Article Published in Special Issue of Mythlore

MythloreI come bearing exciting news! My article titled “A Sense of Darker Perspective: How the Marauders Convey Tolkien’s ‘Impression of Depth’ in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” has been published in the fall/winter 2019 issue of Mythlore. Mythlore is the scholarly journal of the Mythopoeic Society, one of if not the premier society for the study of Tolkien and Lewis, their fellow Inklings, and the study of fantastic literature. The current issue is entirely devoted to mythopoeic children’s literature and includes contributions from my close friends Emily Strand and Kris Swank. My own essay was inspired by questions posed by host Katy McDaniel while I was a guest on her Reading, Writing, Rowling podcast last winter and addresses what I propose is the main “importance” of the Marauders characters to Rowling’s Harry Potter series. The coolest part? The entire issue is available online. You can read and download my essay here or peruse the entire issue here.

This marks a few milestones for me. First, publication in Mythlore is (I can now admit to myself with hindsight) something of a bucket list item. Secondly, though I have quoted Tolkien in pretty much everything I’ve ever written, I believe this marks the first time I’ve discussed him and his literary theories as one of the primary texts in my published worked (my as-yet-unpublished MA & BA theses notwithstanding). The anxiety of influence is real, but putting Tolkien’s theories in conversation with other authors seems a neat way of working up to the “real thing.” Needless to say, I’m excited.

Posted in Literature | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Thoughts on Thrones 8×6: “The Iron Throne”

azorahai

“‘Nissa Nissa,’ he said to her, for that was her name, ‘bare your breast, and know that I love you best of all that is in this world.'”

Well, that’s it. Our watch had ended. We will probably get some spinoffs and prequels, and I hope we get the final books in the novel series, but the TV series Game of Thrones is over. This was a difficult and emotional final couple of seasons, though for the fan/critical discourse as much as the narrative itself. Putting it alongside series finale episodes from shows such as LOST and Battlestar Galactica which were similarly divisive, ambitious, unwieldy, beautiful, and flawed “The Iron Throne” becomes yet another example of how difficult it is to complete these large, sprawling, epic, serialized TV shows. This does not mean we let the showrunners off the hook for all their mistakes; neither does it mean we write them off as incompetents. That’s demonstrably not true, and anyway, it seems a naive thing to conclude that good writers never write anything bad. What is, “bad”, anyway? What do we mean by it, and how can we ever agree on it? I digress. This is one episode of one story. We’re not going to solve all the philosophical questions of narrative satisfaction now, if ever. The point is, while I’m told there are some perfect finales out there, I think most of us would agree they are the exception that proves the rule. TV by its nature is primarily about the journey. Do I wish the finale was perfectly satisfying (or at least, what I consider perfectly satisfying)? Sure. But that doesn’t mean that not getting exactly what I wanted invalidates what came before, or those elements that I did love.

A brief word about crit-fic: “Crit-fic” is Corey Olsen’s term for an idea articulated by C.S. Lewis that I’ve found very useful. If fanfiction is fiction written by fans, then crit-fic is the fiction written by critics. It is the assumption (usually born out of critical laziness or some high emotion such as anger) that we know what the author of a given text is thinking. So rather than use our critical skills to identify problems of pacing within a text, we will jump to the conclusion that the author was “rushed” (i.e. he didn’t spend enough time thinking about the pacing, or didn’t care enough to give it the attention required). Now,  that may be true but we don’t know. It’s a useful thing to remember when trying to articulate whether or not something works, or in trying to explain what it’s doing. Let’s look at the text and try not to assign motives to the creators.

I’ve seen a lot of crit-fic out there this season, even in the service of points that I more or less agree with, and I’m afraid that it becomes even more difficult to avoid crit-fic when discussing a finale. Endings are so often about the “message”, trying to find out what the “point” of it was, wondering what the authors are “saying” about this or that character, etc. the language we use around endings is inherently crit-ficcy, so I will likely slip into it occasionally. I wanted to acknowledge upfront that I don’t actually know what the writers were thinking, and I certainly don’t think any less of them for telling the story they wanted to tell. As Ronald D. Moore recently said in an interview, art isn’t a democracy and they are entitled to tell the story they want to tell.

dany-dragon-wings

“You’re a dragon. Be a dragon.” – Olenna Tyrell

On a macro level, one thing that struck me about “The Iron Throne” was the unexpected inversion of what I’ll call the mythic vs. the political elements. By and large, fans have been critical of the show’s ability to pull of the mythical or fantastic parts of the narrative, at least when not closely following the text of George R.R. Martin’s novels. This was less apparent during the earlier more adaptation-heavy seasons, but has asserted itself more recently with the confusing presentation of Bran’s powers, the downplaying of the direwolves and dragons, the use of prophecy and religion, etc. Conversely, when the show dispatched the Night King surprisingly early, a lot of people (myself included) said, “That’s fine! They can get back into the politics now, the backroom dealings and plots and gritty character stuff, which was always the show’s strong suit.”

Except, in this final episode at least, that doesn’t seem to be at all what happened. All of the sequences that worked best for me were those that embraced the mythic, and leaned into the visual and thematic poetry:

  • Tyrion weeping over the broken remains of the family he both hated and loved, that he worked to advance yet also ultimately destroyed
  • The over-the-top yet beautiful image of Dany as the dragon
  • Drogon the dragon hidden under Snow: A metaphor for Jon/Aegon?
  • The fulfillment of Dany’s vision in the House of the Undying
  • Jon’s reenactment of the Azor Ahai legend, stabbing his lover in the heart to save the world from evil
  • The melting of the Iron Throne and the departure of Drogon back east with Dany’s body
  • The stunning ending montage of the Starks with its focus on tight close-ups of hands, details, and iconography (Long Claw, Needle, the direwolf sigil on the crown and sail, etc.)
  • The individual fates of the Starks (Bran conspicuously not included)

These are the moments that sung and I’ll get into some of them in more detail below. Bizarrely and unpredictably, I was largely unconvinced by the material, human politics. The Throne was melted but it wasn’t. Bran is king but he isn’t. Tyrion invented democracy in ten minutes except not. The North gets independence but not Dorne or the Iron Islands who had previously (successfully) asserted their right to independence. Bran doesn’t want anything but he kind of does. The wheel has been broken but seems to keep on spinning past the finale.

I would be fine with an ambiguous, or even a dark ending. But at the risk of crit-fic, that doesn’t seem to be what they’re going for. The “tone” of things, if I can use that fuzzy term, seems to support a bittersweet ending in which the characters we love have emerged from the rubble of their terrible mistakes and losses with the resolve to build a better system. It’s just hard to see how this new boss will be better than the old boss. It’s telling that the readings which seem to work best with the facts as presented are those that embrace a disturbing amount of darkness or nefarious intentions on the part of the characters. Some have even ventured that such a dark ending is Martin’s intent, and that Benioff & Weiss “missed the point” presenting merely the outline of his intended outline with none of the more sinister or complex implications. I like some of these readings and could definitely see them working:

  • That Tyrion, as he confessed to Shae early on, loves being near power and talked his way back into his role as advisor to a weak and easily-manipulated king (see Tyrion’s fiddling with the arrangement of the Small Council chairs for evidence of this)
  • That Drogon, who was spotted heading east, is taking Dany to a Red Priestess in order to resurrect her
  • That the pathetic remains of the Great Houses of Westeros have voted themselves back into power without the consent of the people
  • That Bran (or possibly the previous Three-Eyed Raven, who was originally an illegitimate Targaryen) intentionally manipulated everyone and everything to get the Iron Throne for himself and rule eternally as a God-King-Tyrant

None of those theories are inconsistent with the world as we know it. I’m not opposed to leaving these threads dangling. As with the ending of Battlestar Galactica, the ending of Thrones asks, “All this has happened before, but does it have to happen again?” And yet I can’t shake the feeling that these readings are in tension with the actual presentation. Why confuse things by melting the Iron Throne and claiming to break the wheel? I’m not at all convinced that Benioff and Weiss intended any of this dark ambiguity, in so much as that matters. They seem to genuinely believe that there must always be a king in Westeros (but why if there’s no throne?) and that Bran’s role as the keeper of all stories qualifies him to rule. Perhaps it’s fitting that the episode is called “The Iron Throne”: Its influence lingers on past its destruction. Is the “dream of spring” the promise of new life and hope, or merely a dream?

branthebroken

I don’t mind the moniker “Bran the Broken,” but do they have to call him that to his face?

