Tuesday, July 19, 2016

This is the bed you have made

So... yeah. As I was saying before, this is what happens when utter incompetence becomes the order of the day. Under ordinary circumstances, you'd have to work quite hard to pull off a display that bad but these are, as the proverb says, interesting times and, therefore, not ordinary. The above summary, which was reproduced on Twitter and in various spots around the Intertubes (I wish I knew who originally wrote it so I could give credit; feel free to comment if you know from whence it originates), doesn't even include what I thought was the pinnacle moment. That was when the live chat on the Youtube broadcast of the convention was shut down by the Grand Old Party because an actual elected official there to speak positively about Trump (precious few of those), was given a typical response by a portion of the Donald's base. See, Linda Lingle, the former governor of Hawaii, happens to be Jewish. Consequently, it took not very long for the anti-Semites to come creeping into the daylight of their monitors and begin reciting the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Trump's new campaign slogan could be a self-reflective one: This is the bed you have made. That would, of course, require that the candidate be capable of any kind of reflection that didn't involve a mirror.

The biggest story was the one about Melania Trump lifting portions of Michelle Obama's 2008 Democratic convention speech for her performance last night. Some questions on the board were posed about how this could even be possible since it was such an obvious gaffe and suggested that it was an inside job of some sort. My response is to cite the first rule of political journalism, which goes back at least to Goethe and has been much paraphrased since then (and he probably swiped it, too): Never attribute to malice what can be explained by stupidity. The Trump campaign has demonstrated an astounding talent for incompetence to date. Last night is just a continuation of that pattern. If the only people you can hire are fools and, even worse in this context, fools that have never run a major political campaign, this is what you'll get. Even Paul Manafort, interim campaign manager and veteran of campaigns going back to the mid-70s, has only ever been a consultant. He's good at putting out fires. But the Trump campaign is an inferno, lit largely by the misplaced anger of his base.

Based on my response to that question, another regular suggested that if the campaign is this bad, what happens when Trump has to hire people to actually run the government? Who will want to work with him? Who will he allow to work with him and his ego? Won't this be a disaster of Biblical proportions?!!

That answer is a bit more nuanced (inasmuch as anything can be nuanced that involves The Donald.) The federal government is a huge and lethargic entity, as any Trump supporter will be glad to tell you (many of them while cashing checks.) There's a certain degree of autonomy and inertia at the Cabinet level that tends to persist unless there's a crisis. That's how we got "Brownie, you're doing a heckuva job!",because nobody really gave a shit who the apparatchik was that was running FEMA until he actually, you know, had to do something. A lot of people get into Cabinet posts as simply a way into the Beltway circles (I will forever recommend Mark Leibovich's This Town on this topic; it is, without a doubt, the best book on modern politics that I've ever read) so they can make money post-"public service." As long as nothing too crisis-like happens, they coast and get paid handsomely by whomever they've made deals with while in office and the country isn't too much the worse for wear. Or they take all of that inside knowledge and use it to exploit the system, typically working against the very interests they were supposed to be supporting while in office. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you former Attorney General of the United States, Eric Holder.

Obviously, State and a couple other agencies are a bit more pertinent to the hourly situation in the world, but that's just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic in a Trump administration, anyway, since he'll be the equivalent of the racist old uncle that everyone endures at Thanksgiving in almost any situation. In the event of President Trump, I won't be able to sit still thinking about that loon at a state dinner with any national leader from a culture that's not white. Or France. The comedic possibilities are almost limitless.

But in terms of how disastrous his election could be, my suspicion is that there's not a ton of difference, tonally, between Trump's band of anti-government newcomers and the cadre of hardcore Cold Warriors that George W. Bush brought with him. They're both so suffused in their own ideology that it doesn't matter if reality conflicts with it. It's almost solipsistic. I remember that a year or so after the Iraq invasion, there was an interview in the NYT magazine where Ron Suskind sat down with some flack from the White House who decried the "reality-based community" (i.e. all of us) because they (the GWB administration) "create our own reality... and you'll just be left to study what we do." Does that sound like a quote that could emerge from the Great Oompah Loompah? It does to me. Bush did a lot of damage, but he basically just kept pursuing the policies that have been part of our government for a long time. The Iraq War is, of course, the huge, glaring exception but I'd suggest that Trump, xenophobe that he is, would be even less likely to hie off on some military adventure than Clinton, as she's expressed far more interest during her career of laying waste to whomever even thinks of threatening US cash flow. Plus, she'll carry the burden of constantly having to prove her "toughness" as a consequence of her gender because, y'know, American society is stupid like that. Yes, Trump may decide to spend billions on a sixty-foot wall, but he'll at least be creating a market for sixty-one-foot ladders, so.., job creation! Woo.

What that means, of course, is that the suggested campaign slogan isn't just for the Trump campaign. It's for the American electorate as a whole. This is what's been presented to you as "choice" by those that control the message, backed up as they are by nebulous things like "tradition" and the fallacious concepts of "wasting your vote" and so on ("Those who control the past control the future. Those who control the present control the past.") There are other choices out there. You don't have to lie down in that bed and take only what you're offered. I do, however, suggest that you take time out to watch the rest of the GOP convention, because it's going to continue to be high comedy.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Faceplant of the "outsiders"

Donald Trump's campaign for president has been emblematic of many things: the celebrity nature of modern politics, the phenomenon of more information leading to greater ignorance, and the color orange.

