If Kevin Feige can announce ten Marvel projects over the next three years, I can announce three blog posts over the next three weeks.
Do you ever write a first sentence, or even just a first word, and think about ten (give or take) ways you could go from there? With this post, I got as far as the word “Well,” which I didn’t end up starting this post with, because I’ve realized how often that is how I/we/he/she/me start sentences both written and spoken. Now, to let you behind the curtain, this is most certainly not the way I thought this post was going to start. But, as Sean Connery’s titular character in Finding Forrester argues: “The first key to writing is to write. Not to think.”
Despite the dearth of posts on this blog, I have been writing (and thinking, probably too much) quite a lot. For the last year or so, my work and living situation has given me lots of time to write, and I’m proud to say I have taken advantage of it. I wrote a novel about Wisconsin and death (I only meant it to be about one of those things) which is just now starting to get some eyes on it and we’ll see what becomes of it. I wrote a novella about innocence and Christian mysticism (which happens to take place in Wisconsin), and that’s on the shelf until it isn’t. And now I just finished the first part of a long work of fantasy.
I moved to a new city for a new job about a month ago, and that new job started Friday, and my writing habits are going to have to change. This might be just as well, as I’d like to take a break from writing longer projects and return to focusing my efforts on blog posts. Ideally I’ll be posting one a week going forward. I’ve made similar commitments before…in April 2015 I wrote: “Around this time last year I decided that I was going to try to post something on the blog close to every day. And I failed. Miserably. I wrote consistently for a couple weeks but it didn’t take long for me to give up on the venture.” A key difference this time is that I understand better than ever that a blog takes longer than a day to write, and I now have much more practice with the writing close to every day thing. I’m also not declaring this into the reaches of perpetuity; it’s a temporary goal.
As it happens, I have a plan for the first three posts (the order of two and three could change). First, I’m going to do some metacognition by sharing some of my thoughts on the process of writing fantasy. There will be some inside baseball in that one, but I think it will have broader interest for anyone who likes to think about how we come up with and relate to stories. Next, I’ll have an essay about one of my five favorite writers and one of my five favorite directors, and while proselytizing for both of these remarkable artists (hint: one is Norwegian and the other Japanese) I will discuss some of the things their works have in common which I think are interesting and significant. The third will be an essay about an important theme present in Tolkien’s legendarium, Harry Potter, The Road, and Avatar: The Last Airbender (hint: it starts with an “h” and rhymes with the best Wisconsinism).
And now, mostly unrelated, I just wanted to share Proverbs 20:5 with you. The Bible, the Book of Proverbs included, can feel repetitive sometimes (don’t @ me), but I don’t think there’s anything quite like this proverb, or at least not said quite this way. I find it compelling:
“The intentions of a person’s heart are deep waters, but a discerning person reveals them.”
This is the unofficial start of a great and terrible journey.
Some things matter even though they’re stupid.
The ACT. 80s action movies. The application form you have to fill out even after uploading your resume. Two-night-20-candidate-primary-debates.
It’s stupid, what NBC is putting on TV Wednesday and Thursday night, because that’s too many people talking at the “same” time for each to give a fair impression of themselves and their ideas, let alone engage with each other in actual debate. It’s also possible that the ability or inability to do well in a debate – however we decide to measure that – is a poor indication of what kind of president a person would make.
And so, even though it’s stupid, I’m going to watch it. Both nights. Alone. Probably beginning to end. Perhaps I’ll splurge on a cheap bottle of wine.
I called it a clown car when the Republicans did it, and it’s a clown car this time, too, but now it’s my clown car (and these clowns exhibit a general level of competence and decency).
If it was just stupid, I wouldn’t be so worked up about it, because then I could just ignore it if I don’t like it. The stupidity of the Grammys holds the potential to baffle and infuriate, but since they don’t actually matter it’s not the end of the world when Taylor Swift wins Album of the Year for 1989. On the other hand, the stupid Oscars do matter, and so it’s a travesty when Green Book wins Best Picture. This upcoming unwieldy, ungainly, unholy debate with all its pageantry and unrealistic performativity is stupid, but it matters.
