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In Episode 3, ‘The Acolyte’ Pulls on the Thread of “Destiny”

Last week, we were introduced to twin sisters Mae and Osha. Osha is a Jedi Academy dropout who likes to repair the hulls of spaceships in outer space. Mae, who she presumed dead, was hellbent on getting revenge on the four Jedi she blames for destroying her life. This week, we get a return to their childhoods and see the events that set them on their current paths.

Sixteen years ago, on the planet Brendok, we meet Osha and Mae. They are extremely close, likely because they are the only two children in their colony, which is entirely made up of women. Osha is more pensive, yet still yearns to see the worlds outside of their highly protective compound. Mae is the boisterous one, who likes to run and use her nascent Force abilities to torture the translucent insects around the bunta tree. They are supposed to be preparing for something called “Ascension.” Mae is excited for it, but Osha isn’t, which is why she disobeyed her mother and left the colony to come to her favorite spot to think and draw.

They get caught by Mother Koril (Margarita Levieva), who drags them back to the compound. Mother Koril has the horned ridges of a Dathomirian (like Darth Maul). It’s not safe outside, she tells them, and as they leave the camera pans over to someone spying on them from behind the trees. It’s a younger Sol.

On their return, their other caretaker, Mother Aniseya (Jodie Turner-Smith), tells them to go get ready for the Ascension ceremony. After the children leave, Aniseya asks if there was any sign of the visiting Jedi. Koril says no, the scouts think they have moved inland. (Should’ve looked harder. Sol was pretty conspicuous.) You see, says Aniseya, I told you this was a safe place for our coven.

Image: Disney+

Which explains a lot. They are witches, who can use the Force. And if Mother Koril is a Darhomirian, then these are likely the foremothers of the Witches of Dathomir we met in the Ahsoka series (which was a very cool concept that Ahsoka really didn’t do a whole lot with). And as Mother Aniseya explains in a demonstration for the twins, their magic comes from The Thread.

The Thread binds all life together and connects it, and witches can pull the Thread to effect changes (which sounds an awful lot like how Yoda and Obi-Wan explained the Force to young Luke). So the witches have their own method of using the Force, which is separate from Jedi training, and apparently, the Jedi aren’t all that thrilled about it.

At the ceremony, where the children will Ascend into becoming full witches (a Bat Witch-vah, if you will), Mae is super excited and eagerly promises to carry on the legacy of the witches. Osha is hesitant and hems and haws until the Jedi show up and interrupt. Aniseya tells the children to hide while the witches deal with them.

Into the compound come the four Jedi: Indara, her Padawan, Torbin, Wookiee Kelnacca, and Sol. Indara says she thought the planet was uninhabited, which Aniseya scoffs at. “The all-knowing Jedi are ignorant of their surroundings?” Indara tells her that they have no quarrel with the coven but are concerned that they are training children, which is against Republic law. Aniseya reminds her that Brendok is not part of the Republic, and besides, there are no children here. Kelnacca sniffs the air and knows that to be a lie. Osha and Mae have crept close to the front, mainly because Osha was entranced by the lightsabers. (Can’t blame her for that! I’m way older than her and still entranced by them.) Indara calls for them to come forward, which Osha does. Once out, she beckons Mae to come with her. Indara asks where their father is; Aniseya replies that they don’t have one. Indara asks to test the children as potential Padawans, which they have the right to do.

Image: Disney+

The witches are shown to be quite powerful. When the Jedi get too pushy, Aniseya possesses young Padawan Torbin, causing his eyes to go all black. No wonder the Jedi are wary of them.

Mother Aniseya tells the twins to fail the test on purpose, so the Jedi won’t take them away, and Mae happily complies. Osha doesn’t want to lie, especially to the nice Jedi who listen to her and showed her his lightsaber, but she tries to tank the test by guessing the wrong images on Sol’s pad. Sol tricks her into revealing that she knew the right answer. (“It’s a mountain.” “Correct!” “What? No, it wasn’t!”) Sol thinks she’d be a great Jedi, but only if she is brave enough to speak her truth. And when he tells her about all the other children at the Jedi Academy, she instantly perks up.

Mae is furious that Osha passed the test and is now leaving for the Jedi Academy. When Osha says that she couldn’t lie to them, Mae retorts that Osha lied to her. Osha said she would fail the test and they would stay together, and she didn’t. Mae is so enraged at losing her sister that she starts to hit her until Mother Koril has to drag her away. Aniseya isn’t happy to lose Osha, but she knows that she has to follow her own path and pull her Thread. Destiny isn’t prewritten. She has to choose her way.

After Osha leaves to pack, Aniseya and Koril have an enlightening discussion. It is revealed that Koril carried the twins to term, but they were “created” by Aniseya. So there really wasn’t a father, and that wasn’t just something they said to get the Jedi off their backs. (Hey, you know who else didn’t have a father? Remember, in The Phantom Menace, how Shmi Skywalker said Anakin just happened through some kind of miracle? Do you suppose they’re insinuating that Anakin was the result of the Witches of Dathomir?)

While Osha is packing, Mae appears in her doorway, still angry and intense. She isn’t going to let Osha leave, and she will keep Osha in her room. Even if she has to kill her.

This… kinda comes out of nowhere. Mae is obviously distraught, but it seems like a little bit of stretch to go from “I don’t want you to leave” to “murder by death.” (Editor’s Note: You know what else this sounds like? Anakin going from “must save Padmé” to “let’s kill kids” in, like, 60 seconds!) Mae locks Osha in her room and smashes a bottle of some sort of kerosene against the door to set it on fire. Trying to stay as calm as possible, Osha unscrews the cover of an access hatch and crawls through into a tunnel.

As she makes her way out, she hears screams and loud bangs from above. She makes her way into a power generator room, where she sees Mae. The twins end up on opposite sides of a broken metal bridge, going across the room over a chasm. Each one is urging the other to jump to them, to no avail. The bridge starts to creak and give way, but Sol bursts in at the last moment and grabs Osha, while Mae falls. He leads Osha out of the compound, through a pile of dead witches, and past the corpse of her mother. When Osha wakes up on the ship on the way back to Coruscant, she wants to head back. Sol tells her that everyone is dead, including her sister. They can’t return.

This episode fills in a lot of backstory for the twins, but it all feels like Act One of Rashomon. This story is told in a way that clearly favors Osha and the Jedi, but there are still so many questions left unanswered. Why were the Jedi on Brendok in the first place? Like Mom suggested, the Jedi really couldn’t have thought the planet was uninhabited, right? And why did Sol show up in the nick of time to save Osha? Was he merely coming to pick her up for the Jedi Academy, or was there something else? And how did all the witches die? Surely it wasn’t from the fire. Could that have spread so far, so fast? Or were the Jedi somehow responsible? And surely a full-grown Jedi Knight could have saved both girls with the Force, without having to go all Sophie’s Choice. (Sol-phie’s Choice? Is that anything?) Or was Sol pulling the Thread and choosing a destiny for Osha without Mae? Did Mae really turn into a psychopath at the thought of losing her sister, or are these merely the subjective memories of Osha trying to make sense of a tragedy?

The episode ends with Mae looking for her sister at her special place under the bunta tree. Does Mae think Osha’s dead? That she killed her? Or does she still blame the Jedi? Did Sol see her survive her fall? (Jedi really should know that merely dropping someone from a great height is not enough to kill them. See: Palpatine, Darth Maul, Luke Skywalker, etc.) Was he lying to Osha?

It’s a mystery, and it certainly is making me eager to see more. I like what The Acolyte is doing with the characters. Motivations are being revealed and questioned. And now that we have seen the “official” version of the events on Brendok, I hope we see Mae’s version.

Rating: 4 out of 5

Peter David Returns with Epic New Novel ‘Robyne of Sherwood’

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Crazy 8 Press recently released Peter David’s latest novel, Robyne of Sherwood, an exciting new addition to the legendary Robin Hood lore. Featuring Robin Hood’s daughter at the forefront, the book marks David’s first new novel in five years.

Robyne of Sherwood promises a riveting tale set against the backdrop of medieval England. After the death of Robin Hood at the hands of the Sheriff of Nottingham, the story follows the path of vengeance undertaken by his daughter, Mary. Now grown and skilled under the protection of a religious order, Mary sets out to fulfill her vow of revenge.