But, in a pragmatic sense, it has been a greater example of another concept: This is what happens when people have no idea what they're doing. Today's moment has been brought to us by The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/jul/04/donald-trump-antisemitic-hillary-clinton-tweet

Right away, depending on your inherent perspective, you're probably thinking one of two things: 1. This is just another example of Trump's/the campaign's/his supporters' obvious biases. or 2. This is 'the media' overreacting. Given the small number of people who read this blog, my bet is that the majority of you are thinking #1. But what you should be thinking is: Who the hell does this in a major political campaign?

Trump's supporters laud the fact that he's a "political outsider". He's never held elected office or even run a campaign for one. Given the Donald's notorious ego, it's not surprising that he'd try to start at the top. But if you are going to go big-time and have generated a substantial amount of support (which he has), the first thing you should think of doing as the presumed outsider is finding people that know how to play the game. You can say that you're not on anyone's payroll and that's a positive thing. But if you're going to run a major campaign, you want people on your payroll that know how to steer the battleship that your effort is going to become (whether you like it or not.) I've kinda been there. When I was chair of GPMI, during our first major election season post-Nader, I pushed the idea that we, as the outsider party, should look for people who didn't seem like the typical political candidates, since that's what people inclined to vote for us would find more appealing. I was wrong. Several of the people that we had on our ticket were simply not suited to the task and the people they had around them to ostensibly help in that task were, likewise, not up to it.

This latest story about Trump's efforts is the primo example to date of why you hire campaign staff with, you know, actual experience running a campaign: 1. So you don't have staffers apparently pulling images from toxic sources (unless you're really interested in promoting your half-assed Nazi connections.) 2. So you don't have said images roll all the way up the chain of approval without someone saying the obvious: "Um, doesn't that look like a Star of David on a pile of money?" 3. So you have enough experienced eyes looking at the image and asking: "Tell me again why you think anyone would assume that's a sheriff's badge and why we'd assume that that would make people think of corruption, especially among GOP voters where law enforcement is usually supported, if not venerated?" This is basic stuff and, even if it was a kneejerk Tweet and, boy, is Donald J. Trump known for kneejerk Tweets (and I don't think it was, since it was a targeted response), you still need someone overseeing ALL external communications by the campaign. Anything. Period. Full stop.

Granted, people are hypersensitive to that kind of imagery.(unless that image actually came from a white supremacist website, in which case, WTF are your staffers doing there?) but, given that, you have to be aware that people are hypersensitive to that kind of imagery. Trump's campaign is already fighting an uphill battle because of his previous (and continuous) statements of idiocy, so you have to know that everything is going to be interpreted through that prism. Everyone knows this, but these people are so out of their depth that this is like watching a David Blaine trick go awry: Man Actually Drowns in Front of Crowd.

It's one thing to be an outsider because you're saying something new. It's another thing to be an outsider because everything you're saying is repellent except to the minor band of crazies that make your public appearances look like a cross between a rock concert and a Klan rally. Good luck winning a national election with that so-called strategy. On the other hand, it is a source of constant entertainment in a period lacking it (which is why I stopped reviewing Preacher; I'll write something about that soon.)

Monday, June 27, 2016

Back to reality

Much of this season has been dominated by an overarching theme: the search for truth. Whether it be a personal search like Arya's, wherein she came to terms with the reality of who she was and would always be, or a broader truth like Cersei's, wherein she slowly constructed answers to everything that plagued her in her quest for control of her own life and, subsequently, the kingdom, the confrontation with reality has been dominant. I look back on my offhand titles for posts in season 6 and see: "Sometimes it's out of your (cold)hands", "Stuff you don't like to do", and "You can't escape who you are." These are all examples of confrontation with the circumstances around the sprawling cast that they either overcame or simply expected (sometimes both.) Fittingly, the season finale would be one long testament to all of that.

In most of the cases presented, the reality confronted would be a political one. From Dany severing her relationship with Daario (and still lying to him about how no one tells her what to do, when he was right that it was Tyrion's idea) for the sake of Westerosi allies to Lyanna Mormont grilling every other lord in the room for forsaking their oaths to House Stark, the truths in question were all about who rules or will rule and how. That is, of course, the great game that Tyrion spoke of and the reason for the show in the first place. Establishing that not only does a reality exist but that people had best be ready to deal with it was never more apparent than when Margaery finally dropped the facade and told the High Sparrow just where he could get off if he knew what was good for him. In the end, there's some validity to the idea that his expression said everything that he thought about that reality. While he feared death as he stated a couple episodes ago, he feared returning to subservience to the noble masters moreso. Why not go down and take as many of them with you as you can? Unfortunately for him, all he really did was exterminate the line of House Tyrell (in the show, anyway) but it was a nice example of someone refusing to accept the hand that fate had dealt them and instead shaping their loss in the game to something that was at least palatable for the few seconds prior to incineration. (Tangent: Did you notice that he finally put on a clean robe for the ceremony of the trial? Money and station lead to vanity for everyone, at some point.) Similarly, the Late Lord Frey received his comeuppance in two ways, with Jaime putting him in his place as nothing more than a tool of the greater houses and Arya's final stroke of vengeance for the Red Wedding. Unfortunately for Lord Frey (and the brilliant David Bradley), sometimes you get out of life what you've put into it and Walder Frey was usually nothing more than bitter.

