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.