer Ramin Djawadi.

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Some complaints about the later seasons had validity but also often tended to smack of a common brand of that’s-not-what-I-would’ve-done fan whine. Many, for instance, felt that the task of felling the Night King was Jon’s anointed story duty, and I can understand the feeling of dashed expectation in that regard. But I also see the sense in the task falling instead to Arya, who takes out the ghoulish avatar just as he’s about to slay Bran and end the memory of mankind: Arya answers malign force with precision and guile, down to the witty flourish of deception and legerdemain she executes to take him down. This also accords with the whole course of Arya’s story: such a triumph sees Arya finally besting death itself after rejecting its amoral worship, giving final coherence to her story after her many dances near the edge of nihilism. Jon has his own arduous task in the end, as he’s faced with the necessity of supplanting or killing Daenerys to save the world in general and those he loves in specific from her decimating will. Criticism of Daenerys’ disintegration is again worth hearing out. Whilst the show certainly forewarns of such a turn and provides plenty of indicators that no matter how stable and decent a member of her clan might seem they contain the seeds of monstrosity, there’s a remarkably short space between her riding heroically to the rescue on her dragons to her incinerating large swathes of King’s Landing essentially as a gesture of answering dominance aimed at Cersei after the rival queen captures and executes Missandei.

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Nonetheless Daenerys’ psychology is intriguingly reminiscent of the main character in Lawrence of Arabia (1962), another self-made champion mixing intense neurotic revulsion for death and suffering driven to prove master of it by dealing it out, swaying from extremes of messianic heroism to base atrocity. The fiery wrath she unleashes on King’s Landing, a city she sees as essentially filled with collaborators in her father’s death and in Cersei’s murderous reign, comes after an excellent piece of wordless acting from Clarke as you all but see her soul crack in two, and serves as her “No prisoners!” moment. The great juggernaut of mutual destruction finally sees Cersei and Jaime dying together as Jaime tries to pluck his sister-lover out of the collapsing citadel, already mortally wounded from a fight with Euron over territorial rights to Cersei’s womb, and The Mountain and The Hound tumble together into roaring flames after Sandor forcefully dissuades Arya from killing Cersei. Arya is left to try and survive the apocalyptic flames shattering the city, the last and most terrible tableau in her witnessing of war and terror and one where her talents are utterly dwarfed by a new kind of impersonal annihilation. Full-on fascist parable hatches out as Daenerys holds court with the Unsullied arrayed in Nuremberg-esque rows and Tyrion passes his firm but impotent judgement by throwing away his Hand of the Queen pin. Tyrion nonetheless gains a kind of victory as he convinces Jon there’s no alternative to his slaying Daenerys.

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Jon finally commits the deed to Daenerys’ blank-eyed shock as the embrace in the ruined throne room. Her last remaining dragon melts down the Iron Throne – who knew dragons had such a great sense of dramatic irony? The image of Jon clasping Daenerys’ lifeless body nonetheless returns us to the realm of classical myth fit for the last act of a Wagner opera, an act of violence committed in the name of love that both entirely shatters and rebuilds the world’s moral crux. Bran is eventually selected by the new Westeros potentates, including Sansa, Samwell, Davos, and Arya, at Tyrion’s suggestion. Again, having Bran finish up king rankled many viewers, but it makes sense, once more, in terms of the series’ underlying metaphorical sprawl. Bran, all-seeing and all-knowing and scarcely caring about it, represents the arrival not of democracy or consensus in Westeros, but of the great trade-off that is modernity, encompassing phenomena like the internet and the surveillance state, coolly imposing order and promising peace and safety at the expense of privacy and unmediated liberty. The few remaining characters who prize their autonomy and indeed embody the very concept must as a consequence must past out over the margins into myth. Arya heads west to find the world’s edge, and Jon, exiled again to the Night’s Watch, treks into the frozen north with the wildings with the strong hint he’ll become their new leader. The best thing that can be said about Game of Thrones is that, love or loathe its conclusions, it manages the task of stitching such a rich and sprawling drama and its attendant ideas into a grand tapestry, and yet retaining the authentic pleasures of good pulp storytelling.

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1940s, Auteurs, Italian cinema, Political, War

Paisan (1946) / Germany, Year Zero (1948)

Paisa’ / Germania Anno Zero

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Director/Coscreenwriter: Roberto Rossellini

