Re-seeing Game of Thrones 1.01

Arya’s early “flapper” look in Game of Thrones, Episode 1.01. (HBO)

The last episode of Game of Thrones will be broadcast in a few hours, so I decided to rewatch the first episode this afternoon. I’m glad I didn’t rewatch it early because it would have set up some expectations that would have been dashed by now. Still, it was interesting to revisit the episode.

  • It begins at the wall, or just outside it. something has attacked Wildlings, mutilating their bodies and arranging them in some kind of premeditated pattern. It’s possible that there will be a bookending scene among the Wildings (Tormund and Ghost, please!), but the mutilation scene was already been mirrored in episode 8.01.
  • Serendipitously, Sean Bean’s name turns up first in the alphabetic cast listing. I wonder if this contributed to show-only viewers’ impression that the series was about his character.
  • Almost every line about Bran is about sight. Ned wants to take Bran along to see a deserter of the Night Watch beheaded. Catelyn says: “Bran is too young to see such things.” Ironically, Bran would later be able to see just about everything.
  • When Ned tries to explain the execution to Bran, Bran asks if the deserter lied about seeing Night Walkers, beings that were thought to be long extinct. Ned says: “A madman see what he sees,” a reference to the other definition seeing: not just visual observance, but perception and interpretation.
  • Jon is a leader from the beginning, coaching the Stark heirs in archery, noting that there is a direwolf pup for each Stark child. The latter comment persuaded Ned against killing the pups. He ignored Bran’s more sentimental reasons, which were basically, “But they’re puppies!” Ned eschews personal gain, but will do anything to fulfill a duty.
  • Cersei and Jaime looked so young and carefree!
  • When the Baratheon clan come to Winterfell, Arya is fascinated by the soldiers. She fixates on the soldier who wears a hound’s head-shaped helmet; that soldier is The Hound, or Sandor Clegane, the person with whom she develops the strongest bond outside of her family. She also fanboys Jaime Lannister, more for his military rank than anything else. It’s unlike Sansa’s girlish thoughts about Prince Joffrey.
  • Since Ayra and Gendry got together in Season 8, a lot of people have brought up Robert’s line to Ned: “I have a son, you have a daughter. We’ll join our houses.” Either this will come to pass (fate!) or it won’t (irony!).
  • Just about every aspect of Danaerys’s scenes in Pentos gave me the heebeejeebies. But among all of that, there is the small detail of Dany walking into a too-hot bath completely unbothered, foreshadowing her later walk through fire.
  • The last two scenarios in the first episode culminate in cruelty and violence to children: Dany is raped on her wedding night, and Bran is pushed out of a window. This society is built on child abuse, run by a violent patriarchy that acts as a succubus to its young, and no one is willing to change that. Should it be saved? Maybe Season 8 Dany has the right idea.
  • .

So after all of that, do I have any predictions for tonight? The showrunners haven’t made great cases for most things that have transpired in the last few episodes, so it feels a little futile. Maybe children inherit the world. Maybe it’s left to rot. It depends on what kind of story they decide this all was.

If they go the Tolkien route, then maybe Samwell and Gilly end up leading the Shire, I mean Westeros. Perhaps the Night King pops up again, Sauruman-style. Jon’s old injuries (i.e., fatal stab wounds!) could flare up. Arya might sail off into the sunset.

To be honest, I’m not expecting or hoping for any specific thing to happen. The showrunners seem to be taking Tolkien’s lead in frustrating allegorical readings of their adapted text, so maybe perception is the major theme of the series, and that Game of Thrones has been just about all the friends we made along the way. As much as I’ve enjoyed co-hosting Game of Thrones watch parties and talking to friends about the show on social media, I think I’ll just be happy when this vision of Game of Thrones is over.


Riverdale Season 3 was BONKERS. I loved it.

OG Gryphons and Gargoyles players in Riverdale, Season 3. (CW)

I just saw the Season 3 finale of Riverdale. You know what happened this season?

  • Archie was sent to juvie, where he was forced into a prison fight club;
  • Veronica ran an illegal speakeasy;
  • Jughead’s dad became the town sheriff while his secretly drug-dealing mom moved in with them;
  • Betty tried to bust her mom out of a cult (a bold move, considering that during the season, a former CW star was on trial for her role in a similarly personality-annihilating cult); and
  • the whole gang got caught up in a deadly, multigenerational Dungeons & Dragons-type role-playing game.

