The Sunday Magazine: HBO’s Game of Thrones Season 7

There are often some great lessons about how you can’t please people so you might as well please yourself. Latest example is the recently completed season seven of HBO’s Game of Thrones. Game of Thrones is one of the last remaining big appointment television shows left running. After the completion of the sixth season last summer they announced they would be finishing the story with two final seasons; a 7-episode seventh season followed by a six-episode final season.

Game of Thrones is in a completely unique place to any other adaptation ever put on film as it has gone past the written page. George RR Martin the author behind the story being depicted in Game of Thrones has been unable to stay ahead of the producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss. They only took on the project because Mr. Martin gave them much of the tentpoles of the end of the saga including the eventual ending. What is incredible is the television show is going to reveal the ending before the author does. I am sure Mr. Martin’s path to the same place has some more twists and turns but both the visual and the printed versions will end up in the same place.

With only thirteen episodes left the producers and the cast mentioned that the narrative pace was going to pick up speed now headed towards the end. I have no problem with that because I have spent sixty previous episodes with these characters I am now ready to get to the resolution of their individual paths. Here is where my first sentence comes into play. The first episode of this season was all about reminding us where each group of characters was while placing them within the overarching plotlines. After that first episode, the internet was ablaze with “what happened to speeding things up?”. I was thrilled with it; the final eight minutes showed the return of one character, who had been exiled the entire series back, to where she was born. The actress conveyed all her emotions on her face and in her eyes before speaking the final line of the episode. That was what I wanted; payoff for having followed this journey for six seasons. The next two episodes would move our characters rapidly towards their inevitable intersections. Time and again paying off the foundation built in many seasons prior. At the end of episode three with a single line from a dying woman a verbal dagger was plunged in to two hearts. Again, complaints were rife about how fast characters moved around and unrealistic timelines while also wondering where the action was.

Please address any complaints to our head of GOT Customer Service

Two of the next three episodes were some of the greatest spectacle ever done in television. Full on war with dragons and a terrifying battle of a few men against an army of the dead. This was broad action as has never been attempted on a television screen. During both moments, I kept thinking “Thank heavens for wide screen hd tv.” For all of that it was a quiet moment at the end of the episode in between which showed how smart these writers are with these characters.

One of the fun things is finally getting to see characters who have not always been together meet on screen for the first time or as part of a group for the first time. it is the latter that takes place at the end of episode five. In an example of narrative economy eight characters ping-pong, via a line or two, the reason they don’t trust one of the others in about two minutes. Each character is true to what we’ve seen before, each character reveals something new, and each character knows they are going to do something with this group that likely will kill them.

This all culminates in a last episode that slingshots the audience to the final season with anticipation. Except for those sad souls who can’t stop complaining. I am completely satisfied with this penultimate season as it felt like almost every important character development had been earned from what had come previously. Maybe the complainers just can’t bear the thought of it all ending. I can’t wait for the final six episodes.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: It Is Not a Documentary

Back during the holidays in 1978 I went to the movies with a group of friends to see Superman : The Movie. This was Christopher Reeve in the movie which advertised “You’ll believe a man can fly”. At the end of the movie Superman flies quickly around the Earth in the opposite direction of the natural spin to reverse time. When we were at a local diner one of the group said about this, “You know that wouldn’t work. It would just throw everyone in to space.” There was a bit of silence and I internally thought,” So you bought a flying invulnerable Superman with no problem but reversing the spin of the Earth to reverse time; that’s a bridge too far?”

Superman reversing the spin of the Earth

I’m not sure what it is about popular entertainment which brings out a group of people who must criticize the reality of the fantastical. It has existed from that moment after Superman: The Movie to today. What I really find irritating is when scientists have an insatiable need to point out that fantasy is not real.

Shh! Dr. Tyson says this is impossible.