By Roderick Heath

Out of ashes, creation. The Italian neorealist film movement was in large part a pragmatic solution to shortages of film stock, actors, and other paraphernalia of a movie industry that had been gutted by war, invasion, and the collapse of a regime. This unlikely renaissance was propelled purely by the urgent, guttering need to describe, record, understand, communicate, and grapple with the immediate reality shared by artists and public alike. Presaged by Luchino Visconti as he dared counter Fascist rectitude with a portrait of insidious transgressions in Ossessione (1943) and even by Mussolini’s preeminent director Alessandro Blasetti, neorealism gained its true clarion with Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City (1945), a bleak wartime thriller that retained conventional elements in its portrayal of partisan resistance and Nazi brutality, but essayed in terms that seemed to blow like a fresh, cold wind dispelling a miasma. Of course, filmmakers had done most of the things the neorealists would do already; others had shot movies on location, utilised non-professional actors, and dealt with pressing realities of the age. As World War II unfolded, filmmakers around the world had begun incorporating the methods of documentary into their movies, as well as adopting a terser, more stoical and spacious dramatic style.
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But neorealism went further in tossing out the polish of studio cinema and hanging entire movies by a framework that would have seemed desperately flimsy just a few years earlier. The new creed was instantly recognised and celebrated as something new, and held up internationally as proof something worthy and honest could emerge even in the midst of calamity. Neorealism’s impact was destined to be deep and permanent: far more movies today than not rely on some blend of its methods. And yet the movement itself was very short-lived, the number of works produced under its specific dogma scant. Neorealism’s anointed directorial heroes would have long and robust careers but most would often be the subject of long sideways glances from some who saw traitors to a cause long since laid to rest. Part of neorealism’s stature certainly had roots in the terrible glamour of World War II and the din of collapsed empire. For a few brief moments in the twilight of war, a sense of enveloping commonality and hard reckoning existed as a shared psychic experience. Neorealism would fade out as prosperity came back and society got back to the regular business of winnowing out losers from winners.
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Of course, neorealism didn’t really die. It changed form, still inflecting the anxious soul of its inheritors both immediate, from the generation of Italian filmmakers who cut their teeth as writers and aides on the neorealist shoots, no matter how delectably formalist they became, to those who would pick up aspects of their method for the New Wave movements of the 1960s and ‘70s and modern independent film. Amongst the major neorealist figures, a cadre that also included Visconti, Giuseppe De Santis, Vittorio De Sica, and screenwriter Cesare Zavattini, Rossellini had perhaps the most frustrating career, his life charting the tides of the age. Rossellini gained fame making bitterly realistic works conjured with scant resources amongst the rubble, became a most ironic celebrity doomed to have his tumultuous private life overshadow his works as he romanced movie stars and international artistes and always retaining aspect of the rootless hustler, and finished up making intelligent but little-noticed docudramas for TV, still trying to obey his principles. Attempts to exploit the notoriety of his union with Ingrid Bergman produced a string of films including Stromboli (1950), Europa ‘52 (1951), and Voyage to Italy (1954), all box office failures but belatedly admired. Rossellini was running into trouble with critics and audiences even before he concluded his “War Trilogy,” which counts as easily his most famous work today, kicked off by Rome, Open City and extended by Paisan and Germany, Year Zero.
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Paisan might be the most exalted of neorealist works alongside The Bicycle Thieves (1948). Paisan is an episodic film built around descriptive vignettes involving the various acts of the Allied campaign in Italy, each episode depicting a time, a place, a phase of battle, but much more cogently, Rossellini’s vision of the war is as something that may involve countries and ideologies but which happens to people. “These people aren’t fighting for the British Empire,” an OSS agent states in the last episode, referring to the partisans he’s working with, “They’re fighting for their lives.” It’s the essential creed of the film; those for whom war is a steamroller running over their lives, those for whom it’s a distant crackle of gunfire, those who grab the tiger by the tail in chasing the empowerment of combat or those obligated to, all share the experience of plunging into an event that envelopes and reshapes them. Rossellini hired a different writer for each part of the film, but pulled off the task of contouring each, sometimes quite divergent dramatic style into his overall vision, which runs all the way from comedy of manners to heightened tragedy. The actual screenplay was penned by Rossellini, his friends and regular collaborators Federico Fellini and Sergio Amedei, with input for the English-language parts from Bill Geiger.
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The first chapter sees narrative land on the Italian shore along with a unit of American GIs; Italy is going to be reintroduced to itself through the eyes of invader/liberators. A Sicilian-American GI interprets; a local bigwig grasps a thread – he doesn’t know anyone by his name from his family’s home town – to disdain the entire enterprise. The bridge of cultures is immigration, the mutual understanding narrow and shaky, the lingering spell of dictatorship still potent. The GIs surge out of the dark, the Italian townsfolk gathered in scantly lit abodes in fretful anxiety waiting to see how things play out, finding the Americans indistinguishable at first from the Germans. The GIs get a local teenager, Carmela (Carmela Sazio), to guide them through mines the Germans have planted; Carmela leads them to a ruined castle, a fitting defensive position. Whilst the rest of the unit goes off to patrol further, Carmela is compelled to remain behind to be sure she won’t alert the Germans, with Joe (Robert Van Loon) assigned to watch her and hold down the fort. The castle is a ghost of a long-dead Italy where princes gallivanted and empires reigned; now it’s a husk, riddled with vertiginous and labyrinthine passages but still a good place for armies to play “childrens’ games, only the bullets are real,” as one of the German soldiers describes their adventures. Language is a form of geography: Carmela and Joe try to understand each-other in their scant and fragmentary knowledge of each-other’s language and navigate by the few familiar landmarks in their mutual languages speech – Joe counts off the limit of his Italian: “Paisan…spaghetti…bambina…mangiare…”
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War has no time for small epiphanies. Joe is shot by a German who spots him lighting his cigarette through one of the open castle windows. A Wehrmacht unit occupies the castle and discovers Carmela, who has hidden away the bleeding, dying Joe. Sazio and Van Loon’s quality as performers swiftly describe the appeal of the non-actor to the neorealist style. There’s no hint of the theatrical to them, none of the years spent perfecting unnatural stances or ways of interacting. Sazio’s blowsy, slouchy adolescence with just the faintest rigour of adulthood coming on, is all the more affecting because it’s so familiar from life and so rare in movies of the time; Van Loon radiates a sincere, bashful charm. But when the time comes Sazio perfectly registers Carmela’s woozy distress and resolve as she looks upon the dying Joe, marking her determination to take revenge. Rossellini starts his war with the world in miniature, boy and girl, caught between nations, languages, political systems, and sparring armies. Carmela takes up his rifle and, as the Germans throw dice to see who’ll get to rape her first, manages to shoot one. Joe’s unit returns to find their man dead and Carmela missing. They assume she killed him. Rossellini however privileges the audience to her real fate: the Germans have dragged her to a cliff edge and thrown her off. Rossellini’s stark, almost off-hand revelation of this before fading to black and moving must have seemed like a slap in the face to a 1946 audience, and it’s still potent. The little universe of humanity, with all its will, casually exterminated, another great drama lost to all knowing, its actors left lying about like refuse.
