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

-Peter

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My Dream of Spring

There’s much to consider in bringing this story to a close. I consider some of those things, and offer the nuts and bolts of my own fan theory.

My unpopular choice for the ruler of Westeros is Cersei Lannister.

This post begins with a broader philosophical consideration of what would make for a satisfying conclusion. If you just want to read my proposal/prediction, skip to that heading.

Like many seemingly ordinary humans, my thoughts have been dwelling much in Westeros for a few months now, putting my mental powers towards mapping out possible conclusions for the story of Game of Thrones. Musing, fussing, plotting, hoping – it’s a fun and exciting act of fandom, even as it is stressful, too, because the weight of our last piece of monoculture, one of the great stories of our time, rests on these six episodes. It’s thrilling to see the final act, but it also matters – really matters – that the finale is satisfying, which is of course true for any story, but finishing Thrones is particularly tricky because of its simultaneous complexity and subversiveness (and because it’s in hands other than the original loremaster’s).

So, as we review plot permutations, we have to grapple with the most basic question: What are we actually measuring when we decide if the conclusion is satisfying? To what extent does each element of the text and its context factor into our individual and collective matrices?

  • The fates of the characters matter, but this is not as simple as who wins/loses lives/dies.
  • The outcomes of various wars matter, but one war might need to be more important or climactic than the others, and the resolution could be anything but tidy.
  • There are prophecies, fan theories, and fan service to be reckoned with, but prophecies can be tricky, confirmed theories can be a letdown, and fan service can feel cheap.
  • Conversations between two people in a room have to provide some of the best moments, but there’s still got to be time for some thrilling battle sequences.
  • Each episode and the season overall needs to be well-written and well-paced, but there’s also a ton of story that needs telling.
  • The ending of the show should be true to the spirit of the books as best as it can given the circumstances. That is going to be some combination of the “correct” events and the overarching themes. Where it cannot be true to the books, it has to at least remain true to its own spirit and mythos.
  • And, on top of everything, the show needs to do the thing that made it a phenomenon: be shocking and subversive.

Meeting all of these demands might be impossible, and so we need to ask how we prioritize these demands and what balance would be acceptable. But, given that the fanbase for this show is massive but also varied in levels of commitment and involvement in the fandom, it is at the very least impossible to come up with an ending that is satisfactory to everyone. If the showrunners try to please everyone, it is likely the result will fail to please anyone. There’s the disturbing notion that a satisfactory ending isn’t possible, but we mustn’t think like that. There have to be effective ways to manage the complexity of this assignment, but that complexity has made theorizing what might happen this season fun and somewhat frustrating – frustrating not because it is tough to predict what will happen, but because it’s tough to know what to base those predictions on. When we don’t even know if the characters will care about the throne on which the game is based by the midway point of the season, then we’ve kinda lost the original true north.

Below, I describe an outline for the show’s conclusion which would be satisfying for me based on service to the above considerations and things I value about the show. It’s a prediction of sorts, even though I would be quite surprised if this is the way things play out, and it is based on events that few people are anticipating. That’s not to say this couldn’t happen, and while I think it holds up to scrutiny, there are valid counterpoints to be leveled against it. Anticipating some of these counterpoints will form part of my description and justification of this theory.

My Interpretation of the Comet

In the words of the icon Lyanna Mormont: I think we’ve had enough small talk.

Overview: I think the show should end with Cersei Lannister on the Iron Throne. In order for this to happen, Daenerys would have to die, and I think she will, most likely in some battle involving the Night King and his forces. Stricken with grief and wanting to avoid more loss of life, Jon will not pursue the throne. Instead, he will declare the North independent, swearing to Cersei that if she invades he will use Rhaegal and Drogon to incinerate her army and then the Red Keep itself. Cersei will see the wisdom in backing off and will turn her attention to managing claims for independence made by other kingdoms. She will give birth to a son, and while Jaime is the father she will claim that it is a legitimate heir by her husband, Euron Greyjoy. She will have Euron killed soon after the wedding. With the defeat of the Night King and the arrival of winter, most of the realm will settle in to hearth and home, hoping the young Lannister boy who comes of age in Spring will be a worthy ruler.