I regret my lament a few episodes ago that Bran’s story was apparently over. While I was correct that they would not be fleshing out any of his powers to a more detailed and satisfying extent than they were already, I would rather they had dropped him entirely than use him in this way. If this is indeed Martin’s intended ending (which is a sizeable “if”) then I look forward to reading what I’m sure will be his very detailed and well-considered reasoning behind why it makes sense. It makes no sense on the show. I think that what we have is a character who the writers had no idea what to do with, and the actor had no idea how the play. I can see how changing Bran’s fate would have seemed disrespectful to Martin’s authorial vision, but here is a case where I wish they had deviated. I find it hard to believe that Benioff & Weiss don’t realize that the show has a Bran Problem. I wish they had acknowledged this and said, “This isn’t the right move for the particular story we are telling.” The show is not the books. They are not obliged to always follow Martin, and in the past they have often felt justified in deviating. Whatever Martin means by it, the end result on the show is an all-seeing, all-knowing, basically immortal god with dubious intentions and possible (?) knowledge of the future who is now rightful monarch of the continent. And this is supposed to be an improvement. Good? Yeesh.

Futile though it may prove in the long run, I am at least grateful that we got the definitive melting down of the Iron Throne along with the tacit acknowledgement by the super-smart and sensitive Drogon that it was the root of much evil in Westeros. It was a fascinating choice to play post-Bells Dany as cold and detached when Jon asks if she’s been down below to see the carnage you just know that she can’t. To come and see the result of her conquest would be to humanize what she’s done and acknowledge it. She’s above that now, the literal dragon come again. There’s something inevitable and yet sneaky about Jon’s slow progress across the ash-covered throne room. You know what he’s about to do, and you have to wonder if a part of Dany knows, too. When he actually stabs her, the camera keeps so close that it’s not clear at first who is holding the knife. And then in a few seconds she’s dead, peacefully and quietly. The expected clash of Targaryens never comes. We’re left in as dubious a place as Jon. Was his deed merciful or cowardly? Unlike Jaime he stabbed his monarch in the front rather than the back, but does that really make him more honorable than the Kingslayer? Do we admire him more? Though it may be undercut by what comes after, it is an effective and surprisingly unsettling scene.

And then we cut to black and things get a little dicey. How much time has passed? Why haven’t the Unsullied killed Jon or Tyrion? Why doesn’t anyone assert Jon’s place as the rightful king? None of this is clear or handled particularly smoothly. I’m with the folks at Talk the Thrones that while Jon’s return north is good and fitting, it would have been nice for it to be his choice. I would have liked to have seen him definitively abdicate his claim and choose to return to true home in what Tormund called the “real north.” It’s clear from the ending that this is what he wants anyway, so why not let him embrace it? Why treat it as a punishment? Anyway, I was gratified to see him give Ghost some love and that cheeky little look backward when the gate closed seemed to imply that Jon would not be coming back south of the wall. Just as well Stark men don’t do well in the south.

aryasailswest

“To the sea, to the sea!”

While Jon heads north, Arya sets out into the west, which is so beautiful I could cry. There is a long and wonderful tradition of westward journeys in fantasy. Think Reepicheep in Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Frodo at the end of The Lord of the Rings, Scyld Schaefing, King Arthur, etc.. You’ll notice that all these westward journeys signify a kind of metaphorical death. Tolkien’s notes for his unfinished poem The Fall of Arthur end with the line “Goes in ship West and is never heard of again.” In the Irish tradition, westward sea voyages mingled the pagan and Christian, from Bran’s trip into the Celtic Otherworld to St. Brendan’s more spiritual and allegorical journey. Naturally, one of Arya’s ancestors is the appropriately-named Brandon Stark who sailed west and was never heard from again. What more fitting ending for Arya, who has always been a restless spirit but also the most closely associated with death, and specifically the conquering of death? I would love to see Arya’s island-hopping immrama adventures, but if all we ever hear is that she went in a ship to the west and was never heard from again, I am completely at peace with that. That gives our imaginations plenty to work with.

queensansa

Queen in the North!

Speaking of perfect endings, Sansa is the one monarch in Westeros who I stan for. Ever since she finally escaped King’s Landing and built a little model of Winterfell in the snows of the Vale, it has felt as though Sansa’s true and right destiny was as the Lady of Winterfell. Starting as a vain and naive girl who couldn’t wait to leave her home and travel south to the decadent metropolis of the capitol, it is amazing how no one in the back-half of the series has embodied the true spirit of Winterfell as well as Sansa. She survived Ramsay and Joffrey, learned political subtly at the feet of Littlefinger and Cersei, and all the while reclaimed her Stark and Tully values of honor and loyalty. Has she made mistakes? Of course. But it’s possible that no other character deserves her ending more than Sansa. Often associated with beautiful, embroidered costumes, her coronation dress with its direwolf and weirwood tree details was incredibly moving. This article at Vox explicates her parallels to Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen, and what that signifies for her story:

“When it’s time for [Elizabeth’s] coronation, she wears her hair down, which is a big, big deal,” Oliveira said. “It signals her virginity: to be unadorned for her, is the ultimate adornment. It says, ‘Screw all of you, I’m in no way sexually complicit or guilty.’ Sansa’s silhouette is identical: the long, flowing hair and the tight hourglass.”

While I’m baffled that Yara Greyjoy and the Prince of Dorne didn’t follow suit (“Wait, can we change our answers?!”), I’m so proud of Sansa for sticking to her guns and demanding independence for her people. And the last words of the series are the northmen declaring her “Queen in the north!” What’s not to love?

As I said above, that last Stark montage is gorgeous. I’ve always felt most connected to them as a family, so ending with them happy and fulfilled, though separated and unlikely to meet again, feels wonderfully fitting and bittersweet. They started as the first house to be ripped apart but the pack survived. It is very telling that Bran is not included in this final montage. Is that because he is not technically Bran Stark anymore? Or does his ending not strike the same tone of full-circle fulfillment and happy destiny? Regardless, I’m thankful that we ended with the Starks and not the messy politics of King’s Landing.

hbz-brienne-writing-index-1558323172

The memes of Brienne shit-talking Jaime in The Book of Brothers are hilarious.

As for the supporting characters, nothing felt particularly surprising everyone got a nice, cushy Small Council seat to enjoy. Daavos as Master of Ships and Sam as Grand Maester are fine, I suppose, but did I need to see it? Don’t they both have wives and families to get back to? Brienne as Commander of the Kingsguard is absolutely essential, although I would have preferred her with Sansa over Bran. (I also thought her understated performance while writing in Jaime’s great deeds was lovely, though it would have been nice to see her add a new page for herself.) Bronn as Master of Coin? Eh, that’s a harder sell, and I’m not at all sure why he’s not off kicking his feet up in Highgarden, patting himself on the back for the most successfully-played game of upward mobility in the entire show. Finally, Tobias Menzies popped back up to give us one of the funniest moments of the series in Edmure Tully’s spontaneous and ill-advised campaign speech.

LOST and BSG, shows that I love unreservedly, also had flawed endings. None of these finales are anywhere near my list of favorite episodes. And that’s OK! I will return to all of them again and again in years to come, and I look forward to continuing to think about and re-evaluate them. As Tyrion said, “There’s nothing in the world more powerful than a good story.” Though I very much doubt this truism qualifies Bran to be the Protector of the Realm, King of the Andals and the First Men, that doesn’t diminish the truth of Tyrion’s sentiment. Game of Thrones was a damn good story.

 

 

Posted in Reviews, TV | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Thoughts on Thrones: 8×5 “The Bells”

GoT.Bells_.feat_Oh, Game of Thrones. What are we to do with you? I can see the fandom and viewership at large struggling with the stages of grief in this last season, and this episode in particular, although instead of passing from one stage to the other it seems as though people have planted their feet in a particular stage and decided to stay there. You have tens of thousands of bargainers signing a futile petition to remake the final season; those in denial are dismissing Benioff and Weiss as talentless hacks who hate women, despite the fact that they are also responsible for the things we like about the show; The Ringer’s Jason Concepcion projected a kind of weary and resigned acceptance in this week’s Talk the Thrones; and there is more than enough anger and depression to go around.