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The second episode, unfolding in Naples, might represent a certain caricatured ideal of the neorealist style, as it depicts a similar fractious relationship defined by both understanding and the absence of it. Exactly this theme lies at the heart of Paisan and perhaps all Rossellini’s works – his later, mature movies like Voyage to Italy contemplate the disconnection in personal terms, the difficulty, particularly for intelligent but introverted people, to escape and expose their inner experience sufficiently to be understood by those close to them. Here, the material is more worldly and immediate, and urgent as a pungent and palpable need. The protagonists here are another Joe, this one an African-American MP (Dots Johnson), and Pasquale, one of a gang of homeless children who haunt the streets and plazas of Naples. Some of the kids pick up the odd tip helping GIs between bars and night spots, and rob them if they get half a chance. Pasquale attaches himself to Joe and leads him about town. After Joe passes out in spite of Pasquale’s warnings, the kid steals the MP’s boots. A few days later, Joe spots Pasquale trying to rob from the back of a truck. He nabs the waif and forces him to take him to his home and return his boots. But upon catching a glimpse of the subterranean world where he and hundreds of other penniless, dispossessed people live, Joe leaves the boots to Pasquale and drives away.
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As in De Sica’s Shoeshine (1946) and The Bicycle Thieves, the emphasis here is on the children left in desperate poverty in the war’s aftermath, and the plot revolves around the possession of desirable, useful, even life-saving objects – the boots, akin to the bicycle in the De Sica film. The climactic moment of moral confrontation establishes common empathy and the abandonment of a selfish sense of justice, but also skirts the edge of triteness. Rossellini however complicates this sketch in witty and biting ways. GI Joe here is a black man, one who murmurs bitter recollections of his home being a shack, all too aware that his relative elevation as a player of the war project will probably only be temporary before returning to life as a second-class citizen. Perched on a rubbish heap with a bewildered Pasquale at his side, Joe sings “Nobody Knows the Troubles I’ve Seen” in a ragged but impressive voice, near-blind with booze but still all too aware of his marooning between worlds. The fulcrum of the episode is a scene in which Pasquale takes Joe to a puppet theatre. The rapt audience watches a scene from Orlando Furioso being played out, in which the great Christian knight slays a Moorish foe. Joe, groping through the fog of booze to comprehend the essential drama, starts cheering like the others in the theatre as if they’re watching a boxing match, but for the nominal villain. Rather than let Orlando win, Joe leaps onto the stage and starts trying to box the puppet. Rossellini draws together many ideas here – the delightful absurdity of Joe’s assault on the puppets turns him to a Quixote-ish hero with comic zest, but Rossellini also notes the deep racist tradition locked into the Euro-American self-concept in the ritualised defeat and suppression of the African.
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There might even have been a quality of mea culpa to this. Although a leftist, Rossellini had been close friends with Mussolini’s son Vittorio, and owed his start in the film industry to this, not long after the Fascist regime had been warring in Libya and Ethiopia. Joe’s surrender of his boots at the end comes not with the guilty look of the conscience-appeasing bourgeois but the slow and considered abandonment of a poor man’s fierce and persona ethic in the face of another, overriding demand, a glimpse into a bottomless pit of need that refuses even to honour Joe’s nursed grievance. If Rossellini diagnoses rotten aspects of society that can be left to safely decay amongst the rubble here, the third chapter, which takes place in post-liberation Rome, asks what will replace them, and sees with glum certainty a kind of slick, alienating capitalist-consumerist cosmopolitanism descending. The nightclubs are filled with American soldiers on leave with money and luxury items to be had, and young women eager for both. Francesca (Maria Michi) is one of them, a hardened, bravura urban adventurer and prostitute who finds her eye caught by a young soldier, Fred (Gar Moore). When another chippie objects to her occasional sideways glances, the two women brawl, attracting MPs who clear the joint.
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Francesca comes across Fred on the street and lures the tired and tipsy soldier back to a rented room. Fred seems disgusted with the idea of sleeping with a prostitute, reminiscing instead as he drifts off to sleep about the fresh-faced and pure girl he met on the day the Allies rolled into the city to the cheers of the Romans. Francesca is that girl, of course. She leaves her real address on a note with Fred as he sleeps, but the next day dismisses it as a note from a whore, screws it up, and tosses it away before heading off with his fellows. This episode has a concise, plaintive, short story-like obviousness to its arc, one that partly conceals the insidious sense of humour Rossellini employs, particularly in the deadpan dissolve from the joyous optimism of the city’s release to a shot with a title over it reading “Six Months Later,” the open and eternal city now a den of rude and raucous behaviour, a transition that would feel quite at home in a modern satire like The Simpsons. The beatitude of liberation, a moment of idyllic promises, gives way to slick operators and resentful misogyny: “You wouldn’t last a day if these guys went home,” Francesca yells at her rivals, but it’s certainly just as true for her. Fred’s wistful reminiscences of the recent past are Francesca’s too as she’s able to fill out his anecdote with her own memories of a very recent but long-lost arcadia.
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Rossellini’s tart sociology sees the desire of the soldiers for cheap booze and quick sex as a market in a land where humanity is the cheapest commodity, trampling the tenuous human connections of the age, whilst hypocritically demanding everything and everyone retain the unsoiled lustre of great days. Innocence, if you believe in that sort of thing, has been defiled; certainly everyone is changed, the by-product of the age’s upheaval and collapsed structures, leaving everyone an instant and irreparable nostalgic. Although perhaps the most conventional episode in the film with the faintly poetical and sentimental quality to Francesca’s monologue and the obvious central conceit, this vignette feels in some ways like the most influential in the evanescent emotions and concepts it brings up, in the way it moots concerns the neorealists and their inheritors in Italian film would take up. In the absence of great projects of conflict and revision, individuals drift on different currents, lost to themselves and each-other. The pathetically broken rendezvous at the end, as Francesca waits for the man who won’t come, feels like a quick preparatory sketch for Michelangelo Antonioni’s “alienation” films, particularly the conclusion of L’Eclisse (1962) as well as the forlorn romanticism of Rossellini, De Sica, and Visconti’s ‘50s films. Long before he arrived at the pensive interior evocations of works like Voyage to Italy and Antonioni’s works, Rossellini was already wrestling with people wrenched out of alignment with their true selves, lost behind worldly glazes and masks adopted for survival purposes.
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The fourth chapter, by contrast, is a tale charged with daring adventure and high romanticism, if still processed by Rossellini’s cool-tempered, methodical cinema. This one sees young American army nurse Harriet (Harriet White) attending to injured partisans as the Allies advance on Florence. Harriet is familiar with the city, having been there before the war. Asking about one of her old boyfriends, a painter named Guido Lombardi, Harriet learns he’s now a respected partisan leader nicknamed Lupo – the Wolf – by his fellows, and is battling the retreating the Germans and their Fascist allies in the city. Harriet becomes so desperate to find Lupo after hearing he’s been wounded, she links up with another injured partisan, Massimo (Renzo Avanzo), who wants to get back to his family who lives in the same part of the city Lupo is fighting in. The duo exploit the Vasari Corridor, a passage that runs over the Ponte Vecchio into the Uffizi Gallery and forgotten by the Germans, to infiltrate the city. Eventually, when they reach the precincts where the partisans are still fighting, Harriet is devastated to learn from a wounded man that Lupo has died, whilst Massimo dashes away, bullets dogging his path.