Those are just a few of the absolutely BONKERS shenanigans of the season. And you know what? I bought it all.

I did not guess the resolution of the season’s biggest mysteries (which I will leave unspoiled), but they made sense in hindsight. That’s because the show set forth a strong idea of what its version of Archie and the gang would be, and have developed and tested those ideas by placing the characters in ludicrous situations that allow the characters to be themselves, just more so.

Other shows could take a lesson from Riverdale. As Daniel Silvermint writes about another current show (that features dungeons and dragons): “No amount of spectacle or fan service is satisfying if we don’t buy how the characters got there.”


You are not alone with “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse”

Spider-Man versus Spider-Man from

Over the holidays, I pitched the idea of seeing Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse to an artist friend. She rolled her eyes and said, “I’m sick of Spider-Man.” Admittedly, that was my first reaction to hearing about yet another Spider-Man movie, which is why I hadn’t rushed out to see it on opening weekend. However, since its release, snippets of the innovative animation and friends’ reports that the story was also great convinced me to see it. And it was glorious.

As hyped, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’s animation is the future: it was crazy beautiful and unlike anything I’d seen before. The story is grounded in realistic characterizations with emotional payoffs that feel earned, not forced. By the time the credits came around, I realized the film had another dimension, and not just because I had just seen the 3D version.

The credits rolled over a background of basically static images of Spider-Man in different scenarios (in an office! rollerskating! moshing!). These scenes were constructed to look like hand-made collages, as if someone had cut up hundreds of copies of the same comic and overlaid copy after copy of the same Spider-Man cut-out onto an artboard. They emphasized the replicability of Spider-Man as a hero in multiple universes (as in the story we just saw), and as a pop culture product, from the millions of Spider-Man comics that have been printed over almost 60 years, to the multiple, and frequent, movie reboots. The Andrew Garfield reboot appeared just five years after the Toby Maguire movies (which Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse references directly in blond Peter Parker’s flashback), and Tom Holland’s Spider-Man debuted two years after Garfield’s last Spider-Movie. Up until then, Hulk notwithstanding, we’d been used to decades between Superman or Batman reboots (the re-cast Batman movies in the Tim Burton era did not constitute re-writes of the Bat-universe).

The handmade look of the collages also reminded me of the notoriously low-budget 1960s Spider-Man animated series, which used the same footage over and over again, and even reused the story and animation cels from a couple of episodes of Rocket Robin Hood, another animated series by the same production house. It was this series which gave the world the gif(t) of two identical Spider-Men pointing at each other. The history of the meme is detailed in Know Your Meme. There is some offensive language associated with the original incarnations of the meme, but, of course, the success of a meme is in its very replicability and malleability. (Stay for the after-credits scene of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, which is basically another iteration of the meme.)

With the theme of replication in mind, the visuals in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse are not just window dressing. To recap, the movie begins with the familiar story of the Spider-Man we think we’ve known from upteen reboots. It then introduces us to a regular kid in Brooklyn, Miles Morales. Miles is the brainy son of a cop who hates Spider-Man: vigilantes get all the attention when the work of everyday police like himself is overlooked. One day, Miles hangs out with his cool uncle, who takes him through underground to tag a wall by the subway system. It’s there that Miles is bit by a radioactive spider. Later, he is the sole witness to Spider-Man being defeated by Wilson Fisk, who then unmasks the hero. Miles is shocked because of the act; the audience is shocked because this Spider-Man that we thought we knew is actually blond. Then comes a bigger surprise: Fisk kills Spider-Man. It’s early in the film, yet the “hero” is dead. But long live the hero. Fisk’s attempt to create a machine that can breach the time-space continuum to bring back his beloved wife and son also bring different Spider-People to the universe.

