Monday, August 28, 2017

The hero's pre-planned journey

Storytelling is a funny thing. "There's nothing new under the sun." has long been a cliché among writers of all types. No matter how original you think your material is, chances are it's been done before in some way, shape, or form. I've mentioned Joseph Campbell's "hero's journey" many times when writing these reviews, because there are some elements of that basic narrative that heroic fantasy (note the label) will never escape. Certain aspects of the story are going to happen because cultural expectations are present, especially when dealing with a mass audience like Game of Thrones, as opposed to a niche fanbase like, say, HP Lovecraft. The protagonists die and the monsters from beyond space and time win all the time in Lovecraft's stories. It's part of what makes them interesting to those of us that are fans. (Or have written the stuff.)

George RR Martin seemed to turn some of the usual trope on its head by being willing to sacrifice major characters, like Ned Stark. It's part of what gave both the books and the show their appeal, since much of the audience came to believe that Martin was willing to kill anyone (which isn't really true, but let's not get into that.) Consequently, there was no rote function in terms of the heroes of the story: meets challenge, defeats challenge, wins girl and kingdom, etc. For that matter, the story was written such that the "heroes" were often hard to define or even find. That's what always had the greatest appeal to me. I hate the Black Hat/White Hat syndrome. I want Gray Hats. I want humans. Give me The Wire or Breaking Bad or Joe Abercrombie's First Law books any day.

But at some point, as the writer, you have to ask yourself the question: Am I writing a story simply to defy the stereotypes/traditions or am I writing it because these characters have something to say, even if what they say is stereotypically "heroic"? Was Jon Snow always going to be the recipient of the orphan's destiny ("Your parents abandoned you... but you're really the heir to the throne of a kingdom!") or was that something that just worked out when it came to the tragedy of Ned's secret and Robert's Rebellion being based on a lie and Robert's enormous ego? I've complained multiple times this season about moments that I felt were fan service. They either weren't really crucial to the story but part of the audience would get a charge out of them (Arya slaughtering the entirety of House Frey) or they were crucial to the story but still feel like rote "heroic" stuff (Jon and Dany, the two most non-gray of the main characters, falling for each other.) Did Martin, the supposed standard bearer for writers that shock and surprise their readers, intend for many of his complex storylines to blossom into a "happily ever after" presentation? (Obviously, it's not over yet, so a lot could change.)

Or does some of this feel like fan service simply because the story's been in progress for 20 years? Martin has grumbled before that fans have long since figured out the clues to many things that he's dropped into the books, mostly because the gaps between said books have grown so long that fans have little to do but pore over every detail. So, even if it wasn't something typical like the orphan's destiny, people likely would have figured out the different tack being taken and it might feel just as tired as this kinda does. Or is it just me and those of us who really pay attention to these things? I have a couple characters from a post-apocalyptic setting that I wrote many of my comic scripts in, named Jekyll and Hyde. They're a couple of mercenaries and those names are really nicknames for them, but it's how they're identified. That's something you can do more easily in the comics medium, where certain things are acceptable when they're "meta". But a friend read one of my scripts years ago and told me: "You can't use those names. They're too obvious." But are they?

I've read Robert Louis Stevenson's novella. That's part of why I chose to use those names for those characters. How many modern readers can say the same? For that matter, how many of the generation currently watching Game of Thrones could give any detail of what the Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is actually about? Would those names be too obvious to them? Or would they kinda get the reference, as I originally intended, and move on? Similarly, am I too critical of the fact that Jon Snow's life is kind of playing out like a fairy tale or is it OK, since the majority of the fanbase are probably thrilled that one of the real heroes is getting the payoff that they've long expected? (This is why test audiences exist, after all.) This is part of why Jaime and Sandor Clegane have long been my favorite characters, largely because they're NOT typical and have followed a path that wasn't easily predicted and still isn't. Those are humans (albeit, highly cynical ones, which is also part of the appeal) and they've reacted to their changing circumstances by acting like humans.

I'm not a happy ending guy. I don't find them interesting. And, in truth, there's nothing that guarantees that what's coming up next season will have a happy ending. So, perhaps the problem isn't how things are coming to an end, but that they're ending at all and everything that most of the fanbase has predicted is coming true. Is it disappointing that the story is playing out as expected? Would people be more excited with another twist? Or would it feel like the writers were dodging simply to get that twist in? Let's take Littlefinger as an example. I long expected that the instigator of the current war would survive until the end, simply because that's what Littlefinger does: he survives, usually by working the edges of a situation. But last night, his story came to a close in one of those moments that I'd often refer to as "fan service". Sansa got her revenge and one of the characters that much of the audience loves to hate was executed for his actions. I'm sure that a good chunk of the audience feels content with that (relatively) happy ending. If Littlefinger had escaped yet again, there might have been some frustration. To me, a debatable story point like that is a positive thing, even if it didn't turn out the way that I anticipated.

In contrast, something like the Hound's confrontation with the Mountain was fan service to the extreme. In the midst of a highly uncomfortable truce meeting, the Hound chooses that moment to remind not only his brother, but the audience of the impending showdown between the lords of House Clegane, as Sandor intends to take revenge for the scars that we see on his face every time he's on camera. There's no acknowledgement of what's taking place around them; no mention of the fact that his brother is basically an undead construct (not too different from what's released from the crate a few minutes later). It's just time for a 1950s Western standoff on Main St., with as much testosterone as possible. I watched that and thought: Wouldn't that have been just as effective with a couple brief shots of the Hound's face, glaring at his brother? Or did Benioff and Weiss feel that the audience needed the melodrama?