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This chapter is the most traditionally thrilling in the film, proving Rossellini if he wanted to could have easily become a great action filmmaker. That’s not to say it’s conventional. Rossellini’s eye is at its keenest here in noting the stark contrast between Florence’s artistic wonders and the smears of blood and bullets pocking its streets – the seed of John Frankenheimer’s The Train (1964) is here as well as Stanley Kubrick’s war films. White, with her high, strong cheekbones and blend of strong emotion and venturesome resolve, could easily have passed for a movie star of the day, and embodies a still-guttering romantic spirit amidst the carnage. Rossellini recreates the same on-the-fly, danger-charged sensation of authentic war being filmed evinced in Rome, Open City. His tightly controlled sense of perspective avoids the regulation scene grammar for war sequence – no cutaways to the enemy or the like, simply concentrated, often laterally flowing tracking shots following his characters as they progress. Rossellini sensitises the viewer to the exposure in wide, well-lit streets that could make anyone a sniper’s target, and open piazzas as arenas of action. A bedraggled collaborator is marched out before resistance columns, a moment Visconti would recreate in his The Leopard (1963) in taking up the theme of a cycle of rule, revolt, downfall, and new orders bound to ossify.
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Rossellini and DP Otello Martelli pull off one particularly brilliant shot as his camera pivots from the corridors of the looted, deserted Uffizi along with his characters to peer down onto the city streets. There they glimpse the last few Germans massing for retreat. The sequence is an odyssey as Harriet and Massimo, each drawn on through a ridiculously dangerous exercise for the sake of people they care for, encounter partisans whose everyday aspect, fighting in street clothes and idly lunching with food pulled across fields of fire in carts, blurs the line between deadly struggle and holiday jaunt. Other Florentines mass in stairwells and corridors, keeping away from the fighting, a riot of rumour and complaint. Harriet and Massimo encounter people ranging from a retired military officer who surveys the struggle from the rooftop, recalls fighting in “the real war,” and claims to be able to dodge bullets, to a pair of British soldiers who are too awed by the cultural treasures laid out before them to quite notice the life-and-death struggles going on down in those sunstruck routes.
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The fifth chapter is a breath of calm in this storm, depicting a trio of US Army chaplains: Catholic Capt. Bill Martin (William Tubbs), Protestant Capt. Jones (Newell Jones), and Jewish Capt. Feldman, Jewish (Elmer Feldman). The trio visit an old hilltop monastery where the monks are fascinated and bewildered by their visitors. They’re glad to receive the Americans’ gifts of food, particularly their Hershey’s chocolate. But when the monks learn that two of the chaplains are heretics, they anxiously prod Martin over his failure to proselytise to them, to which Martin calmly replies that he feels he has no right to, particularly as they believe themselves to be just as faithful and correct. The monks decide to fast in praying for the souls of the Protestant and Jew, giving up their first good meal in months. The gentle comedy in this sequence, which starts off like a bar room joke, presages Rossellini’s deeper, longer look at the side of religion he appreciated in The Flowers of St. Francis (1950), the noble absurdity glimpsed in people trying to obey both human need and divine obedience. Many another artist would have expressed frustration at the sectarian reflexes of the monks, and one of the chaplains raises in concerted seriousness about just how much use the instruction of people used to hiding from the world is at such a juncture in history. But in the end Rossellini sees value in that detachment. He wants a place left in the world for men of simple faith, holy fools, and people with the ability to go without so that others might gain something, no matter how much those others don’t want it.
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For all Rossellini’s evolving faith in the stripped-down and spontaneous, there was nothing artless about his moviemaking. The first, third, and fifth chapters are carefully fashioned in their lighting and subtle, quietly mobile camerawork, flickers of poetic and spiritual depth allowed to subsist in the lighting caressing the faces of Joe and Carmela and Fred and Francesca, or pooling in the monastery’s corners, and the chiaroscuro battles of light and dark that confirm the influence of the pre-war poetic realists on Rossellini. The harsher style utilised in the second, fourth, and sixth episodes befits tales rooted in more immediate actions and consequences. Fellini’s specific humour occasionally glimmers throughout, with the fairground performers glimpsed at the start of the second chapter providing an islet of bristling medieval colour in an otherwise raw-boned city, the two English soldiers playing aesthete tourists, and the vignettes in the monastery, where the monks offer their blessing in return for a candy bar. The last chapter, which takes place in the Po River valley in 1945, has been called the ultimate iteration of the neorealist creed, as it depicts an episode amidst the war’s end-game.
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The first shot in the episode sees a man’s corpse floating down the river, executed by the Nazis with a sign branding him as a partisan, moving with languorous pathos like something from a dream. The world here has been reduced to a relentlessly horizontal zone of flat earth, rippling water, and wavering reeds, at once desolate but deceptive in its capacity to conceal and trick the eye. Dale (Dale Edmonds), an OSS agent, and some fellow American soldiers are operating with partisans in the reed-clogged river delta. A recent halt in the Allied advance has left these warriors stranded in enemy-held territory without hope of quick recourse. A brief stop at a tavern set up in a shack sees the wearied fighters take stock and recover a little, but it brings down vicious punishment from the Germans, who shoot anyone found in the vicinity of the tavern. A pair of British airmen are shot down in the water and rescued by the partisans, but seen they’re all cornered by Germans, who gun down the partisans as rebels and some of the Allied soldiers when they leap up in protest. That Rossellini and his writers decided to end the film with this chapter suggests a desire not to set the seal on the conflict but to suggest the way it was still a raw, bleeding wound both physically and mentally; the wailing child left amidst splayed corpses by the tavern is totem of the entire experience, a generation of orphans left in the wake of acts of colossal bravery and cruelty.
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This episode reduces the war to appropriately barren essentials to match the landscape, stripping out the dramatic familiarities and ironies of the earlier chapters and instead presenting a grim spectacle of struggle and death. Out there in the man-killing surveys of the Po delta lies the futurist anxiety Antonioni works through in Red Desert (1964) and Zabriskie Point (1970) and the mood of incipient earth-swallowing uncertainty he’d approach in L’Avventura (1960), as well as anticipating the post-apocalyptic fantasias of four generations. Dread of the future appropriate for science fiction is hinted at as the Allied captives are forced to listen to their Nazi officer captor’s calm and still-confident belief in the new civilisation that will last a thousand years. A few minutes later the master race are shoving bound men off a boat, the warriors of the Po finding comradely rest at the bottom of the river. Paisan was a big hit both in Italy and on the world cinema scene, and when Rossellini returned with Germany, Year Zero in 1948, it was at the high-water mark of neorealism, as The Bicycle Thieves, Visconti’s La Terra Trema, and De Santis’ Bitter Rice were all released to general acclaim. Germany, Year Zero was however overshadowed, whilst Rossellini’s personal situation had undergone violent upheavals through his affair with Anna Magnani and the death of one of his sons, Romano, from his first marriage, aged only 9. Germany, Year Zero takes up the raw and stricken mood of Paisan’s last episode in a movie dedicated to Romano’s memory, as well as rounding out the war trilogy with a survey of the ruined Nazi homeland and the people left to subsist in the rubble.