Interestingly, the greatest political realist of them all, Littlefinger, not only laid bare his primary motivation to Sansa but also spent much of the episode (until the last few minutes) in one of the worst situations he'd been in since Cersei demonstrated to him the true meaning of power. One got the impression that he'd played all of his cards and was expecting his arrival with the Knights of the Vale to be the masterstroke in sweeping Catelyn's daughter into his arms and securing his hold on both the North and the Vale and, with the chaos sweeping the south, finally the Iron Throne. But it could never be that simple and Sansa ensured it, as she continued to demonstrate how sure a grasp of the game she now possesses, having learned much at the master's feet (and having noticed his lack of enthusiasm for the new King in the North; that passing glance between the two shows that she's well aware of how much of a threat he still is.) Similarly, the Queen of Thorns, confronted with the loss of her entire line, found herself negotiating with a bastard paramour in Sunspear (Yes. Sunspear. (I'll never forget. (The book readers remember!))) for an alliance that most Tyrells would have considered borderline unholy. Canny political operators or no, at some point you realize when the ground has shifted under your feet (perhaps because of a stockpile of explosives...?) and make adjustments. That, too, is confronting the truth, not of what has been but what is now. In the end, both Petyr Baelish and Olenna Redwyne do the smart thing and roll with the punches.

Likewise, Cersei's adaptation to her reality is a mark of someone both determined to control her own destiny (which is what she's been trying to do since she was young) and someone beginning to embrace the fact that the prophecy about her life was and remains totally beyond her control. Her children are now all dead. If the witch was right, her reign will be short and her brother will be the one who ends it. But since she's finally assumed the role she's felt was hers from birth, master of all she surveys (and the multiple skyline gazes before the destruction of the Sept of Baelor were great touches), it's clear that she's determined to accomplish as much as she can before the witch's prediction comes true. This is one step beyond accepting what's happening around oneself and, instead, being acutely aware of how all of this is going to end and going ahead and doing it, anyway.

The rest of the finale was setup for next season, as we've now not only passed the point where the show has departed the books (excepting Sam's arrival in Oldtown, which seems to be the one storyline that is seriously lagging behind the others; not those Others...) but we're hurtling headlong into the new reality: the great war between the Ice and the Fire. That war will apparently include Bran Stark, who's returning from the far north for reasons unknown. Since he can be anywhere in Westeros (and Westerosi time), is it safer to him to come south? That's one of the questions for next season. Another is how the Queenswar will emerge between Dany and Cersei and to which queen will the major houses become or remain loyal? And, of course, the big question that most book readers have had for almost 20 years: Will Jon's Targaryen heritage become a factor in his role as leader of the North?

Side notes:

A few technical complaints: How exactly does one feed three massive dragons on a long voyage across the sea? When they were a lot smaller, they could dive for fish. At this point, unless they're diving for sperm whales, it's not going to work. Also, Varys' trip to Sunspear (to bring the book plot of his machinations full circle, finally) and back to Meereen for the launch was awfully quick. It also took a lot of the poignancy out of his and Tyrion's goodbye scene just one episode before. Wouldn't it have been more appropriate to have them meet somewhere in Westeros (if at all)? Also also, Benjen's presence in this season was a complete non-factor, other than as a vehicle for the escape of Bran and Meera. I can only imagine Joseph Mawle being told that he's being brought back for the first time in five years so he can get all of five minutes of screen time, while he describes how he'd done all this stuff off-screen before exiting stage left again. They might as well have just done something simpler, like Bran getting rescued by a flock of ravens or something. Finally, I found the apparent conclusion of the High Sparrow's storyline a bit too convenient. Cersei mentions "all of his little soldiers" but it seems unlikely that all of the Faith Militant were present at the trial, which means that there should still be a horde of religious fanatics running around the kingdoms and causing trouble for the other players, but perhaps that was D&D cutting to the chase and leaving the Great War between the two major players (and, thus, discarding the little people to their fate, just as the great houses always have; elitist directors?)

In that respect, while I appreciate the intent behind Arya's appearance at the Twins and the serving of the cold Frey pie to Lord Walder, it struck me as overly convenient and very obvious fan service. Similarly to Littlefinger, it wouldn't have surprised me if Frey had outlasted all the other game players but was finally put back to just ruling his little river crossing by the eventual winners. While I get that most of the fanbase was eager to see some measure of payback for the Red Wedding, that struck me as a bit too tit-for-tat. Also, would Lord Walder Frey really use the nickname that others had applied to his fourth son, "Black Walder"? I suppose it was necessary for the TV audience to not hear him simply described as "Walder", but I'm willing to bet that 95% of the audience wouldn't have been able to identify "Black Walder", either.

Is there anyone in the show more entertaining than Bella Ramsey as Lyanna Mormont? Seriously, that kid is amazing. A close second would be Carice Van Houten as Melisandre. Her inner conflict with her faith has been one of the more fascinating things to watch this season and it played out yet again in the finale, as she continued to insist that, despite her failures and her inability to predict the whims of the Lord of Light, they were in as good a situation as they could expect solely because of the power of her god. This is the true article of faith: to insist that everything, no matter how great or terrible, must have happened because of the blind adherence to the grace of an unknowable being. Children were burned alive to make things better and that didn't make things better, but things are only as good as they are now because children were burned alive. See how easy? Van Houten has made Melisandre's inner struggle and continued devotion evident with every expression.

Similarly, there were a couple great performances tonight in very simple terms, where the actor had to convey deep feeling with nothing more than an expression. Dany's plaintive look at Daario as she turned him away was one of Clarke's best moments of the season, while Tyrion's look of genuine emotion at being named Hand of the Queen was also Dinklage's. Also, credit to the young actors portraying Qyburn's little birds. When I watched them carrying out his plans and waylaying Lancel in the wildfire basement, all I could think of was Village of the Damned. Great stuff.

Did anyone else feel mildly cheated with Lyanna whispering the reality of Jon's parentage to Young Eddard? I mean, we got the message with the baby to man transition shot and perhaps D&D were trying to reduce the potential melodrama of the long-awaited moment... but then why call more attention to it by not letting us hear that she loved Rhaegar and this was his child?