I get all of those reactions and don’t want to invalidate any of them. We are entitled to our honest responses, if nothing else. We’re certainly not entitled to force creators to remake their stories at our whim: As many others have said, that’s what fanfic is for and if George R.R. Martin is not our bitch then neither are Benioff and Weiss. Nevertheless, I can sympathize to a certain extent with all of the reactions above, even the one that wishes we could have a do-over so that the thing we love is as good as we hoped it would be. But therein lies a problem: This story is ending, which is inherently about closing off possibilities and choosing between ideas for what this story is and how it should end. Even if we got a remake, not all of us would be satisfied. When people talk about creators delivering on the “promise” of a story, I get the uncomfortable feeling that they’re talking in contractual terms.

Maybe my feeling of zen is due to the fact that I worked through a lot of my issues with Dany’s story last week. The things that bothered me most about how we got here were, I felt, more glaring in episode 4. Which isn’t to say that episode 5 was an easy watch: I think I experience the five stages of grief within the episode itself, and subsequently on rewatch and each time I’ve opened twitter since Sunday. If I had written this review two days ago my guess is that it would have been entirely different, and yet again two days from now. Is this final season flawed, perhaps fatally so? Sure, I don’t disagree with that. What does work is working in spite of some glaring missteps, in particular the (now baffling) decision to cut the final two seasons short. If I could have a do-over, that’s what I would want: Time for the end of this story to breathe and develop its ideas. Because I don’t think its ideas are inherently terrible. I can almost taste the extremely nuanced version of this story. I sincerely hope we get one. What I’m saying is, “Write, George. Write like the wind.” (Who knew these old chestnuts would become so relevant again? Ah, the halcyon days when we thought Martin’s failure to publish might actually delay the show.)

Enough of the hand-wringing. Look, all of this is a preamble to my confession to finding myself in a vocal minority that thinks “The Bells” is better than the current internet discourse and “hot takes” would have it. Thematically, I feel that what happened is perfectly consistent with the world and the “message” of Martin’s narrative. There is no way to simultaneously break the wheel and sit on the Throne: Those are contradictions. Ridding the world of tyrants through the assertion of one ruler’s absolute authority is hypocrisy. For that reason, I have never felt fully on board with the Messianic Dany train. Her talk of taking what is hers “with fire and blood,” burning cities to the ground, and the widespread belief in her divine right and impregnable morality has never sat comfortably with me. Though I still find the racial dynamics muddled, “The Bells” even gestures at an answer to my previous quibbles with Dany as a “white savior.” Yes, the episode implies. She is in the white savior tradition, and that’s part of the problem. One of the best defenses of “The Bells” that I’ve seen is this thread by Darren Mooney which examines Dany’s arc from the perspective of imperialism. Mooney repurposes the Hound’s quote upon seeing the true face of the Mountain:

“Yeah, that’s you—that’s what you’ve always been,” Sandor remarks as Gregor removes his helmet and reveals a monster.

“The Bell” does that to Daenerys. She is not a liberator, but an occupier. She is not a rightful ruler, but an invader.

She does what empires have always done.

And later:

I’ve been caught out a few times by “Game of Thrones.” Once or twice, I’ve wanted a character to “win.”

But that’s the trick. The point is to realise that the game has no winner, and that the board as it stands needs to be flipped.

Dany’s taking of the Throne isn’t a victory, it’s a tragedy. Same as it is for every character who has managed to get there. Same as it would be for Jon. The wheel crushes those on the top as well as those on the bottom. It’s the One Ring: None of us can wield it, not even Dany. Throw it into the fire and be done with it.

“The Bells” is, more than anything else, a final grand statement of this theme of violence and power. Before we move on to what I imagine is a more character-specific final episode, I think it was fitting to use the penultimate episode to do a big, spectacular demonstration of what the Game itself has always been: A monster more deformed than the reanimated Mountain, who has always been the show’s purest and most uncomplicated embodiment of violence. I think it’s important that the Hound cannot kill the Mountain in traditional battle. His is more an idea than a person, something as cyclical and inhuman as the White Walkers. He’s the spirit of violence in the world. His destruction requires self-sacrifice and, as Sansa said, looking the truth in the face. The Hound has to face his biggest fear and go into the fire with his brother in order to destroy him. As for Dany, I’m wondering now if she’s Frodo, who got all the way up to the ledge before succumbing to the inevitable. (And let us note that some readers felt betrayed by Tolkien’s choice there, too: One fan wrote to him that Frodo should have been hanged as a traitor.) Or perhaps Dany is Gollum: An addict who, in the course of her tragic downward spiral, takes the object of her obsession with her into the flames, inadvertently saving the world by losing it.

The Lord of the Rings parallels are far from exact, of course, and here we get into what’s making people uncomfortable. It’s not just that Dany reenacts the Baratheon/Lannister sack of King’s Landing or the original Targaryen invasion or any other number of brutal conquests before her. It’s the contradiction with Dany’s apparent “gentle heart” and her repeated concern for the downtrodden. Here’s where the seams in characterization start to show. Think of Theon’s wonderful tragicomic arc which develops over the course of season 2: No matter how reprehensible his actions and how stupid his decisions, I always understood what Theon wanted and why he was choosing to do what he did. Conversely, Dany’s motivations are muddled: Is she truly mad or was this atrocity a conscious choice? Was she specifically targeting innocent civilians, or merely burning indiscriminately? Although I understand her rage upon hearing the titular bells which represent the fear of the people she’s come to save rather than the longed-for adoration is this really enough to justify the subsequent massacre? I can talk myself into decent answers for each of these questions, but I’m lacking the clarity I’ve come to expect from characterization on this show. The issue of “madness” is the key factor here. With a dearth of time to develop Dany’s isolation and paranoia (much more prominent characteristics in the books), the show relied on visual clichés like her messy hair and baggy eyes. If we could have had a ten-episode final season, I would almost be tempted to put all three extra episodes between the previous episode and this one. Emilia Clarke has upped her game this season and is doing everything she can to sell Dany’s downfall, but time is against her. I suspect that your reaction to this episode depends very strongly on which objection to Dany’s reign you are more focused on: Her family’s history of “madness” or potential for despotism. The latter has been far more well-developed, justified, and foreshadowed than the former, but that doesn’t mean that I entirely dislike the point they’re making.

dany-house-of-the-undyingFor example, I love what I expect we’ll see next episode: The ironic fulfillment of Dany’s vision in the House of the Undying. Queen of the ashes, indeed. And yes, I know it’s a retcon. I don’t care. I love a good retcon. To quote Jacob Clifton, “There is no foreshadowing in TV, only retcon.” No one has everything planned out ahead of time: The best writers know how to make their story retroactively fit within the context of the text, rather than swearing fidelity to their own prior intentions. Tolkien was fantastic at it we would never have got The Lord of the Rings without his ability to recontextualize what he’d already written. Did J.K. Rowling always intend Riddle’s diary in The Chamber of Secrets to be a Horcrux? If so, brilliant. However, if she didn’t make it a Horcrux until she got to The Half-Blood Prince … also brilliant! I see no difference in terms of artistry. Within the context of a story where dreams and prophecies are repeatedly misinterpreted to tragic effect, the flip from snow to ash makes beautiful, heartbreaking sense. As Tyrion said, “She walked into a fire with three eggs and came out with three dragons. How could she not believe in destiny?” She still has the audience’s sympathies. This is what I hope for Dany in the final episode: That her arc is played as tragic rather than wicked.