On the other hand, in contrast to both of those, there were some moments that didn't play out according to expectations, but still demonstrated a firm grasp of character on the part of both the writers and the actors. Sansa and Arya assuming the role of masters of Winterfell, even though they'll never be as comfortable with each other ("Well, don't get used to it. You're still strange and annoying.") as Jon and Arya, the two outsiders, is a great example of letting the characters blossom into roles that most probably didn't expect but which now seem perfectly natural. Similarly, with Jaime finally making the break from Cersei, the latter has finally been left alone with all of her monsters, internal and external. It's how she's always felt and what her actions would inevitably lead to as she strove to take the place that she knew should have been hers ("But I listened. I learned.") By the same token, Jaime finally came to grips with the fact that his maturation and sense of ethics simply can't allow him to stay, no matter how much he loves his sister and their impending child. Among many storylines that seem rote or obvious, that's one that still intrigues me, as watching someone struggle with those basic moral and emotional conflicts is, in the end, what real storytelling is all about.

Technical stuff:

You can see the points where what was going to be the final season (this one) got stretched into two seasons, at HBO's request. There have been several instances in this season of characters doing the reunion thing (Winterfell, the expedition past the Wall, etc.) and last night was no exception. The meeting in the Dragon Pit led to several acknowledgements of time apart and the changes that had taken place in the interim. While most of these were interesting character moments (the conversations during the hike beyond the Wall being one of the highlights of that episode, for example), they just bordered on the tedious. We know that these people could tell each other interesting stories about where they've been and what they've done, but we've seen those stories. But, again, when you're wrapping up what's going to be an eight-year epic, I suppose there's some room for the characters to stop and look around at what's happened to all of them. The little smile shared between the Hound and Brienne was a particular high point here.

Speaking of character moments, there were some excellent ones in the meeting between Tyrion and Cersei. The best part was Tyrion deciding to do the courteous thing and offer his sister some wine. Never was more weight added to the simple action of the placing of a wine glass, as Cersei looked at it with the venom of someone who still suspects her brother of the murder of her son and Tyrion placed it with the mixed emotions of someone offering it in the spirit of trying to come to an agreement for all their sakes and yet still getting in a little jab at the person who unjustly accused him and caused him so much other anguish. That was a moment to savor, for certain. Similarly, Dany and Jon setting up the pleasure cruise in the strategy room while Jorah grits his teeth and everyone restrains themselves from rolling their eyes was quite funny. I was half expecting Tyrion to burst out with something like: "Yes, wonderful! Can the two of you stop thinking with your loins while we plan our grand strategy?"

There were also many little reflections on some of the ongoing tensions, like the undercurrent of resentment and awkwardness between Cersei, Jaime, and Brienne on the dais. But there have been several of those in terms of remembering back to the little moments that made up the basis of the story, as Arya and Sansa remembered their father's words about the survival of the pack over the lone wolf; as Tyrion recalled his offer to Bronn when they first met, doubling whatever "they" would offer; and, of course, the trial of Littlefinger, going back to the very root of the conflict that initiated the human story (as opposed to that which involves the Others.) As much as it disappointed me to see Lord Baelish depart the play, I have to say that that scene was exceptional. The highlight was Sophie Turner's performance. I said years ago that much of the audience's distaste for Sansa's character was making them miss the remarkable facets of her role and Turner's skillful handling of its nuances. She's been excellent.

On the downside, I'm not sure that Theon's role in this is really worth highlighting any longer. As much as I continue to appreciate Alfie Allen's performance in a difficult role, I think there are other ways to continue the redemption of Theon that don't involve having to drag a subplot off to the Iron Islands in the remaining seven episodes that the series has. It doesn't appear that Euron is going to be as instrumental as he is suspected to be in the books so, just like Dorne, it would seem to make sense to sideline the Greyjoys in favor of focusing on the real war and all of the turmoil that will surround it. Speaking of which, I have to say that I was disappointed in Conleth Hill's screen time this season. Varys has been instrumental in the plot and Hill's scenes with Tyrion and others are always a delight and we got very little of that this time. I would have thought that the grand truce meeting would have been prime territory for him and, despite his significant time on camera, he had zero dialogue. That's unfortunate but, again, seven episodes, shortcuts, condensing, etc.

Oh, yeah. The ice dragon/dracolich thing. I think it was handled well. I don't know if Martin intended that a dragon was the way to get through the Wall (guess we'll find out when that next book is done, right George? George...?), but that would presume that the Night's King is also a greenseer of some kind and can, unlike Bran, predict the future and know that dragons would not only be reborn into the world, but also that they would be brought to him. That seems to indicate a bit more power than just being one of the weapons the Children created and then lost control of and, of course, that's true, since the Night's King was a human member of the Night's Watch before becoming what he is now. It's quite possible we'll never know the answers to that, which is fine, since giving away all the lore is kind of boring and not doing so leaves the fans something to speculate on (and, of course, request prequels for.)

The flip side of that is the lengthy recap as Sam and Bran sussed out the reality of Jon's (Aegon's) heritage. That's one of those situations where you have the characters trying to catch up with the audience, which I don't always find especially useful because you risk having some viewers wishing they'd get on with it because everyone knows this already. Also, in telling Jon the truth, you have little to go on but the word of a mystic in a wheelchair. Similarly at Littlefinger's trial, only the shock value of Baelish reacting to hearing his own words given back to him (and the fact that most of the lords of the Vale didn't like him) "proved" anything. In some cases, you're just hoping the audience rides the ride and doesn't ask too many questions (just as with the history of the Night's King) and that's fine. That was a fine scene, regardless, with the little nuances of two of the more honest and straightforward characters in the entire story. ("I have no idea what that means.")

Lines of the week:

"I still enjoy it when they call me 'milord'."
"The thrill will fade."
Take it from someone for whom a lot of thrills have faded.

"Why would anyone want to live that way?"
"There's more work in the city. And the brothels are far superior."
Tyrion, social and sexual pragmatist.