On that note, I've only mentioned Ramin Djawadi's contributions once or twice in all the years I've been doing this, but his choice of score was really excellent tonight. The thoughtful piano solo serving as the backdrop to the entire trial sequence and its consequences was brilliant, from the tense gathering as people filled the Sept to the final moment where Tommen decided that the reins of power were too heavy for him to hold. Finding the right music to represent a scene is an art in and of itself and he's been as much a part of the show's success as anyone else involved.

Lines of the night:

"This is Ser Gregor Clegane. He's quiet, too."
There are few things as entertaining as watching Cersei gloat over a situation that she's in total control of.

"You just sit there, a rich slab of beef, and all the birds come pecking."


"Not my type."
"Not blonde enough?"
Bronn, always reliable for a Kelso.

"Can't go killing my son-by-law. Wouldn't be right. Give the family a bad name."
Really, David Bradley has been just great. I'm sorry to see him go.

"I didn't lie. I was wrong."
I'll take 'Words no current GOP congressman would ever utter' for $200, Alex.

"Only a fool would trust Littlefinger."
The wisest thing Sansa's ever said.

"Survival is not what I'm after now."
The Queen of Thorns and the dish served cold.

"So, that's what you want? To be my mistress?"
Hey, I've known a couple guys that would love that role.

"The only people who aren't afraid of failure are madmen like your father."
Insanity can be defined as an overdose of confidence, one supposes.

"Forgive me, my lady, if you're at prayer."
"I'm done with all that."
Illusions left behind, there is now only the game.

And since it's the finale, two winners:

"Winter is here."
"Well, father always promised, didn't he?"
The tagline...

"You'll get that throne you want so badly, I'm sure of it. I hope it makes you happy."
... and the reality.

Monday, June 20, 2016

What Has Gone Before kept going

Hm? Wha-? Was I supposed to be awake there?
I'm a "book reader" when it comes to Game of Thrones, as opposed to a "show watcher", which means that I read the novels before the show began; since 1996, in fact. So the vast majority of what occurred in the seasons leading up to the current one (season 6) was replay for me: I knew what was going to happen but it was enjoyable simply to see it played out onscreen and by an excellent cast. Sometimes it really is cooler to see dragons than it is to imagine them. In a similar vein, I read the entire run of Preacher, month by month, in the 90s, so you'd think that I'd have a similar reaction to the TV show. I'd be able to anticipate what was coming and be excited, even if I knew how it would turn out.

But four episodes into the first season, I don't really have much to look forward to because we're really not getting anywhere. We've seen mildly weird stuff, but nothing anywhere near the extremes that the comic series approached. We've seen a little bit of character development, but nothing that makes any of the characters particularly gripping. Meanwhile, most of the cast is still kind of running in place and the story is stuck with them.

Hey. Hey! You're not paying attention.
On the positive side, we have Jesse deciding that he's going to use The Voice for something positive: getting people to serve God. Specifically, he's getting Odin Quincannon, local industrial and real estate overlord, to do so. But that means... what? The most we've seen of Quincannon so far is that he likes snuff films, is willing to pay people so that he can bulldoze their houses, and gives rather short and direct eulogies for people that die on his land. None of that adds up to anything particularly dramatic when he suddenly finds a reason to listen to the song of the Lord. It's not the equivalent of Cersei suddenly giving away all of her money to the poor of Kings' Landing and becoming a Silent Sister, simply because we don't know enough about Quincannon for it to have that kind of impact.

Similarly. the funeral of Lacey shows Tulip getting pissed about how casually both her demise and the consequent corpse are treated. Great. Tulip can get angry. But we've known that since episode one when she killed two guys in a speeding car over some meth. Tulip is supposed to be a major character in this story, but her participation in this episode was a couple minutes of indignant rage about everyone else's passivity. Shouldn't there have been something else there? The entire episode seemed to be character setup that was already established. It's like the background that editors tell you not to include when you're making a pitch for a fantasy novel: if the exciting stuff is in the past, then why do we care about your story now?

I know there was an interesting story in here somewhere.
Likewise, Cassidy continues the role of clown and occasional scheming addict, but that turned out to be OK. At least he's contributing something by running a con on the angels (Yes. They're not bounty hunters. We'll just call them angels since they've at least revealed that they come from the land in the clouds.), which are the two characters that actually most moved the overall (and current!) series plot forward this time, since they've come close to admitting just what it is they're pursuing and why it seems to require Jesse's vivisection. If there's any reason that a casual observer just coming across the show would stay and watch, it's the comedy of errors that is that trio while Cassidy attempts to score with their cash, and the fact that they retain some degree of mystery while they ineptly attempt to be mysterious.

Y'all are idiots for abandoning God. And sitting here this long.
But all of this surrounds the central plot of the episode, which is Jesse trying to be a man of God and fill the church by holding a raffle. Once again, we seem to have a writing team that wants to play in a Tales from the Crypt-esque world but doesn't quite know how to pull it off while still saying something "profound" about Jesse's motivations. The flashbacks to his childhood, his father's expectations, the incredibly restrained whipping, and Jesse's general disenchantment with religious life are obvious attempts to display the experiences (what has gone before...) that would make Jesse the kind of metronome of morality that he seems to be (hardcore crook to minister who still isn't above beating the shit out of people in bars and manipulating the emotions of his assistant for a big screen TV.) But none of that made for particularly gripping television, either, as it seemed to stumble away from the weird stuff while trying to say something larger. This is, in truth, the problem that I eventually had with the comic series, but Garth Ennis was a hell of a lot better at it. I stayed with that for 66 issues and over five years. I may not last three months with the show unless they can give me a better reason to pay attention than watching Cassidy toy with the minions of Heaven.