arya-stark-the-bellsAs for the battle itself, it is satisfying in a sick kind of way to see the kind of conquest we’ve previously only heard or read about. “The Spoils of War” gave us a powerful preview of Drogon’s unstoppable force. Since then, the dragons have been somewhat neutered and diverted north. Here, we see the fruition of what Jaime said to Cersei after the initial “loot train” battle: Nothing can stop Dany’s dragons, and Cersei cannot win this war. Within the first minutes of the battle, Dany takes out the Iron Fleet, the dozen or more scorpions, and the entire Golden Company. Which was honestly pretty hilarious. This is exactly how the Targaryens took and held power for three hundred years. Cersei and her allies have swords and shields and big crossbows. Dany has a nuclear bomb. This was never going to be a close fight. Visually, I thought it was stunning and Miguel Sapochnik shot the hell out of it. His previous experiments with long tracking shots in “The Spoils of War” and “Battle of the Bastards” culminate in Arya’s harrowing trek through the city, dodging soldiers and rubble and dragonfire and reclaiming her season 1 role as point of view from the ground. Comparisons have been made to the 1985 Soviet film Come and See which depicts a village’s slaughter by German soldiers in WWII:

Maisie Williams is on fire this season and Arya continues to defend her title as season 8’s MVP. A pale rider on a pale mare, I’m more excited to see Arya’s role in the finale than anyone else. Has she fully reclaimed her humanity and Stark heritage, renouncing the Faceless God, or will she take up her infamous list and become one of his  assassins once again? Like Harry Potter‘s third brother, Arya has always had an ambiguous relationship to death: Both its servant and its conqueror, one who says “not today” but who also greets it like an old friend. I am so pleased to see the writers use her to this extent in the final run of episodes.

claganebowl.0What else happened in this episode? Cleganebowl was ridiculously over the top, which was totally appropriate. Cersei tip-toeing past the brothers? Genius. That image of the Mountain and the Hound on the apocalyptic staircase to nowhere, with dragon overhead? Utterly hilarious. If you’re going to indulge one of the most beloved fan theories ever, you might as well do it in as excessive a manner as possible.

Euron Greyjoy got a surprisingly strong ending in with his ecstatic, “I’m the man who killed Jaime Lannister.” I’m not sure whether to find it frustrating or humorously on-brand that he didn’t kill Jaime Lannister. Similarly, I was surprised, and frankly underwhelmed, by the quietness of Cersei’s end, let alone how little she had to do in this final season all together. Perhaps there is a point to the pathetic quality of her last stand. Cersei always got ahead by provoking her enemies, then outdoing them in brutality. Here she finally provoked an enemy far more powerful and capable of going much farther than she. While I was hoping for a more dramatic show-down (not, to be clear, something more gruesome, just something that really let Lena Heady shine), I can make my peace with Cersei ending in the crumbling ruins of the kingdom she helped destroy. Like Joanna Robinson of Vanity Fair, I read Jaime’s cradling Cersei’s head in his hands moments before being they are suffocated as a nice little subversive nod to the Valonqar prophecy (and perhaps it’s wise not to make too many fan-theories come true in one episode). And the womb-like cavern underneath the Red Keep is an appropriate tomb for these twins who came into and left the world together.

As for Jaime, his return to Cersei is admittedly one of the more disappointing character resolutions of the series, though am I disappointed in the character or the writing? I’m still not sure. Jaime’s arc, much like Theon’s, was always two steps forward, one step back. Speaking of Theon, I can’t help but think of his quote to Maester Luwin who said, “You’re not the man you’re pretending to be.” “Maybe not,” Theon replies. “But I’ve gone too far to pretend to be anything else.” Like Theon, we have a host of characters here Dany, Jaime, Arya, the Hound who are better than the choices they are making. The Hound and Jaime knowing that the object of their pursuit would destroy them, and they warned away their loved ones Arya and Tyrion from becoming like them. Arya and Dany are still alive and have the ability to choose life. But have they gone too far to choose anything other than death?

I’m not sure how coherent any of that was or if I’ll feel the same tomorrow. Regardless of how my feelings on the specifics may waffle, however, I liked this episode more than I disliked it. My problems are more with how we got here than with the result, and I hope that holds true for next week. I hope no one who feels betrayed by this episode thinks less of me for this opinion and that we can all have a good dialogue about character development, narrative fulfillment, and that sick, sad feeling of one of your favorite stories ending. If you want to discuss it, leave a comment below!

 

 

 

Posted in Reviews, TV | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Thoughts on Thrones: 8×4 “The Last of the Starks”

When we said last week that not enough characters died, perhaps we should have been a bit more specific.

missandeiI do have some issues with this episode (as well as things I liked) so let’s start with the biggie which comes right at the end: the fridging of Missandei. This is thorny in a couple of different ways. First, the long history of Women in Refrigerators, for which Missandei unfortunately qualifies. I don’t want to imply that any death of a female character is automatically fridging. “Good” deaths, even tragic and sad ones, are possible when they relate to the actions and arc of the character. I’m struggling to see how Missandei’s beheading at the orders of Cersei says anything about Missandei, however. It does say a lot about Dany and Grey Worm, how much they love her, and how mad they will be when she is brutally taken away. That’s fridging.

Unfortunately, the only thing that feels specific to Missandei her reversion to bondage coupled with Cersei’s sarcastic “breaker of chains” introduces an even more difficult aspect of the development. Missandei, after all, is the show’s only female character of color, and a former slave at that. Game of Thrones has long had a troubled depiction of race. Why I asked in one Kat and Curt’s TV Re-View episode are all of the slaves in Essos dark-skinned? Well, you might say, perhaps the show is attempting to be consistent with the east’s warmer climate, or intentionally parallel our own history of race-based slavery. But neither of these seem to be the case. In the case of the former, we have multiple characters Varys, Melisandre, Talisa, Daario, etc. who come from the east but who are white. Several of these characters are former slaves, granted, but none of them are in that state when the audience meets them. They are all former slaves who have found a way to transcend their origins and climb the social ladder. We would not know they were ever slaves if they did not tell us so. Is this because of their light skin? Perhaps, but those implications are never explored and it results in the unfortunate truth that we only ever see black and brown people in a state of bondage on the show. As to the claim of historical parallelism, this is undercut by the fact that the slave traders are also dark-skinned, which neuters the critique of white power, somewhat. Whatever the writers were going for, there doesn’t seem to be a consistent logic behind their casting choices. If they are trying to say something, I’m at a loss as to what. What we’re left with is a regrettable and frankly unnecessary game-of-thrones-dany-controversial-image“white savior” narrative for Dany, and the reality that our two main actors of color on the show are freed slaves in Dany’s service. To put Missandei back in chains before chopping her head off to motivate Dany’s burning down of a city full of people is…tough. And frankly, Benioff and Weiss should know better by now.

 

Similarly, it’s a little difficult to understand why they felt it necessary to have Sansa defend their oft-critiqued choice to put her in the “Jeyne Poole” role of marriage to Ramsay Bolton and her subsequent rape and abuse. It would have been so easy to, you know, not do that. While I did appreciate the reunion of Sansa and the Hound and Sansa’s ironic reference to feeding Ramsay to his own hounds, I’m not at all sure I bought Sansa’s statement that Ramsay helped make her who she is. What always felt wrong about the Ramsay situation wasn’t the depiction of rape, but that it felt like such a step backward for Sansa’s character. The ending of season 4 with her descending the Eyrie’s staircase in that stunning black feather-dress and assuming her mantle as Littlefinger’s protégée, a foreshadowing of the character she has fully become post-Ramsay was such a leveling-up for her character. To immediately send her into Ramsay’s clutches felt like a bizarre left turn (naturally so, given that it veers off from the books’ narrative and Martin’s character development up to that point). I’m not qualified to judge whether Sansa’s statement is believable or empowering, per se. I have seen many visceral reactions to the contrary but also a few survivors of assault who have defended her words, saying that they deal with their own trauma in similar ways. That’s as it may be, and there is no one correct response. From a character perspective, however, it didn’t ring true for me. When the Hound told Sansa that she should have run away with him, I was expecting her to reply, “You’re right.”

What else bugged me? How about the frankly rude dismissal of Ghost. While I do hope that Ghost’s return to his home of the True North foreshadows something than that awful Iron Throne for Jon, this unfortunately feels of a piece with the other recent instances of downplaying the mythic and fantastic in Thrones. I’ll throw Bran into this as well. I’m increasingly afraid that Bran’s story is over, which is difficult to accept. Without the benefit of Martin’s books, Benioff and Weiss don’t seem to have an idea of what to do with these characters and elements. If and when Martin ever finishes his series, his full development of the fantasy elements in the last few books is by far the thing I am most  excited to read.

