Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Obscene confessions of a lapsed Michigan fan

[With apologies to the indomitable Craig Ross, esq.]

I've been a Michigan fan since I was six years old. The year was 1976 and my dad was watching the Michigan-OSU game. I instantly became interested in the team with the cool helmets. When Michigan stopped OSU right before halftime with an end zone interception and proceeded to score 22 unanswered in the second half, I turned to my dad and asked who those Cool Helmet Guys were. He said: "The University of Michigan." I responded: "That's where I'm going to school."

That prediction turned out to be accurate. I did attend Michigan in 1986, having become a rabid fan of both football and basketball teams in the decade prior, and graduated four years later, living and dying with every moment that either team played (and adding the hockey team to that cycle of death and rebirth (mostly death in those early years...)) But I come to you now with a confession that requires no great effort to utter, despite it having been laughable for the majority of my life:

I am no longer really a Michigan fan.

I think many things fade as you get older and your outlook and priorities change with both age and, hopefully, wisdom. But to use the easiest comparison, I am no less the diehard Liverpool fan that I became only a couple years after that football game. In fact, given that LFC is in probably better shape, with better leadership on the field and off, than it has been in 30+ years, I may even be more of a fan now than I was then. No, the change in my Michigan loyalty is based on a series of factors that have grown more prominent in my mind and more inimical to the basic enjoyment of the teams as the years have gone by. To wit:

The game:
This aspect is largely centered around football as, in a few ways, I feel like the game is broken. Like most other sports, if you have endless talent, you have options. If you don't, there's a way to take advantage of the modern development of the game and then there's a way to cling to tradition in an exercise of futility. Too often in the last decade, it seems like Michigan has gone the latter route. When Jim Harbaugh was hired, I was the least excited among the fans that I know. I was attending Michigan when Harbaugh played quarterback there and I had kept an eye on his pro career and his subsequent coaching career. Despite considerable success at the latter, he didn't exactly strike me as a forward thinker of the game, so I was hesitant upon his arrival because Michigan had gone through a series of upheavals transitioning away from the hidebound Carr era, to the more modern but disastrous Rodriguez regime, and then a return to what the English would call a Proper Football Man in Brady Hoke. That label is always applied cynically to someone whose thinking is largely outdated but who embodies some unknowable spirit of the game the way it used to be when men were men and daffodils sang on the sidelines. The Ann Arbor-centric parallel is the "Michigan Man"; a term I have grown to loathe for the blind loyalty it's meant to instill, despite the lack of success which often follows in its wake (see: Hoke, Brady and Carr, Lloyd.)

Jim Harbaugh, in many ways, is a Proper Football Man. By that, I mean that he clings to a notion of the game that was outdated when he was playing for Bo Schembechler. What that has produced in the last four years is the inability of the football team to defeat its greatest rival (heretofore led by one of the preeminent modern football minds of the game), which means not only a lack of what most Michigan fans would identify as "success" (conference titles, Rose Bowls, playoffs), but also performances that are often somewhere between grueling and soporific. I spent the first game day last year accompanying my girlfriend's son to the tailgate that he was being paid to watch while its owners were inside Michigan Stadium. Despite Michigan playing on the widescreen in front of us, I spent most of that time watching Georgia Tech on another TV to my right. Why? Because Tech's offense was actually entertaining, even if also outdated. Better the fossil you don't know than the one you do when it comes to interesting football, I guess (although, admittedly, I know the triple option very well because Michigan ran it when I was a kid...)

On top of that, the continuing prostration to the gods of commerce has made the game largely unwatchable in the first place. Three minutes of action followed by three minutes of commercials is awful for fans in the stands, as well as those trying to watch at home. American football is already a slow-paced game, given that the ball is actually in play for only a fraction of the time that the game clock is running. When you combine that with the constant interruptions (touchdown, commercial, kickoff, commercial, end of quarter, commercial; one minute of game time just took 15 minutes of actual time), it simply saps the life from the proceedings. I've gotten to the point where even the four commercial breaks in every half of basketball is more annoyance than I'm willing to tolerate, so I frequently watch those on "DVR delay", so that I can speed through the ads.

But the most disturbing aspect to football, of course, is the health risk. Unlike basketball, I think football is on a clock. As the evidence of the dangers of the game, CTE-connected and otherwise, continue to mount, I find myself no longer interested in watching people kill themselves for my supposed amusement. It's even worse when watching them kill themselves in an often brutally boring display of offense. I can't look at hits on the football field in the same way anymore and I'm usually just thinking about how much damage these kids are doing to themselves for our entertainment... and for someone else's money.

As usual, it's always about the money, and this incorporates basketball and hockey, as well. The NCAA is one of the more corrupt institutions in the sporting world and when you consider that said world includes organizations like the NFL, FIFA, and the IOC, that's saying quite a bit. Unlike those other organizations, which exist to profit off of the games they oversee and only occasionally via the abuse of the athletes which play those games, the NCAA goes all-in on the abuse. There are many, many other locations where you can read about the ongoing circus that is the NCAA's attempt to preserve the notion of "amateurism" (including their admission that the term "student-athlete" was created so that they wouldn't have to pay workmans' comp to what were obviously employees.) I find that I simply can't continue to be a paying spectator to that circus. The only other institution in this country where your labor produces profits for others but only in-kind "payment" for you is prison. There is no other institution where you are expressly forbidden from using your talents for payment. There is no other institution where people the same age as you and attending the same school as you can make money from an outside job but where you are forbidden to do so because of your talents and consequent special status ("student-athlete".) There is no other institution or status where you are forbidden from even taking a job that has nothing to do with those talents. While you are a "student-athlete", you're essentially indentured to your university, while no other student, including those on "full ride" scholarships as these athletes often are, is so burdened. The fact that the image in front of us is largely a bunch of young, Black men making billions for old, White men while not able to take a dime of that money can't be more disturbing, because that scenario has never happened in this country before...

John Beilein, a career college basketball coach, recently resigned that post at Michigan, at least in part because of the farcical system that the NCAA has in place. All the man wanted to do was teach and coach basketball, but the NCAA has set up a host of policies that prevented him from doing just that, supposedly to protect the athletes from being exploited by their coaches, but mostly to ensure that they're not classified as employees so they can continue to be exploited by their universities. These policies are given the guise of preserving some kind of "life balance" between sport and school, but given that the NCAA has been unwilling to enforce its rules against some of its biggest offenders (and biggest moneymakers), it becomes apparent what (account) balance they're really trying to preserve. All indications are that he was also frustrated by seeing his players regularly leave school early for a chance at the money that they should be making now.