Peter David is a prolific American writer whose diverse body of work spans comic books, novels, television, films, and video games. David’s notable comic book achievements include an award-winning 12-year run on “The Incredible Hulk,” as well as significant runs on titles like “Aquaman,” “Young Justice,” “SpyBoy,” “Supergirl,” “Fallen Angel,” “Spider-Man,” “Spider-Man 2099,” “Captain Marvel,” and “X-Factor.”

SAN DIEGO, CA – JULY 12: Comic-book writer Peter David ‘PAD’ attends “Stan Lee’s World of Heroes” during Comic-Con International 2012 held at the Hilton San Diego Bayfront Hotel on July 12, 2012 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)

In recent years, David has faced significant health challenges, making this novel’s release all the more poignant. Purchasing Robyne of Sherwood not only allows readers to enjoy a masterful tale but also supports David during this difficult time.

“Peter David is one of the best fantasy writers of our generation,” said Robert Greenberger, a founding member of Crazy 8 Press. “He’s been out of action lately, so it’s a joyous moment for everyone who knows Peter and loves his work to welcome Robyne of Sherwood into the world. Peter, as always, is at the top of his game.”

The story unfolds in a period marked by loss and determination. After witnessing her father’s death as a child, Mary is driven by a quest for justice. The novel explores her growth into a formidable force, poised to confront those who wronged her family.

“Peter has always had a flair for combining fantasy, humor, and pathos into his fiction,” added Michael Jan Friedman, another founding member of Crazy 8 Press. “Even when he puts his characters and, by extension, readers through the wringer, there’s a gentle heartbeat underneath. To see another Peter David novel come to light is pure magic.”

David often humorously describes his occupation as “Writer of Stuff,” a nod to his extensive and varied career. His writing is known for blending real-world issues with humor, popular culture references, and elements of metafiction and self-reference. He has earned multiple awards for his work, including a 1992 Eisner Award, a 1993 Wizard Fan Award, a 1996 Haxtur Award, a 2007 Julie Award, and a 2011 GLAAD Media Award.

Robyne of Sherwood is now available for purchase on Amazon.com.

About Peter David

Peter David is the acclaimed author of over one hundred books, covering a range of genres from fantasy to science fiction. His notable works include the bestselling “Star Trek” novels “Imzadi” and the “New Frontier” series. David has also made significant contributions to television, co-creating “Space Cases” and writing for “Babylon 5” and “Crusade.” His award-winning career in comic books includes a celebrated run on “The Incredible Hulk.” David resides in New York with his wife, Kathleen.

About Crazy 8 Press

Crazy 8 Press is a collective of authors dedicated to providing an alternative to traditional publishing, offering a diverse range of genres including science fiction, fantasy, mystery, and more. The consortium’s members include Russ Colchamiro, Peter David, Mary Fan, Michael Jan Friedman, Robert Greenberger, Glenn Hauman, Paul Kupperberg, Aaron Rosenberg, Hildy Silverman, and Geoffrey Thorne. More information can be found at Crazy8Press.com.

‘The Acolyte’ is Off to a Promising Start

Something I’ve written about on here before is that too many shows and franchises expect you to put in a great deal of homework before you can watch the newest installment. I complained about this a LOT when I was reviewing Ahsoka, as the show grew more and more incomprehensible if you hadn’t watched all 75 episodes of Rebels.

So one of the potentially great things about The Acolyte is that is takes place a hundred years before the prequel films. There are no Skywalkers, no continuity to worry about. The only existing character that might even possibly show up is a certain little green Jedi Master. All you have to do is give me a compelling story. And so far, so good.

The Acolyte comes from Leslye Headland, best known for her Netflix show Russian Doll. Several cast members of that show appear here, which gives me hope for a Jedi Natasha Lyonne. The two-episode premiere that Disney released on Tuesday night gives us a solid start, promising action and mystery in equal measures.

The story follows Osha (Amandla Stenberg), a Jedi Academy dropout who now works as a meknek, doing dangerous outer-hull ship repairs for the Trade Federation. (Remember them, with the thick, Ming the Merciless accents? Apparently Feloni will not rest until every aspect of the prequel films — no matter how bad — has been reclaimed.) She toils away, with her pocket droid/multi-tool, Pip, until a pair of Jedi show up to interrogate her.

It seems that a Jedi has been killed on a the remote planet of Ueda. Master Indara (Carrie-Anne Moss) was killed by a force user who fits Osha’s description to a T. She’s identified by the bartender, who was there for the attack.

The fight scene is very well done. The hooded attacker (and that purple cloak she wears is great — expect to see a lot of it at the next Star Wars Celebration) announces her intention to kill Master Indara and is greeted with a round of guffaws from the table. Kill a Jedi? Yeah, right. But she causes enough of a ruckus that Indara is forced to intervene. The battle recalls those scenes in martial arts films where an aggressive foe tries to attack the old sage, and the sage barely moves but causes the reckless attacker to flail and miss. Osha finds a weakness, though, by exploiting the Jedi’s compassion. She hurls a knife at the bartender, which Indara stops with the Force. However, this distracts her long enough to allow Osha to stab her. (I certainly hope this is not the last we’ll see of Carrie-Anne Moss! Seems a waste to get Trinity in your lightsaber show and kill her off inside of five minutes.)

Image: Disney+

Osha insists that she’s not the killer, but the pair of Jedi — including her handsome former classmate, now Jedi Knight Yord (Charlie Barnett) — arrest her and have her transported back to Coruscant on a prison vessel. After a fortuitous though badly thought-out prison break caused by the prisoners in the next cell, Osha crashes onto Carlac, a mountainous, wintry planet.

A couple of things happen here that are nice little character beats to show that Osha probably isn’t the real killer. First, she tries to force-pull her pocket droid to her to help get her door open, but she can’t. It’s been six years since she left the order, and she’s cut off from the Force. So it seems unlikely that she could knife a Jedi Master in combat. Second, she helps a prisoner who was being sedated by a parasite so he can get out, showing that she’s not cruel or callous. Her reward is the prisoner taking the last escape pod, leaving her to crash.

On Coruscant, at the Jedi Temple, Master Sol (Lee Jung-jae) is training a fresh group of younglings when he is informed about the actions of his old Padawan, Osha. She was one one of his trainees, so he feels a special responsibility for her. He and Indara rescued her from a fire on her home world that killed the rest of her family. They brought her to the Academy, even though she was older than the typical youngling, and it was their urging that made the council admit her. When he learns that she crashed in the prison transport, he heads off to investigate with a small team. He brings Yord and his current Padawan, the by-the-book Jecki Lon (Dafne Keen). (I see buddy-cop potential here!)

Image: Disney+

Meanwhile, in the wreckage, Osha sees a vision of herself. Only it isn’t herself. It’s her twin sister, Mae. Which is impossible, because Mae died in that fire. Not only that, but she started it. However, it appears that she survived and now blames the Jedi for what happened to her planet. (Also, kudos to the production on this scene. Hearing a little-girl voice come out of an adult is never not creepy.)

This, understandably, freaks Osha out, and the arrival of the trio of Jedi does nothing to calm her down. She tells Sol that she is innocent, and that Mae is still alive as she backs herself off a cliff. Sol saves her, and tells her he believes her.

Her claim of innocence is bolstered by another attempt on a Jedi’s life while Osha is in custody. Someone broke into the Temple on Olega and tried to kill Master Torbin while he was in a meditative state but could not penetrate his protective Force field. Since Osha was with Sol, she couldn’t have been there as well. It must have been Mae. They are directed to investigate.

Mae has fallen in with a Dark Master who has trained her. Now, we obviously know this to be a Sith, but the Jedi at this time, at the end of the High Republic era, had not seen a Sith in centuries and seem absolutely puzzled that anyone would want to kill Jedi. Mae is intent on killing four Jedi to get revenge for what happened to her and what they did. And her mysterious master, for unspecified reasons, needs her to kill one of them without using a weapon.

Image: Disney+

However, Master Torbin has been in his meditative state for about ten years and is untouchable. She seeks advice from her supplier, Qimir (Manny Jacinto! Now both Jason Mendoza and Pillboi are canon Star Wars characters! Tahani next!)

He rather cryptically spells out their goals, reminding her that everyone has a weakness. “The Jedi justify their galactic dominance in the name of peace.” Which, they know, is a lie. Torbin is no different. He only thinks he’s found peace, but “what he really needs is something only you can give him. Absolution.” He makes her a poison based on a plant from Osha’s home world. She breaks back into the temple and speaks to the meditative Torbin and offers him a choice. Either confess his crimes to the Jedi High Council, or receive forgiveness from her by drinking the poison. Torbin awakens from his ten-year meditation almost instantly. He says, “I’ve been waiting for you, Mae,” and drinks the poison. “Forgive me. We thought we were doing the right thing.”