The different Spider-People are a lot more distinct than those seen in the end-credit collages. What’s effectively a Spider-Force team includes  Nuyourican Miles Morales; alabaster-complexioned Gwen Stacy from another dimension (who called herself Spider-Woman, but who looked like the comics’ Spider-Gwen); Japanese-American Peni Parker and her mecha sidekick, who are animated in the anime aesthetic; Spider-Ham, a talking pig–actually a spider who was bitten by a radioactive pig (thanks, Dan!)–who is animated like a Looney Tunes cartoon; and a throwback to the pulps named Spider-Man Noir, who is drawn lie a black-and-white pulp anti-hero and voiced by Nicolas Cage, an actor who has a reputation for toughness and an upscale b-movieness (perfectly explored in “Introduction to Teaching”, aka “the Nicholas Cage, Good or Bad” episode of Community).

As much as Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is about a kid who grows to accept a great responsibility, it’s also about comics as a commercial, mass-produced art form. Benday dots, most famously embiggened in Roy Lichtenstein’s 1960s paintings, are deployed throughout as a nod to Spider-Man’s origins in off-set printed comic books. Another print-inspired visual choice are the instances of images that appear to be printed off-register. The resulting image looks like it’s echoing, further reinforcing the theme of duplication. Lettered captions of Miles Morales’s thoughts appear after he is bitten by a radioactive spider, so he thinks in comic-book superhero thought balloons *after* he becomes a comic-book superhero. The film also features visualizations of BIFF, BAM-type onomatopoeic sound effects as another nod to comics, as well as to the similar visual adaptations in the comedic 1960s live-action television series of another superhero, Batman.

Lest you, gentle reader, have harshly judged my friend who rolled her eyes about Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, the film itself raises the question of why we need yet another Spider-Man story. The very first spoken lines in the film are:

“Alright, let’s do this one more time. My name is Peter Parker. I was bitten by a radioactive spider and for ten years I’ve been the one and only Spider-Man. I’m pretty sure you know the rest.”

The line does a couple of interesting things: first, it acknowledges that there have been many reboots—perhaps too many—and, second, that the viewer is tired of them. It was like they were anticipating my response to the announcement of this movie.

The film thus opens up a dialogue with itself, which is really a dialogue with the audience. It goes on to answer its own implied question.

Q: Why do we need another Spider-Man story?

A: So that we don’t feel like we are the only one.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse has a different Spider-Hero for people at different stages of life, from different countries, of different species. The movie is for people who are differently gendered, who are interpreted through different genres, and who come from different economic backgrounds. Miles, the newest Spider-Man, needs Spider-Man stories to teach him how to be Spider-Man. Peter, the washed-up Spider-Man, needs Spider-Man stories to teach him how to be Spider-Man again.

Immediately after a quick visual recap of iconic scenes from past live-action Spider-Man movies, the blond Spider-Man lists the different iterations of himself that he knows of: “Look, I’m a comic book, I’m a cereal, did a Christmas album. I have an excellent theme song. And a so-so popsicle.” Blond Spider-Man is dismayed about being commoditized, which calls attention to the fact that Spider-Man in our universe is literally a commodity, a piece of intellectual property. Spider-Man in our world is everything that’s shown in the movie: he’s a comic book character; his image has appeared on cereal boxes; there are Spider-Man popsicles; and there actually is a Spider-Man Christmas recording.

Other than the lucky readers who discovered Spider-Man when the character debuted in Marvel Comics in 1961, most people’s first encounter with Spider-Man was with a derivation of the character, be it through subsequent Marvel Comics, television cartoons, or Marvel movies. No one in our world is less of a Spider-Fan for not having read the character’s first appearance at the time of publication. Similarly, in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, no one is concerned with who might be the “real” Spider-Man. Every Spider-Character feels that their experience is real, and is not threatened by the existence of other Spider-People. In fact, they are comforted by knowing that they are not unique. In contrast to the blond Peter Parker, who sarcastically refers to himself as “the one and only Spider-Man”, the subsequent Spider-People greet each other with the heartfelt phrase of relief: “I thought I was the only one.” It’s not an original statement, but each Spider-Person feels it profoundly. At the end of the movie, Miles reflects: “When I feel alone, like no one understands what I’m going through, I remember my friends who get it.”

I found the film’s willingness to embrace multiplicity (so many Spider-People!), diversity (so many different types of Spider-People!) and community (so many different Spider-People working together!) was very refreshing. As a long-time comic reader, and reader in general, I grew up in the shadow of the baby boomer romanticization of the auteur and the solitary hero. Had the film been made in a different era, it may have spent some time on the question of who was the original or “real” Spider-Man.