I find myself unable to support that system- directly by buying tickets or tacitly by watching TV -any longer. I don't want to contribute to the wallets of those old, White men while we hear example after example of athletes being unable to go to the movies or even have enough to eat, while their in-kind "payment"- an education -is often a scam only perpetrated until their usefulness to their non-employer is served. I'm not interested in supporting the profoundly elitist and often racist perspective that athletes can't be trusted with the millions that they've earned, while programmers who develop a new app in school (Mark Zuckerberg, anyone?) aren't given a second thought about how they might spend their windfall. I'm not interested in helping to perpetuate the idea that athletic departments are strapped for cash and therefore can't pay their laborers, when any tour around a major university will show you exactly how and where that money is spent. You might even see the host of middle managers and special assistants walking out of their well-salaried jobs and well-appointed offices on your tour. Major athletic departments exist to make money and spend money so that they can claim that those that earn the money can't have a slice. I live with enough lies already, thanks. And the key thing here, of course, is that...

The university:
is the NCAA. The NCAA is a membership organization. The schools that follow its rules are the ones who write the rules. Michigan is one of those members. But, even beyond that, there's no way to escape the truth that Michigan is also a giant, profit-seeking corporation. The facade of an educational institution for most major American universities disappeared long ago and Michigan is no exception. Athletic departments are just a manifestation of the same phenomenon that is rampant across academia. From the never-ending building sprees to the vast gulf in salaries between department heads and those who actually do the bulk of the teaching, Michigan and universities like it are far more concerned about their bottom lines than they are about the welfare of most of their employees or the education of their students. How else does one explain the university refusing to extend a decent contract to its lecturers without a walkout? How else does one explain the confrontational nature of the relationship between the university and the city in which it resides? (Mostly about tax issues. It's always money...) How else does one explain the ridiculous increase in university cost of attendance, far outpacing inflation over the past 40 years? That explanation is simple: the University of Michigan is a profit-seeking, multi-billion dollar corporation and is following in the same behavior pattern of most of its brethren (Wal-Mart, et al.) The university is sitting on an endowment of over a billion dollars and yet it can't find a way to give its staff a decent cost-of-living increase or maintain their health insurance? What does it say when the university with one of the most famed medical schools in the world regularly threatens to cut back on the health care access of its employees?

It's not just that I don't really want to be associated any longer with teams that bore me or a system that exploits athletes in the name of a mythical status while gathering increasing profits. It's that I'm questioning the nature of the institution from which I hold a degree. That institution owns its identity and it's one that I'm not really comfortable with anymore. To draw a comparison with Liverpool again, I'm happy to say that LFC is a club that is extremely conscious of the livelihoods of its employees and the community that surrounds it. The club goes to great lengths to assist local charities and has instituted a ticket price freeze for the past few years after fans objected to an increase in the already expensive seats at Anfield. The only time Michigan ever instituted a ticket price freeze was when students stopped coming to the games because the team was so awful (see: Hoke, Brady.) Ownership matters. The actions of owners matter. Michigan's teams are "owned" (there's that disturbing scenario again!) by the university. They represent the university and their respective actions are impacted by each other. I look at recent activity by my alma mater and confess that I'm not particularly proud of it or proud to say that I was once part of it.

So, yeah. I have no problem walking away from the football program. I'm mostly there already and my interest in hockey was slowly hammered by Red's almost decade-overdue departure. But I did (and do) really enjoy watching Beilein's teams and I'm intrigued by what Howard might do. I'm also intrigued by a member of the Fab Five, one of the more prominent collective voices talking about the injustice of the NCAA system 30 years ago, being the guy who basically has to live by and enforce that system with his players. I'd like to think he's no happier about it than I am, but he doesn't have the choice I do to simply not play ball anymore. And, despite my interest in his team, that's what I'm going to do.

Friday, May 31, 2019

All bleeding stops eventually

For much of TV's existence, shows didn't have a planned ending. If a show was successful, it would simply keep running, episode after episode, season after season, until the Nielsen numbers went down and advertisers dried up and the network finally pulled the plug. There were very rarely finales or acknowledgments that the story was coming to an end. They simply ceased to exist. In more recent times, many series have a planned story to tell and exist expressly for the purpose of doing so. Breaking Bad is a good example, in which Vince Gilligan planned seven seasons and ended it on schedule. Deadwood was a victim of the old trend. HBO simply pulled the plug in 2006 and we were left, after three seasons, with several storylines which seemed as if they could have been given proper, or at least better, closure. But I think that's kind of an erroneous view, based on the unusual hybrid that Deadwood was, and I don't think this evening's film really did it any favors.

Putting aside a lot of story questions that the movie actually introduced, rather than resolved, such as why the seemingly terminally ill Doc Cochran was more hale and hearty than central character Al Swearengen, I think the very basis of the film was superfluous. In an odd way, similar to those older series that were callously swept away, Deadwood became a progression that wasn't really about telling an extended story. The plot mattered less and less as the seasons moved along and it became more about simply spending time with the wonderful characters that David Milch and his colleagues had created; in the same way that watching later seasons of All in the Family weren't because Archie Bunker had become the owner of a bar, but because it was a weekly opportunity to spend time with the acerbic central figure of the show. No better comparison can be made than between Al and Archie, both of them with execrable character flaws and an often shocking lack of humanity, but an earnestness of action that made them entrancing and, yes, even lovable. Trying to wrap up All in the Family with a two hour film would have left the same empty feeling as the Deadwood film did. That wouldn't have been the real Archie experience, in the same way that this wasn't Al or Seth Bullock or Jane or Dan or any of the rest.

The one that sticks out the most to me is Jane. While it may be a natural progression for the character to still be alive because she'd stopped drinking, less bombastic Jane is simply less Jane. Calamity Jane earned her nom de plume because she was beyond natural. Showing her as wiser and more mature Jane degrades rather than enhances our memory of the character who likely used the phrase "Go fuck yerself!" with more meaning and wider intent than any person in the history of performance. The rekindling of her relationship with Joanie is meant to be sweet, but arcs into the realm of sentimental that belies the character, who often found sentiment at the root of her brusque actions but kept herself eternally guarded against actually feeling for anyone, lest she get wounded again as with Wild Bill.

In complete contrast, George Hearst's continuation as the Darth Vader of the piece was the most glaring piece of fan service among many. While everyone else had developed somewhat and mellowed with age and/or infirmity, Hearst was barely changed (and neither was Gerald McRaney, impressively), as were his actions. On the one hand, his continuing his path of theft, murder, and financial bullying was a measure of his contempt for the people he once had complete control over (financial, mental, emotional); peons to be manipulated or disposed of at his whim. On the other hand, doing so lacked any of the character's previous sense of subtlety and profound sense of perception for how people could be cadged into action, rather than simply threatened. This is even more focused because of him having risen from simple millionaire to US Senator (which is true of the actual Hearst), which takes some awareness of social interaction, even though Senators at the time were still appointed by whichever legislature they could buy off. His being beaten in the street by the same people that he scorned while now-marshal Bullock looked on in his own evident enjoyment was tossed out there for the fans to finally soak up. It's akin to Cersei having been killed by Arya or some other "just dessert" that many people would have wished, but which served the story and the character not at all.