Again, it matters because the field of candidates is massive and needs to shrink somehow, and this is the way we’ve decided to do it, because if there’s one thing Americans love in their government and politics, it’s nostalgic outdatedness. One way or another we need to eliminate contestants, and short of a Michael Scott “Beach Games” style competition, this is as good a way as we’ve got. Imperfect as it is, these debates will have an impact on who becomes a serious candidate going forward, and that, obviously, matters.
Rather than tune out the debates and their subsequent coverage, I’ll engage with them because they are important, but by doing so I will be subjecting myself to the beast of political primary season, which, like working with the Flying Dutchman and daytime television, is grueling, mind-numbing, and repetitive. By watching on Wednesday and Thursday, and then, inevitably, following along with the reaction, I will be entering into something that will make me confused, frustrated, and anxious. This first debate will signal the start of my engagement with this process, and, therefore, I’m dreading it.
I’m dreading having to watch as petty attacks and counterattacks unfold, faux pas become national scandal, backlash comes for the backlash, willful misrepresentation runs wild, and Joe Biden inexplicably maintains frontrunner status. I’m also dreading, albeit with a sort of guarded optimism, watching these twenty people perform for me as a yet undecided person. I don’t know now which one of these people I like the most, or who my first and second backups are, but they’re going to come from this field. I’ll be interacting with the one before I know who they are, like the first few weeks of Hogwarts or Christian college. What if I come to love a candidate only to see them fall in the polls? What if I set myself against another and then they emerge as the only viable alternative to one I dislike even more?
There will be more debates, and I’ll do more research and take the isidewith quiz, but this first impression still carries a lot of weight.
But that’s all just the primary – I’m also faced with the reality that one of the people – and it may not be my first, second, or even third choice – will be the Democratic nominee and the person I will support in the general election. This is it; this slate of twenty people holds the name of the nation’s hope for decency, competency, and the fundamentals of our republic, and Larry Bird’s not walking through that door.
Which brings me to what I’m dreading most about this first official step in really getting to know this field of candidates: whatever happens, for better and worse, in this Democratic primary, millions of people, including many of my family and friends, are going to vote for Donald Trump.
It doesn’t really matter who “we” decide on. It doesn’t matter how qualified and civil that person is, how well-reasoned and well-intentioned their policies are, or how patriotic and inspiring they act. We can put all these people under the microscope and suss out the “best” candidate and proudly present them before the world in Milwaukee next summer, and they might just be our sacrificial lamb before the Republican Molech and the devastating weapon of the Electoral College. Even if Trump is defeated, the fact remains that people I know to be thinking, feeling individuals will have decided long before that the candidate representing my views is inferior to that guy. All the discourse, base and elevated alike, put into the Democratic primary will be dross before them. They might have hardly given any thought to the differences between Trump’s potential opponents.
This is how the rest of the Eastern Conference felt about LeBron all those years, isn’t it?
On a personal, selfish level, I’ll admit I dread the possibility of going all in on a candidate and finding myself in a place where I really believe they are the Prince/Princess Who Was Promised, buying their merch and touting their policies and maybe even doing some actual on the ground work to flip Wisconsin, only to see them lose to a man who I still can’t believe is President even though I actually can believe it because I have studied American history but you know what I mean. But on a greater, existential level, it’s just a real bummer. The most “electable” candidate might get nominated and that soul-selling will be for naught, or the most inspiring might get nominated and that ambition will be punished.
And it’ll make this entire thing, beginning with this ridiculous debate, seem all that more stupid.
In an uneven finale, Game of Thrones made a surprising case for the power of stories.
