Monday, October 21, 2019

WATCHMEN 1.01 - "IT'S SUMMER AND WE'RE RUNNING OUT OF ICE"


Image result for watchmen hbo

Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ seminal graphic novel (which I guess we still have to call a comic series to indicate we are taking it seriously, in spite of the medium) WATCHMEN is brilliant for a hundred reasons.  But one of the biggest, and most pertinent to Damon Lindelof’s new television sequel/adaptation/reboot, is how it handles the answering and raising of questions. The series is built around an overarching mystery plot with a resolution that is both satisfying and surprising, but also only raises more difficult, unanswerable thematic questions while it pays off all the narrative threads dramatically.  That is (part of) what makes it a masterpiece, and it is what a younger Lindelof was presumably aiming for with the ending of LOST, while falling woefully short.  That show’s attempts to spin esoteric, plot-centric teases about where a particular bear came from, or how a fictional form of radiation affects women’s fertility, into stand-ins for the greater mysteries of creation ultimately felt like a cheap cop out once years of kited narrative checks had come due.  But to his credit, Lindelof learns from past mistakes, and if his next series, THE LEFTOVERS, was even more overt about denying the audience the answers it craved, it was also much more successful at baking the grander scale of those questions, and the characters’ terror and anger in the face of their essential unknowability, into the core of the narrative right from the start.  

So it is perhaps not surprising that The pilot episode of Lindelof’s WATCHMEN raises so many questions and provides little to no answers.  We can dig into various plot threads more as they develop in the weeks to come, but up front the questions I’m most interested in are the broadest and most basic, like what the hell is this thing anyway?  Is it a reboot of Zach Snyder’s misguided movie adaptation, which somehow managed to slavishly recreate exact lines and panels and scenes from the comic, while getting the aesthetics so completely wrong as to betray the entire essence of the book?  Is it a direct sequel to the comic itself, but in a different medium?  Or a prequel for that matter, since it opens over a decade before even the beginning of the backstory of the original Minutemen, which act as a sort of self-contained prequel within the book itself?  Is it a THE NEXT GENERATION continuation of the universe with a passing of the torch from the old characters to a new class, a la THE FORCE AWAKENS? 


Image result for damon lindelof
Is it a misguided effort by a rich white guy to address the legacy of slavery, with the
shine of HBO's prestige television factory providing a thin pateen of credibility?

So far it seems to be all these things, which is a fascinating mishmash on its own, but it also represents a continuation of an emerging trend of television shows beginning as adaptations of literary works, but extending beyond the original ending.  HBO kind of stumbled into this when the GAME OF THRONES series burned through its 5 book long runway before GRR Martin could finish a 6th, much less 7th.  It has also provided screen-only sequels, with the authors’ cooperation, when it continued the aforementioned LEFTOVERS and BIG LITTLE LIES after first seasons that covered the entirety of the source material.  Meanwhile, Amazon has done something similar with THE HANDMAID’S TALE, Hulu has taken THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE’s plot well beyond what was in Philip K. Dick’s pages, while SyFy has blown out the scope of Lev Grossman’s MAGICIANS novels to an unrecognizable degree, and although it is not a direct continuation, AMC is attempting to spin their adaptation of Dan Simmon’s THE TERROR into a broader historical horror anthology.  This show seems to fit vaguely in that mold, although it will certainly have to do without the blessing or input of the famously cantakerous Alan Moore, who has publicly and preemptively disavowed any further adaptation of his work after seeing one too many of them butchered in the translation.

But whether this is a proper sequel or a reboot or fanfiction or whatever else you want to call it, it was a weird and scary and compelling hour of TV, and that will definitely do for my purposes.   In that categorical sense, I would say that the remaining issue that actually needs to be answered is “why is this a WATCHMEN property at all?”   I do expect this to become justified in the weeks to come, but there is nothing in the pilot that couldn’t be as well served as an original dystopic sci-fi story.  What there is, for fans of the book, is a lot of clever and intriguing inversions of familiar set ups, big and small.  The urban jungle of New York has been traded for trailer parks and suburbs of central Oklahoma.  Where the original story’s set up included a police strike inspiring an act of Congress forcibly retiring all masked vigilantes, now the cops themselves have taken to concealing their identities behind masks.  Whereas the book’s alternate history saw Nixon serving a 5th term in 1985, now he has been succeeded by president Robert Redford (the actor, who the book offhandedly mentions is mulling a run for office) who is entering his own third decade in office.  Angela passes a man on the street holding a sign that reads “The Future Is Bright” rather than the iconic “The End Is Nigh” from the comics.  Nuclear war as the backdrop threat has been replaced by boiling racial conflict, which presents its own set of more obvious inversions that even the uninitiated can process on their own. 