A little bit of the old ultraviolence

For most of the series, the 9th episode has been the big battle scene of one kind or another, whether it was a domestic dispute or something more explosive. "The Battle of the Bastards" was no different in that respect, but it was still somewhat different in that much of it was taken up by a depiction of the brutality of warfare, rather than genuinely heroic or shocking or even interesting events. In truth, I actually found the earlier battle in the harbor of Meereen to be much more interesting, since it was the first extended action we've seen of the dragons as a group since the famous "Dracarys" scene and the first we've seen of them, collectively, in their adult forms. That's not to say that the battle in the North was done poorly but I've mentioned before how tired I've grown of the close-up angle that gives audiences the "real-time" experience, but also often leaves them asking what happened instead of remarking on what did happen. There was plenty of that tonight.

Don't get me wrong. I'm all about the depiction of battle in as messy and chaotic a form as it often is. To quote a noted Confederate general: "It is a good thing that war is so terrible. Otherwise, we should grow too fond of it." The modern film that is most noted for introducing the concept that war is, indeed, hell (to paraphrase one of the aforementioned's Union counterparts) is Braveheart and the main battle of this episode borrowed heavily from the (woefully inaccurate) Battle of Stirling Bridge and (almost equally so) Battle of Falkirk in said film. We have the infantry charge, the cavalry response, the indiscriminate arrow volleys into the combined forces, and even the attempt to pursue the fleeing commander from the field. I don't know that Martin has this scene planned in the same way (or if it's even planned), but it seemed fairly obvious that D&D were at least drawing inspiration from the way the battles in Braveheart had been staged. And, given that so much of the episode was taken up by said fight, there's not much of a theme to follow other than the title I've given this review.

Interestingly, though, if you'll indulge the historical geek for a moment. I jotted down a note when Jon mentions in the planning tent that Ramsay has to fight because otherwise the houses of the North would lose faith in him. That note was: "This is Rome and Carthage." Hannibal's campaign in the Second Punic War was meant to draw the other cities on the Italian peninsula away from Rome in the same manner, by beating them in the field when Rome felt their clients might waver. As soon as I typed that, Jon began talking about avoiding a "double envelopment", which is exactly how Hannibal won the Battle of Cannae, the most significant defeat for the Romans in that war (and which led to them waiting to train an entirely new generation of legionaries before they took the field in standard formation again, fighting a pseudo-guerrilla campaign all the while. You think Westerosi are dedicated to war? You have no idea.) But as a contrast, the Boltons actually engaged in hoplite tactics (shield wall crushing the opponent back with long spears (sarissa)) when they encircled Jon's forces, rather than the more flexible approach of Roman legionary tactics. Here endeth the geek lesson.

Why am I going on about all of this history? Because it represented the most interesting part of a long sequence that probably could have been wrapped up a bit sooner except that, again, this was episode 9 and, thus, required the big fight. But, again, I'd have been a lot happier with more of the big lizards doing the Greek fire thing (Byzantines; more history, sorry) to a bunch of ships loaded with pitch than watching the "chaos of battle" bit on the northern heath because I felt like I'd seen it before. Yes, this was a culmination of several storylines (including Rickon's basically absent story) and accompanying impact was necessary, but I guess I was expecting a bit more. Or perhaps a bit less repeating of history, cinematic and otherwise. All of that said, there was some decent drama in the scene where Jon was being buried alive by other corpses. That drama was defused by the fact that there's no way they'd kill Jon again at this point so, in the end, it was just a matter of getting to the conclusion.

The fact that that conclusion was entirely bittersweet is just exemplary of what life is like for the Starks. They reclaimed the ancestral home, but lost the last direct male heir (Bran is not coming back, folks.) They crushed the Boltons and finally ended the menace that was Ramsay, but they had to get back in the debt of Littlefinger to do it. Life is full of tough choices and this was just the most prominent series of them. On the other hand, Daenerys didn't have to struggle too much with her choices, since it gained her a fleet, expanded her forces (I've heard the Ironborn are pretty good fighters...), and maybe even got her a date with the next Seastone queen. Life is good. She also needed Tirion to talk her out of a plan of depredation that was every bit as destructive as anything Ramsay Bolton might ever have done, so there's no telling what the urge for vengeance might do to anyone; even the most ethical of tyrants.

In that respect, you can see some of what Davos was talking about in his discussion with Tormund: this is still the game of thrones. The small people like a former smuggler and a Wildling leader are just caught up in it, usually to their detriment, if not death. Watching Sansa walk away with a little smile as Ramsay was torn to shreds by his own dogs is exemplary of that urge for vengeance. It's also potentially a warning that even the most innocent and ethical person among all those involved in the game might be pushed far enough to commit an act of savagery; exchanging one tyrant for a potential other, as it were. In the end, everyone is subject to the old ultraviolence whether they're going to get something good out of it or not.

Side notes:

From a technical standpoint, I thought there were a couple hiccups. As noted, the "up close and personal" battle stuff has become tiresome. I much preferred last season's episode 9 fight where it was still done in "real time", but also showed the whole battle so the audience could follow events as they went along. Similarly, the contrast between the dragons burning the fleet and the negotiation scene in Meereen was pretty stark. It felt very much like those sequences were kind of spliced together, as I didn't get a feel for any connection between the two completely disparate scenes. I'm not sure if the cuts from the action over the bay to the hill above were too abrupt or what exactly struck me as odd, but it was the most prominent scene I can recall of the actors looking very much like they were standing in front of a greenscreen, rather than part of the setting.