Building the plot around Trixie's rash actions isn't new for the series and it allowed Paula Malcomson some room to continue her own path that she'd trod 13 years ago, with the birth of a child giving her space to admit her own self-worth ("Because I'm the bride and it's my special fucking day.") and finally allow Sol to marry her as what she finally felt: an equal. Plus, credit is due to Timothy Olyphant and Molly Parker for being able to convey the longing between Seth and Alma even after such a long time for both characters and actors. So, it's not as if the film is a total loss. But overall it was more of a Hallmark movie version of the show than the actual show. It lacked the dirt (despite the Gem still using a cloth banner for its main sign; one wonders how much of the set was still standing or had to be reconstructed) and the grime and the grinding intensity that the series conveyed so effortlessly. This was too clean and too easy. Perhaps it's as simple as Al not being himself and leaving the story without a center? Possible, but I think it's more complicated than that. The title of this piece is a line from Doc, acknowledging the mortality of everyone and everything. I prefer to think that the show bled its last 13 years ago, with the rougher image of the camp still firmly in my mind.

Monday, May 20, 2019

I'd like to have come up with something pithy, but so would they.

The title for my last GoT review could've been something like "All shows must die." or "Disappointment is coming", although that would have been more appropriate last week. But, no, there's not much sense in trying to be cute when one of the greatest TV shows ever dies a slow death over two seasons only to spectacularly faceplant in the finale. I'm not particularly outraged because I tend to spend my outrage savings on things that actually matter and also because, as noted already this season, I've pretty much just been waiting for Game of Thrones to end, since it had long since lost the label of "compelling television". But one thing you could be sure of was that at least it largely hadn't stooped to the level of "typical" in its storytelling. I noticed that Benioff and Weiss were credited under "Written for television" again and, holy shit, was it ever.

As mentioned before, George RR Martin didn't actually write the line about lack of attention and happy endings in the books, but he might as well have, since A Song of Ice and Fire was never destined to be a Happily Ever After kind of tale. If it were, Ned Stark would have been revealed to be alive and manipulating things behind the scenes a couple seasons ago. But, uh, let me just state for the record that: Stark Kids Make Good is about as Hollywood Happy Ending as you can get. Basically, all the good guys of the story won out, except the one latterly condemned by genetics. Is that the lone dollop of sadness in our otherwise uplifting tale about elected kings, the independent Stark kingdom, Tyrion the Hand, and Arya's adventures into the new world? Oh, sure, Jon gets stuck at the now mission-bereft Night's Watch (broken Wall, no more Others, Wildling allies that he's even helping resettle the land beyond the Wall- Why is there a Night's Watch again?), but returning the perennial outsider to the outside again is not the stuff of tragedy.

We seemed to be rolling for a bit, with Dany enforcing the policy of unnecessary celebration (i.e. Kill all who opposed me) and Tyrion searching amidst the destruction of King's Landing, his family, and his principles in the agony of victory. And then we reached the crux point of the expected assassination of the Dragon Queen (with imagery firmly ensconced in our heads as Dany walks to review her troops with Drogon's wings emerging from her shoulders) and all of the tragedy dissipated in that single moment that D&D had apparently decided was enough, leaving us with an easy stroll through what some might consider Fan Service Central.

Except most fans didn't want this.

Game of Thrones made its bones by not being afraid to confront the reality of people's choices. There was a debate on Twitter last week about the contrast between "plotters" and "pantsers" when it comes to epic fiction. The former have a detailed outline that they tend to follow through on, which makes their characters occasionally seem wooden, as they serve the plot, not themselves. Pantsers tend to simply write and see where it goes ("seat of their pants"; hence, title) which makes their characters quite human and enthralling, but also can lead to situations where the story escapes the writer and they have to work hard to get out of corners that they've painted themselves into. Vince Gilligan mentioned that the writing room on Breaking Bad enjoyed that process, as they liked to challenge themselves to see if they could make the story continue to work. And that's both cool and feasible when your story is largely driven by the motivations and actions of one or two characters. That's simply not feasible when it's driven by 15. Martin has obviously taken on the role of both kinds of writer. ASoIaF wouldn't be feasible without some kind of outline and his work as editor and writer of the collaborative Wild Cards series demonstrates an ability to move a story along step by step.

But he's also clearly a pantser, as he's spoken often about how the story has moved in directions he didn't expect because of this or that character or about how particular characters aren't "speaking" to him today (or this week or month or year), as an explanation of why writing hasn't proceeded as quickly as everyone would like. D&D, as screenwriters, have to be plotters. Given the demands of producers, directors, actors, networks, and a production schedule, you can't just dream up new stuff on set and delay while the story goes in five new directions that you didn't plan for. The process of wrapping everything up this season spoke loudly of their determination to move on, as it was rushed and sloppy (Starbucks, Jaime grows a hand), so we already had story problems that were bringing the series to a rather ignominious end. But at least we didn't have Happily Ever After, which belies the very tenets of the story that Martin started telling over a quarter-century ago.

And it was played to the very hilt, with the council of nobles almost leaning all the way into some kind of democracy before laughing that off; one Stark child ruling the North; another Stark child ruling everything else; and the two outsiders given free reign to pursue their own paths, with Jon returning to a place where he doesn't need to know anything and is the home of his first love, while Arya ensures that she never becomes a proper lady. This is to say nothing of Tyrion getting the chance to return to the role he always loved, even when he had to do it for his sadistic nephew, and the rest of the gang forming the Slapstick Council (Bronn defaulting to lord of Highgarden off a drunken promise that no one else witnessed; Sam becoming Grand Maester without the proper training or acknowledgment of the Citadel's hierarchy; etc., etc.) Pile onto that the world's only remaining dragon disappearing into myth and the casual departure of Dany's army of fanatical warriors and no one really had to worry about anything when the credits rolled. It's the end of the Third Age and has become the Time of Men with all that fantastical stuff and decent storytelling just disappearing into the mists that spawned the dragon queen in the first place. It's all so convenient, so typical, so weak.

A couple years ago, Benioff and Weiss revealed that the next project they were hoping to work on was a post-US civil war story where the South had won. My immediate thought was: "Don't these guys know how done-to-death that idea is?" There's a host of half-assed books out there about that very topic, most of them written with the extremely unoriginal idea: "What if the racists still ran our government and treated everyone without white skin as something to be owned, feared, and/or reviled?" Most sensible people would tell you to just read the news if you want to see that story in action, but there's a ton of very mundane fiction written about it, too. That's the story that D&D wanted to tell and get HBO to help them with. Given the plummeting quality of Game of Thrones over the past couple seasons, leading to this outright reversal of most of the dramatic principles that had formed the story's identity, I have to say that I've gone from disbelief that they'd want to pursue that idea to complete understanding. These guys were handed a gold mine of material and ran with it as long as they could. Once the ore ran out, they reverted to standard plot lines that fill space in all of the average TV shows ever produced. With GoT now wrapped, they can continue to pursue their very average ideas with average plots that they generate from them. Speaking of average stories, they're now slated to write a couple Star Wars films...