Starting with the silent film opening, which reveals the traditionally white garbed/skinned sheriff to be the real villain and the black clad/skinned pursuer to be the righteous lawman rather than the grim reaper figure he initially cuts, and ending with a black man sitting under a tree where a white lawman has been lynched, the racial scripts are consistently flipped.  In an episode with striking sequences to spare – the opening Greenwood massacre, the farm assault (why has no one staged a firefight within a herd of cows before?), and the trippy pod interrogation would all be standout enough to make this an impressive premiere on their own – the one that stands out above the rest is the traffic stop.  A contained masterclass in building up both tension and the world of the story, it presents us with enough familiarity to know that for certain that something bad is brewing, but with the details off and inverted enough to keep us unmoored and uncertain in our instinctual sympathies.  This guy appears to be a central casting redneck that Hollywood naturally paints as a villain, but he’s also blasting hip hop in his pickup, so maybe there is more going on?  And then he is friendly and compliant enough to appear to be the reasonable one when the officer adopts that immediate and familiar aggressive cop tone, but the confusion mounts when we see that the cop is black (and no story that opens with that horrifying race riot is going to immediately switch over to making rural whites the real persecuted victims in the very next scene), and then he is also wearing an unsettling yellow mask to conceal his face.  Then he gets back to his car, and we are introduced to the janky protocols for unlocking his gun, which escalates the certainty that something very bad is about to happen while giving just enough time for even the gooiest of liberals to wonder about how suddenly they got to be rooting against a mechanism to prevent a frightened cop from popping off shots at a traffic stop where he got a bad vibe.

Image result for papa john
Queasy Racialized Moments are, as always on Schwartzblog, brought to you by Papa Johns

And then of course the bad thing happens, at the precise moment it feels like the danger may be passed.  The driver opens fire with a bigger gun and a Rorschach mask on his head, which presents another twist for those familiar with the book.  In the original, Rorschach’s vigilantism is depicted as an outlet for his emotionally stunted bigotry and not-subtle fascist leanings.  But he is nonetheless at least nominally on the side of the “heroes”, and by virtue of operating as the closest thing the kaleidoscopic narrative has to protagonist, hes also on “our" side as the audience. He’s a sort of Travis Bickle character, who has a real drive to do the right thing that is perverted by being an overt sexist, homophobic, nativist ideologue, and “incel” back in the glorious days before we had that term. So it is not a big leap at all conceptually that he would be adopted as a hero by an insurgent KKK faction in 2019; the character is a favorite of the real-life alt-right already, and the mask does have a Klan-ish sort of look that fits quite well in this context.   But it still does give me slight pause that what the iconography of a complex and nuanced, if not really sympathetic, portrait in a complex and nuanced story has now been assigned to the outright baddies on the show.  Or really, that the show has set up such capital-V Villains at all.

I will probably backtrack on this pretty quickly in the weeks to come, because taken on its own terms, the Seventh Kavalry are effective antagonists for the pilot.  But it does circle back toward the question vis a vis adaptation, of “why is this even WATCHMEN?”  There were not really direct plot threads begging to be completed by a sequel, and as noted above this continuation sets itself apart so thoroughly in space, time, medium and subject matter that it would still seem to function equally well as a standalone work.  That will probably change as the older versions of Silk Spectre, Ozymandias, Dr. Manhattan and Hooded Justice become more central to the developing plot, but this touches on is a theory I have about adaptations in general.  Which is that with any given work, there is usually one or two things that are essential to translate properly to the new medium, and if they are gotten right then you can wander pretty far afield in altering the plot trajectory, changing up character designs or otherwise straying for strict, point by point fidelity to the source material.   With superheroes, it is usually the central character; the MCU has free rein to adapt the INFINITY GAUNTLET or CIVIL WAR storylines in incredibly loose ways because the writing and casting nails the essence of Captain America and Iron Man so thoroughly, whereas actually killing Gwen Stacy can’t make up for how wrong the AMAZING SPIDERMAN series gets the core of Peter Parker’s character.  With fantasy, it is often a setting; HARRY POTTER and LORD OF THE RINGS work their magic by making Hogwarts and Middle Earth feel like real and inviting environments.  With books, it is frequently a tone, which makes adherence to the specific plot of TRAINSPOTTING or FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS a non-issue. 