Which is… wow. What could the Jedi have done that was so bad that Torbin immediately killed himself rather than talking to the Council? I mean, we saw Anakin slaughter younglings! Back in the Ahsoka show, there was a flashback to young Ahsoka leading troops in the Clone Wars and thinking about the things they had done in the name of the Jedi. Will this be something similar? A fog-of-war moment? Were the Jedi “just following orders?”Or will it be something more akin to a My Lai massacre? Or did the Jedi do something terrible to preserve what they thought was a greater good? My interest is piqued.

Mae leaves the temple just as Osha, Sol and the rest arrive, which leads to a confrontation where Mae attacks Sol. This doesn’t go well for her as Sol is even better at dodging than Indara was. She escapes by using the Force to create a sandstorm for cover. As she runs out to the road to speeder-jack a vehicle, she sees Osha. Mae is just as surprised to see that Osha is alive. (Was that a motivating factor for her? Revenge for her sister? If she knows she’s alive will that change her desires?) Osha fires at her, but the shots are so far off, it looks to me like she missed on purpose.

As she and Sol discuss their encounter, Osha reminds him that there were four Jedi involved in the incident on her home world: Indara, Torbin, Kelnacca, and Sol. She already killed two, and fought Sol, which leaves only the Wookiee Jedi Kelnacca, camping out on Khofar. I am quite excited by the Wookiee Jedi. You thought they were badass when they could just rip an arm out of socket? Well, Kelnacca can do that and then use the Force to beat you with it.

So, overall, this is a strong start to the series. I am looking forward to the show digging into the mystery of what happened to Osha and Mae so long ago. What were the Jedi trying to cover up? What did they do that got Mae so angry, she turned to the Dark Side for revenge? Is there a lot of pent-up anger towards the Jedi? And who exactly is the mysterious instructor training Mae? We have eight episodes for them to tease out the mystery. Let’s hope for a satisfying conclusion.

Rating:

Episode 1: Lost/Found: 4 out of 5

Episode 2: Revenge/Justice: 4 out of 5

Boy Kills World: A fun, silly, strange film

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Bill Skarsgård plays the titular “Boy” whose mother and sister are killed by a ruthless dictator. He signs up to be trained by a martial arts master, Shaman (Yayan Ruhian), who generally tortures and drugs him while also, yes, training him to fight. In order to survive this harsh lifestyle, the boy adopts an inner persona (voiced with hilarious accuracy by H. Jon Benjamin), and eventually starts hallucinating visions of his dead sister, Mina (Quinn Copeland).

Once a year, the oppressive Van Der Coy family moseys on into a village and chooses some sacrificial lambs for televised slaughter. Not by random – these are people who have spoken out against their overlords. On one occasion, the Boy and the Shaman happen to be in town. It’s important to note that this trip informs us the Boy is deaf and dumb, but he can read lips (or he’s getting better at it). Against the Shaman’s judgement, the Boy decides that this is his moment to take out the family. He stows away in one of their cars and infiltrates their stronghold (kind of, but not really).

From here the movie gets very, very weird. For one thing, the visions of his sister become fairly permanent. His inner voice frequently has conversations and arguments with her, while his outer self seeks to protect her (even though, rationally, he knows she’s not real). For another, he’s recruited into a resistance movement that includes his new friend Basho (a giddy Andrew Koji, who he rescues from bondage) and a man named Bennie (Isaiah Mustafa, who we learn nothing about). Bennie speaks in a dialect, or language, that the Boy can’t understand, and this results in hilarious misinterpretations that are fully visually realized.

Several violent confrontations later and the Boy meets his ultimate goal: Hilda Van Der Koy (Famke Janssen). There’re two twists that happen: one you see coming a mile away, the other not so much. In the end, the Boy and June27 (Jessica Rothe, as Hilda’s personal security guard), have an all-out brawl with the Shaman in order to escape and find their secret perfect place. And, because why not, there’s even an after credits scene.

WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD!

If you haven’t watched Boy Kills World, I suggest you go do that and then come back for the review.

The first thing I noticed about this movie was the Rotten Tomatoes score: 58% vs. 72%, meaning audiences enjoyed the film significantly more than critics. That immediately piqued my interest because, as a rule, if the critics don’t like a movie but the audience does, it’s probably a fun film. I was not wrong. Granted, I can definitely see where critics wouldn’t like this movie.

To start, Boy Kills World is heavily “influenced” – to put it politely – by movies like The Hunger Games, Old Boy, and The Raid. The Van Der Koy family plot-line and the way they deal with resistance is straight out of The Hunger Games; there’s even brainwashing like how Peeta is turned against Katniss. As for Old Boy, there’s plenty of similar violence, and even a family twist that fits the mold, except instead of the main character having a romance with their daughter, we discover June27 has been made to fight her own brother. And of course, lots and lots of fight scenes that feel very similar to The Raid.

However, the borrowing of these concepts is lazy and half-assed if you really pay attention. I figured that June27 was going to turn out to be the Boy’s sister almost immediately – this movie just isn’t nuanced at all, and there’s no reason for the obvious conclusion not to be true. If we don’t see a character clearly die, then we know they can come back. Considering both she and the Boy were the only blonds in the whole movie, and you don’t get to see her face, you know there’s a reveal coming. On the other hand, the twist that the Shaman had kidnapped and brainwashed the Boy didn’t feel right at all, despite it having something of a set up.

See, way back in the beginning of the movie, we know the Shaman blows smoke at the Boy and it makes him see things. He does this a few times, but each one is followed by visions of the Boy’s dead family and his lost life – his childhood with his sister and mother. It’s only later in the movie that these visions change and start to get muddled. Different stories emerge. You might think this is clever and well done, but in all honesty, it’s not.

Compare this to a movie like Fight Club, where the huge reveal turns out to have been teased at throughout the entire film up until that point. Boy Kills World, by contrast, only seeks to brainwash the audience into sharing the Boy’s view of things. This isn’t inherently bad; plenty of movies love their red herrings. But Boy waits until the final ten minutes to drop this twist and spends several of those minutes simply explaining why the twist works. That’s not great.

Having said all that, I still very much enjoyed this movie. I believe the problem with a lot of critics is that they fail to appreciate the movie they are watching for what it is, not necessarily what it could have been. Could Boy have been a deeper, richer movie? Sure. Is it a bad movie because it’s not? No, and that’s the important thing here.

A good movie, to me, has always been and will always be one that entertains me. Boy is a surprisingly light affair. Yes, it’s extremely violent, but not in any way that ruins the undercurrent of humor and fun you feel as you watch it. The Boy’s sister, Mina, begins this process by appearing to provide levity throughout a violent backdrop, until you quickly come to realize that “levity” is the wrong word. She’s the canary in the coal mine, warning the viewer that they’re in for a wacky ride.

From the Boy’s inner-voice reactions to things happening around and to him, the movie’s humor evolves to take full advantage of their unusual protagonist. Let’s not forget, the Boy is deaf and dumb – he relies on reading lips, which he admits is a growing skill; when he meets Bennie, the comical pay dirt is rich for harvest.

Some of the best scenes of the entire movie revolve around the Boy’s misinterpretations of Bennie’s words: fantastic surrealistic portraits of a child’s desperate attempt to make sense of something he simply lacks the skills to understand. This happens a lot after we meet Bennie, but that’s not to say the Boy’s inner voice doesn’t make some excellent observations and comments throughout the movie. It is truly a unique take on the action/revenge movie that I, for one, find refreshing.

Should you see this film? Absolutely. Just know, it’s gonna be a wild ride!

In “Life, Itself,” Discovery Doubles Down On What Made It Both Good and Aggravating

Image: Paramount+

“Lagrange Point” holds Discovery in the balance

Image: Paramount+

Fallout: Beware our corporate overlords

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Let me start off by saying I have never played any of the Fallout video games. As a rule, media properties that employ the creepiest song ever — technically, any minimalist song from the 1920s counts — are a strict “no thank you.” However, the commercials made it irresistible. Instead of the usual doom and gloom, blue-washed post-apocalyptic offerings, Fallout presents a brilliant, twisted, color-soaked wonderland.