I kept waiting throughout the battle for the Smalljon to turn on Ramsay. As a book reader, knowing the contempt that House Umber holds for House Bolton makes it difficult to swallow that alliance. The Karstarks are understandable, but the Umbers aren't. Show watchers have no such hang-up, so the whole Rickon sequence this season probably played better to them. In the end, it was obvious that Sansa's letter to Littlefinger from a couple episodes ago was going to be the key moment in the battle, but part of me continued to say "Really?" as the Smalljon urged his men forward.

I continue to be impressed with Carice van Houten's portrayal of the lapsed Red Priestess, Melisandre. Despite her obvious cynicism, she's so programmed with the dogma that she persists in citing the will of the Lord of Light even as she disdains his unknowable nature and motivation. ("What kind of god would do that?" "This one.") Any religious leader will tell you that it's natural to doubt, but her attitude goes beyond that right now. Continuing to believe in Jon as the latest "one who was promised" seems to be her clinging to something to keep her moving forward, rather than being sure that she is bringing the Red God's prophecy to fruition. That's good character stuff.

Likewise, Sansa and Jon arguing over the truth ("We have to do this!" "We're not capable of doing this!") is like any diplomatic planning room I've ever seen. You acknowledge what you can and can't do and then you move on with what you want to do. Jon paraphrasing Donald Rumsfeld for the second episode in a row ("You fight with the army you have!") continued to be funny.

On a diplomatic/political note, D&D have introduced something that GRRM won't have to face: a second cultural transformation for Dany. She's already instituted one in Slavers' Bay and reinforced it by slaughtering the forces that Astapor and Yunkai sent against her. But now her alliance with the Greyjoys rests on the idea of the Ironborn giving up their Viking ways and becoming... what? Merchants? Farmers? Fishermen? That's a bit like declaring Jim Crow illegal and expecting the culture to change overnight. The Vikings eventually changed because they became landed gentry in other lands and the increased trade meant that raiding other places (and better defended places) was no longer so enticing or necessary. Telling everyone on the Islands that they now serve the Dragon Queen and she's declared that everything has to change and right now is more than a bit unrealistic. That's not to say that aiming high isn't something that Dany has done before, but doing it again? Eh.

Finally, at some point you have to imagine that Jon will stop doing everything his id tells him to, right? I mean, even after Sansa warns him repeatedly about Ramsay's head games, Jon dives right in and leads his army to the slaughter. This is the guy that's Lord Commander of the Night's Watch and a potential heir to Winterfell (and other... things...) and yet, if you piss him off, you can get him to dance on a string better than any marionette ever made. I really think they've overplayed that for the last time, especially since it almost killed him for the second time in his life. Putting the mechanical rabbit in front of the greyhound is only interesting the first couple times you do it.

Also, what's with the conquistador helmets on the Boltons? Intentional historical allegory or just something that they thought worked visually? I found them to be jarring.

Lines of the week:

"Despite appearances, I think you'll find the city's on the rise."
This is like public pronouncements of how good the economy is doing because some rich guy made a killing on derivatives.

"Will your men want to fight for you when they hear you wouldn't fight for them?"
That was the one moment when you thought Jon might be able to bait Ramsay and another reason that the Umbers continuing to follow the latter seems unlikely.

"Maybe that was our mistake: believin' in kings."
Davos, the Onion Knight, continuing to speak the truth.

 "I have some goat's milk. Stronger than any of that grape water you southern twats like."
Tormund doing the same.

"If the lord didn't want me to bring you back, how did I bring you back?"
Religious tautologies always work when they're serving the purpose of whomever is speaking them.

"I've done other things just as bad. Or worse."
"And he paid for them."
"Doesn't seem like it. He's still alive."
Even Tirion has limits that encourage him toward the ultraviolence.

"They're loyal beasts."
"They were. Now they're starving."
Funny how that works.

And the winner:

"He'd like to give you his big cock. You won't get one without the other."
"And I imagine your offer is free of demands."
"I never demand, but I'm up for anything, really."
Asha inviting the queen to bed is the biggest display of balls this season.

Monday, June 13, 2016

So, now we're arcing toward annoying

I've run into a few people over the years who felt that Breaking Bad started slowly. My typical response has been: "Are you kidding me? It opens with a guy in a gas mask and his tighty-whities, driving an RV at high speed across the New Mexico desert, with two corpses sliding around in the back. How can you open much faster than that?" But what they're usually referring to is the few episodes after that where we find out about Walt's dead end career as a chemistry teacher and his cancer and his somewhat shrewish wife and all the other dolorous things that make his escape from that life into the role of Heisenberg so obviously enticing. There was a change of pace, but I was so interested in the performances of Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul at that point that I didn't really care. This was a story and I wanted to know more about it. But that story was about Walt and there was enough depth there to build on, even if most people think it took a few episodes to really get up and moving. Preacher is supposed to be the story of Jesse and The Word. However, there are a number of other stories happening at the same time (Tulip, Cassidy, Arseface) and it looks like the showrunners are having a hard time figuring out how to introduce all of it in some kind of sequential fashion, so we're getting a sine wave of pacing that makes all of it seem somewhat irrelevant.

Let's take Tulip's encounter with the cop. It lasted a few minutes and told us... what? That Tulip's a veteran? Maybe. The ring could just be a highway dodge. That she's really interested in "saving her man"? Maybe. That's a nice story to tell someone when you've been hauled down for doing 60 over the limit. That she's convincing enough to sell a state trooper a line of bullshit? Yeah. I think we know that already, so why are we visiting it again in episode 3? What purpose does it serve in the long-term, either for Tulip's character or the story as a whole? What purpose does it serve for the story you're telling in this episode tonight? (I'm reminded again of Jim Shooter's famous dictum: Every comic is someone's first. They all have to have a beginning, middle, and end in each issue.) There just doesn't seem to be much there.