I was reminded of Umberto Eco’s essay “Travels in Hyperreality”. (I realize the irony of invoking an essay that is largely about the ersatz world of Disneyland in an essay about a Sony film about replicable intellectual property owned by Marvel, which is owned by Disney.) Eco mentions Superman’s “wunderkammer”, or museum of memorabilia, in the Fortress of Solitude. No one lives there, but the fortress is populated by identical robots that Superman built in his own likeness. The blond Spider-Man in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse also had a wunderkammer. It doesn’t have Spidey robots, but it does have a gallery of old or alternate costumes. But this collector Spider-Man is dead, and so is the idea of a museum to collect all the official (or canon) Spider-Gizmos, now that it’s known that he is not “the one and only” Spider-Man (he’s not even the first, being ten years younger than Peter B. Parker, the “janky-old, hobo Spider-Man”).

So, who needs a new Spider-Man story? A lot of viewers, apparently! And we are not tired of it. I did eventually convince my artist friend to come along when I went to see the film again. She ended up loving it. As I began to write this piece, she posted on Facebook that she was on her way to see the film a second time. While nearing the end of this essay, I arranged to meet up with another friend for my third viewing, her second viewing, and her partner’s first viewing.

The Spider-Fans are replicating.

Quotes from Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse are from my notes, verified by the official script, which the filmmakers have made available online.


Fare Thee Well, Happy Harbor

Me in a Shawna Roe and Jay Bardyla sandwich, just after midnight on New Year’s 2019 at Happy Harbor Comics. Photo: Dean Welsh.

Just before Christmas, Happy Harbor Comics announced that it would be closing. A few days later, it made a second announcement. The plan to close the store was reversed: Happy Harbor had been bought by a northern Alberta games and comics retailer called Wonderland.

These few days prompted a flood of emotions for me. I’ve survived other comic shop closings, and I’ve switched comic shops due to moves by the store or by me. But Happy Habor has been more than a store: it’s also a community, which I hope will continue after the store changes hands.

Under the ownership of Jay Bardyla and Shawna Roe, Happy Harbor has promoted local talent, organized 24-hour comic jams, established a school visit program, created Canada’s first artist-in-residence program for comics, tossed huge parties and celebrations for Free Comic Book Day and other events, hosted readings, talks, autographs, and group gatherings for all things comics and related nerditry.

They also organized an exhibit called Visions of Comics to showcase comics-inspired artwork. After the death of my best friend, arts journalist Gilbert Bouchard, a Happy Harbor supporter and a great promoter of comics as art, the store added the name “Gilbert Bouchard Memorial Art Show” to the title. Thanks to Wonderland keeping the store open, this year’s show will go ahead as planned in March. The theme of the show is Mentors, which is what Gilbert was to me, and what Happy Harbor has been to many a comics artist and fan in Edmonton and beyond, as the store* started in Jasper, Alberta, and ships far and wide.

(*Originally, I committed a typo so this sentence read: “The story started in Jasper, Alberta”. The store *does* have a story, and I’m glad that it will continue in the form of the art show, the artist-in-residence program, and any other activities that will go on in the Happy Harbor corner of the “new” store.)

I have also come to count Shawna and Jay as personal friends of mine. They’ve supported me through some tough times. I’m thrilled that they will be able to turn over their business to a group that has committed to continuing their legacy.

Finally, I thank Jay and Shawna for creating so many excuses for me to write about Happy Harbor or Happy Harbor events. I’ve collected them all in the list of links below (let me know if I’m missing any!). When you look the photos I’ve taken, you’ll notice a familiar background: the Happy Harbor store.

The last official Happy Harbor party takes place tonight. This will be the last gathering of the community the store has built over the past two decades. But it will also be the first celebration to welcome the new owners: Happy Harbor Comics will become Wonderland Edmonton. I think of it as a regeneration event.