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Young Edmund Kohler (Edmund Meschke) is Rossellini’s inheritor of the national ash-heap, living with his elderly father (Ernst Pittschau), a former academic, his older sister Eva (Ingetraud Hinze), and brother Karl-Heinz (Franz-Otto Krüger). Hunger is a gnawing and constant reality; the elder Kohler’s poor health is exacerbated by starvation, and the family is trying to subsist on only three ration cards because Karl-Heinz, who fought until the end and belonged to an unspecified regiment suspected of war crimes, is afraid he’ll be thrown in a detention camp, so he remains in hiding. Edmund is so anxious to help out his family at the outset he’s glimpsed trying to get a job as a gravedigger, perhaps the only growth industry in Berlin at this point. He also engages in petty theft and con artistry. He encounters one of his former teachers, Herr Henning (Erich Gühne), who employs Edmund as an agent to sell an LP recording of Hitler’s speeches to the reliable battery of gullible Allied soldiers who hang about the old Chancellery in search of souvenirs. Henning places him in the company of Jo (Jo Herbst) and Christl (Christl Merker), two of the many homeless kids around the city who are growing up very fast, becoming experts in robbery and operating, and Edmund joins them in stealing a bag of potatoes from a train shipment.
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It would be tempting to regard Germany, Year Zero as merely an extra-long last instalment of Paisan, continuing the northward and chronological march to its logical end amidst the shattered husk of the Nazi homeland. But Germany, Year Zero is a different kind of movie to Paisan in terms of Rossellini’s focus and method; the individual portraiture that informed a general sociological viewpoint in the earlier film is here inverted. Perhaps that’s part of the reason why Germany, Year Zero met with strident criticism from many quarters. Rossellini had readopted aspects of studio filmmaking, making use of some sets and other moviemaking tricks. One gets the feeling, however, that another aspect of its rejection lay in its pungent and gruelling evocation of a world that lies at the very outermost fringe of redemption. Whereas De Sica’s films like The Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D. (1953), however grim in depicting poverty, retained a sentimental faith in certain evanescent bonds of amity, shifting to a German setting allowed Rossellini to leave behind all trace of his own romanticism. Germany, Year Zero depicts fascism as having leached into the soil, gripping at the roots at whatever new world might grow from the tainted earth.
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Everyone has become a walking stomach and a register tallying buying power. Henning, who has a clear paedophile’s interest in Edmund and who it’s suggested keeps Jo and Christl close for sexual favours, still preaches fascist essentials to the boy, advising him that the weak have to be cut loose and not allowed to impede the strong from surviving. The owner of the house where the Kohlers live, Mr Rademaker (Hans Sangen), who was forced to take in tenants by the civil authority in the face of the housing crisis, bullies and complains constantly even as he steal power, eventually resulting in the building’s supply being cut off entirely. Eva brings in some extra income, like Paisan’s Francesca, as a nightspot denizen just a step short of outright prostitution, filching cigarettes which a the most reliable currency, only to be disdained by the Rademakers and Edmund. Young Christl, with whom Edmund seems to feel the first glimmerings of attraction, is described by her fellows as a “mattress that gives out cigarettes.” It’s easy to imagine Karl-Heinz as one of the steel-jawed young Nazi angels shooting down Rossellini’s flailing resistance warriors in his previous two films. “Once we were men, National Socialists,” a rubble clearance worker quips at one point, “Now we’re just Nazis.”
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This quip at last gets to the very heart of an issue Rossellini traces the outer edge of again and again in both films, in noting people’s desire to belong to feel part of some great project, a movement, a corpus of humanity blessed with shining import, rather than admit the reality of their circumstance. The Flowers of St. Francis would, eventually, offer a reconciliation of the schism, as Francis and his followers learn to rejoice in the mud. Part of neorealism’s almost religious appeal in some quarters might well have been rooted in the mode’s ability to imbue that kind of identity and overarching narrative upon life, the brotherhood of debris and scarcity and perseverance. Germany, Year Zero offers no such ennobling on a socio-political level, but does dare to suggest family is a substitute, another world in small from which larger structures grow. Edmund’s initial, scampish selflessness as a kid dedicated to his family unit seems to contrasts Karl-Heinz’s fretful and fuming inability to let go of his defeated cause. By the end Rossellini inverts their roles, as Karl-Heinz awakens to a new reality and rids his system of the fascist poison, whilst Edmund is fatefully, and fatally, infected through Henning’s frame for reality, Nazi ideals carried by children who know nothing better. Rossellini’s great anxiety, perhaps a common one at the time, is that all these brutal lessons have blighted an entire generation. So Edmund steals a bottle of poison from a dispensary and uses it to kill his father in the belief it’s the best thing for everyone.
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As contrary to swift-formed neorealist dogma as it was, Rossellini’s use of sets allowed him greater, more unaffected intimacy in his lighting and shooting, particularly apparent in the scenes in the Rademakers’ building and the Kohlers’ rooms, where the camera often hovers with actors moving about it like another member of the family, tracking all movements with simple pivots. Rossellini’s evolving aesthetic, which would increasingly attempt to use carefully manipulated settings to describe psychological landscapes (in a subtler manner than the waned expressionist film movement), was becoming more definite here. Berlin’s wreckage is recorded with a documentary maker’s rigorous eyes but also reflects the utter desolation of private universes and illusions. Edmund’s murder of his father leaves him entirely alienated from even the salutary processes of mourning, and he eddies for a long and dreadful day as his confession of his final solution to Henning gains only the pervert pedagogue’s hysterical fury and anxious implorations that Edmund not implicate him in the deed.
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Here is Rossellini’s miniature analysis of the life and death of the fascist creed–big-sounding ideals, real murders, and whimpering, pathetic denials of involvement when judgement day looms. In a less crass (if not more subtle) way than the use of lesbianism in Rome, Open City to depict the perverting appeal of the Nazi ideology, Henning’s paedophilia visually describes that deep and invidious process of colonisation of the mind and soul by hateful thinking. Ultimately Germany, Year Zero feels like a statement of intense grief and even exhaustion in the face of a universe of suffering, and Rossellini’s personal loss must have informed the final, despairing image of a young boy’s broken body. And yet it’s not a nihilistic statement. Rossellini intended it as a confirmation that a moral spark would still create shame even in the children of this devastation. Edmund is an avatar for Rossellini’s evolving preoccupation with the gap between the internal and external ways of being, a strange relative to his Saint Francis as like the saint he finds the real monster to battle is not in the world but within, the world only made monstrous by that inner beast. Rossellini grants his boy-man the same stature as he gave to his resistance heroes, as he makes his stand and slays the beast. At the same time he’s just another dead kid in a land filled with them.