"Now, thanks to me, she's got two traitors' heads walking right through her door and she can lock them up as soon as she gets tired of the clever words that pour out of their pieholes."
Ser Bronn of the Fucking Blackwater. I'm glad they kept him around.

"Seems every bad idea has a Lannister cunt behind it."
Likewise, the show was a little more boring without the Hound.

"I can't have children."
"Who told you that?"
"The witch who murdered my husband."
"Has it occurred to you she might not have been a reliable source of information?"
So, this is the thing: Has she actually been trying to have children? Likely not, but after months with Daario, the thought of how birth control is accomplished in the world of Ice and Fire comes back to the fore. Yes, there's 'moon tea', but did Dany have a keg of that sitting around the pyramid? Wouldn't that raise a few questions?

"I never trust godly men."
Historically, not an unwise habit. There's other agendae and occasionally even nasty morals that get in the way. Whatever else you can say about him, Petyr Baelish was no dummy.

"My sister asked you a question."
In the running for the winner just because of the way this was delivered. Ice cold.

"Thank you for all your many lessons, Lord Baelish. I will never forget them."
Similarly, this was awesome.

"I remember everything."
You must be a book reader...

And the winner:

"When enough people make false promises, words stop meaning anything, and there are no more answers. Only better and better lies."
Welcome to modern politics, 2017. This rang so true that apparently even Scaramucci was tweeting it last night.

Monday, August 21, 2017

The first enemy and the last

There's a funny thing about writing a lengthy story: if you're lucky, even you, the author, doesn't know where some of it's going until you get there. I've often found when I'm writing or plotting something extensive that little things I've done or written early on often become something even greater as I move along and live with the story and the characters for a while. I think it's easier done in fantasy than in some other genres because you can attach legendary or historical status to something as a footnote and then have it transform into the greatest threat the world has ever seen. Take, for example, the One Ring in Lord of the Rings. In the Hobbit, it's just an invisibility ring that turns out to be key for Bilbo at a few points and makes him the burglar that Gandalf had said he was. (Wizards. Can't trust'em. With that "insight" of theirs. They gotta be lyin'.) But it becomes one of the foci of the greater epic that followed.

Similarly, it's likely that George RR Martin didn't automatically envision the Others as the doomsday weapon that the Children of the Forest had created against the First Men or that they would be led by the Night's King or even that they had the power to casually slay the dragons that they would inevitably meet in the Song of Ice and Fire. I'm betting that a lot of that came later as the story developed or was even brought in from other unfinished works (I've done that, too; the legend of the Night's King kind of sticks out in this respect.) But there's little doubt that even when he was imagining this sprawling story as a single novel, the Others were always going to be the main antagonist of the story that everyone would have to ally against to prevent the scourging of humanity from all of Westeros, if not beyond. That's your essential plot. The rest of it is just details (albeit rather wonderful and interesting details.)

As Beric Dondarrion mentions in this episode, death is "the first enemy and the last." The Others were always going to be that death: the first enemy of all humanity and likely the last enemy of the series, even if the perpetual war for what remains of Westeros might carry on in some small corners of the continent. So, Martin (and, subsequently, Benioff and Weiss) always knew that the threat from beyond the Wall was going to be the end of the story. But what that threat really represents is still up for interpretation. Considering the massive amount of detail and backstory that surrounds virtually every aspect of the series, both books and TV, you'd like to think that a certain amount of majesty will be conveyed by finally encountering the last enemy. And that's where we're running into a little trouble.

As I mentioned last week, the adventuring party going out past the Wall is just a little too stock Hollywood convenience for me (again, see: Captain Kirk and Co.) So, while I appreciated the dialogue scenes it created- the reckoning of the sword between Jon and Jorah; the buddy cop routine between Tormund and the Hound; the reference back to the siege of Pyke between Jorah and Thoros -and the later tension of the battle between the living and the dead, I'm stuck feeling like a lot of things are being given short shrift in the rush to complete the season in seven episodes, after taking six years to get us here (and 20 years for those of us reading the books... How's that last one coming along, George, whattaya say?) Where at one time the series could have been accused of having taken a rather languorous pace in telling the story (Hey, George, about that pace... Nevermind. I'll stop.), now it feels like we're not seeing things that we perhaps should or that shortcuts are being taken in order to make the plot work.

An example of the former is Benjen's appearance to rescue Jon. While a lot of people are probably seeing that as a deus ex machina moment ("Suddenly, from out of the (constant) blue (tint), our hero is saved!"), I'm betting there's an answer embedded in last season. When Benjen arrived to help bring Bran and Co. to the tree, he mentioned that he'd been sent there by the Three-Eyed Raven. I'm betting similar circumstances exist in this case, because Bran has probably been seeing future events and sent Benjen to save his brother (well, cousin, actually.) In the slower pace of previous seasons, we probably would have gotten a Bran scene that displayed that.

An example of the latter case is the rather rampant condensing of time that's happening in terms of armies racing across the continent, blacksmiths sprinting all the way back to the Wall, ravens streaking down to Dragonstone, and dragons similarly hitting supersonic speeds to get to the utter North. That looked like it took a matter of hours, when any realistic notion would indicate days having to transpire for all of that to happen. Yes, fantasy world; I get it. But there still have to be some rules in order for suspension of disbelief to take place and those rules seem to be nonexistent at the moment, which means our belief is under strain, too. Even if we accept that ravens can fly that fast and dragons can fly that fast, we also have to accept that Gendry was able to run the whole way back to Eastwatch, which means that the entire army of the Night's King was a couple hours walk from the Wall and was just hanging out for some reason. One would hope that their implication was not that the adventurers survived being exposed to the bitter cold for days while waiting for Dany and that the Night's King waited that long to finish them.