About Happy Harbor

Happy Harbor Volume 3, Edmonton, Alberta: From creating a niche to developing a comics community
May 12, 2008

Pop Print 2008: Bridging the Fanboy Brain and the Academic Brain
November 10, 2008

Artist Appearances

A Modern Historical Murder Mystery: Interview with Ben Rankel
July 16, 2018

Developing a Photobooth Biography: Meags Fitzgerald
November 10, 2014

The Nostaligist: Ray Fawkes
July 18, 2011

Friends and Heroes: Nat Jones
June 6, 2011

Andrew Foley Writes Things: On Creepy Comics, Alien Movies and More
November 22, 2010

Visualizing a Pioneering Legend: James Davidge and Bob Prodor
May 17, 2010

Artist-in-Residence Program

From Horses to Horror: Cindy Gauthier
July 30, 2018

Making Her Own New Thing: Catherine Dubois
December 11, 2017

Joanne Wojtysiak: A Gothbunny Recharges as an Artist-in-Residence
January 30, 2017

Comic Book Artist-in-Residence: Daniel Schneider
September 12, 2011

Name Check

I’m including this link as an example of one of the things Happy Harbor has done to support local comics creators: carry their books. Independent artists and publishers can sell their wares online, but it’s important to have the printed works in stores. For a reader looking for something new to check out, the experience of perusing a display of comics, picking them up, flipping through them, and talking to staff about them is invaluable.

The Anthology Project: Joy Ang and Nick Thornborrow
June 28, 2010

Happy Harbor / Wonderland Edmonton

Btw, here is the store’s website!


Community and You*

*You, the Netflix series, not you, my gentle reader.

After a stressful Thursday evening, I joined my roommate to rewatch several episodes of the old NBC series, Community (including “Critical Film Studies“, one of my all-time favourite television episodes: who doesn’t love a mash-up of Pulp Fiction and My Dinner with Andre?), then I finished binging the last two episodes of You on Netflix.

For those who have not yet seen You, the show is about a weedy bookstore manager, Joe, who becomes obsessed with a sunny aspiring poet, Guinevere, who goes by her last name, Beck. Joe will say and do anything to be with her and to remove people who get between him and Beck. It’s a very dark satire of relationships in the modern selfie-obsessed hipster New York scene. It was like The Talented Mr. Ripley, but about cash-poor millennials.

You is nothing like Community, which is about a group of people who end up at the same sub-par community college for various reasons (upgrading or resuming school after dropping out or having kids; doing something interesting in retirement; pursuing a real degree after previously lying about having one to an employer), and end up becoming friends.

However, both You and Community feature lead characters who are narcissistic. After seeing the first season of You and the first two seasons of Community, I noticed that narcissism factors into the main plot of each show in interesting ways.

In You, narcissism is dangerous, no matter the reason for it. Beck and her friends seem to be afflicted by a run-of-the-mill narcissism associated with unfinished family business or social pressures. Joe’s narcissism seems to be a symptom of his psychopathy. Beck is aware of her flaws and her often failed attempts to be a better person. Joe, on the other hand, rationalizes his flaws to the point of casting himself as a victim, and to use his perceived victimization to justify heinous acts.

On Community, the lead narcissist is Jeff Winger. He’s even proud of being a non-constructive member of society. Despite his cynicism, Jeff learns to allow himself to be vulnerable and accept others’ help: heck, he even learns to help others. The supporting characters are also self-involved to various degrees. Britta is a classic white saviour, treating political activism as a performance. Shirley is obsessed with keeping up her semi-chosen role as a proper Christian woman. Annie previously burned out because of her neurotic perfectionism. Abed lives in the his own pop-culture suffused head far too much. Troy is the closest the show has to a neutral figure, though he and Abed have created their own verbal and gestural vocabulary. Much of Community is devoted to showing how some of these characters’ “selfless” acts are actually selfish. But once characters acknowledge their flaws, they generally end up doing something genuine and making a meaningful personal connection that enhances the community they have found themselves building.

The “villains” in Community are the characters who are so far gone into their own worlds, they either don’t realize it (Chang) or don’t care (Pierce). Pelton knows enough to erect a paper wall between his public life as the Dean of the school, but he puts so much energy into fooling himself that he doesn’t realize how little he’s able to fool anyone else.

There are no classic heroes in You, but there are heroic acts. They happen when people get outside of their own heads, face situations without prejudice, and actually help another human being without expecting any benefit for themselves.

I wouldn’t go as far as to say that Community and You are the same show (they are most definitely not!), but I did have some fun imagining what would happen if characters exchanged shows. Jeff from Community and Joe from You would immediately face off: a good guy posing as a bad guy versus a bad guy posing as a good guy. It’s too bad that Community is no longer on air. It excelled at dealing with material this self-referential.