That’s probably not a surprise considering who’s at the helm: Jonathan Nolan. Yes, that Jonathan Nolan, brother of Christopher, man with a hand in some of our favorite movies and shows of the last twenty years. And, while he only directs the first three episodes of season 1 (the second season has already been renewed by Amazon), he is listed as an executive producer on the series, along with Lisa Joy and Todd Howard. Don’t recognize those other two? I don’t blame you; generally, unless they are insanely famous, most people don’t know the people behind their favorite properties. Lisa Joy was exec producer on a little show called Westworld, while Todd Howard produced and directed several entries in the Fallout videogame franchise. My guess is that money and clout is why the production value of this show is through the roof. Honestly, it’s hands down one of the most immersive looking IP based shows I’ve ever seen — which helps when you’ve never played any of the games in said IP. Speaking of, this show, thanks to those involved, includes a bevy of Easter eggs for loyal fans of the game series.

Still, none of that matters unless you have a capable cast and boy, do they! For the record, I only knew one person in this ensemble: Walton Goggins — playing both his pre and post-apocalyptic selves, Cooper Howard and the monster he becomes aka The Ghoul. But the remaining members do not disappoint. Doe-eyed human Kewpie doll Ella Purnell (probably best known as doomed teen Jackie in Yellowjackets) embodies the unbearably naïve vault dweller-cum-surface survivor, Lucy MacLean. And finally, Jonathan Majors lookalike, Aaron Moten, is squire Maximus a cowardly lion hoping to find his courage in the wasteland. These three hardworking actors anchor the series as the main focus points the audience follows.

They each do an excellent job of conveying their experience of life in the wasteland, with Maximus and Lucy’s side of things being more informative of the present, and The Ghoul’s tale covering the past mistakes that got us here. For my money The Ghoul is easily the most interesting character in the whole season, with Lucy a close second, and Maximus being a far behind third. His character, to me, is the weakest. However, this might be on purpose considering where he comes from and how he was raised.

Let’s get into our episode breakdowns before I give my overall season evaluation. Since the show primarily follows three leads, I’ll break down the episodes by their storylines instead of going in sequential order, except for the first episode because of the unique nature of The Ghoul’s story.

“The End”

Can’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been, so first and foremost is a trip to the before-times. Amid the threat of nuclear war between America and China, the country does its best to carry on as usual. Here we see a children’s birthday party where the main attraction is former famed movie star Cooper Howard. Howard tries to assure his young daughter Janey (Teagan Meredith) that everything is fine, even getting her a slice of cake, but then nuclear hell breaks loose. Cut to 219 years later…

Welcome to Vault-life, where you can have casual sex with your cousin, live in a controlled and “safe” environment, and participate in an inter-vault breeding program to ensure the continuation of the human race. Unfortunately for Lucy, her honeymoon is more of a Red Wedding that belies a sinister underbelly to the idyllic life she’s always known. When her father, Overseer Hank MacLean (hello Kyle MacLachlan!) is kidnapped, Lucy does the impossible and braves the surface world to bring him back.

Unlike the vaults, life above is far from peaceful, just look at the Brotherhood of Steel. Something like a military school on steroids, the Brotherhood has fully embraced the practices of the Knights Templar complete with a quasi-religious justification of their lust for power. Maximus, though he takes the lumps his fellow initiates give him, winds up on the wrong side of Elder Cleric Quintus (played to creepy perfection by actor Michael Cristofer), yet is miraculously made a squire and sent out on an important mission.

Said mission is also the reason three unscrupulous types (hello Mykelti Williamson, Jacob A. Ware, and Jacob A. Ware) dig up our friend The Ghoul. While it doesn’t go well for them, it sets our series up for some standards we can expect. One — the wanted man will quickly bind our three leads’ stories together, two — The Ghoul’s pre-apocalypse self will fill us in on how we got to this horrific present, and three — surprises abound in the wasteland.

The pilot episode is fantastic. As I’ve written before, a good pilot should establish the overall tone of the show, introduce most (if not all) of the main characters, and set up the major plotlines of the season. This pilot easy leaps over all those bars. While our three main characters are revealed those in their orbits aren’t bit players either, as we’ll see. My favorite thing about the pilot is that The Ghoul’s story serves as a bookend, covering not only the past but the present as well. He has seen some shit, and it shows.

“The Target”

The titular man is one Doctor Wilzig (Michael Emerson in possibly his most likeable role), a scientist for the Enclave who rescues a puppy from the incinerator, injects himself with company property, and, after his dog (CX404) kills the person who discovers his thievery, flees the premises. He’s planning on taking that stolen property across the wasteland to one Lee Moldaver (Sarita Choudhury). It’s a solid plan until his foot gets shot off and he decides the best way to help the world is to commit suicide and leave his head in trustworthy hands.

Those hands belong to none other than Lucy MacLean. As a vault dweller raised in a meritocracy, Lucy is the perfect person to finish Wilzig’s mission, plus, as a bonus, it’ll take her to the woman who led the raiders into Vault 33 and kidnapped her dad. But, the surface isn’t at all what Lucy was expecting, filled with gross, weird, and disturbing sights, where the people are rude, unkind, and, most importantly, untrustworthy. Still, she manages to make her way to Filly, kind of make a friend, and dig deep to do the decapitating that needs doing.

Speaking of Filly, the bustling wasteland downtown is the destination Maximus and his Knight Titus are set to investigate, but instead Titus gets himself dead by being a straight up asshole (What!? You’re kidding!), and dropping down into the woods for funsies. Granted, the radiated bear attack (a Yao Guai) paired with insulting then threatening his only lifeline did not help. On the bright side, Maximus now has a power armor suit. He even uses it to save someone, and tries to use it against The Ghoul.

Our legendary bounty hunter means to get the doctor, but fake Titus and real Lucy get in his way. It’s a splendid action sequence that ends with Titus being set off into the Wilds’ blue yonder, and CX404 being healed by The Ghoul in order to track down her daddy.

Following a perfect pilot is no easy feat, but when Jonathan Nolan is helming your first three episodes consider them all to be bangers. The attention to detail in here in terms of the wasteland inhabitants, Easter eggs, and skills of our party members really contribute to a stellar second episode. And while Lucy’s interactions with this strange new world are both hilarious and jarring, it’s Maximus’ story that I feel tells the most about him.

Maximus is a child, mentally speaking; you can see how excited he is on the helicopter, like a kid on Christmas. Watching him crash to reality is heartbreaking. All that blissful ignorance is destroyed within minutes of being around his Knight. Titus, by extension, is a sad man. His life’s purpose is a lie and the suit gives him his only joy. Michael Rapaport plays a fantastic douche who reveals himself to be an abused man that doesn’t know any better and pays for it with his life. Here we learn what the Brotherhood’s legacy really is.

“The Head”

Lucy and The Ghoul come together after the doctor’s disembodied head is snatched by a monster (a giant mutant axolotl possibly called a Gulper). The Ghoul has an idea of how to retrieve it, which involves live bait, but that backfires and leads to the destruction of his drug stash. Displeased, the bounty hunter takes Lucy hostage and sets off on a side quest.

Maximus’s day isn’t going any better. He’s lied to the Brotherhood about being Titus, almost lost his suit to thieves, and discovers his newly assigned squire is one of his former tormentors: Thaddeus (Johnny Pemberton playing another hapless dope). Though wearing the suit allows Maximus to hide his identity from Thaddeus and get a little revenge in, he doesn’t entirely perpetuate the cycle of abuse. When facing off against the Gulper, Maximus allows his squire to seek safe cover, which in the end saves both their lives.

Saving or ending lives is a question the denizens of Vault 33 have to deal with. While Chet (Lucy’s hot cousin played by Dave Register) and Norm (Lucy’s dour brother embodied by Moises Arias), face punishment for their parts in helping Lucy leave, the remaining raiders are another story. Should they be rehabilitated and integrated into vault society? Or…per Norm’s thinking, should they be killed? Stephanie Harper (Annabel O’Hagan) — whose beloved husband was killed in the attack — agrees with Norm. Still, the rest of the council balks at the notion.

How does someone handle their enemies? It used to be heroes wouldn’t get their hands dirty, but Cooper Howard (in the before-times) is getting a harsh lesson in how the world is changing. Men of honor and dignity are no longer the norm, instead it’s destroy your enemy completely — especially the Red ones. He’s not thrilled but his wife Barbara (Frances Turner) shows up with a new opportunity. Meet the new ad mascot of Vault-tec!