Image result for super mario movie
Some day, modern science may even determine what the thing could be for a video game movie
  
But what WATCHMEN accomplishes as literature is something that is exceptionally rare, which is genuine polyphony.  It is difficult enough to create variety of characters with distinct, conflicting voices in your head, but to render those points of view simultaneously on the page/screen, with all their strengths and flaws authentically exposed but without exposing any thumb on the narrative scales to indicate one as the “correct” stance that conquers all others?  That requires an actual master, and it’s a hallmark of some of my very favorite works of fiction.  THE WIRE does it amazingly, as does DEADWOOD.  It saves Jonathan Franzen books from being endless depressing slogs.  It elevated series like GAME OF THRONES and ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK at their best.  It’s clear that Lindelof appreciates this quality as well, what with his characteristic aversion to definitive resolutions and LOST’s deliberately shifting character focus, although I’d argue that it still had a tendency to play favorites to an extent. He developed this skill further on THE LEFTOVERS,  which gives me hope that this show can still capture that element of the original, even as all this was a very long-winded way of saying that the introduction of such a clear, unambiguous villain force at the outset cuts against the more detached, all-shades-of-gray perspective of the novel, which notably lacked a clearly defined villain until the final chapters.  And even then, the villainy is complicated in ways I won’t fully disclose since while I’m obviously not exactly going to avoid talking about the novel here, it would constitute the most major spoiler possible. Seriously, go read the book if you haven’t, it’s incredible.

Anyway, I roamed kind of far afield here, as I am wont to do with first episode reviews since I prefer to let a series develop itself a bit before rendering any firm judgments.  I could say more about the plot, or the fantastic turns from Regina King, Tim Blake Nelson and Don Johnson, but there will be eight more weeks to dig into that (give or take a Johnson, I guess).  For now, I’ll sign off with some bullet points and idle speculation.


BULLET POINTS AND IDLE SPECULATION

  • One other talent Lindelof has been honing for years is employing deadpan absurdity in a way that is both funny and ominous.  The rain of tiny squids is the perfect example of something completely bananas that somehow manages to actually ground the strange reality of this world.  At least for those who have read the book and have some context for squid-related shenanigans.  I imagine those who hadn’t read it thought they must be having a very strange stroke.

  • The Kavalry stockpiling old, recalled watch batteries, presumably to make a dirty bomb of some kind, is an interesting wrinkle.  Nostalgia is a running motif in the book, in ways both subtle and extremely explicit. And it is a good thematic thread for the show to pick up for the modern day, when so much of our society is choking in it,  from the stranglehold that remakes/reboots have on entertainment (which at least tangentially includes the series itself) to the entire political system being hijacked because the doddering ramblings of an aged racist vaguely comfort enough white voters in key counties by evoking a false memory of when they were the end all and be all of American culture.

  • It can’t be overstated how much Trent Reznor and Atticus Roth’s pulsing, ominous score contributes to setting the doom-laden tone (or owes to John Carpenter).
  • The Greenwood massacre opening is obviously very well-executed, but I was surprised to find I have become somewhat inured to the “bravura one-shot tracking the hero weaving through some intense war zone for minutes on end” sequence.  It rocked my socks off in CHILDREN OF MEN, but I guess it’s a sign of how spoiled the golden age of television has made me that the beats of extras getting abruptly shot or blown up as soon as they entered the frame actually felt expected and almost rote instead of shocking.  It’s all done extremely well, but despite being a real historical atrocity, the filmmaking just felt familiar, from some of the best episodes of MR. ROBOT and TRUE DETECTIVE, and not one, not two or three, but four of the best GAME OF THRONES-es . In fact, it was the moments of stillness in the Greenwood sequence I found most effective and horrifying.  The white men leaning idly on a piano in the street, or the black boy standing silent with a dead baby in his arms. 
  • The idea of the Tulsa PD as its own gang of vigilantes, with their own distinctive masks to reflect 7K’s own “uniforms”, is going to be interesting to see develop.  Only our “hero” characters get their own personalized masks, with King’s Sister Night and Nelson’s Looking Glass getting the most attention, though I expect we’ll get to know the vaguely Russian Red Scare and Judd’s co-pilot Pirate Jenny better soon.  But I found most interesting how even Judd, as the chief and only unmasked member of the department, still treated his uniform like a costume that he has to don before performing the more difficult parts of his job.
  • So Veidt is making some kind of androids in his country castle?  Actual robots seem too close WESTWORLD’s lane, and since he pioneered genetic engineering in the book, I’m guess they are manufactured clones.  His “tragedy in five acts” that he wants to have them star in suggests a plot that somehow involves using them to fabricate some new fraud related to Dr. Manhattan who was a “Watchmaker’s Son” before becoming a blue dong-dangling god (look, the novel has a lot of weird comic book shit in it.  It's still great).
  • There should be a special award for the delivery of the lines "Were there any croutons?/None that I could ascertain." 
  • I’m also guessing that we will come to learn that Angela’s conspicuously white kids are the adopted orphans of a partner killed in the White Night attacks that drove the police to hid their identities.
  • So I reckon Louis Gosset Jr.’s character to be Hooded Justice, the first costumed vigilante in this world who is also the only one whose true identity is not confirmed in the book.  This still feels like a major departure from “canon”, as the Greenwood backstory is very different from the identity the comic suggests, of a circus strongman of German descent, while also mirroring Superman’s origin rather directly.  This was generally accepted by fans for a long time, on the basis of the book providing no other alternatives, but it was never set in stone, as it is presented as the speculation of Ozymandias, who suspected that he was murdered by the Comedian as revenge for a beating he took when Justice found him sexually assaulting a teammate.  This alternative is certainly an interesting avenue for the show to explore, though.  Being a black man, orphaned by a racist mob, gives a different context to the hangman’s noose that hung around the neck of his costume, which of course resonates further with the lynching tableau where Angela finds him at the episode’s end.   But the main, basically airtight evidence when it comes to superhero identities is how when he speaks to her outside the bakery, his civilian clothes match the purple and red color scheme of the Hooded Justice costume, which an AMERICAN HERO STORY ad on a bus has just helpfully reminded us of.  
  • What confuses me more is, are we supposed to believe he is responsible for lynching Judd?  That would seem to track from the episode opening on him as a child cheering on a masked black crimefighter lassoing a corrupt white sheriff around the neck, not to mention his cryptic comment to Angela about whether she thought he could lift 200 lbs, but I have a hard time squaring away Johnson’s performance with Judd being secretly villainous.  Not that white supremacists infiltrating local law enforcement is such a far-fetched prospect in the real world, much less the heightened one of Watchmen, and I suppose his escalating of the conflict by releasing the cops’ guns could be somehow be playing into some master plan.  But it just seems like if 7K did already have their own chief installed, there isn’t much need to go to open war with the department, much less for Judd and his wife to commit so fully to their roles as to be best friends with the family of a “straight” black cop, and not betray any inkling of it even when they are alone.  It just seems like there is more risk than potential reward in that, not to mention the whole thing where he killed multiple Kavalry members with an airship-mounted flamethrower.  No, right now my guess for the mole in the department (there has to be one, right?) is Red Scare.