One of my favorite scientists from whom I derive a great deal of pleasure listening to on subjects of actual science is extremely guilty of this. Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson just couldn’t help himself after Star Wars: The Force Awakens came out. The well-known astrophysicist just had to be a buzzkill pointing out the fighters shouldn’t be making noise in space. A weapon which absorbs the power of a sun should vaporize itself.  Finally, the small ball shaped robot which rolls everywhere would skid on sand uncontrollably. I am sure he felt better after correcting all the errors in the documentary that was presented on a galaxy far, far, away. Except Star Wars: The Force Awakens is not a documentary it is a science-fiction, notice the word after the hyphen Dr. Tyson, fantasy. You probably should look up the definition of that word too Dr. Tyson. There are so many important scientific questions which could use your expertise to spend time acting like the Star Wars universe is real science is beneath you.

How Fast Do You Fly Little Raven?

This past week has seen my internet filled up with many people who have also mistaken the sixth episode of the current season of Game of Thrones as a documentary, too. In a series where a woman has stood in a fire while everything around her burns not once, but twice, without her hair burning up got no comment. In a series where dragons exist right next to ice zombies, that’s okay. People are resurrected by a Red God, no problem. And assassins can change the shape of their bodies and voices just by putting on a mask; sure. All of a sudden, this week has been spent debating the relative running speed of one character, the flying speed of a raven, and the airspeed of dragons because of an improbable sequence in which our heroes are rescued from certain death. As this debate became more ridiculous I thought back to the scene between The Bridgekeeper and King Arthur in “Monty Python and The Holy Grail”

What is the air-speed of a Northbound dragon with a girl on its back?

The Bridgekeeper asks, “What is the air-speed velocity of an unladen swallow?. Arthur replies, “What do you mean? An African or European swallow?” The Bridgekeeper says, “Huh? I don’t know that.” Just before being flung into the abyss. For every person who can’t sit back and watch a piece of fiction and just be entertained I wish you the fate of The Bridgekeeper except I want every channel on your television and every screen at your movie theatre to be full of documentaries then those pesky inconsistencies in fiction will cease to be bothersome.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: My Favorite Non-Perfume Things of 2016

As we enter the final week of 2016 it is a time for lists of all kinds. I am no different and my year-end perfume lists will appear towards the end of the week. I’m also going to remember 2016 for some non-perfume things and in this last The Sunday Magazine of the year I thought I’d share those.

Favorite movie: Arrival– There was so much for the geek in me this year; Deadpool, Rogue One, Captain America Civil War, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. I had a veritable smorgasbord in front of me of these kinds of movies. The one which has stuck with me since seeing it has been Arrival which is about a couple of scientists trying to communicate with extraterrestrials who have just landed. Themes of how we communicate intertwined with how we fear have stayed with me since leaving the movie theatre. I also said it when I wrote about it but Amy Adams performance is beyond brilliant because there are so many nuances she must communicate wordlessly none more so than her final hug. If she does not get nominated for an Academy Award for this performance I will be very surprised.

Favorite Album: “I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it” by The 1975– This is a band and album that snuck up on me. As I’ve mentioned I like looking back at the number of plays on my iTunes list. This was my most played new album of this past year. Ever since I downloaded it in March there has not been a week where I haven’t listened to it. It is a pastiche of so many 1990’s influences that I think that is what draws me to it along with the lyrics. “She Lays Down” is an amazingly insightful song about addiction and depression. Despite the material, I am always moved by this song and I’ve listened to it over 150 times this year. The 1975 exist on the perfect knife edge of indie and pop; I hope they never fall off.

Favorite Single: Cheap Thrills by Sia ft. Sean Paul– My song of the summer of 2016. Sia cuts loose with a song extolling the joy of dancing the night away which is what summer is all about. It is still in heavy rotation because I don’t want to admit the summer is over.