This is the last episode directed by Jonathan Nolan, and it sets up two significant reoccurring subplots that have only been hinted at thus far. The Ghoul’s past and those left behind in Vault 33. The Ghoul’s story reveals that he’s not just some random actor who happened to survive the end of the world — he was the spokesman for the vault-life that was Lucy’s norm. Conversely, the Vault 33 story reveals that those topside may not have an honest understanding of their underground brethren. Vault dwellers, though raised in a meritocracy, are not as simple as the surface would have you believe.

“The Ghouls”

Out in the desert The Ghoul and Lucy continue their walk. Things get violent when she tries to escape but he succeeds in delivering her to a Super Duper Mart in exchange for vials. The plucky vault dweller avoids getting her organs harvested, however in her zeal for justice is almost killed by feral ghouls. All in all she manages to keep herself intact, sure, there’s some blood on her hands but she also grants The Ghoul mercy just to show him the Golden Rule, motherfucker. He takes her generosity, goes into the Super Duper Mart, and goes on a bender.

In Vault 33 as council members Reg McPhee (Rodrigo Luzzi) and Woody Thomas (Zach Cherry) fiercely campaign for the position of Overseer, Betty Pearson (Deadpool’s Leslie Uggams) gives some unsolicited advice to a sullen Norm. Chet’s unexpected labor drama is thankfully interrupted when Norm suggests a trip to Vault 32. The carnage they find isn’t recent, and some of it is self-inflicted. What happened? More importantly, how was Rose’s (Norm and Lucy’s mom, Elle Vertes) Pip Boy used to open the vault door???

The first episode not directed by Nolan does an excellent job of living up to the legacy of the previous three. Maintaining the humor and horror of the series so far, the two stories we see tell equally dark tales with the purpose of character and world exploration.

The Ghoul is a man brought down by the events of his life, and seeing Lucy hurts, a reminder of who he used to be — that movie he sees in the Super Duper Mart was the moment he began to fall. First his fictional character and then his actual character. His efforts to drag Lucy down to his level seem to be a means of justifying how he got there himself, if he can only break her too. It’s no wonder that after he’s failed, he takes comfort in drugs and nostalgia.

Meanwhile, the vault drama not only solidifies there’s more to vault-life than meets the eye, it might be downright sinister in nature. Norm is an interesting character given his near Eeyore levels of pessimism and abject disinterest, why is he so determined to find the truth? He seems to hate himself for not standing up to the raiders, yet, when confronted with confessing to this feeling he simply asks Betty if it would matter if he did. Chet too, presents a contradiction in this way, willing to go exploring with Norm yet reluctant to draw any real conclusions from what they find. It’s a good presentation of learned helplessness given the chance to break free, but ever uneasy about said freedom. We all love the devil we know, right?

“The Past”

Thaddeus and Maximus bond over getting the head, but it’s not enough when the false Knight reveals himself to his newly branded squire, and he winds up trapped in his own power armor; headless (ha ha ha, couldn’t help myself). Lucy, tracking the head, comes across him and, in exchange for much needed medical care, rescues him. They then team up to find the head. It’s a rough journey that only further cinches Lucy’s hatred of the surface world, but it ends with them in the best place possible: a vault!

Chet and Norm finish up their exploration of Vault 32, vowing to tell no one of their side mission. Naturally, Betty asks them almost instantly where they’ve been and both are poor liars. Still, Betty’s got bigger fish to fry because it’s voting day. She easily smokes the competition, and quickly holds a meeting to discuss what to do about Vault 32. The powers that be have decided to resettle the abandoned vault, and wouldn’t you know it, the place is suddenly pristine. Norm’s distrust leads him to a staggering discovery: every single Overseer for Vault 33 has come from Vault 31…

It’s odd that this episode is called “The Past” since not much history is explored in terms of Cooper Howard — in fact, neither he nor The Ghoul appear in this episode at all. Instead Lucy and Maximus meet proper and get together, roaming the wasteland as he fills her in on the past, which in and of itself isn’t a very detailed scene. The biggest reveal for her is that reclamation day (the whole purpose of the vaults) already happened in a place called Shady Sands, and it failed. So, perhaps the title is a reference to the vault side of things?

This is more likely, since it’s clear whatever happened in Vault 32 happened a long time ago. There’s also the voting day aspect — where the helpful phrase “When things look glum vote for somebody from Vault 31!” is initially presented as a throwaway slogan only to later be brought up as potential subliminal messaging when paired with a conveniently timed tragedy — see Hank vs. Davey (great job Leer Leary, we know you voted for Betty). Norm is certainly suspicious.

“The Trap”

Lucy and Maximus are welcomed into Vault 4 where they regularly take in surface dwellers. Only rule: don’t go to level 12. Maximus slowly acclimates to vault life, eventually enjoying it, whereas Lucy swiftly comes to distrust it, eventually breaking the one rule.

The Ghoul runs afoul of “the Govermint”, but he’s not very concerned. He effortlessly frees himself from the bad situation, and even picks up a new lead.

Cooper Howard’s endorsement of Vault-tec has crossed over from print ads to infomercials. But, the work, though profitable, has cost him some friends. One of his remaining few, Sebastian Leslie (hi, Matt Berry!), complains that Hollywood has gone Red. Another, Charles Whiteknife (Dallas Goldtooth) encourages Howard to attend a meeting at Hollywood Forever – see what they’re really about. After a fight with his wife, Howard gives in and goes to the meeting. It’s run by Lee Moldaver.

Moldaver turns out to be a theme in this episode — showing up in the Vault 4 storyline, The Ghoul’s storyline, and Cooper Howard’s storyline. To the vault refugees she’s “The Flame Mother”, founder of Shady Sands who will rise from the ashes. To Cooper Howard, she’s the woman who turns him against his meal ticket (not that he was overly loyal to begin with). And to The Ghoul, she’s an excuse to stay in the story.

But there’s a lot more to this episode than just Lee. The biggest theme is biased. You’ve got Overseer Benjamin (the hilarious Chris Parnell), who doesn’t like that his vault takes in surface dwellers and isn’t happy having to “tolerate” their outsider ways. He comes off as a classic racist until you pay attention to Lucy. This is probably the first time we’ve really seen Lucy in the wrong — her preconceived notion of what vault inhabitants should look like is the driving force of her distrust in Vault 4. Maximus, with his childish mentality, only distrusts the way he’s treated because he isn’t used to people being nice (makes sense given the world he’s lived in up until now), none of his responses to those around him are based on their appearance.

Lastly, there’s the title itself. Maximus worries that Vault 4 is a trap, he and Lucy have entered into a cult. Lucy later fears he was right, especially after that weird surface dweller ritual. Meanwhile, Cooper and Sebastian are in “The Trap” of capitalism. Berry’s character makes a chillingly accurate insight that everything is a product, including people, and profits are all that matter, while Whiteknife rightly points out that capitalism demands war since the government decided to outsource it to a publicly traded company.

“The Radio”

Lucy is set straight about what she saw on level 12 with the added implication that her vault is also running an experiment. However, since she broke the one rule, and threw acid on Dr. “Nose” Edmondson (Harry Sutton Jr.), Lucy is sentenced to death… by banishment to the surface. Maximus, misunderstanding the situation, steals the vault’s fusion core and fires up his power armor in violent retaliation. Lucy intervenes so he doesn’t kill anyone, but they are both booted from the vault. The experience bonds them, and later leads to a kiss.

Thaddeus, complete with injured foot, heads to the titular radio to communicate with the Brotherhood but is unwittingly turned into a ghoul on his way. Since the Brotherhood has a plan for ghouls (destroy them all), he knows he’s fucked. He’s worried when Lucy and Maximus show up, going so far as to fire at them wildly (he’s a terrible shot without a scope), funnily enough though he didn’t have to. Maximus has no hard feelings, even giving the guy a running head start to flee the incoming Brotherhood.

Vault 33 sees the raiders die, of rat poison, and an innocent vault dweller held accountable. Woody claims this will be a big deal, but Betty just brushes it off with some “thoughts and prayers” bullshit before sending out the new vault assignments via Pip Boy. When Woody’s refusal to leave almost leads to violent enforcement, and Stephanie (who comes from Vault 31) is made interim Overseer, Norm takes action.

The Ghoul gets information the bloody way, rescues CX404 from a soda fridge, and gives her the name Dogmeat. In the before-times Cooper Howard meets with Moldaver who says she isn’t a communist. She claims she’s a scientist whose research would have ended the resource war until it was shelved by Vault-tec. She then gives him a bug and encourages him to spy on his wife for the truth.