Similarly, Sheriff Root suddenly becoming Sheriff Ed Tom Bell doesn't do a whole lot for me. Root was one of the more detestable characters of the comic series, not a guy you'd sympathize with because the world had gotten too crazy. He provided a focus for the animus of the readers toward the situations that were afflicting Jesse and Co. (not least to his son, Arseface.) In other words, he made a solid bad guy. And perhaps that's the real problem here to begin with.

We seemed to have a bad guy in Sheriff Root, but now he's just lost control of his world and seems more plaintive than like someone trying to reassert control. We seemed to have bad guys in the two hunters from heaven but they had a nice sitdown with the sheriff and now we know they're basically just trying to do the right thing (as they describe it, anyway.) There's still the lurking presence of a bad guy in the still-unnamed Odin Quincannon, but the audience hasn't been shown enough of him to really make that determination, especially since he's had all of a half-dozen total lines in three episodes. What we have is a bunch of people who are some shade of gray, rather than black or white, and I normally love that. I'm perfectly fine with the characters not being divided into white hats and black hats. Honestly, I prefer it. The problem here is that they're all the same shade of gray, which makes it hard to determine why any of them are interesting at all, since everyone seems to be just one big, confused but happy family at this point. Perhaps once they finish stumbling into each other and apologizing, we'll finally get someone who becomes annoyed and picks a fight; conflict being kind of essential to any decent story.

One would think that the showrunners are aware of the massive potential for conflict inherent to Cassidy. But so far, the latter has been reduced to comic relief (I did appreciate the appearance of the sun-blocking paddy hat, since that was a hallmark of the character in the comics. The production's eye for detail is definitely apparent.) and little else. There isn't even really a foundation for the level of affection that exists between him and Jesse, since all we've really had on camera is a couple minutes of them drinking and Jesse trying to get Cassidy to go all "exposition dump" on us. Why would Jesse have taken in this strange guy, other than being a preacher and trying to accept everyone as a child of the Lord, yadda yadda yadda? I guess that's a foundation, but Jesse doesn't strike me as mentally strong enough to take that position just yet, especially since he's wandering around as confused as the rest of the cast, if not moreso because he's still doesn't understand the presence of The Word.

I'm not burying it yet. I liked some of the technique employed by director, Scott Winant. Quincannon walking from the theater into the light was a very comic-like splash page effect. And the flashback scenes to Tulip, Jesse, and the now-absent Carlos were well done, giving both a dramatic turn to an episode that lacked it and a nice flash of the roots of their relationship. But I'm not watching Preacher for directorial technique and I'll go ahead and assume that over 99% of the rest of the audience isn't, either. There has to be something for me to want to come back to and Jesse using The Word to make Cassidy dance and throw himself into walls really isn't it. Tellingly, while watching the latest episode, I was actually dozing off, which was unusual not just because it was the middle of the afternoon, but also because, as most people will tell you, I don't sleep that much. There has to be something soon that makes me sit up and take interest, because The Word clearly isn't getting through to me.

You can't escape who you are

We've known for a while now that Arya would never be able to become one of the Faceless Men. Her identity as a Stark is too much a part of who she is as a person. The fact that she's even in Braavos and the House of Black and White in the first place is because of her identity as a Stark, since she asked for Jaqen's help in order to continue her mission of taking vengeance on everyone she blames for the death of her family. And family and identity are what this episode ("No one") is about, from Arya's assertion of herself to Jaime's confrontation with the truth about himself that he's tried to avoid to Tirion's attempt to get those around him to see life the way he does (consisting mostly of booze and bad jokes.) These are all expressions of who these people are, even if they're not what they'd like to be.

The example that's been driving this point home is the theater company that's been performing in Braavos since the beginning of the season. This is the framing element that D&D have been using to drive the point home that the great game of thrones is, in the end, largely about family/clan loyalty, just like the historical model that Martin originally based it upon: the Wars of the Roses and the clan wars among the Italian city-states. This is what Jaime cites in his confrontation with Edmure over Riverrun. Edmure can't abandon his son and wife to the depredations of the Freys and Jaime can't change the fact that he's a Lannister and he'll do anything to get back to his sister and lover. It pains him to admit that he's subject to the whims of another, even if those whims defy the notion of the man that he'd like to be and which Brienne attempted to remind him of. But, in the end, he's a Lannister and Cersei is Cersei. He can't escape it.

In some respects, the meta question created by the play is whether many of the main characters are acting of their own free will. I think that question is answered for Jaime and Arya (one is not, the other clearly is) but it remains to be seen how many others are merely actors in the play that makes up their lives and whether they would be someone else if given the opportunity. I think Tyrion is the best example, as he wistfully imagines owning a vineyard and making (and drinking) his own wine. But when pressed at various times in the books, he's still stated that he's a Lannister. The clan loyalty is still there. But it's obvious that, at various times, Daenerys has clearly imagined being someone different and not being saddled with the responsibility thrust upon her. Only in recent times has she finally fully embraced the idea of claiming all that she sees as her rightful heritage. And why? Because she's a Targaryen and her family once ruled all of Westeros, so she must do so, as well.

We can carry that meta idea even a step further and question the basic way in which the story is told. There's a debate among fiction writers about whether stories are plot-driven or character-driven. In the simplest and most biased interpretation, the former are about action and the latter are about feelings. But my estimation of the concept is a little different. Character-driven stories are centered around the actions and experiences of one (or perhaps two or three) characters. Without them, the story doesn't exist. Most superhero comics are character-driven. Captain America, the comic, doesn't exist without Captain America. Game of Thrones, on the other hand, is plot-driven: the story of what happens is going to proceed without or without any particular character. As we've seen so often, the deaths of what seem to be major players are just steps in the painting of the final picture. This is a story about events and those events are often driven by the actions of the main characters, but it's not reliant upon their actions to propel it forward. The snowball is already rolling downhill and everyone just better be able to keep up. In that respect, they're acting out their roles as surely as anyone who's ever stepped on a stage and performed. That's also what the play in Braavos is saying.