But, if so, does that mean that the Night's King also has visions of what's to come and this whole process was something of a trap so that he could acquire a dragon? (Ladies and gentlemen, Sindragosa has joined the game. /Warcraft nerd moment.) If that's where Martin's elaboration led him, I'd say that that's not what you'd hope to develop out of the base idea of the threat to all existence. It seems that the whole battle sequence was the shortiest shortcut of them all because, once again, the only way to convince Cersei Lannister to help out is to show her the walking dead. Yeah. That still doesn't sound good, which makes this whole detour of a storyline almost as bad as Dorne.

The overall theme of the episode is still carried over into the other major setting: Winterfell, where Arya and Sansa are carrying their childhood rivalry forward. The first "enemy" you have as a kid is almost always another sibling and those attitudes are difficult to shape, even with age and presumed wisdom. Similarly, there's little doubt that Littlefinger was the first enemy in the political scenario, since he poisoned both Jon Arryn's body and Lysa Arryn's mind, and there's also little doubt that he'll be around to see the end of whatever the situation settles into. But at some point we also run into the problem that petty squabbling between sisters has about as much importance in the face of the Others as any of the real fights between the great houses. It also strikes me as yet another too convenient moment. Sansa has spent this whole season warning us and everyone she can reach about how Littlefinger is not to be trusted and yet when she feels threatened by Arya, the first person she runs to for advice is... Littlefinger? We've spent the whole season watching Sansa take control of her part in the game and now see her revert to the scared child? I mean, yes, "fear makes people do unfortunate things" and this certainly could be part of the long con that Arya's running to expose Lord Baelish but, in the end, it's also just more noise because Omar the Ice Zombie comin', yo.

So, when you get down to writing that epic story, allow yourself the room to do two things: First, let characters, events, plot points, and storylines change of their own free will. Don't fight them. Let the story go where it's going to go and you'll usually be delighted with the stuff you didn't think of when you first mapped it out. Second, don't wait so long to end it that it feels like you have to cut it off before the publishers can't bind it and everyone feels cheated because the payoff didn't match the build up. We're not quite there yet (another season to go...), but things are getting rocky.

Technical stuff:

I was surprised to realize that Alan Taylor actually hadn't directed an episode since the end of season 2. Crazy. He directed Baelor, where Ned has the weight taken off his shoulders and where Drogo takes his last ride, so he's into the whole "major death" thing. I don't think Viserion being killed is quite at the same level, but it will definitely have an impact on the fanbase when the draconic contingent is reduced by a third (or switching sides, really. Many fine people on all sides, you know.)

RIP, Thoros. Paul Kaye made him one of the more entertaining minor characters.

In sharp contrast to the now years-old trend of "chaotic combat", I have to say that Taylor did well in keeping the pace of the island fight taut, but still allowing us to see exactly who was engaged with the undead at any given moment. The diversity of weapons helped in that respect, too (switching from Longclaw to the hammer to Dondarrion's flaming sword to Tormund's halberd to Jorah's two-fisted approach) but we had clear shots of each warrior doing their thing and it still felt like the pace and the associated mood was frantic, as it should have been.

The encounter with the scouting party gave mixed feelings. On the one hand, it was our first encounter with an Other that wasn't a hugely dramatic moments with cellos playing furiously. This was just a guy leading a bunch of wights and he got ambushed. On the other hand, why was one of the Others leading such a small band that could be ambushed and why bother to have an Other with a scouting party, anyway, if all of them are capable of screaming so loudly that the entire army can hear them from miles away. Despite perhaps learning that wights crumble when their raising master dies, we know that they don't need said master around to be mobile, as the ones at Castle Black in season 1 demonstrated. What added to the clumsy nature of that whole scene was that, when the Other was hacked down, all of the wights except one happened to dissipate. How many did the adventurers need to capture? One! Yay? Like I said, Benjen can perhaps be explained by the lack of a scene with Bran, but the whole ambush sequence left me frowning.

One minor note: They see the undead bear coming through the storm. I won't ask how they knew it was a bear, since at least Tormund was a native and had probably seen this before. But at one point he mentions that bears don't have blue eyes. How the hell could he have seen the thing's eyes through blizzard conditions? I mean, my vision ain't what it used to be, but come on.

On that note, the visual effects that made up said flaming, undead bear were really impressive. Even if the Hound wasn't traumatized by fire, you could forgive almost anyone for just stopping to stare at the (literally) roaring conflagration with claws.

Lines of the week:

"You spent too much time with the free folk. Now you don't like kneeling."
Political realizations come later in life for most people.

"You sold me to a witch."
"A priestess. I admit it is a subtle distinction."
There's a religion softball, right over the plate.

"This one's been killed six times. You don't hear him bitching about it."
Yep. Favorite character. Still the Hound.

"I knew what I was doing was against the  rules , but he was smiling so I knew it wasn't wrong. The rules were wrong."
This is one of the undercurrent themes of not only Arya's identity as an outside, but also the political situation as a whole, which Tyrion keeps trying to remind Dany of: if you play by the usual rules, you ruin everything you've tried to build.

"You're angry. Sometimes anger makes people do unfortunate things."
"Sometimes fear makes them do unfortunate things. I'll go with anger."
That exchange is the definition of Sansa and Arya: one constantly afraid, either that she won't be a queen or for her life; the other constantly angry because she can't be a knight or against the world for what it's done to her.

"The way she looks at you? Like she wants to carve you up and eat your liver?"
"You DO know her!"


"How did a mad fucker like you live this long?"
"I'm good at killing people."
Buddy cop movie, seriously. They're on the same page as far as avocation goes. Now they just need to talk about life outside the job and women is a typical topic. The screenplay writes itself!

"What's the point of serving a god if none of us know what he wants?"
Yet another softball.

