The Dread Before Debate

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.

But it matters, as primary debates have the power to affect voters’ decisions, especially early and in a crowded field. It matters, because it helps winnow the field and it informs how the media will cover the candidates.

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.

Forth now, and fear no darkness.

Soli Deo Gloria



Old Nan Won

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.

Forth now, and fear no darkness.

Soli Deo Gloria


Cleganebowl and The End of Violent Choices

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.

Forth now, and fear no darkness.

Soli Deo Gloria


What Is Dead May Never Die

O Death, where is your stinger?

This weekend will begin with Avengers: Endgame and end with Game of Thrones S8:E3 (unofficially titled The Battle of Winterfell, which could end up being as good as we get from showrunners who can’t name things without George’s help).

It’s going to be an epic weekend like few in past or future entertainment, and it is going to be largely defined by death. Endgame will pick up after half of all life vanished into thin air, and even if that annihilation is undone it’s likely multiple icons of the MCU will perish for real before the end. Thrones prepared the way for this battle – unlike any in film or television history – with last week’s episode of grim battle prep, an all-timer in which the characters reckoned with impending doom. We, like the characters, know that many of them are not going to make it out alive.

This weekend will be a spectacle of violence and of death. We will watch, and watch with anticipation, not in spite of the deathly peril, but because of it. We will see characters we have spent years investing in be destroyed, for good this time. The deaths this weekend will write definitive chapters in the MCU and and in Game of Thrones, but it is possible these new gravestones will signal something about our attitudes towards death and its role in popular culture.

The pairing of Endgame and Thrones is not just about coincidental release dates. They are two of the last pieces of monoculture, dominating the last decade of film and television and sure to influence the 2020s as well. Over the years, they have given us hours of violent content, but while the nature of that violence is very different, the two have steadily bent towards the other until they have reached a somewhat common ground.

Every installment of the MCU is violent, and while some of the films (Civil War, for example) have reckoned with the cost of human life, much of the violence has centered on hordes of CG aliens, nameless footsoldiers of the villains dispatched in grand bloodless fashion. Death was reserved for the unnamed in cartoonish comic book struggles, and our heroes have rarely been in any real danger. However, these films have gradually taken on more weight, the comic book violence has become war violence, and named characters have perished. Mass death is not just a rearview regret – it’s a future guarantee. Character deaths are no longer unlikely – they’re expected. There is no “next movie” guarantee for all the characters, and we know some of them will ride into the valley of death never to return. We know this will be, for some, the end. You can bring the kids, but it’s a far cry from those days when our heroes could punch each other over and over without any real risk to their safety.

Thrones has also changed how it delivers violence. Character deaths were, post Baelor, expected, but often came at an unexpected time. While many conventional battles take place off screen, much of the violence in the early seasons is within the context of medieval-style war, not a MacGuffin-chasing space opera or friendly neighborhood bank heist. Resurrection has played a role in the show, but in reality good-byes felt final, and often left no time for a send-off. However, The Battle of Winterfell involves a combination of departures from past Thrones violence. For one, instead of pitting humanity against itself, it involves the nameless hordes of the dead, which two battles have previously – one was very successful because of its shocking arrival and kinetic force, the other unsuccessful because of its general silliness. Second, there is no surprise to it – we’ve known this is coming, which has only been the case with a few other battles in the show’s history, which were all (and this is the third point) battles within a conventional military engagement. And, fourth, the situation is so perilous now that we are prepared for any character to die. There’s not really any opportunity for a shocker here. We’re prepared.

And so while the one was once defined by The Avengers invasion of nameless Chitauri soldiers and the deathless internecine conflict of Civil War, and the other made its mark with the shocking character deaths at the Red Wedding and the grisly Battle of the Bastards, both have come to the brink of a long-expected conflict against big baddies bent on shaping the world to their will commanding magical powers and hordes of nameless footsoldiers. Both have prepared us to say farewell to important characters, draining the shock value by promising an end. Both conflicts are larger than life and, to some extent, silly. That’s not the right word, but consider that the MCU’s story of the struggle to save half the life in the universe involves battling a purple thicc-boi with a glove full of glowy pebbles and a team of people with stage names. Thrones traded in the intricacies of warring states, assassinations, and trials-by-combat for a battle literally between life and death as humans face off with a guy called the Night King who has never spoken a word and has an army of zombies – including a zombie dragon. Again, silly isn’t the right word, but both conflicts are theatrical and contrived to an extent while being deadly serious and inescapably grim.

Perhaps I’m exaggerating: Endgame might still feel more like a big dumb campy superhero movie than a gritty and somber tale of mortality, and Thrones might still deliver its spectacle in a familiarly visceral fashion that will cut a bloody swathe back into the less grandiose stakes of the final three episodes. There’s no mistaking which one is PG-13 and repeatedly names characters using Blank-Man portmanteaus.

But the similarities remain and, over the last decade, these two diametrically opposed pieces of monoculture have steadily bent towards one another until they have brought us to a place where we are prepared to watch violent conflicts of grand scale which guarantee to take away beloved characters forever.

What does this mean? I don’t know for certain, but there are many things it could mean, and these things are worth considering.

Both conflicts have become good guys versus bad guys featuring the ultimate team-ups. We can read this as a longing for unity, for people to set aside differences to face what really matters. Or this might suggest something about how, in “these divisive times,” we want to eliminate half the population Thanos-style before fixing the world the way we want to. We want to set aside petty squabbles to face existential threats, but do we actually view that threat as people with whom we disagree?