No one should feel cheated. We had several years of excellent television and storytelling. For those of us that read the books years before the show emerged, it was a treat to see it all come to life and to include so many of our friends and family members into this world that we knew and loved. The fact that it ended so limply is unfortunate, but that's the case for a lot of good things. Point of fact: Endings are hard, especially with stories this large and long and complex. There are always things that are going to leave at least some people unsatisfied, if not everyone. I was fully prepared for disappointment of some fashion. What I wasn't prepared for was the utter abandonment of the approach that had made the series a revelation to most of its audience, book-readin' and non-. All of the characters went home happy- in Westeros -while the audience was left to wonder: What the hell happened?

Technical stuff:

Why bother?

Lines of the week:

"There's nothing in the world more powerful than a good story."

You don't say...? Well, we had one for years.

Monday, May 13, 2019

Happy endings

One of Ramsay Bolton's quotes has become something of a tagline for Game of Thrones: "If you think this has a happy ending, you haven't been paying attention." It's not from the books but it's assumed that it was directed at the audience of both books and TV show, since so many people are programmed from childhood to assume that "... happily ever after." is the natural order of stories. No one should have ever assumed that about A Song of Ice and Fire and this latest episode kind of drove that point home, albeit somewhat obtusely.

This is the first episode of the season where I felt that Benioff and Weiss were back to hewing to Martin's template, rather than just trying to tie up plot threads in as expedient a manner as possible. The end of some major characters and the transformation of others were things that were essentially fated to happen. Despite Varys' good intentions, the idea that the entire power structure, tradition, and thousands of years of history (and the entrenched power that dictated that history) of Westeros were going to transform into a peoples' utopia through the efforts of a small group of those same power-wielders was never anything more than actual fantasy. Similarly, anyone that was actually paying attention knew that Dany was weighed down by her heritage and, when push came to shove, was going to follow in the time-honored path of most Targaryens: fire and blood. There are no surprises here; a rather demonstrable lack of subtlety perhaps, but no surprises.

Likewise, Jaime and Cersei's story was always going to end in tragedy. Despite both of them being among the most interesting of all characters in the story (especially Jaime, for me), it was written into their bones that they would not be creating a new life in Pentos when the Dragon Queen took over. Cersei's ambition and viciousness were inevitably going to end her and she was the addiction that he simply couldn't break. You don't need a prophecy to tell you that (and I guess you could say he fulfilled it by taking her down to the catacombs where they both died, but that is a rather oblique finish.) Furthermore, her ending was always going to be kind of routine. There would be no moment where the audience could feel satisfied that the Evil Queen got her just desserts. Cersei as much as predicted what would happen during the siege of the city by the Baratheons; the same things that always happen to non-combatants in war. Their end was perfectly in line with expectations. What I think all of this appropriate drama suffered from is that the story is simply too large for the show to handle and always has been.

Dany's descent into the Mad Queen took place off-stage, between the execution of the one person she genuinely trusted and the opening of this episode. That's it. It's a progression that would have taken a few hundred pages in the novels, if not more. We didn't even get to see it because the series is wrapping up. It's the same problem that surrounds the Night King's demise. Here are huge events in the story, even on a very personal level with Dany, that need room for the audience to breathe in and absorb. Instead, they're happening like someone flipped a switch. And it's not just with Dany. Her decision to light up King's Landing even after hearing the bells is immediately taken up by her army, Dothraki, Unsullied, and northerners alike, with a show of bloodlust that fairly belied the circumstances. Here was a standoff where one side was visibly giving up and when the dragon starts roasting them anyway, that's a signal to attack...? There's plenty of history that tells you that when armies enter a city after a long siege, the looting and the raping and the pillaging begins. But this was a siege of a couple days and the scene didn't play that way at all. Dragon knocks doors down, army enters to little resistance, enemy surrenders, and... killfest time? Dany's descent into familial madness doesn't mean that everyone around her instantly follows. I guess you could argue that the nature of the Dothraki and the pent up anger of the northerners toward the Lannisters and the Unsullied led by the extremely outraged Grey Worm all contributed to that instant battle frenzy, but it struck me as very awkward.

But this is where epics sometimes run aground. Everyone who reads or watches a story has their own estimation of what the ending is going to be like and you're rarely going to please everyone. Take a look at the endings of shows like The Sopranos and Breaking Bad as examples. But when you're irritating pretty much everyone, not just with the events, but how they're delivered, there's something else that's wrong. And, again, this is the problem of switching media. D&D are trying to end this epic. These are tragedies that Martin has been building toward for 20 years. Trying to do justice to them in the space allowed by six episodes of TV just isn't feasible. This was the episode where it really felt like the series was back to the flavor and character of Martin's writing after a two year absence. But it's also the one that perhaps shows how it was never going to work in the first place.

Technical stuff:

George Patton once said: "Fixed fortifications are monuments to the stupidity of man." But he was speaking from the perspective of someone in the 20th century, fully engaged in the concept of modern mobile warfare. Back in the Middle Ages or the approximate technology level of Game of Thrones, the worst possible thing you can do when trying to defend your fortification is walk outside your fortification! But now we've seen it happen in two episodes this season. Maybe you can justify it in the battle of Winterfell, since the whole plan was a delaying tactic until the Night's King could be drawn out... but, no. This episode had even less justification, since the troops were sheltering inside a ring of scorpions to keep the dragon away. Stepping outside to meet the enemy in the field wrecks that plan quite nicely. I'm not normally one to nitpick things in a fantasy story, but they at least have to make some kind of sense. This doesn't. Also, what exactly is the point of having gates with a visible gap between the doors, as one set in the inner walls of the city was shown? Inner walls are supposed to be used as stages to drop back to when under siege, which means that gates there should be the same as the ones shown outside and not be useless in a fight. Production error, like the magical coffee cup?

Speaking of scorpions, one upside was that we finally got to see what it's really like trying to use siege weapons against anything other than things that don't move (aka walls): They're slow, heavy, and clumsy. "Reload! Faster!" No, no, you're just not going to do it "faster" because siege weapons are not fast, especially when trying to engage the medieval equivalent of an F-15 with a fully automatic howitzer. Also, perhaps I missed something, but how exactly were the bells pertinent to Dany? We saw Tyrion explain his plan to Jaime and then explain it to Jon, but Dany wasn't privy to those conversations. So, when the bells are rung, that's what triggers her to act on Missandei's last word? That just seemed like something hit the cutting room floor that we otherwise should have seen.

One real downside of Martin not having his effective hand on the tiller is the degeneration of Tyrion as a character. As noted before, Tyrion's adherence to his new outlook on life has become less tragic and more annoying than anything else. He's wedded to the same fantasies that Dany and Varys were, but has spent all of this season and much of the last two expressing them in an ever more dolorous fashion. In the middle of trying to insist to Dany that she should find another way of taking the city, he insists on the crackpot plan of escaping to Pentos for his two siblings. Family loyalty and childhood memories run deep; I get that. But woeful, tragic Tyrion is a lot less interesting than canny, smart, and still tragic Tyrion. Martin has said before that the Imp is the character he's closest to and who carries what is essentially GRRM's outlook on life and it's never been more obvious that D&D don't have anywhere near the grasp on him than it has been since the series departed the books.