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1980s, Action-Adventure, Blaxploitation, Horror/Eerie, Political

The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)

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Director: Wes Craven

By Roderick Heath

Wes Craven’s career making horror films lasted over forty years, but he remained devilishly hard to contain or categorise. A former philosophy student and English professor, he often exhibited great conceptual intelligence in his work, utilising highbrow ideas like metatextuality and nested realities well before they became fashionable, as well as pursuing a definite satirical interest in confronting the violent and perverse impulses lurking under the surface of the modern world. But he also gleefully delivered the down-and-dirty pleasures of his chosen genre, and as he developed from the relatively straightforward rawness of his infamous debut, Last House on the Left (1972), he began to revel in a stylised, madcap, virtually slapstick version of horror. There was a strong dash of Looney Tunes to his horror – the villains reminiscent of Wile E. Coyote or Yosemite Sam in their braggart ferocity, the heroes fighting back with their Acme kit-like improvised methods. His sixth feature film, A Nightmare in Elm Street (1984), was the kind of hit every low-budget, ghettoised filmmaker dreams of, one that made mountains of lucre and impacted upon the genre significantly. And yet the director himself was forced to sell the rights to the film before its release, and could only stand and watch as his brainchild became a pop cultural phenomenon. Craven’s career would remain skittish, even after he finally found a degree of stature and mainstream success with the Scream series. In the phase following Elm Street, Craven did some of his best, most distinctive and vigorous work, but little of it was well-received at the time, including the would-be new franchise creator, Shocker (1989), the freakish, scabrous parable The People Under the Stairs (1991), and the ingeniously self-referential Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1993).

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The Serpent and the Rainbow might have seemed at first glance a play for relative respectability. Craven took on a script by Richard Maxwell and Adam Rodman, adapted a memoir by researcher Wade Davis, recounting his investigations into tetrodotoxin, a chemical derived from puffer fish venom and used by Haitian voodoo practitioners in zombie creation rituals, with the hope of adapting it for medical use. Respectability seems the last thing on Craven’s mind when the viewer is confronted by the resulting film, however. Long before Charlie Kaufman made a joke out of trying to turn dry reportage into a popular genre movie in Adaptation. (2002), Craven beat him to the reality, creating one of his strangest, most defiantly individual films, as well as one of his best – ridiculous, weird, and riotously entertaining. The Serpent and the Rainbow arrived as a near-freeform assault on familiar narrative niceties, shifting through familiar modes at breakneck speed. It’s a travelogue, anthropological study, political thriller, surrealist fugue, blood-and-thunder horror yarn, and action blockbuster all at once. It looks back to Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur’s great I Walked With a Zombie (1943) in trying to seriously and even realistically encompass voodoo as a socio-religious tradition, with an aspect of a specific, very ‘80s brand of fashionable ethnographic study and Third World consciousness-raiser a la The Emerald Forest (1984) or Under Fire (1983). But it also shifts into utterly whacko B-movie shtick and haunted house ride-like showmanship when it feels like it.

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Davis becomes Dennis Alan, played by Bill Pullman, a dashing young Harvard-trained ethnobotanist (!) who arrives deep in the Amazon forest hoping to find commercially exploitable herbal remedies amongst tribal shamans. One shaman (Evencio Mosquera Slaco) feeds him a hallucinogenic concoction as he thinks Dennis needs to perceive things beyond, because there’s some immensely evil force looming over him. Dennis, in his altered state, encounters a jaguar that terrifies him at first but proves to actually be his protective spirit animal. But the shaman is replaced in the fugue by a fearsome, leering sorcerer (Zakes Mokae), who torments Dennis with visions of being dragged down into the earth by dead and buried men. When he awakens from this grotesque trip, Dennis heads to his helicopter in relief but finds the pilot dead, killed by some malediction. Dennis is forced instead to hike out of the jungle, seemingly guided to safety by the jaguar spirit. When he gets back to the US, Dennis is hired by his mentor, Earl Schoonbacher (Michael Gough), who now works for pharmaceutical company boss Andrew Cassedy (Paul Guilfoyle): Schoonbacher and Cassedy want him to go to Haiti, to investigate a seemingly authentic case of somebody having been made into a zombie. The first scenes of the film have already shown this, as the evil magician of Dennis’s dream, actually Captain Dargent Peytraud, oversaw the burial of the man, who was pronounced dead but, as Craven reveals, lay weeping in his coffin. The Captain works for the Tonton Macoute, the secret police force that did the dirty work for the government of ‘Papa Doc’ and ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier.