"I suppose he stares at you longingly because he's hoping for a successful military alliance."
Hey, Metternich would have.

"If you want to build a new world, deceit and mass murder is probably not the way to go."
"Which war was won without deceit and mass murder?"
I think the juxtaposition of Dany's attempt to change the world without killing people to make those changes has been the best part of her storyline, throughout the series. I'm glad that they're keeping up with it now that she's on the cusp of achieving her goals.

"Everyone I've ever met has been a cunt. Don't see why the Lord of Light should be any different."
Yep. Still favorite.

And the winner:

"You have to keep moving. Walking's good. Fighting's better. Fucking's best."
Preach it.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Plot and players

There's a certain bias in the fiction publishing and writing worlds. As with music, most books are split up into highly specific categories so that they can be properly marketed to their presumptive audiences. Music publishing has this phenomenon, although musicians have often defied those hard and fast definitions, implicitly or directly. Is Tom Waits a rock singer? Blues? Country? Folk? Alternative? (I despise that label. Alternative to what?) In truth, he's all of the above and, therefore, defies easy categorization. When musicians do that, they're often slotted into new categories so that labels can be reapplied. Hip hop with a house beat and electronic tunes is grime, instead of just another version of hip hop. Fiction has taken a similar path in recent years, such that a combination of approaches has created more specific categories. Wizards walking about in present-day Chicago is now "urban fantasy", for example.

But one thing that hasn't really changed is the divide between "literary fiction" (i.e. acceptable highbrow stuff traditionally included in publications like the New York Review of Books) and "genre fiction", which is everything else. If your story has an identifying element (crime, space travel, cowboys, etc.), you get a "genre" label which, for a long time, identified your work as "lesser." This has changed to some degree, such that the NYRoB happily reviews George RR Martin's work because it's both worthwhile and highly popular. Similarly, 20 years ago, HBO's biggest show, Game of Thrones, would have been swiftly dismissed as lesser because it's "swords and dragons." Indeed, some people still try to take this petty view, even as "genre" shows win piles of awards and are the hottest thing on TV or in the theaters. And, indeed, there is still some level of bias in the academic world, where writing students are often steered toward literary fiction if they want to be taken seriously. But, again, it is changing and no one doubts the ability of Martin or HBO to present a complex and very adult story with mature themes that still has dragons, zombies, and a thousand-foot wall of ice. They've done so and millions of fans and thousands of critics appreciate it.

That's why I was kind of put off by the backbone storyline of the latest episode, which resembled nothing so much as a poorly-plotted session of Dungeons and Dragons. Why would this small group of men, all of whom somehow know each other from various facets of their lives ("You're all sitting in a bar when an old man walks in with a prophecy which, for some reason, he tells only to you!"), hie off into the wilderness for the most unlikely of expeditions: obtaining a wight to convince two queens, one of whom would gladly execute them all as soon as they came within sight of her capital, that a legendary threat is all too real. ("The townspeople tell legends about the caves filled with evil spirits that you're compelled to go fight... for some reason!") Most notable among this group of men is Jon Snow, who spent a moment in this episode coming to grips with his role and its attendant responsibility ("With respect, your Grace, I don't need your permission. I am a king.") and then chucks all of that aside to venture past the wall into what most reasonable types would suggest is certain doom. This is akin to Captain Kirk constantly leading the away team, comprised of his senior officers, into dangers that could easily wipe out the entire chain of command on the Enterprise. It happened, of course, because they didn't want to make a show about Red Shirt Guys constantly being killed. But it also happened because Star Trek, despite Roddenberry's often elevated thematic approach, was a "genre" show that followed the heroic formula. And who's more heroic than the fearless leader?

It was the first time I've felt that Benioff and Weiss had perhaps written themselves into a corner and needed something mildly incongruous to get them out. This is season 7. There are a lot of long-awaited events taking place and payoffs to stories literally years in the making are finally arriving. With all of these massive events (the invasion of Westeros, the devastation of the old order, the return of the Targaryens, with dragons, no less) taking place, we're going to take a detour back to the far north to grab a zombie that will convince Cersei to join up? And this somehow sounds reasonable to this collection of very canny and practical people... how? I mean, granted. people don't always make rational decisions and this one is far from it. They even have the ultimate cynic, the Hound, following a vision imparted to him by people he hates. It also makes a certain level of sense, overall, with Jon desperate to bring aid against the Night King and Dany's advisers desperate to keep her from burning King's Landing and everyone in it to the ground. If those two situations can be resolved by somehow grabbing a wight and convincing Cersei that this is one of dozens of thousands coming to swallow the continent... why not give it a shot? Well, because it feels like a distinct lowering of the story.

Yes, suspension of disbelief is the order of the day in this, our "genre" fiction. That's not at issue here. Part of the reason I started reading the books 20+ years ago is because I'm interested in the dragons and the ice people, but it was also because the blurb I read about it included the phrase "political machinations", which typically means Machiavellian characters who do rational things or at least make their irrational choices in a very self-serving manner. Yes, that's a difficult thing to meld with the typical hero's journey that inhabits most tales of fantasy, urban or otherwise. It's also possible to have characters acting perfectly normally in an irrational or emotional fashion. Arya in this episode is a perfect example. She's still harassing her sister for acting in what she views as a weak manner and she's also taken a laser focus on the actions of Littlefinger. What she may not realize is that she's undermining Sansa and, in fact, working in Baelish's interests with that approach and she's also not as aware of his uncanny grasp of situations as most other people are. He always has a plan and, right now, it seems that the plan is to lure Arya in and it's working perfectly. She's the impetuous young woman whose return home is clearly having an emotional impact on her and exacerbating the nature that she's developed over recent years to take matters into her own hands and solve them with the edge of a dagger. That's a perfectly understandable behavior pattern. Of course, it's also perfectly possible that the Faceless Man is doing the long con on Littlefinger and letting him think that he's suckering her and she's using Sansa as confirmation of that, if she ends up speaking to him. Too early to tell, but this is going to end poorly for someone.