Why This Makes Sense Big Picture: This is the right tone, isn’t it? There can’t be a happy ending, but one of the most “likely” scenarios is that the Night King is defeated and Jon and Dany marry and rule together, and that counts as a happy ending no matter how many characters die along the way, right? If either of the long-lost Targaryens reclaim their family’s throne, that is just a little too perfect. The throne isn’t going to become obsolete, because at some point the Night King will be defeated, and then someone is going to try to take power, and then more power, and then all the power, and after Jon and Dany I don’t see a likely candidate to do that besides Cersei. The Wheel doesn’t get broken in this world, and sometimes the baddies get to win. Seeing Cersei on the throne in the end would be upsetting, but it’s not the end of the world. Winter has come, and there’s not a lot that she can really do to make life miserable for anyone, or at least more miserable than winter already makes everything. This winter is going to be very, very long, and by the time it is over Cersei will be an old woman and her son will be close to ruling age. He is the Dream of Spring, the hope the realm has to build a better world after the somber song of ice and fire. And, of course, as much as it would be a bummer for Cersei to win, let’s remember that our heroes beat the Night King, which counts for quite a lot.

Why This Makes Sense for the Targaryens (and Chosen One prophecies): As I mentioned above, it’s a little too perfect if Dany and/or Jon ends up ruling. While Jon might be willing to pass on kingship, Dany is going for the throne as long as she’s alive, and if she goes for it she’s probably going to win given her military advantages. So Dany needs to die, either at the hands of the Night King’s forces or at the hands of her allies after she goes full Mad Queen (which is still on the board). Dany, as she is happy to tell you, has really been through it on her way towards the throne, but for her to then finally make it, to break the wheel and rule and do exactly what she has said she will do, just seems too simple. If Dany is out of the picture, I can’t see Jon deciding to pursue the throne, especially if it would require an invasion south. It’s more likely he would leave the North to Sansa and take the dragons somewhere spacious in the hopes they might produce more eggs. Who knows? He might even take them to Dragonstone, which would be an ideal place to keep an eye on Cersei and reestablish House Targaryen.

If the story doesn’t end with a Targaryen on the throne, it doesn’t mean that the various prophecies (Azor Ahai/Last Hero/PWWP) are all for naught. The show and the books have made sure to keep things in perspective and emphasize the threat of the Night King, and if the union of ice and fire results in the defeat of the White Walkers and the salvation of the realm, that’s a fulfillment of a chosen one prophecy even if neither chosen one ends up ruling.

Maybe Jon should die too, seeing as his character arc is headed that way, but there has to be a Targaryen left as long as dragons survive. The return of the dragons changed the world, and that change has to be cultivated. Some combination of Jon, Bran, Sam, and Tyrion could discover great things about dragons, Valyria, and the higher mysteries.

Why This Makes Sense for the Lannisters (and Maggy the Frog’s prophecy): This ending seems to run afoul of our expectations for Cersei, Jaime, and Tyrion. Cersei has been marked for death for quite some time, and it seems a forgone conclusion that she will not live through this season, let alone rule at the end of it. The valonqar prophecy indicates, for many, that she will be killed by a little brother, and most seem to think (and hope) that this will be Jaime. There’s good reason to think this will happen, and there are a number of recent developments that increase the chances. It might be fitting if the fulfillment of this part of the prophecy goes this way, but I would be sad to see it because I don’t understand why it would be satisfying or cathartic to see Jaime murder Cersei (and an unborn baby he believes to be his), no matter the extent of Cersei’s villainy or their estrangement. Cersei has meant the world to him, and has been one of his only sources of happiness (not to mention he’s clearly desired to be a father to his biological children), so no matter what killing her would be a traumatic experience for him, and I can’t see my guy go through that. It’s true that Jaime as valonqar would be a fitting way for a misinterpreted prophecy to unwind, given that Cersei has reaped much ill that she has sown in response to Maggy’s prophecy, but, on the other hand, it would also be a fairly tidy way for the entire prophecy to be fulfilled, and in a story about choices and consequences, I’d rather not see one prophecy be so accurate. So, please: no Jaime as valonqar.