And finally, the goofiness surrounding medieval tactical warfare and the collapse of space-time continues apace. In a twitter conversation, I said that I never minded Ramsay’s ability to sneak up on folks by himself or with a few men (it always felt consistent with his innate cowardice) but that Euron’s ability to ambush other armies with the entire Iron Fleet not once but twice stretches belief. Others have gone into these problems in greater detail, but the questions abound, such as: How can Euron see the dragons well enough to shoot them down but not be seen by anyone else? Why wasn’t Dany expecting an attack as soon as she arrived? Why hasn’t Cersei taken Dragonstone back? How did Euron get close enough to capture Missandei but not take out the rest of the survivors? I’m am trying really hard to resist “crit-ficcing” the showrunners here. As C.S. Lewis says, pronouncing that something feels “rushed” isn’t genuine criticism. For all we know, Benioff & Weiss labored over this section of the script longer than anything else. Nevertheless, I am trying to discern wherein this quality of “rushedness” lies. Perhaps we will have a better understanding after the last few episodes, and a strong ending can cover a multitude of plot sins. However, I am feeling as though seasons 7 and 8 would have done better with 10 episodes apiece.

OK, let’s talk about what worked. Because there are things that worked. I’m frankly exhausted of twitter’s schizophrenic swings week to week. In the space of three episodes, we’ve gone from “best episode of the best show ever” (8×2) to “marmite” polarization (8×3) to “the writers are talentless hacks who have never written a good thing in their lives and shouldn’t be allowed to write women” (8×4). If we want to criticize the writers for their lack of subtlety, then we should do them the courtesy of bringing subtlety to our analysis.

danymadqueenOne audience reaction that is surprising me is the adversity to the Dany as Mad Queen plot. One can say that they don’t like this development (I can’t argue with that). One can say that it is not being well-written (that’s up for debate). But the level of seeming shock, as though it has come from nowhere, is pretty astonishing. Did everyone not understand that this is where we might be going? Dany has been burning her enemies since season 1. The burnings have grown increasingly ambiguous over time, and it’s only a matter of time before burning her enemies turns into a willingness to burn innocents to get to her enemies. “Fire and blood” is a statement of vengeance, and the birth of Dany’s dragons (while empowering and mythic) is directly tied to her punishment of Mirri Maz Duur. I don’t believe that Dany is her father, who burned people for pleasure. But she is potentially another self-aggrandizing ruler who has bought into her own propaganda and is willing to perpetuate the cycle of violence in order to get what is “hers”. Emilia Clarke did a good job this week of portraying Dany’s increased isolation, paranoia, and desperation. Does that mean she should be replaced with the peaceful and reluctant Jon Snow? No, not necessarily. It means that, to paraphrase Chris Ryan on this week’s episode of The Watch, if Dany is serious about breaking the wheel then there shouldn’t be a throne. I hold out hope that Dany will realize this and participate in the melting down of that stupid chair rather than being another delusional ruler to be crushed by it. What does feel very old-school Thronesian is the pitting of tyrant against tyrant, and beloved character versus beloved character. Conflicts in which, as Mo Ryan said of Battlestar Galactica, “everyone is right and everyone is wrong.” Think of “Blackwater” and “The Spoils of War” these were always the most exciting and unpredictable battles. It feels dangerous and risky and it’s probably a good thing that Benioff and Weiss are willing to piss off a significant portion of their audience.

tyrionFor better or worse, Dany’s descent into despotism has enabled a return to the back-room politicking, and it was a refreshing return to form for Varys and Tyrion. While others complained that they had the same conversation twice, I liked the sense of their debate happening over time, recurring in new iterations as Varys grows in confidence while Tyrion grows in doubt. Dinklage, in particular, expertly portrayed Tyrion’s agony over having these conversations at all while being unable to extract himself from them (“of course I’ve had thoughts thoughts aren’t treason”). His ill-advised appeal to Cersei’s humanity is actually a bid to save Dany, and that moment when he brushes past Qyburn to march up to the battlements himself is another iconic instance of Tyrion’s bravery. (Two things: Insane that Cersei did not have Tyrion shot there and then, and did anyone else think of the Mouth of Sauron with Qyburn’s “I am the mouthpiece of the Queen”?) As for Varys, you can’t say he didn’t warn everyone. I recently rewatched the scene in which he promised Dany to look her in the eyes and tell her if she was making a mistake, which he did this episode. In return, she promised to feed him to her dragons if he ever betrayed her, so I guess we have that to look forward to.

Making our way back North and earlier in the episode, the other character interactions were a similarly mixed bag. I was so ready for Mad Queen Dany that I had a slight panic attack when she called out Gendry (as intended, I’m sure). His reward was fitting and delightful and “I don’t know how to be a lord of anything, I barely know how to use a fork” is perhaps my favorite line of the episode. His awkward proposal to Arya was equally sweet and misguided, and while I root for Arya and Gendry in general, Arya’s reaction was entirely expected. It’s hard to imagine her as anyone’s wife, and Sansa was always the lady. What puzzles me more about Arya is her ride-or-die attitude to family in one scene (“we’re the last of the Starks”) followed by her immediate abandonment of Winterfell with the Bilbo-like assertion to the Hound that she is never coming back. Neither of those attitudes feels wrong to me, necessarily, but it feels as though there’s a scene missing, especially since we didn’t get to see her reaction to Jon’s revelation.

brienne-and-jaime-during-the-last-of-the-starks.pngJaime and Brienne’s roller coaster trajectory has a similarly compressed time frame. Like others, I don’t mind the developments per se but wish they had had a few more episodes to breathe. While their relationship didn’t need any more validation after the official Happiest Scene in the History of the Show (aka Brienne’s knighting), this was further confirmation of their mutual love and respect. The awkwardness was great and didn’t undercut the romance: “I’ve never slept with a knight before,” says Jaime, and remember he’s only slept with one more person than Brienne. I also didn’t mind Brienne’s tears. She’s a fully-rounded character and she’s allowed to show emotion when the love of her life ditches her for his evil twin sister that seems perfectly natural to me, and in keeping with Brienne, who is quite an emotional person. Strength and vulnerability are not mutually exclusive. What is Jaime’s intent in returning to King’s Landing? In a Facebook poll about whether he means to kill Cersei or save her, I voted for what I’m calling Schrödinger’s Jaime: he is a creature of impulse, as always, and doesn’t know what he’ll do until the moment comes. He just knows that one way or another he has to be there. Good thing for him the ride south doesn’t take very long.

So, an extremely fraught episode, overall. For me, despite some great moments, this was the weakest of the final season so far and I sincerely hope it stays that way. While I am never one to write off a TV show for the way it ends (a relationship to a long-running, serialized narrative is far too complex for such a reductive conclusion as “I wasted the last X years of my life”) I am a little more nervous for the final episodes than I was a week ago. Despite that, I love this show, flaws and all. It’s OK to criticize the things we love. I wish that we had arrived at the endgame in a more natural way, but I still look forward to seeing the endgame play out.

 

Posted in Reviews, TV | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Thoughts on Thrones: 8×3 “The Long Night”

longnightWell, this certainly seems to be a divisive one, with fault lines running through the fandom depending on your opinions regarding the Game of Thrones narrative endgame, the roles of characters, the use of fantasy elements, and whether or not your TV/device was optimized to view this famously brutal 55 day night-shoot. (My own TV, for what it’s worth, did not handle the episode well and it was often difficult to discern who I was looking at at any given time. A subsequent re-watch with improved brightness settings proved much more comprehensible.) Some criticisms I find more valid than others, and I do have some nits to pick. George R.R. Martin is simply better at certain things than Benioff and Weiss, and the fantasy elements and medieval battle tactics are not as well-thought-out or satisfying as I imagine they would be in his eventual published novel (assuming his story even follows the same trajectory as the show, which is a big “if”). However, this isn’t to say the episode was poorly done. In fact, much of it was marvelous.