It was a nice touch to see Arya standing alone in the aftermath, which highlights her character in many ways. Adding in the pale horse ("Then I looked and saw before me a pale horse; he who rode upon it was named Death; and hell followed with him." - Revelation 6:8.) was also appropriate for those of us into those kind of apocalyptic scenarios.

Two fight scenes, two impressions: The Clegane Bowl was decent. I kind of wish that there'd been a way to distinguish between what the Mountain could endure just because he was Gregor and what being a zombie version of Gregor was able to grant him in that fight. Having to follow the typical zombie routine of "aim for the head" was, however, quite disappointing. But the Euron/Jaime "showdown" was completely superfluous. It was basically just a way to give Euron something to do other than being roasted by a dragon with hundreds of others and somehow grant a latter-day lover's quarrel between the two of them over Cersei. That's just completely ham-handed writing and a real waste of a few minutes of screen time.

Lines of the week:

"Alright, then, Let it be fear."
Kind of a setup line for something everyone could see coming, but at least it was delivered with conviction.

"I drink to eat the skull keeper."
Communication is essential.

But the winner, as always and forever, is the Hound:

"Yeah. That's you. That's what you've always been."
That line applies to so many characters in this episode.

Still the best character in the story, dead or alive.

Monday, May 6, 2019

Just waiting

Yeah, that's kinda what I felt like when it was over.
At some point, the process of writing tends to inform you, the writer, whether or not you know what you're doing. That can come early, if you're lucky, when you realize that you either enjoy what you're doing or you don't; that you feel confident about what you're doing or you don't; that you know these characters that you've assembled to tell your story... or you don't. But sometimes it comes late and you look back on however many hundreds or thousands of pages and discover that what you tried to do really hasn't materialized. I've been fortunate in that I've only gotten dozens of pages into something, rather than hundreds (or thousands), before I realized that the product wasn't matching the idea.

George R. R. Martin has been often criticized for his slow progress on A Song of Ice and Fire and he's often mentioned that "sometimes these characters speak to me and sometimes they don't." When they do, he can write them. When they don't... I've gradually come to the conclusion that these characters aren't really speaking to Benioff and Weiss, but they're continuing to write them because they want to be finished with them and move on to other things. After a decade of almost exclusive involvement with this one project, one can hardly blame them. But the fact is that what the writer writes, the reader reads. If my perception is that D&D have gotten to the point where they just want it to be over, then it's not difficult for me to be in that position, either. At this point, everything is proceeding by rote and there are very few surprises to be had. And I don't mean "surprises" as in which main characters are going to be killed off. Anyone who thinks that Game of Thrones' essential identity is killing off people to shock the audience is an idiot and should not be listened to. No one has died in the story, books or shows, who wasn't clearly intended to die. That's always been part of the identity of the world and the epic storyline. People die in wars.

I really hope we're upwind.
But there are no surprises for the way this is all proceeding, in general. The emotional conflict between Jon and Dany; the distrust by Sansa and Arya of anyone who isn't a Stark; Tyrion clinging to the ideals of Dany moreso than she is; Jaime having to be there at the last showdown with his sister; the dragons being neutralized so that the end is far more traumatic than it otherwise would be; and on and on and on. What's worse is that even when the nominally impartial observer (aka the viewer) can see that many of these choices are foolishly impractical (Tyrion), the way the character has developed over the previous two seasons hasn't covered enough ground to really sell the idea. Tyrion's path in the books makes him far more likely to have decided to base his existence on the better side of everyone's nature than in the show. But that's because GRRM has spent thousands upon thousands of words detailing that path. D&D haven't had that much time, so making their story conform to that path, however indirectly, leaves it feeling hollow and stilted and very, very staged. Once again, this is the difficulty of shifting from one medium to another.

Is this why Benioff and Weiss were given the credit "Written for television by", rather than the usual "Written by" for this episode? Did they detach themselves from this part of it because it's more Martin's story that they want to finish, rather than what they would do? Has the story been degrading over the past couple seasons because it doesn't have GRRM's hand on the tiller, as many suspect? I don't know. I just know that I'm to the point where I don't really care whether Martin ever finishes the books... and I don't really care about the ending of this show, either. Until you give me something that isn't underwhelming (last week) or patently obvious (this week), I'm watching this (and writing these) mostly because I've watched the rest of it for the past eight years and not because I'm particularly compelled to see what happens to anyone among the cast. I'm kinda bored and, like the writers, really just waiting for it to end. Dany spent a moment tonight asking the honest man, Jon, to lie. He couldn't do it and neither can I.

I'm either going to kiss you or tell you you're just another target to me. Maybe both.
Technical stuff:

That's not to say that there weren't some good performances in this episode. Among those that stand out are the shared moments between my favorite character, the Hound, and both Sansa and Arya. The former and Clegane commiserating over their shared suffering and how it forged Sansa into what she is now was as genuine a reunion as has yet occurred in this season. Similarly, the Odd Couple back on the road again was a welcome development that speaks to the chemistry between actors and characters. By the same token, while the performances weren't particularly great, the scenes between Gendry and Arya, as well as Brienne and Jaime, were totally appropriate. I know some people are ranting about "fan service", but both of those relationships were obvious from the moment the two pairs met and having both of them culminate in finally getting together and then inevitably separating because of the nature of the people involved is wholly appropriate. People squawking about those situations being "for the fans" or some such nonsense don't know shit about writing.

However, they're working the 'Jon is Really Aegon Targaryen' thing pretty hard, with him being the one giving the in memoriam speech before burning the bodies, instead of Dany or Sansa, and then the pointed difference between the austere and distant queen and the good ol' boy at the banquet. I think that's laudable to a certain degree, since you don't want the fate of the realm hanging solely on the lovers' quarrel about heritage and primogeniture. But anyone who's watched the show for any length of time knows that both of those characters are emotional enough that the rift between them is already believable enough without having to emphasize Jon's inherent leadership ability among the Westerosi and Dany's apparent lack thereof. In short, they're laying it on a little thick.

I am who you thought I was.
Also, I get that the point of Jon's series of goodbyes was for him to demonstrate that he was willing to leave behind all of what made him to this point. After all, he's going south to another war and he's discovered that he's not who he thought he was, so he's abandoning the "northern" part of his identity. But it's also putting the final stake in what was a running theme in the books: the Starks' connection to the land itself via the dire wolves. Turning to Tormund and telling him to "take" the eternally loyal Ghost not only doesn't make much sense in terms of the relationship they've shared (How is Tormund going to stop Ghost when the latter decides to head south? With a leash?) but it's OTT in terms of the "have to leave all that behind" theme. Again, given the short shrift that they've gotten, they really should have written Ghost out when the rest of the wolves' died or disappeared. It's just been awkward for a while now.