This episode’s title only applies to Thaddeus and Cooper Howard. It also allows for Fred Armisen to cameo as DJ Carl, a music enthusiast who DOES NOT like criticism. Carl reminds me of Betty – ever self-righteous even when killing people (pretty sure she poisoned those prisoners). Completely convinced of their innocence despite the horrible things they’ve done. It’s a fine line for an actor to walk, bringing to life a black and white villain who appears grey, and Uggams does a stupendous job.

“The Beginning”

Maximus delivers the wrong head to the Brotherhood but still manages to come out on top (thanks Dane — Xelia Mendes-Jones!) His plans for living in the vaults with Lucy might be fucked, but a successful attack on the Griffith Observatory lands him Knighthood, and cold fusion.

Lucy delivers the right head to Moldaver, allowing her dream of cold fusion to become a reality, but the mission doesn’t end as planned. Her dad isn’t who she thought, to the point that when given the choice Lucy picks The Ghoul over Hank!

Speaking of, The Ghoul gets to the party a little late but leaves an impression. We don’t see him confront Moldaver, instead he sets his sights on Hank (or Henry as Howard knew him). A brief exchange ends with a flesh wound and a bloody trail that The Ghoul hopes will lead to his family via the real person in charge.

Who is the mysterious figure Barb looks up to see in her ominous meeting in the before-times? We don’t find out, but we are treated to the knowledge that Vault-tec might have been the ones to drop the bombs in an effort to control the future once and for all.

Part of that control involves a program known as Bud’s buds. Meet Bud Askins (Michael Esper), something of a dark running joke throughout the series that culminates in a disturbing revelation made when Norm enters Vault 31. Our dour scout has found the answers he sought at terrible personal cost.

What an ending! A good season finale should set up for future seasons (we know season 2 has been green-lit) either by planting last minute plots which can continue later on, or, by leaving some existing plots unresolved. Fallout opts for both.

The before-times storyline appears to be complete but my biggest question is did Vault-tec actually drop the bomb? Hear me out — while we see Barb make the argument for why they should, we know for a fact that when the bombs actually fall Cooper and Barb are not together. And I don’t mean, in physical proximity, I mean people at the birthday party are joking about him having to pay alimony, which means they are divorced. That indicates more to this story. The other hint we haven’t been told everything is The Ghoul asking Hank where his family is. We know Janey was with him when the bombs dropped, but where is she now? And where is Barb? Did the shadowy figure at the Vault-tec power pow-wow have something to do with her disappearance? Did they contribute to Cooper becoming a ghoul?

Aside from that, the obvious open plotlines are as follows: Will Norm take up in his father’s pod? If so, for how long? Will Chet grow a pair and seek out his friend? What the fuck actually happened in Vault 32? While we’re at it, what’s up with that water filtration issue in Vault 33?

On the surface side: What’s gonna happen to Thaddeus? How will the Brotherhood handle having power? Now that Maximus is a Knight can he just bail and go search for Lucy? Where is Hank going? Will Cooper find his family? Oh yeah, and what of Dogmeat? Has she adopted The Ghoul as her new master, because up until now she’s been strongly dedicated to Wilzig’s head, yet at the end when The Ghoul leaves with Lucy, CX404 is in tow.

Downsides:

While it is a beautiful series filled with colorful characters, insane storylines, and awesome action scenes Fallout isn’t without flaws.

One of my biggest complaints about the last episode is Maximus being alive. The man not only takes a full hit to an unguarded head from a power armor suit, but he then additionally smacks that skull onto another unforgiving surface. The man is dead. No questions.

Also, why doesn’t The Ghoul use his knowledge of the power armor suits in his initial fight with Maximus at Filly? A classic plot hole, and if the show wasn’t bingeable, you might not have noticed the first time you watched it — if you watched it weekly.

Also, also, I don’t quite understand the Snake Oil Salesman (Jon Daly). Granted, I don’t exactly understand the ghouls in general, but SOS makes less sense than most. For one thing, why does he try to kill himself? Consequently, why does he give up on suicide in order to convert Thaddeus into a ghoul? It doesn’t make any sense. He’s seen several times trying to peddle his wares (elixirs that will presumably turn people into ghouls), but for what purpose? One argument could be that since ghouls are in constant need of vials, he’s constantly selling in order to keep up an eternal drug habit – ok, that tracks, but when we see him with the gun to his mouth, he doesn’t appear to be going feral. Unlike The Ghoul, or Roger (Neal Huff), or Martha (Alexa Marcigliano), he’s not coughing, weak, or trying to remind himself who he is. But hey, maybe that’s a question we’ll get answered in season 2.

Speaking of ghouls, why didn’t Moldaver prevent Rose from going feral? Pretty sure she has the resources and even if she doesn’t, she’s got dedicated followers who would have happily scavenged or killed for vials.

Lastly, I’m not a fan of how weak The Ghoul’s story was at the end. He builds up gradually after taking Lucy hostage, having that breakthrough moment at the Super Duper Mart, and then just loses it in order to find Moldaver. Gives up on the head hunt to find her, and when he actually goes to where she is, it’s not Lee he confronts, it’s Hank! The fuck!? I don’t really get it. Moldaver is painted as the reason his marriage was destroyed (granted his wife suggesting Vault-tec drop an atom bomb for absolute control doesn’t help), and his desire to find her is assumedly tied to that, but nope! The Ghoul doesn’t even try to find her when he arrives at Hollywood forever. She’s really only important for cold fusion, and the truth about Lucy’s mother and father.

Overall opinion:

Fallout is a fantastic series even if it hints at the showrunners a little hard. The main story, a girl on a journey to rescue her father, may not feel familiar, but the other plots? Very Westworld heavy. The boy becoming a man and the gunslinger with a complicated past speak heavily towards the robot girl becoming human and the…gunslinger with a complicated past. But I think the biggest argument for Westworld undertones are the side stories. Life in the vaults paired with what we learn from the before-times gives us a distinctly dystopian vision of how the wasteland came to be. Much like the dark HBO series, Fallout leans on the idea that all is not what it seems – sure the surface looks great, but dig deeper and there will be blood.

However, where Westworld is an exercise in glum, nihilistic conjecture and condemnation of the human race and its future, Fallout doesn’t feel this way at all. For one thing, as mentioned, Fallout is funny. Genuinely, laugh out loud at times, funny. This is because the range of characters employed in the storytelling works perfectly to juxtapose many of the grimmer aspects of the world they inhabit. Not to mention that many of the side characters are also in on the joke, not concerned with selling some noble philosophical debate they can be silly, or call into question the insanity around them.

It’s a wildly successful concoction from what I’ve seen. For an outlandish premise, an outlandish execution is the best course of action, but the key is the cast, set design, attention to detail, and direction. While Goggins, Purnell, and Moten are put through the ringer they rise to the challenge every time. I may not be the biggest Maximus fan, I might not buy his and Lucy’s love story, but damn if Moten didn’t sell it as best he could. Purnell’s heartbreak at the conclusion of her journey is brutal but you buy it – you buy the mercy killing of her mother, even her joining up with The Ghoul. As for Goggins…he really should get an Emmy for this, but you know he won’t (the academy doesn’t usually respect sci-fi shows, sadly). His dual performance as Cooper Howard and The Ghoul presents a fully realized character.

I highly recommend you take a trip to this weird and wonderful wasteland.

Universus – My Hero Academia: Girl Power Unboxing!

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My Hero Academia Girl Power Universus

UVS Games’ Universus CCG is returning to the world of My Hero Academia with the all-new set ‘Girl Power’ releasing on May 24th, 2024. Girl Power focuses on the powerful female characters of the hit anime. With Alternate Art cards and serialized Chrome Rares returning, it will surely be a collector’s dream. You can watch Rob unbox and give his first impressions of the new set below.

For more information, including which of your local game stores carry Universus, visit uvsgames.com!

Twenty Sided Tavern is a delight for fans of comedy and D&D

It’s tough being a Dungeon Master. You set create a fun and challenging adventure for your party. You carefully plot out monsters and traps they will encounter. You meticulously map out a dungeon full of tricks and treasure.

And then the characters cheerfully stomp all over your plans by deciding to go off map, or failing their saving throws and dying in the first five minutes, or just deciding to go all Leroy Jenkins on a dragon’s den. Or the random roll of a die gifts them with an incredibly powerful item that lets them stroll right through all the monsters you put in their way.