The threats, stakes, and solutions have simplified. Even if the details are confusing and convoluted, it’s as straightforward as “save the world.” Perhaps we’ve grown weary of nuanced discussions, complicated threats, underlying problems, and systemic issues while longing for the days when we allowed ourselves to think things were more black and white.

Maybe this all suggests that popular culture can only ever move towards the center. It seems inevitable, in hindsight, that the MCU would have to insist on being more serious. While Thrones became a phenomenon through subversion not fit for kids or passive viewing, it has moved closer to the form and content of more popular big-budget fare. It’s possible there is a moderation which entices all popular culture, even if this middle ground sometimes ends up pleasing very few people.

We clearly still have a bloodlust in our entertainment, as high body counts in popular films and television is commonplace. But it seems we prefer less blood and gore and for the violence to involve a lot of non-humans. Yeah, okay, last season’s Loot Train was pretty violent and yeah Scarlet Witch threw Proxima Midnight into a flying paper shredder, but I sense that this weekend will be less explicit. Next month we get the third John Wick film, and that popular franchise is a good example of our violent tastes. There is a lot of killing, and a fair amount of blood, but there is something artful and not cruel about it that lets it be aesthetic rather than upsetting.

But the point that might be most unique to this particular cultural event of a weekend concerns what I brought up first: the deaths of beloved characters. What does this unique moment, in which we expectantly await farewells, say about our connection to characters, stories, and, indeed, death in the popular imagination? I’m not sure you can ask any of those questions and expect a short or simple answer, but let’s kick them around a bit. At first glance, it might appear we’ve come to certain point of maturity, where we’ve accepted that stories do come to an end, and that part of that involves saying goodbye to characters, and sometimes that goodbye is on account of death. Thrones’ threat of death has become culturally tolerable, and the safety of superhero movies has become outdated. So many of the world’s great stories, from the Iliad to Hamlet to The Silmarillion, are marked by death, and maybe now our most popular stories have embraced that and we’ve embraced them for it.

But maybe not. Maybe the particular way in which death arrives this weekend indicates that we are only ready to face death when we can do it on our own terms. And maybe we’re tricking ourselves into believing that this is what it’s like to tell mature stories of mortality.

I know some people are going to be a wreck when one or more of the iconic Avengers dies. They’ve been watching Tony Stark and Steve Rogers for years, and seeing them perish will be tough. But they’re ready for it. They’re already expecting the worst. They’ll be ready for the grief. And you can be sure that those deaths will be for something – they’ll make sense within a narrative, they’ll happen in a heroic manner, and there will be time for a final word. It will be about as easy as that sort of thing can be.

It will be tough to see the deaths of supporting characters like Jorah, and truly upsetting to see the demise of a main character like Arya, but nothing next week will compare to the moment Joffrey turned and said “Ser Ilyn, bring me his head!” or the moment the Mountain took his hands and did that to Oberyn. We’re ready this time. And, again, any of these deaths will mean something, as our heroes will die in defense of human life itself.

These will be emotional, cathartic viewing experiences, and ones that will give us a view of death from a safe distance. And, afterwards, we will talk with one another about death and dying and our reaction to it all, forgetting that we knew this was all going to happen, that we were prepared. We’ll have fooled ourselves into thinking we really reckoned with death.

This fits right into the rest of our culture and our attitudes to permanent cancellation. Our entertainment is dominated by preexisting intellectual properties which are self-sustaining content machines. There will be more Marvel movies. There will be Thrones spin-offs. We can always re-boot a franchise, or find a way to undo the canon. We can resurrect characters. We can keep characters around even after their actor dies. We can just go back and make prequels if we miss anyone that much. Yes this all describes Star Wars.

We resent things being taken away from us. Fans start petitions to save shows or bring them back, and they flip out when seemingly unwarranted deaths occur, sometimes demanding a way back for the character.

And while we recoil from the sting of death and the pain of goodbyes in our popular entertainment, we remain stricken with fear by our own mortality and our own impermanence. As much as ever, we remain obsessed with finding ways to prolong our lives, and sudden, unexpected loss of life confounds us every time. As the planet faces existential threats, many people live terrified by the prospect of irreversible environmental collapse, while many others insist that any dangers will just work themselves out. Religious, racial/ethnic, and other minorities live in fear of erasure and annihilation, while majorities rage against what they see as an erosion of their traditional way of life. Millennials, pushed to be exceptional, burn themselves out trying to make a name for themselves, to be remembered, to leave their unique mark on the world. The old, as always, face the prospect of death while watching the world pass them by. Our own reality is in keeping with what Varys told Tyrion in the first episode of this season: “Respect is how the young keep us at a distance, so we don’t remind them of an unpleasant truth…. Nothing lasts.”

And perhaps I need say nothing more of what this weekend means. We will see death at a safe distance, one that does not make us actually confront the unpleasant truth that nothing lasts. We will tell ourselves it is an unprecedented few days of character loss, but much less will truly end than we believe.

This forms a nice symmetry with the NFL Draft (also this weekend), which is all about eternally springing optimism and a savage insistence on youth and newness. So who should the Cardinals take at number one? Lol jk this just ain’t that kind of blog no more so you’ll need to move along if you’re looking for that kind of content.

Well, anyway, we’ll see if this blog holds up on the other side of the weekend. Have fun – this really is a rare moment in culture. I wish you good fortune in the wars to come. Valar Morghulis.

Forth now, and fear no darkness. But Fear the Deer.

Soli Deo Gloria