I wanted more Varys... and we got it! Unfortunately, it was mostly Varys spouting his particular brand of Marxism, which I wholly agree with in principle, but that often seems even more idealistic than Tyrion trying to appeal to his murderous sister. The Varys in the books recruited the Martells and Illyrio Mopatis because he felt that a Targaryen could keep the realm from exploding into the constant warfare that had beset the continent when it was actually seven kingdoms. He later revealed that his concern was for the people, not any particular regime. That's all well and good, but shifting gears now to someone whom he has to be aware will be pliable and indecisive because he doesn't want the job doesn't seem to be the wisest tack for the Master of Whispers. Yes, yes; spout all the old aphorisms about how the "best president is the guy who doesn't want to be president" that you like. It still seems too artificial for someone who's been playing this game for as long as he has.

Speaking of staged and artificial, my most ardent complaint was the Bronn scene. Now, in the books, Bronn leaves the stage in book 3 when given his compliant wife and a castle; easy street for life. I'm glad that D&D didn't follow suit, because Jerome Finn is a great actor and he's been fun to watch. But this scene was just poor from beginning to end. It was a Marx Brothers' routine, except not funny. So, you're telling me that this random guy is going to be able to stroll right into not just Winterfell, but the castle, hauling the most elaborate crossbow anyone has ever seen and not be stopped by anyone? Then he's going to walk in on the two Lannister brothers, extract an outlandish promise without witnesses, and then almost literally exit stage right, his bit done, and the new skit starting in a moment? Seriously? This isn't even good comedy, to say nothing of drama. The whole bit just screams: "Hey, we got this guy under contract to the end of the series. We need something. How about...?"

Yeah, well, I was still the sexiest woman in the whole series, so I got that going for me. Which is nice.
Lines of the week:

"We fought dead things and lived to tell about it. If this isn't the time to drink, when is?"
Jaime with the mantra of role-players everywhere. ("I'm getting drunk! Are there any girls there?!")

"We may have defeated them, but we still have us to contend with."
This is the backside of the theme of the series since page 1.

"You shouldn't envy me. Mostly, I live in the past."
Seriously, Bran gets the best lines these days. It's almost a GOP voter tagline.

"I'm happy that you'll finally have to climb for it. Do you know how long I've been waiting to tell tall person jokes?"
Tyrion still has his moments, though.

Monday, April 29, 2019

The Long Fight and the difficulty of endings

Endings are difficult. No less a writer than Neal Stephenson taught me that. I love Stephenson's intricate storylines and data dump of information inside a narrative that still makes sense and moves forward. But his endings suck. He's gotten better at them, but when you build up a story that elaborate and then suddenly have to wrap it up, it becomes a tricky thing to figure out just how much time or how many words to devote to people and events that you've been working with for years. I know that I've struggled with them at times because, having had some characters in my head for years (decades, in some cases), I don't want the story to end because it often means the end of that character and his/her intricately constructed situation. Thus, we arrive at the first of the final battles of Game of Thrones.

On the one hand, all stories must have an ending and this was the ending for the Night's King. In some ways, the symmetry was rather interesting. Bran's plan was to lure him back to the point where the Others were created, in the Godswood of Winterfell, and hope that Arya would be able to close the door. She did, appropriately with the Valyrian steel dagger that had once been used in the attempt on Bran's life that triggered many of the events that have led most of the cast to this time and place. (Yes, Littlefinger started the ball rolling with Jon Arryn's death, but Catelyn jump-started the war when she thought Tyrion had tried to assassinate her comatose son.) The immediate events leading up to that dagger plunging into the greatest threat to the world entire were suitably chaotic and desperate and tense and action-packed. That's all well and good.

OTOH, one of the basic themes of the story was that the petty squabbles among humans grasping for temporal power paled in comparison to the Others returning with their eternal power. We as yet don't know why the Others were returning now instead of any time over the thousands of years since their initial defeat and the raising of the Wall. The show also has (probably wisely) skipped over the fact that the Night's King wasn't really created by the Children, since he was a commander of the Night's Watch before being lured north by a witch, which means the Wall was already present when he left his post. So, now we've been given the lie to that entire and ancient theme (which, in truth, may only be a concern to those of us who've read the books.) In fact, the war to end all wars was just a prelude to the REAL fight between more of those squabbling humans. This seems a little like putting World War II before World War I, despite the presence of trenches. (Air power was far more important in the former, too.)

To properly serve the story, you really can't reduce the final confrontation between Cersei and everyone else and the final decision on who sits on the Iron Throne to a sideshow in the face of the advancing Others, so I get it. This had to be wrapped up before everyone turned back to the south. However, with half the season still left to play out, I can't help but feel like this was a little too quick an ending for the greatest threat to the world entire. Despite losing Jorah, Edd, Beric, Melisandre, the lady Mormont, and Theon, that's not quite the casualty list one would have expected from a story built on the idea that "no one is safe." Of course, we know that's not true and that most of the major characters who have died (Ned, Robb, Drogo) were long planned to do so as our tragedy proceeded. All the same, I have to say that the overall impact of this episode for me was pretty low. I expected that the Others and their army of the dead would carry on for at least another episode, perhaps pushing everyone to the south and forcing Cersei to get involved. Instead of another instance of "those northerners and their fairy tales", everyone south of the Neck would have to acknowledge that the Night's Watch actually served a purpose for those thousands of years. Instead, we've ended up in the spot that Cersei, with her usual pragmatic perspective, had predicted: Let the monsters kill each other and then she'll mop up what's left. That feels too easy.

And that's kind of the root of my mixed feelings. Yes, I understand the need to end this plot line here. No, it doesn't feel satisfactory. Yes, I understand the technique of battle chaos. There is such a thing as too much of it. I think there were some great moments of atmosphere: the wait in the darkness for all the troops; the weighted silence between Jon and Dany on the hill; the tender moment before what seems like their impending death between Sansa and Tyrion; Melisandre taking the last walk into dust, the Lord of Light's purpose fulfilled. But I still feel like I wasn't getting much story or, if I was, not as much story as I expected from a threat that we first encountered almost a decade ago on the show (and far longer in the books.)

Now that we've resolved the plot line that's been running since the prologue of the first episode (and the prologue of the first novel) and it feels kind of empty, where do we go? Again, I get why this had to be pushed out of the way in order to resolve so many other plot lines, because this is a story about characters. But it's also a story about grand themes and the remaining three episodes now have a tinge of the Scouring of the Shire, where we've done all the hard work and now it's just about cleaning up some recalcitrant old man and his thugs who just won't go away. This is not what I was expecting and I'm wondering if, like Stephenson's novels, there just isn't a way to make this ending work in the way that everyone would like it to.

Technical stuff:

Years and years ago, I enjoyed the approach that action directors were taking in showing scenes and fights/battles in "real time". Fights are chaotic and it's often hard to tell friend from foe, especially if there are thousands of them milling around. That's part of why warriors in medieval Japan used to wear those little flags on their backs; so they could tell who was lining up with which daimyo. But that's been taken to an extreme in the last decade and it's now often difficult to even tell what's happening in a lot of fight scenes. This one, also taking place at night and with the flickering lighting of fire, was perhaps the worst example of that I've seen in quite some time. I spent a fair amount of time feeling like I was missing something or trying to tell whom it was that was actually fighting. That's called "knocking your audience out of the action." I mean, yeah, the episode is titled "The Long Night" so it's hard to see and the haze over the action only added to that feeling of tension and disorientation. Fine. But when I'm reading your story, I still don't want the words to be blurry. It was and is a fine technique. As with most directors over the past 20 years, I think they overdid it. And get off my body-filled lawn.