Player characters can be real jerks like that.

But, that is also part of the fun and charm of the game of Dungeons and Dragons. Although you are trying to hit plot points in your adventure, side quests and character choices can have major repercussions later in the game. And a good DM can always plan for the proclivities of the players. (Once, when I had a party of real “look before you leap” types, I set up a coal cart on the top of a hill, knowing that they’d hop in and ride down. Of course, they didn’t see the Gelatinous Cube that was waiting for them at the bottom of the mine…) The chaos is part of the fun.

It is also a big part of the charm of The Twenty-Sided Tavern, an interactive comedy show that is currently running at the Stage 42 theater, just west of Times Square. I went to see it with editor emeritus of The Workprint, Christian Angeles.

Christian Angeles (L) and Victor Catano (R) roll for initiative. 

The show is, to use a phrase I learned in critic school, a hoot and a half. It’s an absolute blast. It’s an extremely fun version of the kind of campaign you’d run with your good friends, one where you are more interested in hanging out than leveling up.

When you enter the theater (after posing for some obligatory selfies with a giant D20), you are told to take out your cell phone. Yes, that’s right. Turn it on and leave it on. You’ll need to scan a QR code in the program so you can participate in the show. This links to a Gamiotic site that will allow you to vote on which characters are going to be in the show, different paths the characters can take, and puzzles that need to be solved to progress.

You also get a sticker in your program, and the color determines if you are in the Warrior, Mage, or Trickster cohort. I got Warrior, and the day we were there, the character choices for the warrior were “Monk With a Dark Secret” or “Bro-iest Bro.” Bro-Barian won, so the Warrior slot was filled by a chill dude party dwarf, who was all about working on his best self.

Other votes include mundane things like “How will the party duck their bar tab?” The options were Honesty or Deception, and Deception won. When it was revealed that the difficulty of the task required an extremely high roll (over 18 on a 20-sided die), the audience groaned. This prompted the on-stage DM to scold us with, “Hey Actions, meet my friend Consequences.” Fortunately, the party’s clever deception (of faking a slip and fall) succeeded as our Mage got a high roll. Oh yes, the characters on stage all roll for saving throws and damage, and there are little cameras on their dice to show the audience so they don’t fudge anything.

So, in effect, you really are watching people play a game of D&D, albeit played a lot more broadly and for comedic effect. And because the actors are all skilled at improv, it’s really fun to watch. The audience got extremely invested in the game, bursting out in cheers when a character rolled a natural 20, which let the Warrior launch an attacking street urchin into a low orbit. And each character gets a “mulligan,” or a re-roll, once per game. When the Warrior failed a crucial saving throw in the dungeons, the cries of “RE-ROLL” from the audience were deafening.

The audience is also tasked with naming the NPCs (Non-Player Characters), that is, the townsfolk and people the players encounter. This led to the villain of our story being named Mayor Cupcake. (Don’t let the name fool you. He wasn’t very sweet.) And the audience as a whole was really into the show. I thought I was being cool by wearing my Beholder t-shirt, but many people were decked out in D&D swag, some in full cosplay.

So, this is a slam-dunk recommendation to anyone who has ever rolled for initiative or knows what THAC0 means.

But what if you aren’t a D&D person? Well, the basic rules get explained by the Tavern Keeper, who doubles as an assistant DM to help keep the show moving along. They also get projected on the video screen before the show, but this is really more about the broad comedy and the improv. So, if you like fun, I think you’ll be fine.

And because the characters and audience decisions can change with every show, you can see it many times and not see the same one twice. Which I encourage you to do, because this was a ton of fun.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

“Labyrinths” takes a twisty path to keep Discovery’s plot going.

Image: Paramount+
“Oh, what a coincidence” is the weakest plot device EVER. And so far, Moll’s storyline has been filled with of coincidences. She just HAPPENS to be in the vicinity of L’ak, who HAPPENS to be the Scion, and she HAPPENS to fall in love, and they HAPPEN to find the info about the Progenitors’ tech, etc., etc.… even L’ak’s death was an accident!
Breen Queen. Image: Paramount+

In “Erigah,” Discovery Delves into Diplomacy

Image: Paramount+
Rating: 3 out of 5

Eurovision Song Contest, Semi Final Night 2 Recap

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Welcome back! I hope you all enjoyed Tuesday night’s celebration of Celtic witchcraft at Night One of Eurovision. (#CrownTheWitch) We’ve got another 16 countries vying for the final ten spots tonight, along with three more previews from the pre-qualified countries (Italy, France, and Spain).

Let’s get into it!

  1. Malta: “Loop,” Sarah Bonnici

A young woman in a sparkly one-piece does a fun club jam, although the way she repeatedly says “Oh my gawd” in the song is extremely irritating. Good choreography, especially a part where her baggy-pantsed backup boys dance blindfolded.

2. Albania: “Titan,” Besa

I like this power ballad. Her metallic headdress is cool, the lighting is very effective, and the lyrics are good. They have these giant hands on the video wall, though, and I’m not into those.

3. Greece: “Zari,” Mariana Satti

Ok, I do not like this framing device of the TikTok video, and her voice is too high and squeaky at the start. Ha! All a fake-out about how she’s going to do it her way with a funky Mediterranean beat. Eh, this Greek rap still isn’t doing it for me.

4. Switzerland: “The Code,” Nemo

Ok, now this is my jam. I love everything about this: Nemo’s puffy coat made of red and orange feathers, the uptempo rap break, the dramatic lighting, the driving hook, the round teeter-totter thing he’s balancing on. That chorus is going to be lodged in my head all night. Easily my favorite so far.

5. Czechia: “Pedestal,” Aiko

Is something wrong with her mic? She sounds terrible in the live performance. Ah well, there’s always some country who sends an entry who can’t actually sing. Her clone backup dancers are neat looking, though.

Pre-Qualified: France: “Mon Amour,” Slimane

France brings a big romantic ballad. It’s too bad Slimane’s voice is a bit raspy at the start because the tune is nice. He’s warmed up by the end enough to hit those sustained notes, though.

6. Austria: “We Will Rave,” Kaleen

“We will rave,” huh? I wonder what this song is going to be about? Laser lights, techno beat, S&M silver one-piece costume… yep. Title is accurate. Her hair is making me think of a more severe and germanic Ariana Grande.

7. Denmark: “Sand,” Saba

This performance starts with the singer dramatically pouring sand on the stage. Which is pretty literal staging with lyrics about “sand slipping through my hands.” Still, it’s effective and the song is very good.

8. Armenia: “Jako,” Ladaniva

It’s always fun when countries incorporate their traditional music into the song rather than do a generic Eurobop club song. It certainly makes them stand out from the crowd. I liked it! It was fun.

9. Latvia: “Hollow,” Dons

How do you have a giant wheel as your set piece and not run around in it? How can you have a guy in a blue rubber suit sing such a snooze of a song? This is a bit of a dirge and not one of my favorites.

Pre-Qualified: Spain:  “Zorra,” Nebulossa

One of the pre-qualified entries. This is an ok club tune, more notable for the light show and the bearded backup boys in corsets than the musicality.

10. San Marino: “11:11,” Megara

This is a nice jolt of energy! It looks like a weird take on Alice in Wonderland, with the singer looking like Harley Quinn changed her color scheme to pink and black. She is backed up by dancing skeletons and killer bunnies and some very cool animation. The band looks like they went to Gene Simmons’s yard sale for costumes. All around classic Eurovision stuff. Love it!

11. Georgia: “Firefighter,” Nutsa Buzaladze

Catchy dance tune with a lot of fire. Sometimes you don’t need to overthink things. Just dance and enjoy it.

12. Belgium: “Before the Party’s Over,” Mustii

The singer stole Dan Stevens’s costume from the Eurovision Song Contest movie. And his ballad is only ok, and not terribly memorable.

13. Estonia: “(nendest) narkootikumidest ei tea me (küll) midagi,” 5MIINUST x Puuluup

Now these guys have some energy! I like the look of the one singer wearing an overcoat with one sleeve missing. They’re working the crowd, and the crowd is into it.

Pre-Qualified: Italy: “La noia,” Angelina Mango

Ok, can’t deny that I love Ms. Mango’s sparkly red corset and the dancers in body suits covered with thorn patterns. And the song is a bop.

14. Israel: “Hurricane,” Eden Golan

Time for a dramatic power ballad. And it’s fine. The singer has a great voice, but the song is extremely generic. (This seems like a good time to note that Eurovision explicitly forbids any kind of political statement song. Keep it light and fun!)