Game of Thrones is a story and a story about stories. The ending of the story was imperfectly told, but that truism made it through. While the last season has done much to obfuscate tone, messages, and themes, the finale promoted and endorsed the power and importance of stories as they operate in the world of the show as well as in our own consumption of them. It was an imperfect finale, rife with the same sorts of shortcomings in the writing that have plagued the last two seasons, but if nothing else (and there wasn’t nothing else), the final episode was clear that stories matter.
In the third episode of the show, we are introduced to Old Nan, a servant woman in Winterfell, who is best known for her stories. Bran says he hates her old stories, but – unfazed – Nan claps back that she “knows a story about a boy who hated stories,” and then tells him about the terrifying Long Night, once again captivating the boy’s mind, and terrifying this boy with the prospect of seeing pale spiders big as hounds in later episodes (thank the old gods and the new we never faced that). In the books, Nan’s stories are referred to many times, primarily in Bran’s point-of-view chapters.
Seventy episodes later, and Tyrion makes his case for Bran’s kingship on the basis of the power of stories:
“What unites people? Armies? Gold? Flags? Stories. There’s nothing more powerful in the world than a good story. Nothing can stop it. No enemy can defeat it. And who has a better story than Bran the Broken? The boy who fell from a high tower and lived. He knew he’d never walk again, so he learned to fly. He crossed beyond the Wall, a crippled boy, and became the Three-Eyed Raven. He is our memory, the keeper of all our stories…. Who better to lead us into the future?”
Bran as King is a surprising and hastily put together turn in the plot, but Tyrion’s speech builds off of his fireside storytime with Bran in the season’s second episode and builds off of what Sam said of Bran’s importance to the Night King in that same episode: “If we forget where we’ve been, what we’ve done, we’re not men anymore. We’re just animals…. If I wanted to erase the world of men, I’d start with you.”
What the Three-Eyed Raven does and whether or not that actually makes Bran the best choice to be king are two of the many, many questionable aspects of the ending of the show, but this characterization of Bran does build upon an important theme that has been there throughout the series – the power of stories.
“Do you know what the realm is?” Petyr Baelish asks Varys in one of their iconic conversations. “It’s the thousand blades of Aegon’s enemies. A story we agree to tell each other over and over until we forget that it’s a lie.”
“But what do we have left once we abandon the lie?” replies Varys. “Chaos. A gaping pit waiting to swallow us all.”
In the second season, Varys tells Tyrion that “power resides where men believe it resides. It’s a trick. A shadow on the wall.” This line is referred to twice in season eight.
The ability to tell the right story in the right way is established as fundamental to power, but storytelling is also a dynamic, world-shaping activity in the books and, to a lesser extent, in the show. Nobles and smallfolk alike are constantly telling stories, sharing news and rumors as well as tales from prior days. Sometimes an accurate version makes it across the realm, but they generally end up twisted or embellished. These stories are part of the breathtaking achievement of Martin’s worldbuilding, and they are also crucial to driving the realm’s politics. The show did well to capture this element for so long, which made it so perplexing when characters seemed to stop hearing rumors or asking questions in the final two seasons (with a notable exception of Hot Pie, who has heard tell of Jon Snow and the Battle of the Bastards, leading to Arya heading North). The absence of this aspect of the show as of late helps underscore how important it was for so long.
The storytelling that led to King Bran the Broken may have been shoddy, but there is no denying the show has long endorsed Tyrion’s lofty appraisal of stories. Whether or not Bran’s coronation makes sense, Game of Thrones has made very clear that stories shape the world and are more than capable of king-making.
The importance of stories continued to develop through the episode, albeit in a more meta and interpretive form. We see Brienne, now Lord Commander of the Kingsguard, fill in Jaime’s pages in the Book of Brothers. Perhaps no character in the show is as shaped by the stories people tell about them as Jaime, but now Ser Brienne, who knows him better than anyone, is able to record the definitive account of his deeds as a member of the Kingsguard. In the Small Council meeting, Sam presents Tyrion with A Song of Ice and Fire, Maester Ebrose’s telling of the events following the death of King Robert Baratheon, hot off the inkwell. The creaking sound you can hear is not the binding of the massive tome, but the imperiled Fourth Wall. It’s a somewhat clumsy nod to the source material and another ode to stories, but perhaps the most compelling bit of this moment is when Sam tells Tyrion that Ebrose has not mentioned Tyrion once in the entire history. It’s a reminder that history and memories are kept alive through their telling, and that telling is flawed and biased and can leave out crucial characters.