Favorite TV Show: Game of Thrones– This was the same choice as last year but I can say what the producers had to contend with in Season 6 was more difficult. For the first time, they had to forge ahead beyond the written words of George RR Martin. Which was a change for me because over the first five seasons I knew what was coming. In Season 6 Game of Thrones upped the ante with more epic visual storytelling culminating in the final two episodes of the season; “Battle of the Bastards” and “The Winds of Winter”. The former had an epic battle that would have done any major blockbuster proud. The difference for me is there were characters I had invested in over the books and episodes who were in real danger. By the time it was resolved I realized I had leaned forward for most of the final half of the episode. The latter has an opening twenty-minute sequence done with very little dialogue along with an ever-ratcheting increase in tension. The moment of release is cataclysmic in many ways. At this point I am happy to let the TV show take me to the end of the journey Mr. Martin started because they haven’t missed a step yet.

Favorite TV Performer: Kate McKinnon on Saturday Night Live– This was the year Kate McKinnon’s star went supernova as her impersonation of Hillary Clinton throughout the Presidential election was spot on. Her comedic timing with Alec Baldwin who portrayed Donald Trump was a highlight. She is also a MVP throughout the broadcast as every sketch she is in seems funnier. She is the reason I stay up late on Saturday night.

Favorite Book: Kingfisher by Patricia McKillip– The Hero’s Quest has become so codified the early going of every fantasy book can begin to seem the same. With Kingfisher author Patricia McKillip delights in turning this conceit on its head and shaking hard enough to empty its pockets. Modern technology exists next to traditional fantasy ingredients. It made me laugh while making me realize writers need to send the Hero’s Quest off the rails more often.

Favorite Spirits: Barrel-aged Gin– Gin is usually distilled and bottled fairly quickly. This year I discovered two versions in which the gin was aged in barrels after distillation; Barr Hill Reserve Tom Cat and Russell Henry Dark Gin. The basic gin from both companies is unique in its own right but the additional aging in barrels adds off-kilter depth. I’ve enjoyed using these in my favorite gin cocktails like Aviations or Bee’s Knees but they shine best when used in a dry martini as the vermouth seems to interact with the wood spectacularly.

Favorite Wines: South African Walker Bay Chardonnays– I’ve been down on Chardonnay and the cynicism with which they have been made especially by the large American producers for years. Over the summer, I realized that in other parts of the world they were doing it without the cynicism. I tried a trio of South African chardonnays from the Walker Bay region; Ataraxia, Newton Johnson, and Hamilton Russell. They all share a crisp apple quality before heading towards a creamy finish. These are balanced, nuanced chardonnays and I had forgotten how nice that was to drink.

These are what brightened 2016 for me outside of the perfume world.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: HBO’s Game of Thrones Season 6

One of my earliest The Sunday Magazine pieces was in praise of the visual adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire fantasy series in HBO’s Game of Thrones. When I wrote about it back then the television series was using what was on the printed page and putting it on screen with the assistance of Mr. Martin who was writing an episode per season. Through five seasons what I viewed was what I had read but now we have one of the more interesting occurrences with the adaptation of a sprawling high fantasy epic as the current sixth season has passed the books by.

george-rr-martin

George R.R. Martin

In every other visual adaptation of a science-fiction or fantasy written series the books have been completed prior to their conversion to the screen. When it was announced that HBO was going to start Game of Thrones before the books were completed I had a selfish thought, “Good it will prod Mr. Martin into writing a bit faster.” I thought that he would do anything to make sure he got to the finish before the television series did. The fifth book “A Dance with Dragons” was released a few months after the end of season 1 in 2011. Since then the next book “The Winds of Winter” has remained unfinished while “Game of Thrones” consumed all of the plot Mr. Martin had written. I thought Mr. Martin would move heaven and earth to get “The Winds of Winter” out before season 6 began showing. That was clearly Mr. Martin’s goal as he posted in his blog on January 2, 2016 when he admitted he would not succeed in achieving it. Which leaves the fans of this series in a fascinating place. The television series is going to finish the story before the author.

game of thrones promo

Mr. Martin, in the same blog post, answered the question will the show spoil the books. “Yes and no” was what he said. He has also said the final destination of both is the same but the path will be different enough.