This also makes sense for Tyrion, and I think he might even have a vital role to play in securing Cersei’s reign. His conversation with Dany about the long term rule of Westeros and his concerns for an heir if Dany is indeed barren reveals he has an eye on the future and how to preserve whatever good Dany achieves. If Cersei has a son, a son who might receive council from wise advisers (himself, even, if he plays his hand correctly), that boy might represent the best chance at a stable monarchy, especially if the boy would go on to marry a lady from the right house. I also think it’s clear, no matter what he says, that the Lannister legacy still matters to Tyrion, especially after his private audience with Cersei in the season 7 finale (and I still think it’s interesting we didn’t get to see the end of that conversation). After everything, Tyrion would still be tempted to maintain a Lannister monarchy – after all, he is the most like Tywin of the three children.

This all assumes that Cersei is pregnant, that the pregnancy will go to term, and that Jaime is the father. I’ll just say that I think the first two are almost a certainty, otherwise the showrunners are out of touch with the world Martin created. Royal pregnancies are a big deal, so to just throw a fake one in there would be frivolous and there’s not enough time to plot out a miscarriage. They’ve made the choice to make Cersei pregnant, and that has to really, really matter in some way. This is, I think, the best way for it to matter.

I really, really hope Tyrion is not a Targaryen.

What About Euron and the Golden Company?: Like it or not, Euron and the Golden Company are here, and they have to have some part to play, and, given their proximity to Cersei, I have to reckon with that. Euron is going to play Cersei false at some point, even if he is able to earn her marriage. I think it makes sense for Cersei to go ahead with this marriage so her son can be seen as legitimate (even if she told Jaime they would tell everyone Jaime is the father), but she’s not going to let him hang around long after that. It seems likely Euron tries to pull a fast one with the Golden Company, but at some point the Mountain, Jaime, or Theon (he’s got to have some role to play, right?) is going to put an end to him. As for the Golden Company, their involvement is strange, given that now they’re here they have to earn their screentime. I foresee an epic clash between the GC and the Dothraki, given that the Dothraki are probably limited in what they can do where the snows have already fallen and would be better served fending off an invasion south of the Neck. I’m not sure when this would happen, and I don’t know that Cersei would be comfortable sending them out and leaving King’s Landing undefended, but an army like this won’t enter into the show just to be well-paid security guards. Long-term, they might operate as the Crown’s sell-swords to manage the realm post-Walkers.

Potential Show Problems: The show has always had to make decisions based on what works for TV, but even more so after moving beyond the books. It’s likely that the events of this season will be heavily influenced by what the showrunners think will please the audience. With that in mind, it’s unlikely that Cersei – the only big baddie left with any personality, is going to survive and win. Too many people have been looking forward to her demise. By the same token, too many people want to see Dany and/or Jon on the throne, and so to deny that might also be widely unpopular. There’s also a slight problem with pacing, because if the Night King is taken care of by episode 3 or 4 (and I think that’s a possibility) but Dany has fallen, that’s a long denouement that ends with an unchanged monarchy. If Dany falls after the humans have turned their attention on Cersei, then it would be a tough sell to have Jon not seek revenge on Cersei.

Potential Book Problems: I think this theory holds up well compared with the trajectory of the books, but there’s that pesky dragon-sized omission in the show named Young Griff aka Aegon Targaryen aka Fake Aegon Targaryen. It seems that Young Griff and Jon Connington are going to have a significant role to play in the books, big enough that, even if they do not appear in the show, the effect they have on the world will translate in some form (especially given the appearance of the GC and the transfer of greyscale to Jorah). I’m fascinated to find out what happens with Young Griff (you can do it George!), but for now I’m confounded as to how his impact will translate into the world of the show. If the books ended with three Targaryens coming for the throne and Cersei still winning, that would be kind of a stunner, and so it seems like the books are not trending towards Cersei winning. But, then again, Young Griff may indeed be a pretender, and Connington’s greyscale might infect their entire army, and all of that will come to nothing.