Tuesday, May 21, 2019

GAME OF THRONES 8.06 - "THE IRON THRONE"




“There’s nothing in the world more powerful than a good story.  Nothing can stop it, no enemy can defeat it.“

Tyrion’s speech in the Dragonpit solidifies that Game Of Thrones is about, above all else, the power of stories.   This feels like a bit of an abrupt conclusion to draw based on the 8 years of incest, murder, and zombie apocalypse we have witnessed, and there is a bit of a stretching involved in getting there. Whether it works hinges on two factors: whether you can buy this contention as generally true, and whether Game Of Thrones specifically has earned the credibility to make that case.  As an overall concept, I think there is enough truth there, especially if you ascribe a broader definition of “stories” that includes not just novels and plays and TV shows, but all the half-truths, symbolism, and falsehoods upon which humans have built all our concept of history, religion, commerce and culture.  He contends that stories are more powerful than armies or flags or gold, and while a case can be made that armies beat fables (though it can also be argued that exporting US culture throughout the globe has contributed to its superpower status as much as runaway military budgets), the rest tracks. A flag is basically a story on a pole, and gold only has power to the extent that everyone agrees to share the fiction that the most valuable substance on earth is an inedible rock too soft for use as tools or weapons. 

Schwartzblog almost has to be down with the premise that stories wield such power, since analyzing fiction is its entire raison goddamn d’etre.  But it also tends to hold outright metafiction in contempt, which makes for a mixed reaction to this assertion.  Perhaps it makes sense that, if you can consider a blog as a living entity of sorts, of course it would resent fiction that is about fiction and therefore already analyzing itself.  What creature wouldn’t feel threatened by something that rendered its entire reason for being redundant?  But what I dislike about metafiction more specifically is how it can feel too precious and myopic, if not outright narcissistic, for people whose job is to create stories to create stories that are all about how creating stories is actually the most important job in the world, when you think about it.  Are stories, ultimately, more powerful than kings? I do think so, in that a king cannot actually rule without people buying into stories about divine rights or shiny hats making him more than a man.  But I also think back to the lesson Tywin once taught about how “any man who must say ‘I am the king!’ is no true king.”  Stories that have to insist upon the primacy of storytelling over all other pursuits strike a similarly impotent note with me.



But GOT has always been good about avoiding that kind of self-regard, by framing its preoccupation with storytelling through an overlapping interest in the weight of history, and understanding of that history as “a lie agreed upon.”  As I noted in my “Best Moments” series of posts, many of the best scenes throughout the series have been one character telling a story to another character.  That consistent throughline helps Tyrion’s contention feel more of a piece with what the show has been, rather than a self-serving, last minute swerve into its own navel.  It also doesn’t have to belabor his point in dialogue, because the very fact its own existence acts to reinforce it. I have read more than a few takes in the last month that have specifically marveled at GOT’s ability to resist the inexorable fragmentation of culture that the internet, streaming services and proliferation of niche cable programming are both driving and reflecting.  It is, supposedly, the last true “water-cooler” phenomenon of a show, linking people in a shared language of references and memes that can communicate the nuances of real world politics and relationships in shorthand that crosses many (not all) national, racial and economic divides to an extent that is not supposed to be possible anymore.  There is certainly a form of power in that.