One can extend that perspective to Dany's performance in this episode to some degree. Certainly, the frustrations of previous weeks could cause her to take the hardass approach with the Iron Throne so apparently close at hand. But offering a choice of loyalty or death to defeated enemies is no choice at all, especially for the so-called Breaker of Chains. An army of men serving in fear isn't comprised of soldiers. They're slaves; slaves to fear. That's not a really rational approach by the Dragon Queen but, like Arya's, it's at least partially understandable, given surrounding events. I can't really say the same about the Eastwatch expedition and that's disappointing. I write these things because I appreciate the well-formed characters and the density of the plotting. Taking apparent short cuts with characters making choices seemingly disconnected from the state of the world to date is something that I'd expect from Sharknado or Big Trouble in Little China (Don't @ me, BTLC fans. I like it, too, but it's a B movie.) Game of Thrones, to date, has been an example of proving the bias against "genre" to be misdirected. I don't want to lose that.

Side notes:

It was interesting to see Eastwatch for the first time in the opening credits. That's usually an indication that it's a location that we'll be seeing for some time, which means the expedition could go on for a bit. Given the shortened season (which may itself be a reason for the plotting faux pas), one wonders exactly how much of the remaining two episodes it will consume.

Why was the Rains of Castamere theme playing while Tyrion walked through the ashes of the Lannister army? That's usually played when the Lannisters have scored a victory, which was obviously not the case here. Also, my assumption was that Tyrion's obvious emotion in the scene was at least in part because he was looking for Jaime, presumably turned to some of those ashes and perhaps only identifiable by his ornate armor. That made it a little jarring when, obviously days later, not only does Tyrion know that his brother is alive with no reaction shown, but is aware for long enough to get Bronn to set up a meeting. Once again, the shortened season means that some events are obviously being condensed, but it's getting mildly out of control here.

Of course, one of the biggest events was one of the minor details: Gilly reading that Rhaegar's marriage had been annulled and that he'd actually been married to Lyanna (something speculated upon by book readers for some time now.) That would make Jon not a bastard and, by strict feudal primogeniture, the actual heir to the Targaryen throne, bypassing Dany by dint of being male. The Targaryen blood was already confirmed in this episode by Drogon's willingness to make physical contact with Jon (the wholly irrational act of reaching out and touching a dragon being explained, storywise, by Jon having the intuitive connection because he's a Targaryen; see, it's possible to do these things in a believable manner.) That leaves all kinds of paths open for whose butt is eventually going to be on top of the pile of swords. Speaking of which, they also didn't mention that Sam is now heir to Horn Hill of House Tarly, appropriate since he never was confirmed as a maester, which would have made him ineligible, and he is still hauling around the family's Valyrian greatsword.

On that note, it's interesting to see how understandable skepticism about the Others, even among the lore keepers, can get clouded by conspiracy theories. It's not just that the legends of the great enemy are so old that even those with the knowledge are prone to viewing them as myths, but it's also that those who consider themselves the last line of defense for Westeros against the invader (i.e. the Valyrians) are also prone to believing that misdirection on the Dragon Queen's part is more likely than another Long Night. Comparisons to the modern era of fake news abound...

Speaking of which, Varys getting out ahead with the Nuremberg confession was an interesting moment, especially given the real world events of this weekend. "I'm only the purveyor of information. I'm not the one doing it." is the easy excuse of many who sit by and observe, content with the idea that they're not responsible but are only watching others do the evil.

Despite the plotting issues, it's good to see that the character moments are still well-handled. Cersei and Jaime's embrace after the revelation of the pregnancy may have been the most complex emotional moment of the entire series. On the one hand, you have the obvious surge of emotion at the thought that they may have another child to replace the three that they've lost. On the other hand, you can just see the tacit acknowledgment on Jaime's part that his love for his sister is now mixed with a bit of disgust at her ruthlessness and an awareness that his mindset has changed. Cersei, of course, is fully aware that her brother has changed and she may be using the new child not only to inflame his passion in the way things used to be, but to do so to try to convince herself that they're back to that state, even when she clearly knows that they aren't (he's changed; Brienne; etc.) That awareness and acknowledgment of same is confirmed when she issues the implied threat about future betrayal, even as she tries to reassure him past consideration of the public reaction, since she's the queen and she'll do as she likes... which may be the most disturbing thing about the whole situation, because who knows what Cersei may like to do at any given moment? Not even the person closest to her, her twin, which you can see in Jaime's eyes at the end of that embrace. There is so much packed into those few seconds and both Lena Headey and Nikolai Coster-Waldau demonstrate what a firm grasp they have on their characters and the legacy of the past seven years building up to this point. That was magnificent.

Less prominent, but still well-played, was Jorah's tacit understanding of the introduction of a new rival for the affection of Dany in the form of Jon. Do you treat your quest as the last chance to save the world or do you eventually look the other way as the king of the north falls on an undead blade because you can show your dragon queen that you're the one most-deserving of her attention? Maybe. Maybe.

I'll be somewhere between impressed and chagrined if fermented crabmeat becomes a meme.

Lines of the week:

This was one of the more difficult choices that I remember, not just because more than one moment was so good, which many of them were, but because so many of them had so many layers and so many ways that they could be interpreted and spelled out, both within the story itself and from an analytical, external perspective. If any moments deserved such a compound sentence and a complex assessment, many of these did.

"Listen to me, cunt: Until I get what I'm owed, a dragon doesn't get to kill ya. You don't get to kill ya. Only I get to kill ya."