Familiar scenes, situations, and aesthetics in the post-Dragonpit part of the episode evoke cycles, looking ahead while calling back. There’s a Small Council meeting, a crowning of a Northern monarch, a new voyage for Arya, and a journey North for Jon, clad in black with Ghost by his side. Westeros has changed, but much has stayed the same, just as the show has changed, even if the final scenes refer back to what has come before. A single green chute grows out of the snow, surely alluding to A Dream of Spring and reminding us of cyclical seasons. The world goes on. The story goes on.
As Jon goes beyond the Wall, he looks back through the closing gate, and it is almost as if he is looking back at us, giving us the power over the story. We have talked and talked about this story, and as he heads out into the wilderness, we will continue to talk about this story, arguing about plot points, devising fan theories, rewriting scenes and characters, putting together endings, imagining origins, rewatching, rereading, and hoping for the next book. There will be prequels and spin-offs, surely, and we will talk about those, too, but this once in a generation story will go on and on because it’s a story we like hearing and one we like telling. And it’s not just stories about Westeros and the world of A Song of Ice and Fire – Jon’s look back at us encourages us to go on telling all stories. Post Thrones, it’s our turn to go on telling great stories the way we want to tell them, sharing them with people who we hope will listen and be filled with wonder, so much so that they might tell someone else about it. Game of Thrones is not the first story to change our lives, and it won’t be the last.
I don’t know how much of this David Benioff and D.B. Weiss intended. It’s possible they made this case largely on accident, or they might have really meant to compose a love letter to stories. It’s also possible that this is a final defense for their handling of the story. It could be their way of saying Look, this is really hard to do. Don’t be so sure you could do better. We’re trying. You’re welcome and fuck off. Or it could be an acknowledgement of their shortcomings and an endorsement of all the fan theories that are, well, better than what they gave us. They’re admitting that they, like Ebrose, have a Tyrion-shaped omission in the narrative, and they’re happy to know that other people who care about the story have put together thoughtful additions and alterations to the tale. Again, I don’t know what their intentions were, but the prominent placement of stories in the finale invites us to consider who the story belongs to and how it will exist in our minds. It also makes these idiots signing a petition to remake the final two seasons look that much more like hive-minded fanboys (and I say this as someone who will, to some extent, see the story (but not the show) as ending at the end of Season 6 until George (hopefully) finishes the books).
The fact that the spirit of Old Nan, your favorite storyteller’s favorite storyteller, prevailed in the finale is an encouraging thing for me. As a student of Foucauldian discourse analysis, I’m fascinated by the considerations of how narrative, discourse, and knowledge determine social and political power. The ideas that would have intrigued any number of chain-smoking French philosophers and over-caffeinated English grad students drove the political intrigue of earlier seasons, and it is gratifying to see them given such prominence in the final chapter. Tyrion’s Dragonpit speech – despite the ridiculous elements of that scene – is worth thinking more about because of what it suggests about the relationship between storytelling and power, and because it validates previous treatments of the subject in the show. But I’m also encouraged and pleased by the echoes of Old Nan as a reader and as a writer, as someone who loves and values history and literature. I love stories, from well-told accounts of the weird things that happen in our daily lives to long tales of romance in 19th Century Russian aristocracy. And I truly believe that storytelling is not mere diversion or escapism, but a virtuous act that improves the self and our communities. Consuming works of art is fun and fulfilling, and to see that idea so clearly preserved in the finale of Game of Thrones does my story-loving heart good.