It has made watching this current season very different for me. In the past I knew what was going to happen and it was fun to know when the big twists were coming. Now we are all learning without foreknowledge together, book reader and viewer. After four of this season’s ten episodes have aired there is a definite feel to the pace being accelerated towards the endgame. In the books there have been assumptions about certain characters coming together but those are not quite there. So far in season 6 those changes are happening at a fairly rapid clip. The chessboard that is Game of Thrones has seemingly swept the board clear of pawns leaving the major pieces in play. Fan theories have been confirmed and dashed as the story moves along.

There are a number of readers of the books who have sworn off watching the series until the books are finished. They feel Mr. Martin should be the one who finishes the story for them. I admire their patience but I am willing to let the showrunners of Game of Thrones, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, tell me the ending. I am looking forward to going back to this fork in the road and taking Mr. Martin’s route when it is published.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: HBO’s Game of Thrones

The book is better than the movie is a truism most of us subscribe to. The corollary to that is the more complicated the book the more disappointing the movie is. When it comes to getting epic fantasy onto the screen it was very much a graveyard of good intentions and failed technologies for many years. Then Peter Jackson and his team were able to amazingly put a version of JRR Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” on the screen and by the time they finished they were lauded with awards, kudos, and not a whole lot of “The book was better than the movie” commentary. Mr. Jackson understood what was intrinsically necessary to tell the story and stripped away the fun, but extraneous, side journeys leaving the main threads of the tale intact. After this success I imagine Hollywood was busy optioning every epic fantasy series on the bookshelf.

If there is a modern successor to Tolkien’s masterwork in the genre it would be George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire”. Through five complete volumes with two left to come Mr. Martin has created a world as texturally complex as Middle-Earth but his characters are less easily segregated into “good guys” and “bad guys”. This series is about the way power, or lack of it, motivates people to the deeds they do on the page. Each chapter is told from the point of view of a character and through that narration the story progresses. Because of these storytelling conventions and a sprawling story with characters spread everywhere I would have expected this series to be among the last Hollywood would take a stab at.

game of thrones promo

The people at HBO had a different idea and proposed that instead of turning it into a movie let’s turn it into a television series. Once that decision was made the showrunners and creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss undertook the casting and in March of 2011 the first episode of Game of Thrones appeared. One of the key things Mr. Benioff and Weiss did was to bring Mr. Martin on board. He has written one episode in each of the four seasons, and they have been the pivotal episodes in many of those seasons. Having the author of the source material writing material for the visual adaptation shows the commitment to getting this right.

Getting it right is exactly what Game of Thrones has done. As a reader of the books there was so much they could have done wrong but up to this point they have preserved every critical beat from the books and translated them to the television screen. The acting is superb from actors well known like Peter Dinklage, Sean Bean, and Lena Headley to newcomers Emilia Clarke, Maisie Williams, and Natalie Dormer. They inhabit these characters so fully that they convincingly deliver lines of dialogue that when said out loud could sound arch but in these actors’ reading sounds genuine.

The production values are sumptuous as all of the world of Game of Thrones comes to life and the crew films in Iceland, Ireland, Malta, Morocco, and Croatia. The locations used bring the fictional land of Westeros to life and the acting and words give it power.

If you haven’t tried this and enjoy these kind of stories you need to binge watch the first three 10-episode seasons. Season 4 has just started showing on HBO in the US. One caveat watch the series without reading the books first. Mr. Martin has made a world where anything can happen and one of the great joys of Game of Thrones is the number of “OMG did they just do that?” moments. There is a lot of television which relies on that but Game of Thrones might be the best at making those moments feel earned and truthful. I do know that there are a lot of epic fantasy properties in less adept hands who probably wish very fervently that this team had found their property first. I am very glad they didn’t and Game of Thrones will stand as a milestone in turning the page into visual where the visual is as good as the book.

Mark Behnke