"Dragons are where our partnership ends."
Bronn and Jaime, the odd couple forever.

"So we fight and die or we submit and die. I know my choice."
Cersei with the other non-choice.

"Did you read it?"
"It's a sealed scroll for the King in the North!"
"What's it say?"
"Nothing good."
Pragmatism among the ones really moving the world forward.

"Today might be the day I kill you by accident."
Not today...

"What if someone takes the boat?"
"Then we're fucked! Best hurry."
The continual pragmatism of the Onion Knight.

"This is Gendry"
"He'll do."
And, in kind, the perfunctory ease of the Imp when time is (ahem) short.

"You can be dead in a moment. You can be a coward for the rest of your life."
Again the pragmatism of Davos, but again demonstrating how he doesn't want to lose yet another Baratheon child who has come into his protection.

"I'm tired of reading about the achievements of better men."
In truth, is anyone a better man, or better person, than Sam?

"You're a lot leaner."
"You're a lot shorter."
We are our fathers and we aren't. This is a new world.

And the winner:

 "Nothing fucks you harder than time."

Monday, August 7, 2017

Fire as change

Come get some.
The halfway point in most series or even episodes of regular series is usually where the conflict introduced in the first half reaches its peak and the protagonist must really settle in and figure out how to solve it. Think of your average Star Trek episode, regardless of series. The situation would be introduced by the first commercial break; it would ramp up to a crisis point by the second; by the third it would seem to be on the verge of either solution or disaster; and then the day would be won by the time the credits rolled. This is Storytelling 101 (context, conflict, climax, closure, conclusion) but it can become a bit formulaic if the model is hewed to without variation. HBO, of course, has the luxury of not having to time things via commercial breaks. Modern TV has also done away with the self-contained episodes that anyone can step into and have a grasp of, no matter if they've seen any episode of the series before. Today's best shows are extended stories that tend to draw their arcs over the whole season, if not the entire length of the series, so reaching the aforementioned crisis point may take a few episodes before our heroes dig in, as it were. Solving the problem at hand, of course, doesn't always mean victory. Sometimes it means accepting what changes have occurred and learning to turn them to your advantage. This, the midpoint of our seven-episode season, has the beginnings of a new reality for multiple characters.

The most notable, of course, is Dany's dismissal of the "clever plans" in favor of the direct approach of using a dragon to solve problems. This was probably greeted with a huge sigh of "Finally!" by much of the audience, but you can see the broader question that Benioff and Weiss have weaved in. It's one of the oldest political premises of the modern world: absolute power corrupts absolutely. Tyrion and Co. are leery of letting Dany believe that the only way to see her agenda enacted is to slaughter thousands on the way to the top. As Jon notes in this very episode, if you do that, you're just more of the same; another tyrant. The common people that you've held at the forefront of your efforts don't benefit (in fact, many of them die) and you rule by the terror embodied by three giant lizards. The premise is that doing it Tyrion's way may be slower and more frustrating, but it also builds a more solid foundation for a modern world that isn't simply waiting to descend into chaos again (ladder or not) once said giant lizards die off. In a modern context, it's not too dissimilar from current circumstances in the US. If progressives do manage to take control of the government, should all of the ignorant Trumpanzees, economically frustrated and unrepentant racists alike, simply be slaughtered or might there be some benefit to examining why their views have become so (ahem) colored and how they might mirror the frustration of others who aren't so enamored with our own world's version of Joffrey?

Staying with Dany, we have the growing presence of an attraction between her and Jon. I struggle with this and not just because it'd be a hookup between aunt and nephew (that would be largely in keeping with set Targaryen tradition, after all.) It seems not unusual at all for the two of them to have some mutual interest, since Jon is one of the few people with a distinct moral center that Dany has discovered and, likewise, he hasn't missed the fact that she's attempting to keep her own ethical compact as the root of her quest to take the throne. People of like mind will often have more to talk about on a personal level. OTOH, I find myself recoiling at the premise because a) it feels too obvious (the closest thing to "good guys" in the story happen to pair up) and b) that feels like fan service. People have been 'shipping (is that a term, anymore?) on Jon and Dany since season 2 or 3 and I'm generally not in favor of anything in a story that feels artificially inevitable and this is precisely that. Here we have two characters that are at cross purposes because one is on the cusp of fulfilling a goal that she's redesigned an entire culture to enact and the other is trying to forestall the destruction of their civilization. They're going to sideline all of that in order to answer the call of the loins? Hmph.

Feels just like old times. Really.
From there we move north, where the Starks, in the process of getting reacquainted with each other after years of separation, are slowly discovering how much each other has changed. Bran was never again going to be the happy-go-lucky kid after his fall in the first episode of the series, but now it's not just Sansa being trepidatious about what's actually happened to him. Arya's return to Winterfell highlighted just how much what she's so longed to see has actually changed and, likewise, how much she's changed in the interim. She spent years becoming "No one" and then has to deal with the reality of finally returning home only to truly be "no one", since nobody still alive recognizes Arya Stark. The gulf between the sisters is still present ("It suits you, Lady Stark."), as one remains the high-falutin' lady and the other is still the scrappy outsider, but they're both unnerved by the fact that their brother is no longer human and only too willing to casually declare that. On top of that, Sansa's slow realization that Arya's list and her ability to complete it are no longer just the fantasies of childhood is both a measure of how that gulf will remain and a small indicator about how the new, Game-playing Sansa might be willing to exploit it. She has to process the relatively terrifying fact that her sister is a killer but, man, it's really convenient to have one of those that you know is loyal to you and your clan's cause, amirite? This is the new reality of House Stark and it's one, not-as-big, happy(?) family.