The interesting thing about the intersection of the play with the other identity story in Braavos is that the House of Black and White is essentially a cult of assassins. Those assassins are frequently hired by the wealthy to remove each other. It plays a role in the game of thrones. But it's accepted and even welcomed among the common people of Braavos for the service it provides to those in need. The life of the common person is often hard and the House of Black and White provides the release they seek at the end. In a city founded by ex-slaves, it's understandable that the regular person would be fine with the masters continuing to fight and kill each other, as long as the ones doing the killing did so at least partially amidst the ideal that, in the end, one dead person is the same as any other. Whether you're killed in the game as part of a noble family or released from disease on the streets of Braavos, the House brings everyone to the same level, where identity is irrelevant. In short, all of life is explained by Sandor Clegane.

Side notes:

This is the eighth episode and we're clearly in the home stretch. Given that, it was no surprise to see that Benioff and Weiss had returned to being the lead writers on this one. As you'd expect, it was well done. However, there were a couple down notes. While I understand the usefulness of the "drink with me and tell jokes" scene, the whole thing kind of fell flat. We get that Tyrion isn't particularly thrilled with the role that he has to play. That was never more obvious than when he was bidding farewell to Varys, knowing that they might never see each other again. I was still waiting for the punch line to the whole "drink and joke" scene when Grey Worm went running out of the room. I have a feeling that the editor had to be used on that one. Similarly, was there some point to the shot of the Hound pissing into the river? I mean, we knew what was happening. I'm not sure why we needed the view of the ripples on the water. If he'd been pissing on a corpse he'd just made, that would have been something worth taking the extra moment for.

In contrast, the showdown between the Mountain and the Faith Militant was really well done. Cersei's smirk at the beheading could not have told a more detailed story about her as a person and the shot of the blood running into the drain was a perfect example of the methods that she's always employed to get her way. Similarly, the chemistry between Gwendolyne Christie and Nikolai Coster-Waldau has not faded one bit in the last couple years. Their meeting in the tent had all the elements of what remains perhaps my favorite scene of the entire series: the moment in the baths ("Jaime. My name's Jaime.") While they both feel duty-bound to their roles for very different reasons, it remains fascinating to watch them deny what's in front of them, especially in Jaime's case, since the obligation to duty he feels is comprised mostly of his desire to return to another woman. It was great to get a dose of that again.

Was it only me or did The Waif tracking Arya through the city feel like The Terminator? They even used the comic-like impact shots that James Cameron loves so much, when The Waif would step into the shot again and the flicker of emotion would go across her supposedly robot-like face. If she'd started speaking in Austrian-inflected English, I'd have probably been OK with it. Also, it was interesting to see the end result of the widespread speculation on the Web last week about Arya leading her into a trap. While I was a little put off about how easy it seemed for Arya to ignore her fairly dire injuries after rolling down a few dozen stone steps (especially when confronting Jaqen H'ghar in the last scene), the salute with the sword and the return of the water dancer let me gloss over that a bit. Also, the little wry smile by H'ghar at the end was perhaps confirmation that even he doesn't know all the desires of the Many-faced God and perhaps here was the one person who went through all of the trials presented and rejected what she's been given. This was perhaps the truth revealed in another manner.

Finally, it was nice of them to acknowledge (by Varys, of course) the fact that Tirion had essentially made the same mistake as Cersei in giving in to the wishes of fanatics in order to accomplish what seems to be a greater goal. Having the catechism of Daenerys Stormborn spread by the priests of the Lord of Light will almost certainly involve larger complications in the future. With only two half-seasons to go, is there time for a holy war between the Red God and the Seven?

Lines of the week:

"Essos is east and Westeros is west, but what's west of Westeros? That's where all the maps stop."
What happens when you choose your own path?

"Those are your last words? 'Fuck you'? Come on, you can do better than that."
"You're shit at dying, you know that?"
The Hound is still good at the killing, brohim.

"She'll come back. She has to. My heart's been broken too many times already."
Varys with the reality of being the Master of Whispers.

"Podrick fucking Payne. I thought you'd be dead by now."
"The way all women look at him is frankly irritating. Preferred working with the little brother on that count."
"Lesson #1: Assume everyone wants to hit ya. Because they do, Pod. Everyone wants to hit a fuckin' squire."
Seriously. This is why Jerome Flynn is still in the show and why we're all thrilled that he is.

"This is my home. And if Jaime Lannister wants it, he can bloody well take it the way everyone else does."
Siege or go home, no exceptions for prissy Lannisters!

"Your place is in the gallery with the other 'ladies' of the court."
Kevan Lannister with the slight.

"Why don't you drink? Why don't either of you ever drink?"
I need this, so you need this!

"You imagine yourself a decent person? Is that it?"
Edmure with the smackdown, even if he couldn't keep it going.

"We all bloody die! Except this one here."
Beric Dondarrion defying the good sense of the Hound once again.

The almost-winner:

"I choose violence."
No quote better embodies Cersei's preferred approach and Lena Headey delivered it perfectly. That was excellent.

Because the Hound's always the winner
And the winner:

"There was a time I would have killed all seven of you just to gut these three."
"You're getting old, Clegane."
Because the Hound's always the winner, even if Thoros is right.