Happy New Hair

Julien d’Y cutting Linda Evangelista’s hair. Photo: Peter Lindbergh/2b Management, via

I don’t want 2018 to slip by without recognizing the 30th anniversary of perhaps the most significant haircut in commercial fashion history.

I’ve been trying to pin down the exact date of the deed, but it has eluded me. My best guess is that in the fall (probably October) of 1988, the fashion photographer Peter Lindburgh suggested to one of his favourite models, one with a head of flowing chestnut hair not unlike Gia Carangi, Brooke Shields, Carol Alt, Joan Severance, and other popular models at the time, that she get a more distinctive haircut.

That model was Linda Evangelista, who walked out of hairstylist Julien d’Ys’s chair and onto editorial pages and show runways with a gamine bob. (Vogue looked back at the cut in a brief piece published in 2015.)

Evangelista was not the first famous model with short hair—Edie Sedgewick is probably the most famous for it—but Evangelista was the first to get a radical haircut in after she’d already hit some early-career milestones. And in an era of long, very big hair, Evangelista was bucking a trend that had been building for decades.

The new look could have been a flop, and she might have had to grow it out again. Instead, her bookings increased and so did her rate. Eventually, she would be to say about herself and her frequent modeling partner, Christy Turlington, “We don’t wake up for less than $10,000 a day.”

Evangelista, Turlington, and their contemporaries, including Naomi Campbell and Cindy Crawford, went on to become the first generation of supermodels: models who became household names and made millions of dollars per year. Many of them went on to spin their celebrity into other lines of work as actors, television hosts, brand ambassadors, and other related occupations.

None had the kind of success that Evangelista enjoyed as the result of a single hairstyling decision. It’s really not a roadmap to success for a model or for life in general. Would one dramatic haircut really help the average person land a dream job? Not likely, but I like the things that the cut represented:

  • the actual and very real story of one person’s (Evangelista’s) success as the result of taking a bold step;
  • the idea that taking a risk will bring rewards;
  • that looking different is an asset;
  • that you can remake yourself and be recognized for it.

Evangelista’s haircut came to mind back in September, when I got a cut that was far less dramatic: I went from a chin-length bob to a slightly shorter one. On occasion, I took to curling it, reminding myself of the Marilyn Monroe or Sophia Loren hairdos that Evangelista often sported after her major haircut. Curling my hair didn’t seem like a big deal to me, but to some folks, the change was so dramatic, they wondered if I had gotten a brand-new haircut.

I thought about posting this back in September, but I’m glad I waited until today. The “message” of Linda Evangelista’s haircut seems very appropriate for a New Year’s eve, a night on which we say farewell to the past, and prepare to take bold steps into the future.

To close this post, I leave you with the words of Julien d’Ys, which seem like the basis of a plan for 2019: “This could be a disaster or be great…. I didn’t know what I was going to do until I started doing it.”

Arts, Reviews

Royal Double-Bill


During Christmas holidays, I try to see a bunch of movies all in the same day, preferably during the hours I would normally be working. This year, I managed a double-bill on Boxing Day, a fittingly British-origin holiday on which to see The Favourite and Mary Queen of Scots.

The Favourite is set in the early 1700s and Mary Queen of Scots is set in the mid-1500s, but I saw them out of chronological order due to screening times. Both movies are about the same country—heck, they’re about the same family: Mary’s son James would be the first Stuart monarch of England, a royal lineage that ends with Mary’s great-great-granddaughter, Anne, the queen featured in The Favourite. Interestingly, Mary Queen of Scots is about Mary’s attempt to unify Scotland and England under her rule, while The Favourite is about the queen under whose reign Scotland and England were unified: Anne was Queen of England from 1702 to 1707 and Queen of Britain from 1707 to 1714.

However, these movies may as well been set on different planets. Mary Queen of Scots is about a long political game, with personal “B” stories. In contrast, the focus in The Favourite is on the personal ambitions of the three lead characters, Queen Anne (played by Olivia Colman), the Lady Marlborough, Sarah Churchill (played by Rachel Weisz), and Sarah’s cousin, an aristocrat who has fallen upon hard times, Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), with historical intrigue as a backdrop.