I've already seen some criticism going around about the execution of the battle, especially over the suicidal charge of the Dothraki. Well, let's just say that that was a fine example of one of the oldest of military aphorisms: "No plan survives contact with the enemy." A full Dothraki charge is one of the most fearsome things in all of Essos and, presumably, Westeros. A full Dothraki charge with flaming arakhs is even more fearsome. That it was swallowed up without a sound (Dothraki screamers, remember?) by the dead was just one way of demonstrating how fearsome the opposition was. That's the way the helmet bounces sometimes.

In contrast... FFS, trebuchets are not field weapons! They're siege machines because, for all the enormous damage they can do, they're ridiculously hard to aim. That's why everyone in the real world only aimed them at things that didn't move, like curtain walls. They're really good at pitching stones at those walls that, like most walls, don't move anywhere until they fall over. They're horrible when used to hurl projectiles ahead of your advancing lines! Even worse when those projectiles are designed to burst and shower flames when they land. You're much more likely to end up dropping so-called friendly fire on your own guys than you are the enemy, most of whom probably haven't even come into range of your weapons and, if they have, then you're about to drop shit on your own guys who are, at that moment, engaged in an all out charge at the enemy. I really wish ancient/medieval/fantasy warfare writers and directors would get over that idea. Artillery in the ancient world wasn't like that of the Gunpowder Era and beyond.

I hope they delve into Bran's nature and actions a bit more in the last three weeks. I hope it's not just a case of "we really don't know what to do with the magic man." Last week, much was made of the fact that the Night's King was coming to Winterfell because he was coming for Bran and the plan was to lure him to the Godswood and then try to take him out from there. So far, so good. But if the King knew that Bran was at Winterfell, it felt to me like he didn't need a flashing neon sign to find him. Bran went warging into all of the ravens in Winterfell and my initial thought was that he was sending them out to summon some allies that we didn't know existed or perhaps to harass the enemy somehow. But, looking back on it, it seems like he was just using the birds to lure the King to the Godswood which... okay? That seems kind of superfluous. But maybe it's just my lingering dissatisfaction with the episode as a whole.

One other moment of symmetry also involved Arya, which had her revert to her childhood role of running in order to stay alive. The library/horror scene was well done in that respect and I understand why they did it, since non-stop battle can get a little old. But I also felt that, as much as I liked the flashback to Arya running through the catacombs under the Red Keep (and then having the prayer to the god of Death recited to her again; first sword of Braavos, salute), it felt a little unwieldy. There's this rampaging horde of undead, sprinting and growling through every square yard of Winterfell... but these guys have slowed to a walk and are just wandering around. Wouldn't they have sprinted through the library in search of things to kill? Instead, we do the horror scene for a couple minutes. Again, the lingering dissatisfaction and the difficult endings.

I'm disappointed that over the last two seasons, Conleth Hill's role has been one of stating the obvious in grim reflection of what we can already see happening around us. He used to be so much more interesting and insightful. Granted, the Lord of Whispers doesn't have the same impact in the middle of all-out war, but I'd still like to see him saying something other than his lone line for the entire episode ("At least we're already in a crypt.") being an obvious flaw in the plan that most viewers were already talking about at the end of last week's episode. (When facing a guy who raises the dead, what do we stay away from? Dead people!) Similarly, perhaps the wolf unit should have just been retired. We got two seconds of Ghost sitting in the battle lines and another second of him running with the Dothraki charge. That's it. I know using the dogs is a complicated task, but these little glimpses are possibly worse than just having written the wolves out entirely.

Lines of the week:

"That's the most heroic thing we can do now: look the truth in the face."
The wisdom of the formerly naive that has been through things almost worse than death.

"Everything you did brought you to where you are now. Where you belong. Home."
Bran with the summation of a lot of these characters.

Monday, April 22, 2019

Last time across the bridge

Game of Thrones has always had a pattern to its seasons. At least once or twice, they'd run what I've always referred to as "bridge" episodes. They were basically lots of people talking about events that had just happened as a way to get to the next series of things that would happen. When you have this many characters and storylines to keep track of, they kind of become a necessity to make the characters into real people. These events impact them- mentally, emotionally, and often physically -and you have to take time to depict that if you're going to properly tell their stories. In the end, GoT remains the story of these characters, as much as it is the story of the Song of Ice (Night's King) and Fire (Dragons.) I once remarked that GoT was emblematic of a plot-driven story, in that many of the major events taking place would happen with or without Tyrion or Sansa or Davos Seaworth. But the story is about how those major events impact those people, as much as it is about the transformation of the world (human and beyond.) And, given the presence of people like Dany and Cersei, it's a character-driven story, as well. If you have a character-driven story, then you need to show those characters as human. Otherwise, you end up with a repeating serial like a comic book that never comes to an end because the characters are never truly changed (and don't age, unlike some people in this story...)

This was one of those bridge episodes. Last week was the collection of reunions among most of the key figures and introductions between a few more. This week, in the face of their impending doom, we spent time both reminiscing and demonstrating how much the world had changed through the eyes of the major figures of that world. As much as a certain segment of the audience wants something "to happen" in each episode, what they may not realize is that things are happening. The exchanges between these characters are moving their stories and, thus, the story forward. No one is getting killed, but many of these scenes are payoffs for things begun literally years ago or often hinted at for so long that leaving them hanging might be doing both character and audience a disservice. GoT has avoided fan satisfaction in the name of good storytelling for a long time, but there are limits to all things. Sometimes the two happen to intersect.

That was no more evident than in the scene between Arya and Gendry where she decides she's going to experience sex for the first and maybe last time. Their attraction to each other has been evident from almost the moment they met. Bringing that thread to an end is something both appropriate from the relationship formed between those two characters and from the macro perspective: they're all about to die, so they might as well celebrate life before it happens. Even believers in the god of Death gotta get laid. The fact that said scene was a bit of fan service to the "shipper" types is just a (ahem) happy coincidence. Aside from that, the meta implication that the audience has seen both character and actress grow from girl to woman over the years that the show has been running and were witness to "little Arya's (Maisie's)" first sex scene is just another layer to that event. If it made you uncomfortable, then you're still looking at Arya (Maisie) as she was then and not what she is now. But that's exactly what these bridge episodes are supposed to help you with: seeing how these characters are changed by and are changing in the world around them. To the writers' credit, they kept the scene firmly within current Arya's wheelhouse. There was no outpouring of emotion or new realization on her part about the wonders of sex. It was functional, detached, purposeful; just like the Faceless Men, which was always going to be the central question around Arya when the Starks returned to Winterfell: How does the inhuman assassin function around other humans?