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The unfortunate victim, Christophe Durand (Conrad Roberts), has since been disinterred and briefly sheltered for a time by psychiatrist Marielle Duchamp (the ever-excellent Cathy Tyson), whose report attracted outside attention. Dennis meets up with Marielle but Christophe has long since left the run-down, grimy asylum Marielle tries to administrate. Eventually they track him to where he now lives, the cemetery where he was buried, lurking in the shadows as a distraught and disorientated shell of his former self. Christophe was a schoolteacher who was fighting the Duvalier dictatorship, and Peytraud targeted him for destruction. Dennis tries to get on with his job, approaching braggart gambler and alchemist Louis Mozart (Brent Jennings) to make some of the supposed zombiefying concoction he’s famous for, and Louis happily agrees for a few hundred dollars. Louis tries to cheat Dennis by giving him a batch of the bogus blend he sells to tourists, but Dennis spots the gag and forces Louis to put up the real thing. Louis eventually agrees but insists Dennis join him the long and complex preparation process for this mysterious concoction. Trouble is, the longer he spends in Haiti, the more deeply Dennis becomes involved with both the local culture and its marvels, and also the evil of the Duvalier regime, as represented by Peytraud, who uses both torture and voodoo to torment and terrorise anyone who attracts his sadistic interests.

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Standing on the side of the just is Marielle’s friend, fellow resistance member, and voodoo priest Lucien Celine (Paul Winfield), who tries to use white magic to protect Dennis and Marielle as they tread on territory Peytraud jealously defends. In many ways Craven’s sense of style could hardly have been more different to the elegance and suggestiveness of the classic Universal and Val Lewton horror films: his camerawork, quite often utilising hand-held and steadicam shots that roam about his characters and vivid lensing effects that mimic the presence of unseen forces assailing them, is vigorous in a manner that suggests Werner Herzog’s work on Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972) on crack, the special effects unrestrained, and the manifestations of primal and supernatural terror visualised with gusto. And yet in other ways, particularly in Craven’s obsession with dreams and visions as the bridging point between the concrete and the fantastic, The Serpent and the Rainbow maintains links with an older, more ethereal brand of horror; reality and dream, worldly power and magic are in such a constant flux that they become inseparable. A richly visualised, otherworldly elegance pervades parts of the film, particularly a magical sequence in which Marielle takes Dennis on a trek along with thousands of worshippers on a religious festival. Streams of worshippers flow through the jungle to a rock pool high in the mountains where they carry a statue of the Virgin Mary, camping at night along the way in forests bedecked with jewels and totems and guttering candles, and Dennis and Marielle make love in a cave with a sense of ritualistic fervour, capping a movement of deliriously sensual textures.

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In the midst of this movement, Craven offers an interlude when Dennis has another of his prophetic visions, seeing himself visited in the night in the forest by Christophe carrying the corpse of a voodoo priestess in a white grave dress, which then disgorges a snake for a tongue that bites Dennis on the face. Such are the breakneck shifts of mood and effect in this film, which come so often as to become their own, weird form of lucidity in creating a world where just about anything can and does happen. Dennis is constantly assailed with similarly strange and often spectacular dreams hallucinations and Craven uses these to give a more pyrotechnic brand of horror. Dennis’ early vision of being dragged down into the earth sees corpses thrusting rotting fingers at him before plunging into a black abyss, as if the dread sins of the past buried however deep are about to claim Dennis. Later, when he’s retreated from the villains to a small beachfront cabin, he sees a burning boat drifting to the shore, carrying the voodoo priestess, before the cabin closes up, shrinks down, and becomes a coffin, blood filling it up like a bathtub. The idea that villain Peytraud fights his battles on both a physical level and on the spiritual lets Craven go to town in portraying the totality of this form of warfare. Peytraud also represents for Craven one of several attempts to create another Freddy Krueger, a trickster villain who respects no usual limitations of physical law and logic to attack his enemies. Mokae was a South African actor who first found repute working with playwright Athol Fugard, and his later acting career was usually split between politically oriented dramas and horror films. Here he had a chance to combine those two, and he’s an unrestrained hoot in the role, with his rolling, bugging eyes and gold tooth flashing matched by rasping voice of cruel relish, as if someone recast Robert Newton’s Long John Silver as a Blaxploitation villain.

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Most of Craven’s films had a powerful undercurrent sense of absurdist black comedy, and oftentimes entirely explicit. That streak is certainly present here, particularly apparent in just how much abuse Dennis receives throughout the film. It gets to the point where this all starts to feel like a lampoon on both the usual travails of venturesome heroes in pulp tales – young Pullman’s square-jawed, all-American visage needs only a pith helmet to complete the picture – and also of white western anxiety in the face of dangers beyond the safe limits of home, like Midnight Express (1978) gone troppo. In one sequence Craven reaches an apogee of discomfort in mainstream cinema whilst somehow avoiding depicting any actual gore. Peytraud seeks to terrify and punish Dennis by having him arrested, strapped to a chair naked in the secret police’s favourite torture chamber, and hammering a nail through his scrotum. Before striking his relished blow, Peytraud matches any Bond villain as he responds to Dennis’ desperate question “What do you want?” with, “I want to hear you scream!” This moment ranks with the “Squeal, piggy!” scene in Deliverance (1972) in literalising a protagonist’s emasculation by forces beyond his control. There is a disparity at the heart The Serpent and the Rainbow between the thesis Davis was arguing, that the apparent manifestations of the supernatural were actually the work of a complex, puzzling but actually rational work of nascent chemistry, and Craven’s casual demolition of that concept by embracing ooky-kooky magic. Voodoo as a religion and cultural phenomenon has been a constant source of interest for storytellers interested in the fantastic, but very few investigate it with much depth or seriousness as a genuine cultural phenomenon.