The stakes in Mary Queen of Scots are writ large: the fate of two nations, the life of Queen Mary, the legacy of Queen Elizabeth. The question of how to wind down the war with France underscores The Favourite, but the focus is on smaller stakes: the comfort of Queen Anne, the policies of Lady Marlborough, the career of Abigail Hill. And yet, it was The Favourite that had me on the edge of my seat. Every line spoken, every look given, upped the ante. Perhaps the most tense moment I experienced in cinema this year was during a scene in which Sarah and Abigail engage in a silent, competitive game of skeet shooting. Adding to the tension was the non-diagetic sound of a taut violin string being plucked.

Both films took liberties with history, but The Favourite, is up front about it, with its use of modern idiom and costuming (design legend Sandy Powell used a restricted, black-and-white colour palette and laser-cut vinyl to give the female leads’ characters an iconic look in the Scott McCloud sense). Smoothing away these hallmarks of traditional historical-fiction movies allowed the film, and the audience, to focus on the characters and dialogue, much as stage productions do. If you’ve ever seen a show like Hamilton, you will notice iconic costumes and a mostly static set with enough stage dressing to hint at the era in which the show is set. The hip-hop soundtrack, like the contemporary language used in The Favourite (which was written by written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara) brings the story to the present day: the concerns seem immediate because they’re presented in a language that you feel you can engage with. Director Yorgos Lanthimos also sets the camera low, uses a fish-eye lens, and deep-shadow lighting, giving the movie the feel of a film noir in which we are looking through peepholes to try to piece together a story of intrigue. (Indeed, Abigail is an interloper in the great tradition of film noir in which a stranger from the past upsets an already precarious apple-cart.)

In contrast, Mary Queen of Scots, looks more historical, with accurate-looking sets and costumes (but with the twist of colour-blind casting). However, the movie (written by Beau Wilmon of Netflix House of Cards fame), saddles its cast with speeches rather than dialogue. Although Saoirse Ronan as Mary is given the lion’s share of the film’s lines, she is not given much characterization. As a result, the film feels more like an overly long, unfunny episode of Drunk History. (DH dialogue I imagine would go with this movie [includes mild spoilers]: “Randomly, Lord Darnley is gay! And these maids don’t age in the 19 years that Mary is in jail because we forgot about them!”) The characterization of Queen Elizabeth is even more problematic. First, I have to say that the prosthetic nose they gave Margot Robbie was extremely distracting. The more serious complaint is that Elizabeth gives a mauldin speech in the end that is a throwback to the old career-or-motherhood saw. Sure, she’s England’s longest-serving monarch, but she’s sad that she isn’t a mother! The textual epilogue notes that Mary’s child, James, went on to become king of both Scotland and England, while Elizabeth had a long reign, but no children. So this film about two powerful women reduces them to their reproductive functions. (In The Favourite, Queen Anne’s 17 miscarriages is significant to Anne’s characterization, but she is not defined by her marital or motherhood status.)

I mentioned how The Favourite managed used some theatre-inspired storytelling. Mary Queen of Scots was directed by a theatre director, Josie Rourke, but some things that might have worked on the stage did not work on screen. The most egregious example takes place during a scene in which Mary and Elizabeth meet for the first time (they never did meet in real life). It takes place in a cabin in which reams of material are draped. They follow each other’s shadows, like doing a dance of the veils, until Mary gets impatient and rips down the drapes to see that Elizabeth is *gasp!* ugly. Seriously! The moment is both corny and sexist.

For me, the battle royale between these two films was a rout. Mary Queen of Scots was a dud. The Favourite was my favourite.


I am so enamoured of the purposefully anachronistic costumes in The Favourite! Vulture interviewed Sandy Powell, who bought a chenielle bed spread from eBay to make Queen Anne’s robe, and denim from thrift shops to make the kitchen staff’s uniforms.

Powell also spoke to Vogue magazine about her inspirations for the costumes and about the director’s decision to eschew make-up and hairspray for the female leads.

And here’s a Vulture article to read after you’ve seen the film (do read the comment from ettada). I would add that in the end, Abigail realizes that she is doing the same kind of work that she did at the beginning of her career to survive.