The last two seasons of Thrones were, in most respects, excellent, when considering the cinematography, score, audio and visual effects, acting, production, and, well, just about everything besides the writing. It was great TV, even if it was often not great storytelling. This makes it all the more satisfying that, after all of the powerful characters were sorted out and written to their ultimate ends, a wizened storyteller’s ethos remains as powerful as anyone else’s.
All hail Old Nan, first of her name. Teller of songs and stories, knitter of tales and fables, and protector of the mythical realm. Long may she reign.
The long-awaited clash revealed that Thrones has robbed its characters of the power to choose.
One can dream that someday we can read George R.R. Martin’s description of the destruction of King’s Landing, as Daenerys Targaryen rains fire from above and her soldiers sack the city, much as it happened in “The Bells,” the penultimate episode of Game of Thrones. But, unlike the show’s depiction, it will feel earned. Perhaps “The Bells” hewed closely to Martin’s vision, but, rather than being the well-developed emotional hammer this series deserves, Dany’s cataclysmic action was the latest victim of the accelerated pace and uneven plotting. The awesome, visceral destruction felt like an inevitable plot point to drive the story to its conclusion, and thus failed to satisfy. The fiery and ostensibly surprising carnage failed to capitalize on Thrones’ notable lack of squeamishness, as the violence did little to enhance the story and the audience’s reaction to it.
Thrones has often used surprising, graphic, and/or fiery violence to great effect. “Baelor,” “The Rains of Castamere,” “The Mountain and the Viper,” “Hardhome,” “The Winds of Winter,” and “The Spoils of War” all used the shock and spectacle to raise the stakes of the story while creating iconic moments that meant more than the sum of their bloody parts. While Drogon and director Miguel Sapochnik made the most of HBO’s production budget, the death and destruction in “The Bells” failed to live up to the standard. This seems to be the audience consensus, but I believe that the problems which led to the failure of Dany’s scorching heel turn also manifest themselves in one of the more well-received parts of the episode.
Within “The Bells,” many fans found some consolation in the long-awaited Cleganebowl, the gruesome conclusion to Sandor Clegane’s lifelong vendetta against his monstrous older brother, Gregor. It had its moments, and the brutal clash was nicely book-ended by Sandor’s farewell to Arya and by what ended up being an appropriate conclusion to the showdown, with Sandor taking his brother with him over the edge to a fiery demise. For many viewers, this was a satisfying payoff to a favorite prediction, and one that felt earned and developed despite being a show invention.
However, the showdown was, given its circumstances, heavily scripted and contrived, and felt, like Dany’s descent into madness and murder, like an inevitability of the showrunner’s desires to get to certain plot points, rather than a meaningful development of the world of the show. Cleganebowl – again, a total show invention – could have worked if the clash came about naturally, such as when the twin brothers Erryk and Arryk Cargyll found themselves opposed in the halls of Dragonstone, rather than in an apocalyptic Anakin vs. Obi-wan style duel. By forcing the issue in this way, Cleganebowl took violence and made it a tool of the showrunners’ vision, an obligatory dish on the familiar Thrones buffet, rather than a deliberate choice made by a character. The decision to be violent – to use deadly force as a means to an end and as a way of interacting with the world – became impersonal as Sandor was shoehorned into a place where he had to participate.
As Cleganebowl raged and Dany went nuclear, Thrones sundered the characters from their own violent actions, making the choice itself a plot point and the consequences self-contained. In short, the inevitability of this destruction robbed Sandor and Dany of agency and thus drained the violence of its potential significance.
I’ll explain this by continuing to explore Sandor and Cleganebowl because, as I noted, this has not been as scrutinized/criticized as the burning of the city. Sandor has been, throughout the show, one of the characters who teaches others as well as the audience about the world. Varys and Petyr lecture about power, Ned exhibits honor, Tywin emphasizes legacy, and Sandor teaches Sansa, Arya, and the audience hard truths about violence.