For the first four seasons of the show, the writers enjoyed a symbiotic and mutually beneficial relationship: Benioff & Weiss stood on Martin’s tall shoulders, cherry picking the best bits and streamlining or entirely cutting what didn’t work. The mixed reviews of A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons, as well as the long hiatus since the latter’s publication, have long since exposed Martin’s flaws as a writer, and similarly the journey into uncharted waters as the show passed the books revealed just how much the success of the show derived from the firm foundation of the novels. As an adaptation, combining the strengths of both media, Game of Thrones is often unbelievably good and the relationship between the mediums in telling this story is in many ways unprecedented and consistently fascinating. Our expectations are justifiably high. But that’s OK as long as we realize that flaws are allowed. I’m not sure what a “perfect” piece of art would even mean.

Overall, I think “The Long Night” is largely successful and sneakily subversive. Much of its reputation, I suspect, depends on how the rest of the show plays out. A surprising number of the cast survived, but it’s difficult to argue that they should not have survived when we don’t know where they’re going. While a lot of viewers were perversely waiting for a bloodbath and anticipating the deaths of even our most top-tier characters, we do need to save some gas for the remaining three episodes. This is an at-times brutal and cut-throat story, but I have no interest in offing characters just to off them. If you have a thematic argument as to why a certain character should have died, I’m interested to hear it. If you’re merely looking to meet a certain arbitrary body-count, I invite you to look at your life, look at your choices.

The Night King Endeth

Much of the subversion comes from the choice to dispose of the Night King — the existential threat of the world and narrative Big Bad — three episodes before the end of the story. It’s a thrilling and fascinating move, and in keeping with a larger shift in the TV series away from using dyscatastrophe to shock and subvert expectations (Ned’s beheading, the Red Wedding, Oberyn’s loss, etc.) to using eucatastrophe to the very same purpose. The happy turn has become radical. The banding together of our various remaining “good guys”, the redemption (if it can ever be definitively achieved) of certain characters, and the apparent final defeat of the Night King all look forward to “the dream of spring” (the projected title of final novel in the series). Such elements will always be criticized, as eucatastrophe often is, dismissed as deus ex machina or fan service (problematic and misunderstood terms).

While some seem to find this twist abrupt and anticlimactic, I can’t help but think that this must be part of the point. We are left wondering what happens next. The removal of the Night King leaves an interesting power vacuum in his place. The mere deviation from the expected order of escalating threats throws off the traditional balance of the story, in a way not unlike when Martin first chopped off the head of his protagonist in 1996. It’s heartening to see the writers lean into their strengths, focusing on the complicated Cersei and the charisma of Lena Headey’s performance over the somewhat blank manifestation of pure evil that was the Night King. The White Walkers were certainly scary and formidable but they were never what the show did best. Cersei is what the show does best. The recognition of that, I think, bodes well for the remaining episodes. I hope the fantasy elements continue to play an important and active role, but I’m even more excited to watch the continued evolution, or disintegration, of the relationships.

Those who dislike the twist seem convinced that Benioff & Weiss are screwing up Martin’s story, but the more I think about it, the likelier I think it is that these moments of radical eucatastrophe (or at least this one) ultimately derive from Martin. Several people have noted the similarity of the Night King’s early demise to the ending of The Lord of the Rings, particularly Tolkien’s choice to have another, smaller, more human and domestic climax after the big, existential climax with the Ring and Sauron. Sure enough, when discussing his series’ “bittersweet ending,” we find that Martin has specifically praised “The Scouring of the Shire” in 2015:

[I]t’s no secret that Tolkien has been a huge influence on me, and I love the way he ended ’Lord of the Rings.’ It ends with victory, but it’s a bittersweet victory. Frodo is never whole again, and he goes away to the Undying Lands, and the other people live their lives. And the scouring of the Shire —brilliant piece of work, which I didn’t understand when I was 13 years old: ’Why is this here? The story’s over?’ But every time I read it I understand the brilliance of that segment more and more. All I can say is that’s the kind of tone I will be aiming for.

Regardless of whose idea it was or whether it is an intended homage, Game of Thrones is doing something like The Scouring of the Shire on a larger scale. Can Dany and Jon apply the lessons they’ve learned about good and worthy leadership or will they perpetuate the cycle of violence? Can Dany break the wheel, as she once claimed as her purpose? Will she still want to if it means giving up the throne to someone else, or destroying it entirely? Can the Justice League of Westeros survive this next test of their unity or will Cersei’s moral ambiguity prove a more insidious foe than the Night King? The not knowing is thrilling.

Arya

This is the best possible culmination of Arya Stark’s journey so wonderful, fulfilling, and earned that I wouldn’t have even dreamed that they would do it. Not only was it surprising, it has what C.S. Lewis called the quality of “surprisingness“:

The re-reader is looking not for actual surprises (which can come only once) but for a certain ideal surprisingness. The point has often been misunderstood. The man in Peacock thought that he had disposed of ‘surprise’ as an element in landscape gardening when he asked what happened if you walked through the garden for the second time. Wiseacre! In the only sense that matters the surprise works as well the twentieth time as the first. It is the quality of unexpectedness, not the fact that delights us. It is even better the second time. Knowing that the ‘surprise’ is coming we can now fully relish the fact that this path through the shrubbery doesn’t look as if it were suddenly going to bring us out on the edge of the cliff.

aryanightkingSo with Arya. We overlook her because she’s small and scrappy and a girl, in favor of Big Damn Heroes like Jon and Dany with their prophecies and their titles and their dragons. Like Melisandre, we can recite all the prophecies but couldn’t see what was staring us in the face. Arya’s entire journey to no one and back prepared her for this moment. It is as inevitable as it is surprising. She trained to be an assassin for literal years/books/seasons, all for the moment when she could look Death in the face and say “not today.” Of course she killed the Night King who else but her could have done it? Maisie Williams’ training also paid off in this episode: Arya’s battle sequences were beautifully choreographed and absolutely convincing. The callbacks to Syrio Forel, Mel’s “blue eyes” prophecy (which was the moment I knew what was about to happen in a delightful rush), the hand-switching move from her spar with Brienne were all delicately handled. Her horror set-piece in the library (“swift as a deer, quiet as a shadow, quick as a snake”) was one of the highlights of the episode. It was all brilliant. I knew what was coming and I cheered anyway. The only people who would call this character a “Mary Sue” are the kind of people who would use the term “Mary Sue” in the first place.

Jon & Dany

dragonsI’ve seen a lot of chatter about how these two didn’t “do anything” (translation: a lot of folks wanted Jon to kill the Night King) but I wouldn’t call roasting tens of thousands of wights nothing. Sure, they’re both a little reckless and don’t always follow the plan, even when they’ve thought ahead enough to have a plan. I’m not worried there will be plenty of time for these characters going forward and in the meantime it was thrilling watching them ride around on dragons for an hour, especially when we could see them. Some of those shots of the dragons above the clouds and mist were stunning. It was a nice change of pace seeing Dany whack some wights with a spear and Jon screaming at the ice dragon was honestly hilarious. Jon’s agonizingly slow progress through the carnage of Winterfell accompanied only by mournful music and subdued sound effects reminded me a lot of the “courtyard apocalypse” scene from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (incidentally, the best scene in that film). Watching him force himself to ignore Samwell’s screams, knowing bigger things hang in the balance, was utterly gut-wrenching.

Bran

Bran, what to do with you? I really want to like Bran, and indeed I did in The Winds of Winter novel. There’s something lacking in this show’s portrayal of this character, whether in the writing, performance, or both. I sincerely hope that this wasn’t the end of his story.