Game Of Thrones GIF - GameOfThrones GOT NightKing GIFs
Pictured: POWER

There is also another layer to Tyrion’s question which I appreciate, more internal to this story, in that he is finally formulating an answer to the riddle Varys posed him many years earlier, about where true power resides.  The Imp seems to have finally come around to what the Spider tried to tell him so long ago, that power resides where men believe it does, and stories are how such beliefs are manipulated.  Without resorting to quoting him directly, it allows Varys’s voice to become, subtly and posthumously, one of the most powerful at this impromptu caucus where the types of reform he would have advocated for are adopted with frankly-laughable haste.     

So this was all great, and I was fully ready to set aside why everyone decided that one disgraced dwarf’s opinion was a solid basis for overturning the only political order any of them have ever known, and just roll with the gist of his argument.  I was still on board as Tyrion wound around to the point that the throne should go to the character with the best story.  Okay, sure, I can buy that even if I don't think this particular assemblage of characters would.  But then he concluded that this obviously meant…Bran?  What???

game of thrones GIF   




No, seriously...WHAT???


Peter Dinklage does his damnedest to sell this nonsense, and you certainly can’t claim that a special affinity for “cripples,bastards and broken things” was not an established part of his character from the beginning, but it still seemed like a joke.  Who has a better story than Bran?  Most definitely Sansa and Arya and Brienne.  Probably Davos and Gendry, maybe Sam and Yara and hell, if we wanted to extend the search parameters to include people who aren’t literally within 10 feet of him at that very moment, probably quite a few more. 

Image result for bran stark tree
Bran's story was so rich they just left him out of an entire season smack in the middle of the
 run, as popular  shows so often do with their most important and compelling storylines

I am truly baffled by this.  There were several potential candidates to wear the crown at the end, and it’s possible that none would be completely satisfying, but no other choice could manage the same combination of being at once dramatically unearned and thematically incoherent. Those two things play into each other to a degree, as the shortcomings of Bran’s character arc over the last few years render the payoff to the political themes running under all the chaos and bloodshed of the entire series into gibberish. I am glad that, at the least, the show did not ask us to buy that Westeros converted into a liberal democracy overnight, and the high lords’ laughter at the very notion hung a nice lampshade on that.  But the potent symbolic image of Drogon melting the Iron Throne turns out to not really mean anything; the chair may be different, but the position of king and Small Council appear to still operate in exactly the same manner, with one less (always the most aloof and isolated anyway) kingdom in the mix.  And don’t tell me that Dorne wouldn’t also be looking for independence once it is handed to the North without a fight, and aren’t the Iron Islands already supposed to be free from the throne per Dany’s deal with Yara anyway?

The show wants to have it that King Bran is a step on the path to representative democracy.  But I’m pretty sure what it actually showed me was the foundation of a dystopian police state.  When Tyrion is spinning Bran’s journey as a Horatio Alger-type inspirational fable, it sounds good at first but sours when it gets to “...and became the Three-Eyed Raven.”  What the hell is the Three-Eyed Raven anyway?  We still don’t really know, the nobility of Westeros that this story is supposed to impress know even less about it than we do, and anyway what we do know doesn’t make me feel any better about him.   He’s an omniscient, potentially immortal wizard that can time travel to the past and possess the handicapped and birds.  But it doesn’t feel like I am supposed to be put off that the new king has multiple channels for looking in on any citizen of the realm while they poop or masturbate; if anything this seems to be framed as a happy outcome.

Image result for big brother bran stark
They skipped the whole democracy part and went right to making a dsytopic panopticon with a literal peasantry toiling under the watchful eye of Big Brother . Yay?

This is a problem that fantasy and scif-fi can frequently run into, but Game Of Thrones had heretofore been very good at avoiding.  The genre conceits that provide a story’s hook can, if not carefully calibrated, take over the narrative to the point where they muddy the themes being explored, or divorce the proceedings from actual human experience so thoroughly as to render everything into arbitrary nonsense.  In general, I prefer that such stories don’t get hung up on the allegorical aspects and just follow the internal logic their made-up mythology dictates.  And okay, I suppose that there is some in-story sense in putting the only person in the middle ages with a fully functional smartphone in their head in charge.  But the shit-ton of magic this puts front and center does more than make thematic implications muddier.  The very straightforward questions about the nature of leadership and what type of people make the most effective rulers have been interrogated so directly from the start that you can't even call it subtext.  That it ultimately settles on “omniscient wizard” is hilarious in how thoroughly it negates any potential thematic relevance to the conclusion, in any direction.