“Stannis is a killer. The Lannisters are killers. Your father was a killer,” he says to Sansa, “Your brother is a killer. Your sons will be killers someday. The world is built by killers. So you’d better get used to looking at them.” “Killing is the sweetest thing there is,” he says to her later, “What do you think a knight is for, girl? You think it’s all taking favors from ladies and looking fine in gold plate? Knights are for killing. I killed my first man at twelve. I’ve lost count of how many I’ve killed since then.” Though (proudly) not a knight himself, Sandor is one of the best killers in Westeros. Fighting and killing are his meat and mead and fundamental to his identity, but he has the freedom to decide what to do with that violence. When he has finally had enough at the Battle of the Blackwater, he curses King Joffrey and leaves. He captures Arya and hopes to sell her back to her family for ransom, but as these efforts fail he uses his talent for violence to keep her safe on the road. There is even some optimism in his voice when he considers the opportunities available to him as a mercenary in Essos. In the show, when he is pulled out of retirement he decides to fight for some version of good. Throughout, he seems doomed to a life of violence, but he is free to make certain choices along that bloody road.
Not so with Cleganebowl. Yes – of course – Sandor could have just stayed in Winterfell or gone anywhere but King’s Landing, but this was the first time where it felt like he was doing something because he was destined to. He hates his brother and desires revenge, but the notion that he would, after all these years, decide that now he had to get his revenge for a childhood trauma is a fatalistic contrivance. He claims that hate keeps him going, but even if that’s true he had previously channeled that hate into a begrudging guardianship of the Stark sisters. He’s a bitter, traumatized man, but not one bound to carry out a suicidal revenge mission. His character is richer than a simple vendetta, and his arc could have ended without getting his revenge. But it didn’t. Instead, the showrunners decided that this fan service needed to happen. Again, if it had happened some other way, and he had happened to run into Gregor and been obliged to fight him, that could have been fine, but this cinematic clash was all about the showdown instead of its context.
There is a moment in Cleganebowl when Sandor realizes zombie Gregor is impervious to his attacks, and he shouts, in his signature style which has made him an icon, “FUCKING DIE!” In the past, his profanities have played for laughs but are still engendered by his current mission. In this instance, it falls flat as he’s saying it because the writers thought it would be cool. He’s saying it because he’s supposed to say it, in the middle of a showdown he’s supposed to be a part of. The Sandor of past seasons had the power to choose how he was violent, but the grand, gruesome spectacle of Cleganebowl was – again, given the way it played out – forced upon him for our sake.
“I choose violence,” says Cersei late in Season 6 when she dismisses the Sparrows from the Red Keep, Gregor at her side. Two episodes later, she makes the violent choice to blow up the Sept. It was a choice, one that made sense but not one that she had to make. And she faced the consequences. Choice and consequence used to define Game of Thrones, including the choice to use violence. The violent choices made became part of their character, for better and worse. The choice mattered to the character, to the world of the story, and to viewers. As a result, the violence became about more than the bloody spectacle, and made those icky moments watchable.
It’s important that we remain aware of and critical about how we consume violent content. Ours is a violent society, and while I’m not in the “violent video games make children violent” camp, I do believe what we watch and play has real and potentially damaging effects. It matters that we talk about what goes into making a violent film/show/game that is “okay” for us to engage with. Violent content can be artful and useful, and, in Thrones, it used to challenge our notions of cruelty, heroism, and narrative. Not so in “The Bells.” Even at its “best,” it was about the spectacle and fed our collective bloodlust, and, in so doing, repurposed a character who used to have as much to teach us about violence as anyone.
Finally, I just want to say that, as much as I didn’t want Cleganebowl to happen like this (if at all), I’m glad it ended the way it did, and it is an acceptable end to one of my most favorite characters. Sandor is one of the most entertaining, most complex characters in a show full of great ones, and Rory McCann’s performance was similarly excellent in a loaded field. Whether or not he comes back in the books, I’m glad the show decided to reintroduce him.