15. Norway: “Ulveham,” Gåte

Another rocking number. The lighting and costumes really make this number work, plus the band seems to be having a great time.

16. Netherlands: “Europapa,” Joost Klein

Time for some classic Eurovision nonsense! Joost is wearing shoulder pads that David Byrne would’ve called over the top. And the performance opens with his giant face on the video screen on the floor. Oh, and there’s a giant bluebird playing keyboard. I have literally no idea what is going on, but I’m enjoying it. And if that isn’t the mission statement for Eurovision, I don’t know what is.

Favorites: Switzerland! What a great song! Also loved the energy San Marino’s deranged Alice in Wonderland song brought.

Least Favorite: Czechia was pretty bad, and Latvia’s snooze fest didn’t impress me. Neither did the rapping Greek.

The Winners: What the hell? The lame entries from Greece and Latvia made it in but San Marino didn’t? Boo, Europe, boo! RECOUNT! (For real, I’m mad about this.)

Joining these two unworthy finalists are Armenia, Austria, Estonia, Georgia, Israel, Norway, Netherlands, and Switzerland (yay).

Will any of these beat my witchy monarch, Bambie Thug, on Saturday? We’ll find out in 48 hours!

Eurovision Song Contest Semi-Final Recap, Night One

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Greetings, fellow Eurovision fans! It’s time to break out your platform heels, vampire capes, and most awkward dance moves. It’s time to celebrate the music of Europe (mostly) as the first 15 countries compete for a spot in the finals.
If you are unfamiliar with this annual celebration, you are in for a treat. Lovingly parodied in the movie, Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, EVS is known for its outlandish spectacles and staging, songs from Eastern European countries about vampires, and, oh yeah, the international launch pad for the careers of mega stars like ABBA and Celine Dion.
The show is a lot of fun to watch, especially if you like a catchy bop you can dance to. The semi-finals are May 7th and 9th, with the finals on Saturday, May 11th. You can catch them on Peacock here in the USA, and if you download the official Eurovision app, you can even vote for your favorites.
Without further ado, let’s get to it! Here are my thoughts from the first day of competition. You can watch all of the competitors here.
Cyprus: “Liar,” Silia Kapsis
Fun bop. Sounds a bit like it should be in a Disney channel musical, though.
Serbia: “Ramonda,” Teya Dora
Moody, atmospheric. The staging makes me think of a Goth version of Frozen.
Lithuania: “Luktelk,” Silvester Belt
Catchy tune, great beat, cool lighting. I’d dance to this at a club if I had youth or energy.
Ireland: “Doomsday Blue,” Bambie Thug
Fuck yes, this goddamn rocks. What do the kids say? Bambie Thug understood the assignment. This Celtic witch and their demon boyfriend are awesome. (Thug is also Ireland’s first non-binary entrant.) Just so you know, this website is now a Bambie Thug fan page.
This year we also got some previews of the countries that have already qualified. The Big Five — the UK, France, Spain, Germany, Italy — get automatic spots as well as last year’s winner and host country, Sweden.
UK: “Dizzy,” Olly Alexander
Ok club song. Reminded me of Lion of Love from the Eurovision movie. More notable for its shirtless boys than its musicality.
Ukraine: “Theresa & Maria,” Alyona Alyona and Jerry Heil
Lovely singing, apparently they have a rapping samurai, but it works.
Poland: “The Tower,” Luna
Now this is some classic Eurovision nonsense. Pretty girl in a giant costume, singing with dancing chess pieces. The song kind of grows on you, but it’s just ok.
Croatia: “Rim Tim Tagi Dim,” Baby Lasagna
Another hard rocking one. These really pop when surrounded by all the wannabe club bops. Costumes are great, including what I think is a naughty milkmaid.
Iceland: “Scared of Heights,” Hera Bjork
How long until I stop yelling “PLAY JA JA DING DONG” when Iceland comes on? Never! That will always be funny.
Anyway, they should have played that, instead. This song sounds like a generic power pop song you’d play over the credits of a Girl Boss movie from the ’80s
Time for another preview of a pre-qualified country:
Germany: “Always on the Run,” Isaak
I like this guy’s voice, and song reminds me a bit of Adele. Pretty good! Catchy!
Slovenia: “Veronika,” Raiven
Look, I’m certainly not mad about the pretty blonde lady and her backup dancers being practically naked in their sheer body suits. The song is decent, too
Finland: “No Rules!,” Window95Man
Ok, best band name so far. And, again, the pantsless man bursting out of a giant egg and using various props to hide his wiener is classic ESC staging. Every year has a “wacky” entry and this is the one. Clearly bringing the “Give That Wolf A Banana” vibes. (IYKYK. Look it up on YouTube)
Moldova: “In The Middle,” Natalia Barbu
This power pop ballad is pretty and pretty generic. It’s ok, but I’d be surprised if it makes the cut.
And now, a preview of the host country…
Sweden: “Unforgettable,” Marcus & Martinus
Oh, this is a banger. High energy, driving beat. These guys are giving me Pet Shop Boys vibes.
Azerbaijan: “Ozunlo Apar,” Fahree feat. Ilkin Dovlatov
This song is nicely melodic, and I kind of like the yodeling. Also a big blue head is floating around on the video screen.
Australia: “One Milkali (One Blood)” Electric Fields
How is Australia a part of Eurovision, you ask? Good question! Apparently they just really wanted it. Glad they’re here, because this is a bop, complete with a digeridoo break.
Portugal: “Grito,” Iolanda
This is a soulful ballad, which has been kind of lacking tonight. Her voice is lovely, and her dancers clad in white suits and face masks remind me of Moon Knight. I dig it!
Luxembourg: “Fighter,” Tali
Ok, I have a type and it’s women with French accents. So I’m already in the tank for this lass from Luxembourg. The song is a bop, although the purple CGI leopards are certainly a choice.
Favorites: I’m only counting those that were in competition, otherwise I think I’d have Sweden in second.
  1. Ireland (by a mile)
  2. Portugal
  3. Lithuania
  4. Croatia
  5. Ukraine

Least favorite: It was a pretty strong semi, with no real clunkers. Having said that, Poland and Iceland failed to impress me.

Results: It looks like the rest of the world agrees with me. All of my favorites advanced, a long with Cyprus, Serbia, Luxembourg, Finland, and Slovenia. This was a pretty strong group!

Congratulations to the winners! I’ll see you back here on Thursday! Till then…

Star Trek: Discovery episode “Whistlespeak” is Some Classic Prime Directive Nonsense

Image: Paramount+

Welcome back to the galactic scavenger hunt that is Star Trek: Discovery, season 5! Last week, the clue they found was a vial of water. But! Multiple scans revealed it to be… a vial of water. Consulting with David Cronenberg (and I still cannot get used to seeing my all-time favorite body horror director popping up in this show), they figure out the names of the scientists. Michael thinks the water might symbolize something, and cross referencing with the scientists’ home worlds, they find a desert world near one of them. The world is only habitable in one area, thanks to a cleverly camouflaged weather tower that makes it rain.

But there are of course complications. The weather tower is breaking down after 800 years, so they need to repair it lest it fail and the population dies. Oh, and this also a pre-warp society, meaning they have to sneak around while observing the Prime Directive of non-interference. So it’s time to put on some costumes and try not to tell them all the people that their gods are a lie.

Image: Paramount+

Victor: So I thought this was a classic throwback to the days when Kirk and Picard were always wrestling with the Prime Directive. This usually meant putting on cloaks and Ren Faire garb so they could go look for dilithium or something. So it was promising when the latest clue leads them to the dust world only kept safe by the weather towers our alien scientist secretly installed.

“Mirrors” Reflects Some Backstory Onto Discovery’s Antagonists

Image: Paramount+

Welcome back, my Disco Fans! (Disco Ducks? Is that something?) It’s time to once again get back to the chase for the Progenitor’s God Engine.

Last week, a Time Bug disabled Discovery long enough for our villains, Moll and L’ak, to get ahead of them and seemingly disappear into space. After Stamets scans the area for all forms of radiation, he discovers a wormhole that seems to be the hiding place of the next clue. Captain Burnham and Book dive on through in an effort to keep Moll and L’ak away from the next clue.

We’ll be discussing the entire episode so if you wish to stay spoiler-free, don’t read this until you’ve watched.

Image: Paramount+