To be clear, this does not upset me because the show didn’t go with my preferred pick for the throne. Yes, Sansa is sitting right there, and fucking obviously she is the best choice.  If she were picked, that would be a pretty happy ending, but even if she were considered and rejected, that would be a statement with actual substance.  Even if someone clearly unfit, like dimbulb Edmure or even freaking Robin Arryn, were chosen, that would be a worse outcome for the nation but it would constitute an actual, cynical point about how political processes elevate inferior men at the expense of better candidates.  I understand why people were angered by Dany going bad last week, but I can defend that as a clear and valid, if bracing, thematic decision to dramatize the thin line between revolutionary glory and tyrannical atrocity.  That may not be something people wanted to hear, but as the man said, at least it’s an ethos.  Beneath all the dragons and speeches in Klingon, with Dany it was easy to make out the frustrated idealist who genuinely wanted to help the less fortunate, but only on her terms.  And the show makes a definitive case that the brittleness of that mindset becomes more and more dangerous as she accumulates power.   


mother eyebrows GIF
Never have I seen eyebrows more clearly and dangerously drunk with power
Bran, on the other hand, is so far removed from humanity that making him king constitutes a total recusal from any hint of real-world relevance in the resolution of perhaps the central theme of the entire series.  Throughout the entire run, how a person viewed the relative merits of Stannis vs Tywin vs Dany vs Olenna vs Robb was quite illuminating in terms of what they valued in a political leader, because those people all represented recognizable human personality types.  But whether I am happy or sad or angry or horny about an omniscient wizard ruling Westeros will never have any bearing on my life. Every political campaign for the rest of my life is going to involve some variation of a choice between a more calculating pragmatist and an idealistic academic or hardline ideologue, and questions about the requirements of a wartime leader versus a peacetime steward.  What there will never be is an omniscient warlock in the mix.  I don’t even know how to translate being Team Bran into the real world.

Image result for protesters
Write-In Some Aloof Weirdo Who Is Not On The Ballot 2020!!! Wooo-oooo!!!

If the selection had the emotional weight it clearly wants to, if it represented a satisfying dramatic payoff to compensate for the thematic abdication, it would go down a lot easier.  It seems like the show wants us to be happy that one of our Stark heroes, who suffered so much, ended up in charge.  And that would work, if he were still a Stark.  Where I actually do have that sentimental attachment with Jon and Sansa and Arya, I am more inclined to accept some of the silly details that come with their happier-than-expected ever afters.  But the show has been too successful in establishing the explicit inhumanity of the Three-Eyed Raven for that to land with Bran.  Brandon Stark, as a character that we knew and potentially cared about, has been dead and gone for so long that his creepy lack of affect has become a meme unto itself.  Again, the particulars of this are all so esoteric and dependent on ill-defined “rules” of magic that it’s hard to even tell what we are supposed to feel about it.  The most coherent aspect is that we are to accept that not wanting to rule makes one better suited for actually ruling, which I can get behind in theory but is really undercut by the first hint of emotion he has shown in years being a slight smugness about sneaking his way onto the throne.  

One of the oldest and most univerally recognized tropes of weak writing is the deus ex machina, where the characters can’t resolve the story’s conflict themselves, and so a god or king appears out of nowhere to use their unchecked powers to dictate a happy ending that would otherwise be impossible.  That is not quite what is going on here, but it touches upon the same vein of dissatisfaction when the ultimate solution to the central problem of the story hinges on a character that has been sitting on the outside of that story looking in for several years.  On a purely dramatic level, there is just not much there there.  


bran stark hbo GIF by Game of Thrones
Thisi s 60% of his screentime in the last 4 years

On a brighter note, the issues with Bran The Broken are sequestered in the extended coda section.  I am extra baffled by the fumbling of the political question right at the goal line, because the show really nailed much of the more difficult maneuvers for this finale to still mostly work.  It strikes just the right, tricky mixture of closure and ambiguity, and manages to keep its focus looking forward rather than back.  The first 30 minutes are fantastically rendered falling action after last week’s brutal climax, overflowing with incredible imagery and performances: Tyrion making his own long (long, long) walk of shame to the Red Keep, Jon making his way through the Dothraki and Unsullied, Jaime and Cersei’s bodies lying crushed beneath the dragonskull, Drogon’s wings spreading out behind Darth Dany or his rising from beneath a bank of snow and ash.  Dinklage was more engaged than he had been in years, and Clarke and Harington never better as Danaerys Stormborn, and the narrative proper, reached their inevitably tragic end.

I am very pleasantly surprised that the incredibly complex web of plotlines surrounding the wars for the kingdoms of Westeros all reach what I consider satisfying culminations with the defeats of the Night King, Cersei and now Dany.  There were really no loose ends left over once the last dragon(s) fly off to the east, even if some of the nuts and bolts of the plotting could have used some tightening up on the home stretch.  Whether the Unsullied immediately executed Jon and Tyrion, or left them to rule a land they no longer had any interest in occupying didn’t seem to change much about the journey they had taken, the decisions it led them to and multiple dire fates the kingdoms narrowly avoided because of them (and a hundred other allies that made similarly integral choices and were either rewarded or slaughtered for their trouble).  Jon had to make one more devastating choice of duty over love and Tyrion’s horrendously troubled relationship with his family was closed off for good.  Even Arya’s last beat warning Jon would have been a fine capper for her journey; having her “know a killer when she sees one” is a quieter way of reflecting how much her years looking death in all its many faces have shaped her, while allowing her to continue to inch away from being No One after last week’s step from being fully consumed by vengeance and murder. If it had come to it, I could have filled in the blanks from there and been quite satisfied that the overarching story was complete. 

Things do not stop with Dany’s death, of course and I do have that one giant, glaring objection to the beginning of the new story that commences after the time jump.  But the fallout of that decision is surprisingly contained. The resolutions for the other characters all feel right, and as a nice benefit they all pretty much work just as well if you were to pull Bran out and put any other person on the throne.  It would have been nice for Sansa to rule all the kingdoms, but she is still a queen and got the really important one, so the difference in degree doesn’t fundamentally change the emotional impact.  The Small Council positions would probably be about the same under her or King Edmure or King Prince Of Dorne (Zero-eth Of His Name), and it’s not like those guys would have been in a position to launch a wintertime invasion of the North to stop it from seceding even if they wanted to.  Bronn becoming one of the most powerful men in the country is certainly better than the character deserves, but I think his presence on the Small Council serves as an important indicator that the elevation of nice folks like Brienne and Davos and Sam has not and will not entirely scrubbed the grubby business of ruling of all scoundrels and cutthroats and schemers, any more than it did when Ned Stark arrived in the capital.  The Unsullied heading to Naath is even a fine grace note, despite my never really warming to Grey Worm and Missandei as characters.



In my post on the premiere, I cited concern that final seasons and episodes tend to be so backward-looking.  This ties into the same sense of own-fart-smelling vanity that I talked about resenting in metafiction before.  No, they can’t resist a callback to Tyrion’s mysterious brothel joke from the first season, and the final shot does mirror the opening sequence (not too overtly, thankfully).  And the whole “Sam presents a book about the show, called A Song Of Ice And Fire, get it” thing is a touch cutesy, but somewhat redeemed by the gag of Tyrion being omitted entirely, feeling the downside of his own arguments about how stories can be used to elevate some at the expense of both others and a strict fidelity to the truth.  But overall, I am quite pleased with how focused the epilogue is on looking toward the future rather than back at the beginning, and emphasizing the changes that the story has wrought on these characters and their world, rather than whatever surface-level symmetry with its opening the writers and directors could impose.  There is still a Small Council and a king, but they could not be more different than under Robert Baratheon.  There is a Queen in the North.  Ghost is missing an ear.  Jon returns to the Wall, but he is likely not coming back from the True North now that he has found a new people that accept him and don’t want to murder him (anymore).  Most significantly, both he and Arya end things moving outward, into the unknown, rather than facing backward and inward, marveling at the show’s own achievements on its behalf. 



I never needed the show to marvel at itself.  I’ve been here doing it for years.








This seems like the perfect place to segue to a “Stay Tuned, on Schwartzblog, for…” promo for what comes next in this space.  But I really don’t know. This page was only created in the first place because the website that originally sponsored the recap series shut down abruptly during a season, and I didn’t want to abandon the effort midstream.  I dabble in other topics, but GOT was really the animating purpose and now that it is finished I don’t see an obvious successor to that role.  I am pondering a big old MCU retrospective now that ENDGAME has put a capper on an era there, but I can’t say how long or what form it will take exactly, and it will certainly not feel like a timely response whenever it materializes.  I’m open to suggestions of anything else I should take a look at.  In any case, thanks for listening to me yap about this show at such exhausting length.
  

Prophesies:   


While overall, my prophesies were an abject failure, Brienne’s writing Jaime's entry in the Book Of Brothers is doubly satisfying for me because it is one of the very few bits that I can legitimately claim to have called before I’d seen anyone else speculate on it.   If I wanted to pick the very smallest of nits, I would have only allowed us to glimpse fragments of the entry she wrote on Jaime, rather than the whole thing (the last “died defending his queen” bit for sure).  But it was just about perfect.


Image result for in the year 2000

Jon Becomes king, dies defeating Night King, leaving Dany pregnant

Dany Refuses to step down for Jon, thinks better of it after losing more dragons and advisors in the battle at Winterfell, but winds up back on the throne after he dies heroically, with a proper incestuous Targaryen heir on the way.