Theon

I knew he was going out, and for once I was right. Throughout the books and the show, Theon has consistently been one of my favorites a fascinating and compelling character. Petra Halbur (@PLHalbur) recently posted on twitter her analysis of (show) Theon’s arc as ultimately chiastic, and I’m sure this structure underlies the power of his story:

theonchiasticstructure

@PLHalbur

theonThe circularity of it, the repeated and intertwined themes of control and love, the journey downward and inward, through the nightmarish pivot-point of Reek, back outward to a better sense of self and the ability to give love to others rather than simply crave it it’s beautiful writing. One of the few things I vehemently disagree with the folks at Binge Mode on is this character and that’s OK. Different strokes for different folks. But I know I’m not alone in finding him one of the most moving, and I think this sense of circularity is why: the recognition of Winterfell as his home, protecting Bran with his bow and arrows in the Godswood (both prefigured in season 1), the reconciliation of his dual Greyjoy and Stark alliances. We’ve seen him backslide so many times since his transformation into Reek that there was still a sense of potential danger in his final stand. Who would have thought that Theon Greyjoy, of all people, would successfully stare down and hold his ground against the Night King? The whole time I was whispering to myself “don’t run, don’t run, don’t run” and he didn’t. The likelihood of failure makes his triumph over fear all the greater. I always liked his abandoment of Yara in season 7 for what it said about the reality of trauma but I now love it for the way it sets up this final stand. Whereas Arya told death “not today,” Theon did what Sansa called the most heroic thing: He looked the truth in the face and didn’t flinch. I’d also like to think he pulled a Merry Brandybuck and bought Arya a few extra seconds to take out the Witch Night King. Is there a bitterness and a coldness to the way Bran sacrificed Theon? Sure. Do I wish he’d put up even a little bit of a fight against the Night King? I guess. But look, he fought plenty hard. Neither of those niggles diminish the emotion of the ending. As he wished in The Winds of Winter, “Let me die as Theon, not as Reek,” and he did.

Tyrion, Sansa & the Crypts

It’s an interesting to move to have Tyrion spend his time in the crypts bitching about how useless he feels, and I hope it presages some acts of brilliance between himself, Sansa and Varys in episodes to come. None of them were equipped to defeat the Night King but they will be needed in the political wars to come. I think they could have milked the horror element of the crypts a little more (the camera lingering on Sansa’s face while the soldiers outside scream and beg to be let in was more terrifying than the Stark zombies) but at least we got a payoff to the “no safer place” declarations. When the sad piano music started playing over Sansa and Tyrion’s terrified and tearful faces, followed by a kiss of the hand and a brandishing of dragon glass blades, I was sure they were both about to die. I’m glad they didn’t; I’d like to see them both do a lot more yet.

Jorah & Lyanna

Not a great night for the future of House Mormont. Lyanna went out like a boss and also prefigured Arya’s victory in her desperate stab into the giant’s ice-blue eye. And that primal scream she gave wow. What a death. Jorah’s ride with the Dothraki was exhilarating and the blinking out of the lit swords one by one followed by eerie quiet effectively set the stakes for the battle, although it sucks that they sacrificed all the POC upfront. Come on, David & Dan, you know better than that by now. Jorah’s last stand, stupidly devoted to Dany as always, was sad enough but what worries me more is what happens to Dany without Jorah, the last of her true ride-or-die supporters and one of the few characters able to calm her temper. In many ways he was the great love of her life, even if she couldn’t love him in the way that he wanted.

Sam, Gilly, Jaime, Brienne, Pod, Grey Worm, Tormund, Gendry & Daavos

I cannot believe they are all still standing. Even Podrick?! That is all.

The Hound & Beric

The Hound’s fear of fire is one of the most consistent and endearing parts of his character, as is his obvious concern for Arya’s safety. Thank the gods that it looks like Cleganebowl is still on. I’m not always a fan of the “X character stayed alive/was brought back to achieve this one, extremely specific purpose” trope (it kind of diminishes the journey and makes everything about the destination) but having said that it was great to see Beric fighting alongside Arya and the Hound in the end.

Melisandre

meldeathYet another LOTR nod in this episode this time to The Two Towers film’s surprise arrival of the Lothlorien elves at the Battle of Helm’s Deep. Her magical moments looked great and her prophetic nudges to Arya were earned. The somewhat baffling nature of her arrival felt fitting in light of her equally unexplained, and rather beautiful, death in the snow. This was one of the more magical moments in recent memory that felt truly fantastic and numinous: mysterious and strange in the way of a dark fairy tale.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Reviews, TV | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Thoughts on Thrones: Season 8, Episodes 1-2

serbrienneI wasn’t going to write full reviews of the last season of Game of Thrones. But, as Andy Greenwald said on the most recent episode of The Watch, we who are lucky enough to experience a story’s end as it finishes should enjoy it while it lasts. These last weeks of speculation and worry and delicious, delicious waiting will never come again, at least not where GoT the TV show is concerned. Everyone else will be able to immediately press play on the next episode whereas we like the characters in this week’s episode have nothing to do but wait and wonder. How lucky we are. Here are the thoughts running through my head leading up to episode three’s impending Battle of Winterfell.

Dany & Jon

I think it’s pretty clear that we’re headed into potential Mad Queen territory. Despite Dany’s protestations to Sansa that she was “manipulated” by her love of Jon to coming north, I don’t think Dany is nearly in love enough to give up the single pursuit of her entire adult life. In Jon’s mind, the battle against the Night King is the only thing that does or should matter. For Dany, this is a pit-stop on the way to her ultimate goal. I do hope that we’re heading for a breaking of the wheel a la Battlestar Galactica’s breaking of the cycle of violence in fact I expect to see a final destruction of the Iron Throne itself but I’m increasingly unsure of Dany’s ability to be the one to achieve it. And some of this is understandable. In an episode that championed the glass-ceiling breaking accomplishments of our women characters (Dany and Sansa’s conversation about leadership and unity, Arya’s agency, Brienne’s historic knighting) it’s a crushing blow for Dany to find out that after all that there’s some bloke with a legitimate claim to her throne. Figures. And yet, if Dany hopes to be the one to break the wheel and usher in a new way in life, she has to find a way to get over her own myth of self-aggrandizement. The writers’ placement of Samwell in a place of moral opposition to Dany’s rule is extremely telling and worrying.

Sansa

#TeamSansa. Kat Island knows no queen but the Queen in the North whose name is Stark. Look, is Sansa’s outlook a bit provincial? Perhaps. But someone has to worry about the boring shit and Sansa is willing to do that. It’s not fun or glamorous or sexy. Sansa has no dragons or magic or prowess on the battlefield. But she is admirably stepping into her parents’ shoes as the just and moral warden of the North, concerned with the well-being and independence of her people. She can let Dany and Jon worry about the army of the dead and Cersei that’s not Sansa’s forte. Instead, the Lady of Winterfell is concentrating on Winterfell and it looks great on her. It’s been wonderful to see Sansa flourish upon finding her northern roots, taking what’s she’s learned at the feet of the masters of court intrigue Cersei, Littlefinger, Olenna, Margaery, etc. but tempered by her Stark values of honor and duty. She warms so quickly to Dany when taken aside by the Queen, eager to make peace, but knows the moment she’s being manipulated and calls bullshit. She has made and will make mistakes but I am here waving my banner for this character and her exquisite development. I am a little worried for her survival she has often been one of those characters to whom good things are not often allowed to happen, and she’s been on a winning streak for a while. However, with Cersei’s inevitable smackdown coming and Dany teetering on the brink, I find it hard to believe that the writers will end up knocking all of the women in positions of leadership off their pedestals. I don’t believe that’s a message they want to send in the end. Right now, Sansa seems like the strongest candidate for survival. Then again, this is Game of Thrones. Perhaps (as with the oft-mentioned crypts) her position of apparent safety is the most precarious position of all.

Sansa & Theon

I ship it. Not necessarily in that way one of the things these two characters share is an all-too-intimate experience of the degradations of sexual violence and I could easily see both of them concluding that they’re just not into it. At the very most, the heart-eyes they gave each other at the end of episode 2 indicate potential more than full-bloomed romantic love. Potentially that will almost certainly be snuffed out next week. Nevertheless, there’s genuine love there. While their arc with Ramsay at Winterfell in season 5 was problematic and frustrating, I did find their alliance and escape incredibly satisfying, as well as Sansa’s revenge on behalf of everyone who Ramsay had ever tormented. Their compassion for each other’s suffering and Sansa’s forgiveness of Theon turned into one of the sweetest relationships and their reunion here was very touching, showing a softer side of Sansa than we’ve seen so far this season. I wish we’d had more time with them, as it seems pretty likely that this is the end for my guy. While Theon’s rescue of Yara was comically brief (I don’t even mean that as an insult it was genuinely funny!), I am glad to see that the writers have bigger plans for him. I was a little concerned that he’d be knocked off rescuing Yara in episode 1, which would have been a fine ending but something they could just as easily have accomplished last season when Yara was taken prisoner. Having Theon return to defend the home and family of his choice is even better. Of course I hope he survives to continue serving the Lady of Winterfell perhaps his knowledge of the escape tunnels in the crypts will prove useful but more likely this is the end for one of my favorites. RIP Theon. I loved watching your slow, intermittent crawl toward redemption. What is dead may never die. Shame it’ll be so far from the sea, but at least he’s home.