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Whilst The Serpent and the Rainbow throws out any pretences to being seen as a strict tract on the subject, it does find Craven with an anthropological bent, truly fascinated by the sights, sounds, and lifestyle of Haiti, considering it as a fully-fledged society present amidst but also cordoned off from familiar definitions of modernity. The eruptions of irrationality in the storyline literalise this schism and also lets Craven show his own sensibility, associating political tyranny with forces of evil. There’s an appealing casualness to the interracial romance of Dennis and Marielle that looks forward to Craven’s embrace of black heroism in The People Under the Stairs and fusion of horror with Blaxploitation lampooning on Vampire in Brooklyn (1994). The pilgrimage scene is a highpoint of this bent, amidst an immersive sense of place (although the production was forced to leave Haiti mid-shoot and was finished in other locations including the Dominican Republic), as is a brief but fascinating depiction of Lucien performing a wedding. The Duvalier government and the Tonton Macoute really did use the paraphernalia of voodoo as part of their arsenal of repression, although ironically Wade Davis himself had little trouble from them. Marielle, a modern rationalist by profession, is also famed for her performances when possessed by spirits, and Dennis witnesses this transformation with bewilderment: “There is no conflict between my science and my faith,” as she states.

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Craven’s pointed sense of humour makes itself apparent when a tourist-friendly display of local performers for a hotel crowd is portrayed as a festival of the strange with a male performer getting female guests to shove spikes through his cheeks, another chewing on glass, until finally Peytraud, who looks on, announces himself by mesmerically compelling one of the performers to attack Dennis. This scene is mirrored later in a vignette that counts amongst the most Cravenish of Craven moments, when Dennis returns to the States with the zombiefying powder and is treated to a swanky dinner by Cassedy and his wife Deborah (Dey Young) in their mansion as reward. Deborah, possessed by Peytraud in spite of the many miles and supposed barriers between these places, suddenly turns strange and sneering, begins chewing on a glass, and then launches herself across the dinner table in an attempt to stab Dennis, forcing her husband and Schoonbacher to drag her off. This makes for a disturbing/hilarious image of posh, lily-white insularity turned into funhouse for chaos and vengeful lunacy. There are seeds here for Craven’s later, equally wild and loopy The People Under the Stairs, which would turn the mirror back on Reaganite America and accuse it of being essentially the same thing. Craven didn’t help write the script here, which points to why some of Craven’s favourite themes are channelled in slightly different directions to his usual work, particularly his recurring motif of good and bad families and their avatars who, in the course of the tale, become increasingly blurred: Krug and his cohort and the bourgeois parents of Last House on the Left, the holidaying family and the mutants of The Hills Have Eyes (1977), the suburbanites and their resurging tormentor/victim in Elm Street.

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Here the oppositions are more political and national. The corollary to that theme, of the “normal”, “good” people becoming increasingly warlike and competent in facing their enemies, is more clearly present here too but it takes a long time before Dennis, reduced to a worm before the boot of Peytraud’s intent, finally turns. Peytraud frames Dennis for the murder of Christophe’s sister and uses it to ensure he’ll have him executed if he ever returns to the country, before sticking him on the next plane out. However Mozart sneaks aboard the plane and gives Dennis the batch of zombiefying powder for free, asking only that Dennis let people know about his talents. But Mozart is captured and executed by Peytraud, and after the incident at the Cassedys’ house Dennis feels compelled to return to Haiti as he senses Marielle will be in danger too. Lucien arranges to have Dennis brought to safety by some of his men disguised as cops, pre-empting the Tonton Macoute, so Peytraud has Marielle kidnapped, uses a hex to kill Lucien, and has an operative treat Dennis to a dose of the zombie powder. Dennis desperately begs bewildered people not to bury him as he folds him and seems to drop dead. In his paralysed state, Dennis is forced to experience his own burial.

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This sequence sees Craven paying tribute to the famous dream of death and burial in Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932), shooting much of it subjectively from the view of the frozen Dennis as he passes under the eyes of friends and doctors, and his mocking enemy Peytraud. Just before he’s put into the ground, the Captain drops a tarantula into the coffin to keep him company, giving Craven a chance to stage a most iconically phobic horror image, the monstrous black arachnid crawling over Dennis’s stony face. Dennis is saved by Christophe, who knows very well what’s happened and digs Dennis out of his grave. The clash of aesthetic attitudes apparent in the texture of Craven’s filmmaking, and the ruthless way the original three-hour cut was pared down into a very peculiar 97 minutes, makes The Serpent and the Rainbow an experience that would probably seem to many perturbingly hectic. But it also finally exemplifies something rare about its maker and gives it force that refuses taming. The finale sees all hell break loose in both senses of the term, as the Duvalier government collapses, leading to scenes of explosive rage and rejoicing on the streets, through which threads the smaller but vital drama of Dennis taking on Peytraud for control of the nation’s spiritual as well as physical fate.

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Here Craven goes all-out with a riotous assault of inspired, crazy images – the torture chair coming to life and chasing Dennis about the room, Dennis being assaulted by Lucien’s shade, his bashing his way through a door only to find gravity inverting as if he’s in The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and dangling from the doorframe, and a nod to Lewton and Mark Robson’s Bedlam (1946) as Dennis enters a hall of prison cells from which prisoners’ arms reach, unnaturally long, trying to grasp him. Craven connects Peytraud’s relish of holding the captured souls of his victims, including Lucien, with the political oppression, as Peytraud uses his control over the apparatus of terror to turn victims of that oppression into weapons. Except, naturally, this proves a double-edged sword, as Dennis and Marielle smash the pots containing the souls, letting loose the magical wrath of the repressed on their tormentor, spirits massing to drive Peytraud into a fire and burn him alive, whilst Lucien’s released shade passes on his powers to Dennis.

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Peytraud is defeated in the real world but there’s one fight left on the spiritual plane. Dennis, invested with Lucien’s magic and utilising the fierceness of his jaguar spirit, is able to overpower Peytraud here too, whereupon he hoists Peytraud by his own petard, psychically tethering him to the torture chair and punctured through the balls before being shunted off to hell, complete with reversal of the “I want to hear you scream!” line. The spirits of the dead arise in rainbow colours whilst the populace celebrates and Dennis and Marielle limp away, bloodied but triumphant. This climax goes so far over the top it all but hits orbit, and I dare say the film as a whole is a litmus test, either sweeping you up in its mad thrust or leaving you totally cold. But it’s also uproarious and casually flings brilliantly staged filmmaking at the audience, a perfect encapsulation of Craven’s delight in his art. Horror film will miss him.

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