Did I just hear what I think I've never heard in my life?
And, finally, Jaime. Always Jaime. This is a situation not too dissimilar from where we left off last episode, in that Public Face Jaime is pursuing his sister's agenda not because he feels good about it, but because it's the only way the two of them remain alive. But Inner Being Jaime just feels miserable about it, not least because his children have become casualties to that agenda, but also because he's traversed as long a personal and moral distance as the Starks have and has become in some ways much like the Hound. He no longer enjoys the game and plays only because he has to. This is never so evident than when he has to watch his men get disintegrated by a horde of horse archers and one of the aforementioned giant lizards, while his mercenary ally carps at him about not benefiting enough from the fight that Jaime no longer really feels any interest in, except base survival. Bronn lives to be a warrior. Jaime used to, but now is clearly yearning for something else. Having to deal with the resolutely harsh and militaristic Randyll Tarly on top of that makes the situation that much worse. One can view Jaime's last-ditch charge at the distracted Dragon Queen as perhaps the battle- or even war-winning moment of heroism that old Jaime would have reveled in. Or one can look at it as a casual attempt at suicide that new Jaime might even welcome in a small way. This is the crux point of the season for him and it would be a shame (albeit mildly appropriate) for plate mail to be the deciding factor in whether the decision of his future is made for him.

Technical stuff:

Yeah. I think we lost.
OK. Right off the top: No horse would willingly charge into an inferno. Full stop. The battle scene was great. It was fun to finally see both Dothraki and Drogon in a full assault upon Westeros, but I got taken entirely out of the scene by watching this giant monster douse the field in flames and then seeing a full cavalry charge right through it. Arakh-wielding warriors might be that crazy. Horses simply aren't. This was as much of a disconnect for me as the full charge through dense forest in Gladiator. Not feasible. Nope. And I don't care if there's a fire-breathing lizard on the screen at the same time (Fantasy show!) But, again, dragons in combat and a mild reference to the Field of Fire of Aegon's initial conquest, when House Gardener was destroyed on the plains of the Reach just like this Lannister force, was pretty cool. One wonders why Dany was so intent on destroying the supply train when her own forces likely could have used what was in those wagons (like, say, the Unsullied trapped at the Rock.) Similarly, one wonders how the ethical Dragon Queen is going to keep her Dothraki from pillaging the countryside, both because it's something they're accustomed to doing and because they'll probably need to do so. Armies eat a lot and "living off the countryside" is an age-old euphemism for "laying waste to it in search of something- anything -to eat (in addition to whatever valuables can be obtained.)" In that instance, it sure would have been nice to have the grain in those wagons.

Oh, and you can call it a "scorpion" if you like because it sounds cooler, but that there is a ballista. A scorpion (scorpio, actually) was for rapid fire, not hurling small trees into the sky.

I thought the scene in the crypts between Sansa and Arya was well done for a number of reasons, but not least because of the presence of Ned Stark. It's easy to forget how devoted the Stark family was, not only to each other but to the patriarch. The girls' reunion was a demonstration of that fealty, but also an acknowledgment that there's a still a large hole in their world that had been filled by their father and he remains a key element of the overall story, long after his death. Sean Bean still around, yo.

It's the little fing- ahem - things that have real meaning.
I'm less enthusiastic about the role of Littlefinger this season. While it's obvious that he's out of his element, since he holds no sway with virtually anyone around him and the one that he could have a bit of influence with (Sansa) treats him with deserved venom, I still feel like his maneuvers to get back into the thick of things are a bit ham-handed for the Lord of Harrenhal. The direct appeal to the potential vengeful side of Bran was one of those moments. It was funny because Bran is no longer capable of feeling a need for revenge and it was enlightening as to how much Bran knows about Baelish's involvement in everything that's happened (Littlefinger's realization of that possibility was well played by Aidan Gillen), but it still felt fairly clumsy for an acknowledged master of intrigue.

Is it history or a screenplay crutch?
While I appreciate the "this is the long march of history" moment in the dragonglass cavern, the transition in art styles also felt a little too convenient. We go from pictograms, where the Children of the Forest inscribed symbols that had meaning to their society, irrespective of who else would see them, to flat out illustrations of the Night King and the Others. Even the depictions of the First Men were crude representations that perhaps identified them as an alien presence in the otherwise runic, spiral-symboled language of the Children. And then there's a detailed image of the enemy that Dany has to see to understand. I mean, the Others were a creation of the Children to combat the First Men. You would think that they'd have something in their language that identifies the weapon/creation gone awry and/or that they wouldn't need a full body shot of the Night King to leave a message, presumably to other Children, about what was taking place. That whole sequence simply smacked of: "OK. Dany needs to be convinced of what Jon is saying here.", but when you get down to it, just seeing images on a cave wall of something that Jon says he's seen shouldn't have been any more convincing to a skeptical audience than his stories about the army of zombies. I would have been happier with a Vulcan mind meld than this chance discovery of precisely the information needed to convey how dire the situation is.

Not many Lines of the week:

"It's well being is a matter of arithmetic, not sentiment."
Spoken like any banker, ever.

"I didn't run. You need better guards."
Kinda true.

"He's not a generous man. He wouldn't give you anything unless he thought he was getting something back."
Also true.

"What kind of a queen am I if I'm not willing to risk my life to fight for them?"
"A smart one."
Tyrion, ever the voice of reason.

"We don't have marriage in Naath, so the concept of a bastard doesn't exist."
"That sounds... liberating."
This is free love in Westeros/Essos/Sothyros (GRRM really need to give us a world name.)

There's a fighting style argument to be made here, but I'll spare you.
"I won't cut you. Don't worry."
"I'll try not to."
Says the giant warrior woman in full armor to the pixie with a letter opener.

And the winner:

"I'm sure Queen Cersei's reign will be quiet and peaceful."
"Eh. Stranger things have happened."
Bronn and Jaime remain the perfect odd couple.