Arya & Gendry

This I definitely ship that way. Get it, girl. All of the hand-wringing over Arya’s choice here strikes me as rather silly, especially for this story. Their connection is clearly foreshadowed in seasons 2 and 3 (not to mention the books themselves) as well as in King Robert’s “I have a son, you have a daughter” comment in the very first episode. And now Arya’s old enough to enjoy it (as is the actress). Maisie Williams has always done extremely well with the physical side of Arya’s character, and it was fun to see her stalk around Gendry like a graceful cat, twirling her staff and tossing her knives. She is seductive and impressive but never loses that tomboyish and even androgynous air that makes Arya who she is. For years, Arya served Death, the Stranger, the Many-Faced God, who demanded the annihilation of Arya Stark until she became merely no one. In returning home, and even more in reconnecting with Sansa and Jon and Gendry, Arya Stark has begun to resurface. More scarred and more deadly, sure, but wholly alive for the first time in seasons. I’ve always like the prospect of these two together, if only to payoff Arya’s heartbreaking plea to Gendry that she could “be his family.” If Arya’s story is about her reclaiming her sense of identity, both individually and familial, then I’m on board with her reclaiming that in whatever way she sees fit.

Jaime & Brienne

The dubbing of Brienne was everything: The culmination of two beautiful and complementary character arcs. For Jaime, easily the subject of one of the most radical redemption arcs I can think of, the lack of cynicism in the character at this point is pretty astounding considering where he started. A character who started by mockingly flouting the charges of his title and spoke bitterly of the hypocritical and contradictory nature of knighthood (“they make you swear and swear no matter what you do you’re forsaking one vow or another”) not only turns against the fickle and selfish love of his family and chooses to defend the weak, uphold the good, and fight for the living, but now has the moral authority to pass that charge on to others. Earlier in the story, the idea of Jaime knighting anyone would have been entirely laughable. If Jaime is an example of how far a character can come, Brienne is the opposite a character that has remained steadfast, true, and wholly herself from the beginning. Her knighting isn’t a change but a confirmation and celebration of the ideals she’s already been living. An idealistic character not punished for their idealism is a rare thing in this story, and largely I think this is a story about the value of doing the right thing even though you may be punished for it. She has feared such punishment least of anyone, maybe even including Ned. I’m worried that next week may be the end for Ser Brienne of Tarth, but this is about as gorgeous a sendoff as I can think of if it is. She is the true knight of the Seven Kingdoms, and that beaming, tearful smile so rare in such a guarded and defensive character said it all.

The Fireside Chat

An amazingly sweet and funny collection of scenes with some of the show’s greatest characters and personalities. In a way it reminded me of the little game of musical chairs from season three initially just in the mundane concern with the seating arrangements of the ensemble, but more deeply in the humor and character development. This is a group of characters we know well and have spent a lot of time with, and seeing them just sit around and enjoy each other one last time was delightful. I smiled as soon as Brienne and Pod entered, sensing that we were headed for a drunken little gathering. I was not anticipating it would become so emotional, between Brienne’s knighthood and Pod’s sad battle song. Pod’s song taken from a quick reference to “Jenny’s Song” in A Storm of Swords references Jenny of Oldstones and contains some interesting potential clues for where things might be going with Dany, Jon, and/or the prophecy of the Prince That Was Promised (more on that here). It’s also a clear nod to the film Return of the King’s portrayal of Pippin singing over Faramir’s doomed mission to take back Osgiliath (itself adapted from Tolkien’s “A Walking Song“). The trope of the sad folk song is an interesting one. Other recent series like the Netflix Watership Down and Battlestar Galactica contain similar moments that seem to be inspired by LOTR, but surely this goes back further? If anyone has other suggested older references to similar scenes, I’d love to hear it in the comments. Anyway, Pod has many hidden talents. I’ll be sad to see him as a wight next week.

Miscellaneous

All right, who else? The Davos and Gilly scene was sweet, if a bit on the nose. As others have joked, Grey Worm should probably not count on sailing away on the SS Live Forever just yet. Sam giving Jorah his family sword was rough, and might have actually doomed both characters (if so, ouch). I completely missed Varys why no last character beat with him? Hopefully he’ll survive so get can get final showdown with him and Melisandre. That’s a lifeline to grab on to for Arya’s survival, too, actually. Tormund is a legend and I’ll miss him and his stories.

Predictions & Final Thoughts

If there’s one sure thing, it’s that the crypts are definitely the worst possible place to be, especially now that Sam gave away his Valyrian steel sword. I’m  concerned we’re going to see some undead Starks hopefully Ned is too far gone, but maybe Rickon? As I said on twitter, a theory that I only partially subscribe to is that everyone assumption that the Night King will make a move for Bran will be subverted, with the Night King not showing up at the battle or going somewhere else entirely. I certainly don’t think he’ll be lured to the godswood that easily or simply. I’m sure we’ll see some White Walker action there, but I’m not convinced it’ll be the big guy himself. Similarly, while I’m sure we’ll get dragon vs. dragon action this season, I could see it going either way during the Winterfell battle. The dragons have to get in the mix somehow, if only to test their abilities against White Walkers, so I presume we’ll see some action with Dany on dragon-back. Will Jon join her on Rhaegal, or will he insist on sticking with the men? I’m going to say no Jon won’t ride his dragon into combat until later. Finally, I feel pretty sure that our heroes will lose this battle and the few survivors will scatter to the Iron Islands, Dragonstone, and/or King’s Landing.

Overall, this was a really beautiful and contemplative last breath before the plunge small and intimate in the best ways. While I will be sad to see any of them go, I think they’re leaving us in a place where almost anyone could go down and I wouldn’t feel cheated of character fulfillment, even if I’ll still be sad. Writer Bryan Cogman wanted this episode to be a love letter to the characters, and the emotion he displayed expressing that thought to an interview crew came through in what we saw on screen. However, like the characters themselves, it’s one thing to feel at peace the night before the big battle. It’s quite another to keep your composure when being hunted down by ice monsters and zombies. The calm and peace they’ve found won’t last, and I suspect I’ll be screaming at my TV next Sunday. As a book reader, it was thrilling to get to experience episodes like “The Door” and “The Spoils of War” along with everyone else, on the edge of my seat and without any idea what would happen next. I love that feeling, painful as it is, and I can’t wait to experience it for 90 minutes (!) this weekend.

Posted in Reviews, TV | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Guest on Reading, Writing, Rowling: The Marauders

Having just completed a thoroughly enjoyable re-read of the Harry Potter series, I was honored to be asked to be a guest on Mugglenet’s academic Potter podcast, Reading, Writing, Rowling. In Episode 19, which you can listen to here, we discuss the role of the Marauders in the Potter series. The mischief, complexity, and tragedy of these four characters has always been one of my favorite aspects of Rowling’s wizarding stories, and Remus Lupin remains a strong contender for my favorite fictional character of all time. Our conversation was a ton of fun to prepare for and to hold and is fairly wide-ranging, covering everything from the symbolic role of transfiguration, the image of friendship which they present, and what we would want to see in any potential (inevitable?) spinoffs. Because it’s me, a little of Tolkien’s literary theory was incorporated. You could easily do a segment drilling down further into the individual story arcs of each of these characters, which is in no way a knock on the depth of our discussion but only a testament to the richness of Moony, Wormtail, Padfoot & Prongs (yes, even Wormtail). However, I especially enjoyed the way that we mostly stuck to the Marauders as a unit, focusing on the group dynamics and the way that their self-image and internal relationships enabled both their moments of highest heroism and self-sacrifice as well as planting the seeds for the betrayal and tragedy to come. So meet us at the base of the Whomping Willow, cloak and map in hand, as we travel through the tunnel to the Shrieking Shack and out into the Forbidden Forest to discuss these brave, flawed, ultimately doomedbut always beloved characters.

Please leave a comment below to tell me what you think!

Posted in Literature | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments