Monday, May 25, 2015

GAME OF THRONES 5.07 - "THE GIFT"



“We march to victory, or we march to defeat. But we go forward. Only forward.”

Stannis is nobody’s poet, but he lays out the storytelling ethos of the series quite succinctly, one that serves to differentiate it from other TV shows, which are descended more directly from the old network model that designed shows to run indefinitely, pumping out episodes that are interchangeable enough that they could be run out of order and the audience could tune out and back in without worrying about losing important threads.  But the advantage of having such weighty tomes for source material is that there is enough plot that the series can enjoy a full and lengthy run without ever letting up on the forward momentum.

Shhh, quiet you
Shhh, quiet you
Don’t get me wrong, the story is such a multi-headed beast that certain storylines will sometimes move forward slower than others, so on the one hand, you could say that winter has been coming for a loooong time now, or that Dany has been coming to Westeros while only getting physically further from it.  But there’s never an entire episode that just serves to spin the wheels, and does not contain several developments of lasting significance.  The world and characters have seen a lot of changes since the premiere, and these changes tend to be permanent, just ask Viserys, or Drogo, or Robert or Ned or Renly or Robb or Cat or Tywin or Joffrey or Mormont or the Hound or Mance or Oberyn.  While character deaths are not the only metric by which to measure change in a series, they are a handy one, and none of those deaths was without major consequences that are still playing out in one form or another.

"Yeah, well if you ask me, change is overrated."
“Well if you ask me, change is overrated.”

The consequences right now seem to be that everyone everywhere is imprisoned.  We may see Tormund freed from his bonds in the opening scene, but everywhere else we turn, in Winterfell, in King’s Landing, in Slaver’s Bay, in Dorne, we find major characters residing in cells and chains.  Of all the captives, Jaime and Bronn probably have it best.  Prince Doran doesn’t seem to be in any hurry to execute them, and Jaime is held in comfort, even if the “hostage” he came to free has no interest in rescue.  And Bronn may be poisoned for a hot second, but at least he’s enjoying the scenery.

Which is, um, okay. You know, if you're into that.
Which is, um, okay. You know, if you’re into that sort thing.  It’s fine. Don’t come over here.
Sansa, as is customary, has it the worst of all, as her valiant appeal to Theon’s lost self is not enough to overcome his horrible conditioning.  And of course Ramsay reveals this in the most sadistic way possible, but he should heed his own words when he muses that Northerners “are used to fighting in the frost.”  Sansa may be as hemmed in and brutalized as ever, and she may not be ready to use that corkscrew, but she comes from a line that thrives in winter.  So far she’s just stoking Ramsay’s resentments about his position as a bastard as much as she dares, but she’s running out of shit to lose, and Ramsay can’t resort to flaying her.  She’s more dangerous than he credits her for.
Plus Stannis is still coming.  Melisandre finally broaches the topic of sacrificing Shireen to ensure Stannis’s victory, and although circumstances are conspiring to sap his strength and momentum, he has enough decency to reject the idea outright.   For now.  I still have no doubt that he will eventually make it through to the Iron Throne, but fear for what will transpire in the next couple weeks, what the Boltons may have up their sleeves that will drive him to sufficient depths of desperation for this plot thread to pay off.  And I now ask myself whether I’m willing to accept something terrible happening to Shireen if it means finally getting to see Ramsay horribly (I can’t stress that enough) killed.  And I think yep, I am.  Not that I’d endorse it in a real world scenario, but as a viewer I am so much more invested in seeing Ramsay get his comeuppance that I can stomach quite a lot to get there.

Oh, don't look at me like that, kid. I need this.
Oh, don’t look at me like that.  You don’t understand how much I need this.
In lighter news, up at the Wall Gilly finally deflowers Sam, and is much more gentlemanly about it than Ramsay.  Her gingerly asking if she is hurting him and his demur “oh my!” are about as sweet as love and sex can get in Westeros, and of course it does still carry the possibility of ending up with him being hanged for breaking his vows and consorting with the enemy.  But for now we get the lovebirds at their most heroic, and that despite what Thorne tells him, Sam still has a friend at Castle Black in the form of Ghost. And…oh god damn it, nothing better happen to Ghost this year.  You motherfuckers, I’ve defended a lot of the horrible shit the series has put us through, just leave the dog alone for awhile.

Anyhow, back to imprisonment.  Even kings and queens are feeling trapped and hemmed in this week.  Daario tells Dany that if she can’t marry him she is “the only one in Mereen that is not free,” which is patently self-serving and hopefully too dumb for her to really consider.  I think she already set her sights too low by marrying to secure a single city when she’s eventually going to have seven whole kingdoms to lock up, besides which I just don’t find Daario’s smarminess very appealing.  I mean, he’s perfect for a sport fuck, but I think for a permanent match my girl could do a lot better, if not politically then intellectually/emotionally.  When it comes down to it, Targaryeans don’t really need more people constantly telling them how special they are and encouraging them to slaughter anyone who looks at them funny.

Though I suppose it could always be worse
Though I suppose she could do worse
But the literal captives in Essos are in the fighting pits, as Jorah and Tyrion reveal themselves to the queen after Tyrion lays a not-so-convincing beating on his fit, full-sized captor and Jorah takes a not-so-convincing waltz through the fighting pit melee, easily besting everyone practically with his bare hands.  But some dodgy choreography is worth getting to the point where it all ends up.  I had thought it might take until the finale to get here, but with a few episodes to go, I’m stoked that we are sure to get some interactions of substance with these guys and Dany this year, even if the plotline were to skip next week entirely, as they are wont to do.

The biggest changes of all are afoot in King’s Landing, where young Tommen feels impotent and trapped by the imprisonment of his wife (and by the end of the episode, also mother), shouting “I am the king. The queen is in prison, and there is nothing I can do!”  Oh, but there is, little king.  Even if your mother, in a fit of profound dumbassery, convinced you that you can’t rub out the Faith with the Kingsguard without the prisoners becoming casualties, I think that if you visit her she’ll tell you about a certain tarp with 7 feet of possibly-undead monster under it.  A monster that could be unleashed to tear into the Faith with enough plausible deniability that the crown wouldn’t be declaring open war on the dominant religion of the continent.  Okay, maybe that is a stretch, but it just occurred to me that there is a circumstance where I might actually cheer on the reappearance of the Mountain, which I never expected, and now I’m all excited at the prospect.

You killed her, you raped her, you murdered her children, welcome back!!!
You killed her, you raped her, you murdered her children, welcome back!!!
It’s hard to give out top acting honors this week, as Diane Rigg and Jonathan Pryce are even more absolutely on point than usual, and Natalie Dormer gets play sides of Margaery we’ve never seen before, “stripped of finery.”  But I’d probably give the edge to Lena Headey.  Cersei puts on a slightly different mask for her interactions with Tommen, Marge and the High Sparrow, but in each case you can see just enough of a shift in her eyes to track her reactions as her expression remains unchanged.  Cersei is an incredibly tough role in general, but Headey gives subtle life and depth to a character that is neither particularly sympathetic nor expressive on paper.  Well, she gets more expressive when threatening her hulking captor at the end, but obviously she nails that too.  I believe her when she says that she will make the Sparrows pay.  And with Olenna and Littlefinger also putting their heads together to strike back at the fanatics, I don’t think all of these prisoners are going to remain locked up for long, and there’s going to be no shortage of hell to pay as they get once they’re out and about. In fact, is it next Sunday yet?

cast

Sunday, May 24, 2015

OUTRAGE, FEMINISM AND THE "PROBLEMATIC" PROBLEM: A MANSPLANATION

I don’t style myself a feminist, having no real credentials as an activist of any stripe. But in my own half-assed way, I’ve always been a liberal sort of dudebro, and as such I acknowledge that Hollywood generally and genre fiction particularly have real issues when it comes to representations of women. And I don’t think these issues are trivial; as a nerdy sort of dudebro, I believe in the power of movies the way some people believe in the benefits of a gluten-free diet, or a just and loving God.  How our popular culture portrays different groups has real effects on how other people view that group, and how that group views itself, and this manifests itself in subtle but hugely impactful ways.  What movies, TV, games, comics present as normal – shit like this matters, even when the actual products are silly or, well, shit.

But lately I’ve found myself in online conversations arguing against those taking such cinematic products to task for their alleged insensitivities to what I will (quite sensitively) call Chick Stuff. I’m not ready to sign up for any MRA message boards or donate to the Gamergate Kickstarter*, but it did prompt a modicum of soul-searching about whether I had just stumbled upon that magic age that everyone but Roger Ebert eventually hits, where the world has started changing too fast for my comfort, and from now on I’m just one of the boring pile of gripes that old white men who aren’t Roger Ebert inevitably decay into.

A few moments of reflection later, I decided that yes, I’m definitely that. But I still think that the online outrage directed at, specifically, the use of Black Widow in Avengers: Age Of Ultron and a certain development in in last week’s episode of Game Of Thrones, has been widely misapplied. I’ll get into some spoilery plot points for both in order to explain, but first I need to explain how to get through law school.

See, when you go to law school, they teach you a strategy for taking exams, including the Bar. Your “question” on the test is generally a page of description of a scenario that could give rise to a variety of legal problems, and your job is to identify as many of them as possible and explain how to approach them. With the clock ticking and interest already accruing on some serious Fuck You sized debt, this can be an overwhelming task, so much of first semester is spent drilling a format for answering these questions into the new student’s heads. It’s called IRAC, for Issue, Rule, Analysis, Conclusion. So you identify a potential Issue, and the prof credits you a few points toward your grade. You then have to recite the Rule, or legal precedent that the court would follow to decide on the issue, and if you can put all the words in the right order that’s another couple points. Then you have to Analyze how the rule would apply, and predict the Conclusion the court would come to.

The little secret is that it doesn’t really matter to your grade what you put in those last two sections, since they’re highly subjective territory. You might pick up a stray point or two with the analysis if you go in depth enough, but really you’re better off scribbling down something that doesn’t sound too stupid and getting on to the guaranteed points of the next Issue and Rule. The upshot of this is that the single biggest talent for passing law exams is what they call Issue Spotting. That means looking at a narrative and identifying all the different points that could be spun into a problem. Because that’s where the easiest points lie, and anyway you can’t get to the meat of the issue until you first identify it.

What does this have to do with the internet and outrage?  Well, I’ll start by saying that, for all the silliness and vile bullshit that it traffics in, the internet has been making us smarter.  Those of us with easy access to it have the collected stores of human knowledge (also pornography) available to us at a moment’s notice, ideas now disseminate with a speed we can only describe by citing communicable diseases, and I am in regular communication with people in far flung corners of the globe that I never would’ve been able to interact with a generation ago.  Yes, this means our prejudices and venalities are on more open display, but I truly believe that on the whole it is, incrementally, making us better, more aware people.

One of the increments in the internet’s growth has been an increased awareness of gender dynamics in popular media. And yes, reading that sentence back made even my own eyes glaze over a bit, but all it means is that when it comes to Chick Stuff in movies and such, those of us that live online have gotten very good at Issue Spotting. We’re much more savvy about tropes and conversant in writers’ lingo than we were a decade or two ago, and now we know about the Bechdel Test, and Women In Refrigerators, and that there’s something regressive about the girl being a trophy that the hero “wins” by beating the bad guy.  So when we spot the signifiers of a problem we’ve learned about, we get excited and want to show that we know about it.  And combined with social media’s inherent push to condense everything down to the size of a logline/status update, it means that the leap is easily made from spotting a potential issue and the conclusion “BAD”.

The problem is, this skips the middle two steps of the IRAC process, and that is where the heart of the matter actually lies. We’ve learned to identify the problems, and that is a good thing that indicates progress. But we struggle more to articulate the reasons behind the rules (particularly on social media platforms that aren’t conducive to depth and nuance), and therefore have trouble applying them to particular examples, and discern whether they are the problem or if they just have the same general shape as the problem without creating the same effects.

So this is all well and good, but what you really want is some of those sweet, sweet demonstrations. Well I’ll give you some proper (and spoilery, if that concerns you) IRACs of various issues with Black Widow in AOU and rape scenes in Game Of Thrones, don’t you worry.  And to do so, I’m going to resort to some pretty blatant straw man oversimplifications of the “feminist” critiques of these depictions, because I don’t have an angry feminist on hand and if I did, their actual arguments would be full of idiosyncrasies and nuances that would really screw up the momentum of what I’m trying to do here. So we’re just going to go with the Social Justice Straw Woman Stereotype version of the complaints (“SJSWS”), starting with Age Of Ultron.

SJSWS Complaint: They made badass Black Widow a boy-crazy ditz.

Issue: There’s a dearth of female heroes in superhero comics and movies (that aren’t X-Men, at least) who don’t exist solely as the male hero’s love interest.

Rule: You shouldn’t take a strong, independent female character and reduce her to being just some guy’s girlfriend.

Analysis: The key word here is “just”. The problem with this practice is that it makes the woman secondary to the man, not that having romantic feelings or relationships innately diminishes a woman’s worth.  I don’t think the Widow ever felt secondary to the Hulk in the movie; she is the more active party, pushing for the relationship, and ultimately she overrides his choice to run away together and abandon the mission.  Which gets to the other thing, that they are never actually a couple, so if we’re going with the shallow view that feminism means that a woman has to choose between her work and love life, and that prioritizing love is always the weaker choice…then she still ultimately makes the “right” decision for Feminism (in this most dumb, basic-ass form).  She sees the job through, and ends the film as a hero and one of the leaders of the Avengers, even as her love interest flees from society altogether and a couple of her other male counterparts essentially retire.

Put another way, the problem doesn’t come from the female character having a boyfriend, it comes from her becoming “his girlfriend”.  And if you were asked to describe Black Widow in a few words coming out of Age Of Ultron, would you honestly default to “Hulk’s girlfriend”?  I certainly wouldn’t have.

Conclusion: Widow’s romantic subplot actually gives deeper shading to her characterization rather than to reduce her to an object for the male hero to win/save.


SJSWS Complaint: Natasha calls herself a monster for not being able to conceive.

Issue: Implies a woman is worthless if she can’t bear children.

Rule: You really shouldn’t say that. It’s…well, it’s just mean for starters.

Analysis: This controversy is based around a fundamental, borderline-obtuse misreading of the line in question.  She doesn’t say “I can’t have children, I’m a monster!” She is wrapping up a monologue about how she gave up parts of her humanity (including, yes, her fertility), to become a more efficient killing machine.  It’s the killing part that makes her a “monster” in her own eyes, and I wouldn’t say that the movie shares her judgment of her own character in that regard.

Conclusion: Natasha’s not a monster because she can’t conceive, she compares herself to one because she’s killed a bunch of people and feels bad about it.


SJSW Complaint: Widow gets kidnapped by the bad guy.

Issue: Women in action and genre movies are kidnapped with numbing regularity in order to provide motivation for their boyfriends to kick ass.

Rule: It’s bad when your ostensible female lead becomes nothing more than a plot macguffin.

Analysis: This is a prime example of people latching onto the signifiers of a particular problem without considering what actually makes it a problem in the first place.  Because yes, superhero stories in particular have a bad track record of making every female character a damsel in distress who needs to be saved by the men (I’m pretty sure Guinness recognizes Kirsten Dunst as History’s Most Dangled Actress after three straight Spiderman movies where the villains’ plots revolved heavily around kidnapping and hanging her off some shit).  But it’s important to recognize that it’s not the fact of capture that makes this trope an issue.  Male heroes get captured all the time, whether it’s Batman or Indiana Jones or Flash Gordon; heck, you can’t even make a James Bond movie where he doesn’t spend a good chunk of the running time in the enemy’s clutches.

No, the problem with kidnapping is that it usually means the female character becomes an inert object, a token for the hero to take back from the villain.  But that’s not how things play out in AOU. Widow is captured late in the second act, but is freed early in the third.  It’s not as though she gets locked up and sits there waiting to smooch Banner after he’s saved the day.  She works to free herself and alert the group to Ultron’s location by sending a coded message, and then she gets out right as the climax kicks off and becomes a full, active participant in it.  She even forces her “boyfriend” to do the same when he wants to take them both out of harm’s way.

Conclusion: This walks like a trope, and talks like a trope, but doesn’t actually create the substance that makes that trope “problematic”.


And now on to the really fun stuff, Game Of Thrones and rape scenes. Let’s start with last year’s Jaime/Cersei scene, where he forces himself on her at their son’s bierside.

SJSWS Complaint: Unnecessary sensationalism that trivializes rape and makes excuses for the attacker

Issue: Having a sympathetic character rape a more unsympathetic one reinforces the idea that sexual assault is not that big a deal, and that a woman can be “asking for it”.

Analysis: I will say that sympathies are a very fluid thing on Game Of Thrones, and while both these characters have spent large portions of the show painted as “villains,” this struck a particularly sour chord for many viewers because of the long redemptive arc Jaime had been cresting. And there is something unsavory about the implication that rape is a less serious offense if you’re in a relationship with the person, or if they’re just kind of a bitch.

And that is the crux of the issue, I think, because seeing how little effect this turn of events had on their relationship and Jaime’s rather sympathetic depiction, it really does feel like the show is trivializing the gravity of the offense. The series has always been matter of fact about how sexual violence is a constant fact of life in its milieu, but this is the first time it felt like the show was treating that fact with a shrug.  It was such a non-issue going forward that, all offensiveness aside, you almost wonder why they even bothered devoting screentime to something so inconsequential. And while I’m adamant that rape and all other manner of abhorrent behavior are fair game for storytelling and can be approached in many different ways, one thing that rape should not be is inconsequential, particularly when both the perpetrator and victim are important characters.

None of this was helped by the various producers, directors and actors giving contradictory explanations for what the scene was trying to convey after the fact, which gives off the impression that this was a rather big bullet to have fired off half-blind.

Conclusion: I’m giving Benioff and Weiss enough credit to assume that they didn’t intend to imply that rape isn’t that big a deal, but regardless, yeah, they legitimately fucked this one up. It’s a low point for a series that I otherwise revere.


SJSWS Complaint: Ramsay’s rape of Sansa on their Wedding Night

Issue: There’s like half a dozen. It’s either that a) this ruins all progress and growth Sansa has had as a character, or b) that they made it all about Theon by panning over to him during the act, or c) it was unnecessary because we already knew Ramsay was a sexual sadist, or some variation or combination of the same.

Rule(s): Taking a strong female character and reducing her to a victim sends a bad message, using rape as a motivator for male characters devalues the victim’s perspective, rape is not to be used lightly as a narrative device.

Analysis: I’ll outsource the bulk of this analysis to Amanda Marcotte, who gives a rundown of all the scattershot criticisms of this scene and mirrors my own take on the matter. The bullet points would be that sexual violence has always been part of the fabric of Game Of Thrones’s world and this is very much part of the point, that pulling the camera’s focus to Theon allows the scene to do two things at once and avoid graphicness that would no doubt have led to equally passionate complaints, and those who complain about this ruining Sansa’s character are actually demonstrating the misogynist assumptions that sexual assault forever taints and defines the victim while ostensibly criticizing the show for doing the same thing.

But the thing I want to note here is that the show hasn’t done that. Yet. The rape scene was literally the very last thing that the show has aired. So any criticisms of what this does to the show or Sansa’s character can’t really be about the show at this point, they can only be about your own assumptions about what a rape scene has to be or do.  Though I will allow that perhaps some of the recriminations are given more color by knowing where Sansa’s storyline goes from here in the books, but I’ve remained studiously ignorant of the source material in order to take the show as it comes, so that’s the perspective I’m sticking to here.

Conclusion: It’s too early to conclude that Sansa has been ruined or “fridged” by the rape, even if some of the signifiers of that issue are present in the scene.

Anyway, there will be a new episode few hours, and we’ll start to see how Sansa’s storyline will develop. Then I’ll be doing my normal episode review, chock full of brand new apologetics, rationalizations and bad jokes, and perhaps I will have to change my tune, but I wanted to put this out there beforehand because there is a broader point here.  So again, I think an increased awareness of the shortcomings of female characterizations, in genre fiction in particular, is a positive thing. And I’m not actually suggesting that bloggers should all adopt IRAC as a format for discussing TV, I just use it as a reference point to show that Issue Spotting, while the quickest way to snag low-hanging points, is not enough to demonstrate a real understanding of a subject, or to impart such an understanding to others.  You also need to show your work, and explain why the issue is an issue.
It’s a drag, I know, and seems to make homework out of emotional reactions to largely emotional cues.  But when we succumb to arguing backwards from an emotional reaction, people’s bullshit detectors get pinged, which can lead to the impression that all of this Chick Stuff is overblown.  It’s not, despite the fact that this piece was focused on a few critiques that I do think were blown out of proportion, and I really don’t want the takeaway from all this to be “so shut up about the Chick Stuff already!”

It’s because this Stuff is important that we need to put our best arguments forward when discussing it (and because as a lawyer, poor argumentation in general is nails on my personal chalkboard), and not simply fall back on vagaries like calling things “problematic” or “disappointing” without bothering to explain how or why. I’m sure I’ve done so myself in the past, and why I'm going to make an effort to only use the word “problematic” unless I can also identify exactly what the problem is and why it’s a problem.  Because right now it’s becoming synonymous with poorly thought out, half-baked PC scolding, and we should really endeavor to fully bake our scolding. I think Ben Franklin said that.

*seriously guys, I don’t know that much about being a Real Man, but I do know it involves very little whining about how girls want to play with your toys

Monday, May 18, 2015

GAME OF THRONES 5.06 - "UNBOWED, UNBENT, UNBROKEN"


The words of House Martell, “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken” refer to Dorne’s status as the only of the 7 Kingdoms that the Targaryeans did not conquer by force.  But while the episode that takes it for its title does feature the Martell’s simultaneously repelling two kidnapping attempts, it primarily showcases characters bowing, bending and breaking the truth to different ends and effectiveness.
Arya can’t slip even slight alterations of detail past Jaqen, but she is able to fabricate a backstory convincing enough to convince a sick girl to quietly euthanize herself.  This only makes her ready to become “Someone Else”, rather than “No One”, but then I don’t think Jaqen or anyone has made a very good case for embracing full Facelessness.  Arya’s grudges, and our sympathy with them, run a bit too deep to cast aside for.  Sure, the training will make you supremely competent, which is cool and all, but if you can’t put it to use to pursue any of your personal goals, what is the point exactly?

Also, am I the only one who was distracted by how crazy the House of Black and White's candle budget must be?
Also, am I the only one distracted by how out of 
control the House of Black and White’s candle budget must be?
Over in Essos, Jorah also tries to talk his way into a warrior caste of sorts, but it’s the bald truth of his duel with a Dothraki bloodrider that seals the deal rather than Tyrion’s exaggerations about his deeds in far off Westeros.  Jorah and Tyrion are not quite as entertaining an odd couple as Jaime and Brienne, but Peter Dinklage and Ian Glenn have great chemistry, whether bickering about food, debating the finer points of Targaryean rule, or sharing a tender moment of remembrance for the Andal’s father. They make those moments sing, and they get to have them with some of the show’s most beautiful scenery as a backdrop.

Also, this guy quoted my 3rd favorite GWAR song
Also, if this isn’t the title of a GWAR song, they’re really slipping
Just as beautiful is the water gardens of Dorne (actually The Alcázar of Seville), where Myrcella, who seems to have aged about 7 years since being sent away prior to the battle of Blackwater, spends her days snogging her young beau. The competing stealth missions of Jaime and the Sand Snakes run afoul of each other, and we get a fun little fight scene where their Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle-like signature weapons bring some nice variety to the choreography. But it’s not as exciting as the fights generally are, since they make the small misstep of telegraphing that the guards know shit’s up and will be putting the kibosh on things before anyone gets offed.  The boards seem convinced that Bronn’s cut means he’s a goner, since Oberyn was established as poisoning his blade, but it didn’t really occur to me and I don’t know that they’d gear up for maximum lethality when their goal was to spirit a live hostage away from their own kinsmen. Plus, her furious reaction when he taunt/complimented (tauntplimented? Tauntplimented) her technique afterward doesn’t seem quite right if she knows she already dealt him a death blow.

Back in King’s Landing, Littlefinger’s lies become even more layered and complex, as he secures Cersei’s approval to march an army on Winterfell.  It’s hard to say what he really intends, but my take is that he doesn’t really know for sure.  If he gets there and Boltons are still in power, he could either remove them himself or continue to exploit the alliance he made through Sansa, depending on how weak they look.  But of course, they won’t still be in charge, as Stannis is foretold to sit on the Iron Throne.  So I imagine that he’ll present his army to Stannis and offer himself up as a potential suitor for a newly-widowed Sansa, and possibly warden of the North.

The one option I don’t think he could seriously be considering is sticking with the Lannisters. On top of the significant risk he took plotting regicide, Cersei’s foolishness with the Faith Militant has turned the capital in a place that is decidedly unfriendly for a man like him. Her maneuvers against the Tyrells are undeniably effective, but still remarkably stupid considering that she knows Stannis is coming, the Boltons have abandoned their alliance with the Lannisters, and Jamie’s mission was apt to start a war with the Martells regardless of whether he succeeded or failed.

"Yeah, I was gonna have to find an excuse to use this thing no matter what."
“Yeah, it’s not like I wasn’t gonna find an excuse to use this thing no matter what.”
So she better enjoy her victory over Margaery and Olenna (who recognizes Tywin’s “make them sit while you write” trick when she sees it) while she can, because no matter how much she might hate her son’s wife, allowing a bunch of religious fanatics to haul her off while he gapes ineffectually is only weakening her own position, to say nothing of what those nuts are going to have to say about her own common-knowledge perversions once they run out of gays to bash.  Seriously, I know she’s desperate, but she should be smart enough to see that these moves are devastating her prospects in the medium term, never mind the long.

By contrast, Sansa’s long term prospects are as good as they’ve been since her father’s death, while her short term couldn’t be worse.  She is married, again to a hated enemy, and this time he’s not as secretly chivalrous as Tyrion.  Immediate reactions to the closing rape scene seemed to be largely negative, although there doesn’t seem to be much agreement on what exactly the problem with it is.  We’ve known the marriage was coming, and what it would entail, and for a while now.  That doesn’t make it better, necessarily, but then it is supposed to be an upsetting sequence and it’s not as though marital rape wasn’t a constant reality in medieval times and beyond (fun fact! it didn’t even start to get recognized as a crime in the US until the 1970s, and what Ramsay did would still be legal in South Carolina).  I’ve seen the focus on Theon’s reaction criticized as making it all about him, but I think that was actually an effective way to highlight the grossness of the scene without getting overly graphic. It was about the most tasteful option, if we’re operating on the assumption that a “tasteful” rape scene is the proper goal. Personally, I think overly sanitizing such a repellant act creates its own host of issues.

But the good news is, that just means there is twice the opportunities for sanctimonious grandstanding
Which just means twice the opportunities for sanctimonious grandstanding!
But a consistent point in these reviews has been that what note you end on is extremely important, and I think the ending on the rape left an overly-bad taste in many people’s mouths.  Not that it should’ve been an uplifting installment, but I think if they had shuffled things around to close on Arya in the face-basement it might have played better.  Not only would it have allowed the episode to end on its most striking imagery (which is always a good idea), but it would serve as a subtle suggestion that this horror was not the end of Sansa’s story, and the Starks retain the potential to come back from even the worst of circumstances.  And I do not doubt that she will; the big question is to what extent she blames Littlefinger for having to endure this indignity.  I take it as a foregone conclusion that Ramsay will get his, and whether it comes from Sansa, Theon, Stannis, or some combination thereof, it can’t come soon enough.  In fact, is it next Sunday yet?

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Monday, May 11, 2015

GAME OF THRONES 5.05 - "KILL THE BOY"




Credits Tangent!  I understand that the capitol, along with Winterfell, the Wall, and wherever Dany is chilling at the moment, have permanent spots in the rotation, but why did we get Dorne in there this week?  It also bothers me that the castle of Sunspear just has the kingdom’s name to label it – not like it makes that big a difference, but the specificity of the thing is kind of the whole point. And no Valyria?  Come on, I know it’s time-consuming to make a new little sequence for a place we may not see again, but its actual appearance in the episode is so striking,and  you could give us 2 seconds less of the dragons chewing on a random noble to pay for it.

winter

So anyway, this episode set itself up to disappoint me with the credits’ DAMNABLE LIES. No Dorne. No Braavos. No Kings Landing, which I believe is the only time that’s happened outside of the major “event” episodes around the Red Wedding and Battle Of Castle Black (if I’m wrong about that, the comments await below).  And in the place of those intriguing locations full of characters I like scheming and infiltrating and assassin training and Frankenstein-ing, we get what feels like a solid half hour of Ramsay Bolton.  So let’s talk about Ramsay a bit.

I don’t like Ramsay.  I’m not supposed to, obviously, but it’s not because I have a weak stomach so much as because I don’t think he’s nearly as compelling as the showrunners seem to believe.  Ever since he was introduced interminably torturing Theon for an entire season, it’s felt like his scenes routinely run twice as long as those with more important characters and more story information to impart.  Take the scene where Theon tells him that Sansa saw him – that’s about 2 minutes of screen time (which doesn’t sound like a lot, but really, really is) that tells us nothing new about the characters or their relationship, and serves only to recount what happened in the prior scene. Then it leads directly into the even more drawn out dinner scene, that again presents nothing new beyond announcing Lady Bolton’s pregnancy.  Though the long walk there is almost worth it just for Sansa’s infinitesimal smirk after the announcement.

bolton
“Seriously, son, this is 4 scenes in a row with us. Aren’t you more 
curious to see what’s going on with Arya at this point?”
You would think that all these scenes of him fucking around repeating things we’ve seen before, and having naked playtime with his psycho girlfriend, and eating (I feel like the only actor I’ve watched cut and chew more than Iwan Rheon at this point is James Gandolfini) would have the effect of making Ramsay less 2-dimensional than characters that have enjoyed ¼ of his screentime, but nope.  Joffrey was similarly hateful, but at least he brought an unpredictability to his scenes, by virtue of his position of power that forced a wide variety of characters to dance around his psychotic proclivities.  Whereas Ramsay really only ever poses an immediate threat to Theon, and the viewer’s delicate sensibilities.

As such, Ramsay’s utility as a villain is diminished by the very limited reach of his tyranny, but he’s too reprehensible to give any sort of damn when Roose gives him his version of Stannis’s speech to his daughter from last week.  There is some small entertainment value to the was that Roose regards his boy’s gleeful sadism like a traditional sitcom dad would his weirdo son’s amateur ventriloquism; sort of a resigned sigh that no, this is not going to get him anywhere in life, but it’s his thing and we don’t want to discourage him from expressing himself.

ramsay
No one likes a prop comic, kid.  Their dads least of all.
 So anyway, Ramsay is no doubt planning to give Theon’s head to Sansa as a wedding present, which is one more reason to hope those nuptials never come to pass.  Not that putting him out of his misery would even be the worst thing at this point, but after 3 seasons of torment, I really hope it’s building to something more than Ramsay finally finishing the job.  If not for Theon’s sake, then for my own.  I need the hours I’ve spent watching the endless parade of degradation that is this storyline lead somewhere. And if it allows Sansa to snag a victory in the process, that’d be pretty good too.  This episode reminded me that from her perspective, it’s not just her father, mother and older brother that have been betrayed and brutally murdered, but also her little brothers and sister, in separate incidents.  Five years in, her go of it stands out as particularly rough even in a show with more than its share of genital mutilation.

But if everything in Winterfell drags this week, things are a bit better in Mereen, where Dany struggles to put together a coherent countermove to last week’s attack.  She defaults to frying a noble picked at random and feeding him to the dragons, because she is her father’s girl, after all.  This is cruel and not entirely fair, but at least somewhat savvy as a way to make it the noble families’ problem to deal with the insurgency, whether they personally fomented it or not.  Where I think she screws up is her follow up move of deciding to marry Eagle Eye Cherry.  It’s a good move for the immediate purpose of pacifying the city, but Mereen is not her ultimate goal, and playing this card now means it won’t be available at a time when it could potentially bring one of the Seven Kingdoms into her fold.

Unless she decides to just murder Eagle Eye as soon as another match proves more useful. That feels less out of character as season 5 rolls on.

eagle
Insert your favorite lyric from “Save Tonight” here. 
And don’t pretend you don’t have one. Not with me.
Like the khaleesi, Jon Snow opts to attempt an alliance with a potential enemy rather than executing or imprisoning him.  But in his case, this decision is made with his eye firmly on the big picture, and has the immediate effect of riling up his subjects rather than pacifying them.  No one on either side is happy with the idea, which the American political process has taught me means it’s probably the right thing in the long run.  I’ve enjoyed the scenes at Castle Black this year, which have gotten their charge from Jon Snow 2.0 interacting with Stannis’s cohort, but I’m happy to see them heading in opposite directions now.  They couldn’t have them waiting around for the Walkers to show up forever, and putting Jon back in the field with the Wildlings sounds like a plan.  And Stannis can’t march south fast enough, as in case I didn’t make it clear, I could do with less scenes of the Boltons interacting with themselves.

stan
“Fewer.”
But if half of this episode is a drag, it at least has the sense to end on the strongest material, which goes a long way to redeeming things.   Tyrion and Jorah visiting the ruins of Valyria, the fallen Pompeii/Atlantis analogue of this world, is a simply gorgeous sequence.  And if the effects on Drogon flying through the mists are not as intricate as those of his sisters going nuts in the crypts of Mereen, it’s a lesson that a shot of an actor like Peter Dinklage reacting is worth a few tens of millions of pixels when it comes to producing awe.  This would be the highlight of the episode even it wasn’t perfectly setting up the tremendous “oh shit!” shot of the stone man coming to life and dropping into the water that leads to the episode’s big gutpunch.  Because even if semi-mythical Doom of Valyria is a thousand years in the past, a doom lingers there in the form of greyscale, this world’s leprosy/rabies hybrid.  Jorah contracting it puts a sort of zombie-movie spin on his journey with Tyrion, and can that possibly be a bad thing?

Of course it can. Things only ever get worse on this show, after all. And I can’t wait.  Is it next Sunday yet? Oh, come on!!

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Tuesday, May 5, 2015

GAME OF THRONES 5.04 - "SONS OF THE HARPY"



I think it’s time we had a thoughtful, frank and substantive discussion about Carice Van Houten’s breasts.

I think that regardless of of our respective ages, affiliations and orientations we can agree on this much
HYUUUUNAGHHHHHHH

I think that regardless of of our respective ages, affiliations and orientations we can agree on this much.

Moving along.

The season’s debuted with the aptly-named episode “The Wars To Come”, and subsequent titles have now shuffled through several factions that seem poised to shape those wars, even if they aren’t themselves the headliners.  The House Of Black And White will influence things through Arya, who you couldn’t keep out of the mix even if Lord Tyrell was not bringing her Meryn (Fucking!) Trant on a platter.  The Sparrows are undermining the Tyrell/Lannister alliance, and Tommen’s young regime in the process.  And in Mereen, the Sons Of The Harpy have struck a vicious blow to Dany’s inner circle.

I’ve often given short shrift to Dany’s end of the story in these recaps, and that’s mostly due to how I haven’t felt that she’s faced a real challenge or setback since I started writing them way back in the mists of the third season premiere.  It’s tough to see the generally likable Selmy and possibly Grey Worm taken out in a single stroke, but it’s also exciting.  After the takings of Mereen, and Yunkai and Astapor went off without any significant losses for Team Targaryean (the dragons are not really full characters, not to mention their exit is non-fatal and at least partially self-inflicted), we’re at a place where I celebrate the khaleesi getting legitimately bad news.

"Eagle Eye Cherry wants to talk to you" doesn't count
“Eagle Eye Cherry wants to talk to you” doesn’t count

That’s because it’s a fact that angry khaleesi is the best khaleesi, and I’m way more into seeing Tyrion interact with that one than another vignette of imperious khaleesi trying to go smug for smug with her mercenary boytoy.  On that front, it does feel kind of quick that the very first glimpse we get of Jorah post-banishment has him turning right back around for Mereen, particularly given the languid pace at which the Essos material has moved the past few years.  But it should be able to avoid feeling like take-backsies, so long as he returns to a place that has changed significantly and a queen that is both feeling vengeful and in greater need of him than she has been in years.  I’m not even that desperate to see Dany take off for Westeros, though I understand why many are; I just want her to meet some challenges that feel genuine, and getting her in contact with more of the established cast seems like the best way to do that.

The Sons of the Harpy might be the namesake of the episode, but they are not the only archconservative social movement spilling blood on the queen’s streets.  In King’s Landing, Cersei is playing a dangerous, self-defeating game as she torpedoes her family’s alliance with the wealthy and popular (well, Margaery at least) Tyrells and empowers the Westerboros Baptist Church to stomp around and lock up her fiancee on the grounds that The Gods Hates F***s.

 Although statistically, at least one of the 7 is at least bi-curious. I’m not looking at you, Smith, but I’m not not looking at you.
Though statistically, one of the 7 is at least bi-curious. I’m not looking
at you, The Smith, but I’m not not looking at The Smith either.
This seems monumentally short-sighted on Cersei’s part, as even though it succeeds in driving a wedge between her son and ol’ Marge, it also makes Tommen and the Lannisters look weak in the process, something that they really, really do not need with Tywin dead, the Iron Bank calling in their debts, Stannis looming in the north, and war with Dorne becoming increasingly inevitable as Oberyn’s mistress and daughters, the Sand Snakes, plot to force their passive prince’s hand by hurting Myrcella.

The Snakes’ introduction scene doesn’t end on its strongest note (the one girl’s whip-coil move was more badass than the other’s whole monologue/execution), but it is effective nonetheless at setting them up as a formidable opposition for our “protagonists” – which I’d say Jaime and Bronn are by dint of familiarity, if not because their motivations are that much more righetous.  It accomplishes this by having them suss out our guys plan from the jump, putting them immediately ahead of the game.  This is a stark contrast to the type of opposition Dany usually to face in Essos, where new schmucks keep underestimating her years after we have learned not to.

snakes
Australia’s National Pastime (crate of Fosters not pictured)
I’m unsure, in that great GOT way, how I really want this Dornish adventure to play out.  I’m not eager to see an innocent girl get hurt, but I am DEFINITELY eager to see the Martells go to war.  And I do want someone to pay for Oberyn’s death, but I don’t feel like it should be Jaime or Bronn.  Particularly after this week lived up to the promise of their buddy road trip so perfectly, with swordplay and derring do and gruff heart-to-hearts over roasted poison vipers.

snake
Craft Services provided by the National Tourism Board of Australia
Things are simpler in the North, though, where I know exactly what I want.  Sansa is left by Littlefinger to fend for herself, albeit with ideas for how to play either of the likely winners of the coming fracas.  She probably should be old hat at this by now, as she is by my count the veteran of 5 potential/aborted marriages (to Joffrey, Loras, Tyrion, Robin, and Ramsay).  But we will see how she manages with a new intended that is secretly more twisted than even Joffrey and no one actively coaching her through the intrigues.  It’s not hard to root against the Boltons in this case, obviously, but I’m holding out a rather specific hope that a desperate Ramsay will be threatening Sansa to try to hold off a victorious Stannis, only for lowly Reek to pull a Wormtongue and stab him in the back, delivering the North back to the Starks.  Things rarely work out that neatly on this show, I know, and I’m probably setting myself up for heartbreak by hoping for the Starks to get such a clear victory with so much story left to play out.  But Sansa’s restoration has been taking on a real feeling of inevitability, and….

Wait a minute. Each odd numbered season has ended with the heads of the Stark household getting abruptly decapitated by some total shitheel, and the most evil characters on the show basking in victory. And this is season 5, and the Starks seem like they just might be getting a foot under them…Nah, even GRRM wouldn’t be such a shitheel to go to that well a third…would…?

Is it episode 9 yet? Oh…shit.

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