With all of that in mind, it was mildly annoying to note how maudlin some of these scenes were, with Tyrion and Jaime doing the "what if we'd done things differently?" routine and Jon even directly telling his former Black Watch comrades to "think back to where we started." We didn't really need to be reminded of that. We've all been remembering how things started in the books for 23 years and in the show for 8. We get it. And, keeping in theme, the episode brings back the likely prophetic song device, where the lyrics of an old folk song (sung by Pod!) are laying out the path that the story is likely to take, when so many of them will die on the "damp, cold stones" of Winterfell. But being maudlin is part of anticipating death with (relatively) good humor, so there's that, and reaffirming the fondness between some of the characters that indicates why they're willing to fight and die for each other is another element that can't be ignored if, once again, you're telling stories about humans and not cardboard cutouts.

Technical stuff:

Hats off to Gwendolyn Christie for making Brienne not only a compelling character but one of the most principled and honorable in a den of liars and politics. There's something interesting about being surrounded by people who are telling lies for their own benefit or for what they think is someone else's benefit and often being the only one willing to stand up and say it plain. She was one half of what I still think is the best character scene in the whole series (her and Jaime in the hot tub in season 4) and she used the revelation from that scene to empower her defense of Jaime in this episode. One might have also suggested that Jaime slaying someone who was burning people alive for no reason is right in line with Dany's professed values, so her standing up to defend her dead father is more than a little like Sam's rush of emotion about losing his own tyrannical progenitor last week. I get the whole family loyalty thing but, seriously, come on. (Yes, I know. Humans. They're weak.)

Similarly, Sophie Turner is killing it in her brief moments on screen. This is Sansa as she is now: politically aware, suspicious, determined to not let her family be taken advantage of again ("What about the North?") I admit to being kind of surprised at the emotional reunion with Theon, before I remembered that he's the one who engineered her escape from Ramsay Bolton. I've become so accustomed to the recriminatory attitudes amidst reunions with people who've done bad things in the past (like Jaime) that it was almost unusual to see Theon, object of scorn, become Theon, long lost heartfelt companion. I have continued similar thoughts about Isaac Hampstead-Wright. He's not getting a ton of lines, but most of them ("The things we do for love.") carry weight and are wonderfully delivered.

It was good to see that the wolf unit continuing to be credited actually had some effect on the screen, as Ghost made a brief cameo. Here's hoping he's involved in more than just standing in the background when the fisticuffs start up. There was a point in the books when the connection between the wolves and the Stark children was actually important. With that in mind, it occurred to me tonight with the second appearance of the new astrolabe (with images of what's happened in the show, rather than in the history that led up to it) just how long it's been since the stag's head on the title medallion has had any impact whatsoever. The dragon, lion, and wolf have remained the movers and shakers behind and within the story, but House Baratheon has been a non-entity for several seasons now. One would think they'd have been willing to make an adjustment there.

On a more negative front, the scene with Davos and Gilly guiding the refugees seemed almost completely superfluous and ham-handed. Perhaps it was a way to get the two of them more screen time (for Hannah Murray, her first of the season) or to emphasize how the smallfolk are put upon once again by the wars happening over their heads, since the rest of the episode was taken up by the nobles talking about how they're going to conduct said war. But it still felt extremely tacked on to a story that was otherwise about the emotional impacts of the last few years. The young girl's initial insistence on being involved also detracted from the later confrontation between the Mormonts, as Lady Lyanna insisted that she be present in the same way. We're already getting a Kit Harrington height joke every episode. We probably don't need a re-emphasis of the Lady Mormont meme, as well. (I continue to enjoy every moment of Bella Ramsey's time on screen, even if she is basically comic relief.)

Two non-show things: I realized later that I'd been misspelling Tyrion's name as "Tirion." That's because Blizzard's Warcraft games have a character named "Tirion Fordring" and I'd been playing Hearthstone recently, so that spelling was stuck in my brain.

For the second week in a row, HBO previewed something that has me at least as excited as I am about the last season of GoT, if not more. Last week, it was the Chernobyl miniseries, which feeds my Cold War history urge (There are several excellent books about the disaster which are quite engrossing.)  This week it was the long awaited Deadwood movie. Only took 13 years! That's, um, only a little longer than the gap may be between A Dance with Dragons and The Winds of Winter...

Lines of the week:

"You want to know what they're like? Death. That's what they're like." Said to the Faceless Man. Gendry really doesn't know what he's getting into.

"How do you know there is an 'afterwards'?"
Bran with the killer lines. If he sees everything, maybe he's already seen enough to know the end result isn't what everyone wants. Watching everyone die at the hands of the Night's King only for the final credits to roll would be far more catastrophic than Tony Soprano sitting in a diner. But it would almost be funny.

"She's always been good at using the truth to tell lies."
There is no more accurate summation of Cersei ever spoken. Fitting that it's her two brothers ruminating on it.

"She never fooled you. You always knew exactly what she was. And you loved her, anyway."
And, again, a hard truth that Jaime is fully aware of.

"We have never had a conversation last this long without you insulting me!"
Speaking of self-deprecation, Brienne remains a font of honesty. I thought the knighting scene was very well done, but I think the closest Jaime came to an actual acknowledgment of affection was offering to serve under her command.

"He wants to erase this world and I am its memory."
Again, Bran with the lines that speak not only the obvious truth, but the essential truth of the story. The Others were designed to exterminate the First Men. All of these people are descendants in some way of the First Men (humans.) Therefore, wiping out their history fulfills the original intent of the Children of the Forest. But it's also a larger statement on a society beholden to family histories and tradition. If The Others wipe out all of that, it's a way to start over.

"I'm not the Red Woman. Take your own bloody pants off."
Again, this isn't really about an emotional attachment or the excitement of having sex for the first time. It's functional. She's willing to engage in the enticement of undressing each other only so far. Then, it's down to business and everyone better be ready.

"I'm not a king, but if I were, I'd knight you ten times over."
Uncomfortable innuendo, they name is Tormund Giantsbane (and his giant breast milk.)

But the winner, as always, was the Hound. The scene with him and Arya, the boon companions of death, sitting bored against the parapets, waiting for the killing (their life's purpose) to start, produced a number of gems:

"Was he on your list?"
Here's the practical Hound: If Beric was on her list, then I can get her to get rid of this annoying guy.

"Thoros isn't here anymore, so I hope you're not about to give a sermon. Cuz if you are, he's gonna wonder why he brought you back 19 times only for you to die when I chuck you over this fucking wall."
Or I can just do it myself. Like always. Especially since I don't want to spend my last night alive with a devotee of a fire god.

"I might as well be at a bloody wedding."
There's a couple layers of in-joke, having missed the Red Wedding and citing the Hound's general distaste for interacting with humans. It's also kind of funny of him to point out the segment of the audience who are totally missing the relevance of episodes like this one.

"Last man here, burn the rest of us."
But the last word goes to Dolorous Edd, for whom the atmosphere of this episode is especially fitting.