Cersei Gets to little Robin Arryn and lays a trap at the Eyrie before the survivors of Winterfell can reach it, which is mostly foiled by wariness of Sansa/Arya/Tyrion.  King Jon still feels compelled to offer her a pardon to fight with them for realsies this time.  She can’t help but try to backstab them one last time and Jaime mercy-kills her before Queen Dany can burn her alive.

Bran Dies/leaves human body warging into Drogon as a sacrifice play allowing the living to escape Winterfell.

Sansa/Tyrion – Renew their marriage to rule the North and Westerlands.  

Arya Provides assist to take out Mountain in Cleganebowl.  Hooks up with Gendry but refuses to be tied down as his wife, last seen hitting the road for more merry adventures, but with an ominous note that a Faceless man is trailing her.

Gendry High Lord of the Stormlands.

Sam High Lord of The Reach.

Gilly Lady Of the Reach.

Jaime Appointed/Sentenced to reconstitute the Night’s Watch as new Lord Commander.

Brienne Commander of the Queensguard.

Davos Small Council, Master Of Ships.

Missandei Small Council.

Jorah  killed by Walkers.

Tormund Ruler of new Wildling nation in the Gift.

Yara Ruler Of Iron Islands.

Theon – dies heroically.

Euron dismembered by Mountain.

The Hound/Mountain – killed together in Cleganebowl.

Drogon - dies in battles with Night King.

Rhaegal – dies  in battles with Night King.

Grey Worm – killed by Walkers.

Varys killed in Cersei’s trap.

Melisandre killed by Varys.

Robin Arryn – killed in Cersei’s trap.

Yohn Royce – Lord of the Vale.

Berric Dondarrion – killed by Walkers.

Edd – killed by Walkers.

Qyburn killed by Mountain.

Bronn refuses to kill Jaime/Tyrion, gets a castle.

Lyanna Mormont – Rules Bear Island.

Podrick  killed by Walkers.

Ghost - killed by Walkers


Series Morghulis:  

Mycah, Lady, Jory Cassell, Viserys Targaryen, Robert Baratheon, Syrio Forel, Septa Mordane, Mago, Eddard “Ned” Stark, Qotho, Khal Drogo, Mirri Maz Duur, Maester Cressen, Yoren, Lommy,Renly Baratheon, The Tickler, Ser Rodrik Cassel, Mathos Seaworth, Qorin Half-Hand, Pryat Pree, Xaro Xhoan Daxos, Maester Luwin, Craster, Jeor “Old Bear” Mormont, Master Krazyns, Rickard Karstark, Ros, Orell, Talisa Stark, Catelyn Stark, Robb Stark, Grey Wind, Polliver, Joffrey Baratheon, Dontoss Hollard, Locke, Kal Tanner, Rast, Rorge, Lysa Arryn, Oberyn “the Red Viper” Martell, Pyp, Grenn, Ygritte, Jojen Reed, Shae, Tywin Lannister, Mance Rayder, Mossador, Ser Janos Slynt, Ser Barristan Selmy, Maester Aemon Targaryen, the Lord Of Bones, Shireen Baratheon, Hizdahr zo Loraq, Selyse Baratheon, Stannis Baratheon, Myranda, Meryn Trant, Myrcella Baratheon, Areo Hotah, Doran Martell, Trystane Martell, Roose Bolton, Walda Bolton, Balon Greyjoy, Bowen Marsh, Othell Yarwyck, Alliser Thorne, Olly, Shaggy Dog, Osha, Khal Moro, Summer, Leaf the Child of the Forest, the Three-Eyed Raven, Hodor, Septon Ray, The Blackfish, Lady Crane, the Waif, Rickon Stark, Smalljon Umber, Wun Wun Dar Wun, Ramsay Bolton, Grandmaester Pycelle, Lancel Lannister, Kevan Lannister, Mace Tyrell, Margaery Tyrell, Loras “the Knight Of Flowers” Tyrell, the High Sparrow, Tommen Baratheon, Walder Rivers, Lothar Frey, Walder Frey, Septa Unella, Obara Sand, Nymeria Sand, Tyene Sand, Ellaria Sand, Olenna “Queen Of Thorns” Tyrell, Randyll Tarly, Dickon Tarly, Thoros of Myr, Viserion, Benjen Stark, Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish, Ned Umber, Edd Tollett, Lyanna Mormont, Berric “Lightning Lord” Dondarrion, Alys Karstark, Theon Greyjoy, Jorah Mormont, Melisandre, (Viserion), (The Night King), Rhaegal, Missandei of Naath, Varys “the Spider”, Captain Harry Strickland, Euron Greyjoy, Qyburn, Sandor “the Hound” Clegane, Gregor “The Mountain” Clegane, Jaime “the Kingslayer” Lannister, Cersei Lannister, Danaerys “Stormborn, Khaleesi, Mother of Dragons, Breaker Of Chains, The Unburnt” Targaryen.