Arya, though: Okay, so there’s also the fact that some Starks might not be so happy to see Cersei rule, and it so happens that one of those Starks has sworn to murder Cersei, and that certain Stark is also one of the most dangerous assassins in the world and seems to care a lot more about personal matters over politics. So…yeah. If Arya has anything to say about it, Cersei is not going to make it to the end. Can’t say I have a particularly good counter for this, unless Arya doesn’t make it out of the Battle of Winterfell, but I’m almost certain she survives. So…look no theory is perfect.

Conclusion: Let’s see how this theory measure up to the various criteria I mentioned in the intro:

  • The fates of the characters matter, but this is not as simple as who wins/loses lives/dies. I explained why this makes sense for the main parties involved, and while it would be a bummer for Dany to die, for Cersei to live, and for Jon to be even more sad, it’s fitting.
  • The outcomes of various wars matter, but one war might need to be more important or climactic than the others, and the resolution could be anything but tidy. I don’t think there is room for two wars this season. The big armed conflict should be versus the Night King, and then maybe there’s one battle involving the GC before attention turns to sorting things out after the apocalypse has been avoided. This would also strike a decent balance of emphasizing the importance of the war against the Night King with the continuing importance of the throne.
  • There are prophecies, fan theories, and fan service to be reckoned with, but prophecies can be tricky, confirmed theories can be a letdown, and fan service can feel cheap. I’ve reckoned with the prophecies and some major fan theories. This ending would certainly not be cheap fan service.
  • Conversations between two people in a room have to provide some of the best moments, but there’s still got to be time for some thrilling battle sequences. Yeah there will be a big battle at Winterfell, but I think what happens after that as our characters struggle to shape the new world could be even more compelling.
  • Each episode and the season overall needs to be well-written and well-paced, but there’s also a ton of story that needs telling. I think this theory would allow time to tie up loose ends because it won’t take on too much – if this season tries to cover a battle against the Night King and a full scale invasion south, then I don’t see how it can account for all the story that’s left to tell.
  • The ending of the show should be true to the spirit of the books as best as it can given the circumstances. That is going to be some combination of the “correct” events and the overarching themes. Where it cannot be true to the books, it has to at least remain true to its own spirit and mythos. I’ll combine this one with the next one…
  • And, on top of everything, the show needs to do the thing that made it a phenomenon: be shocking and subversive. Dany’s death would be shocking, and could be one of the defining moments of the series along with whatever happens in the Winterfell crypts (I cannot wait for this) and whatever we finally learn about Bran and the Night King. For all the death in this story, Arya, Sansa, Bran, Jon, Tyrion, and Dany are all still here. One of them has to go, right? Well, okay, maybe not necessarily, but it is a little odd that Ned remains the most important POV character to die (and stay dead).

But this conclusion is not just about the shock value; it’s about subverting our fantasy tropes and storytelling expectations. Some versions of this tale end with Jon reclaiming his birthright, born again as the Prince Who Was Promised, the good king the realm needs. Others end with Dany returning from exile and doing the same, bringing magic back into the world and smashing the oppressive cycles of Westerosi government. Some versions end with both of those things happening. That’s a great story – really, it is – but besides being a little too convenient, it fails to see the big picture. Jon would be a great king, but Westeros has had great kings before, and eventually those great kings give way to bad kings. Dany might break the wheel and change the way the land is ruled, but things like that have happened, too. No matter what, people with power will fight for more power and will abuse those without it. The rule of either one of these heroes is not a lasting salvation. Life will go on, and lords, ladies, and smallfolk alike will have to hope that whoever sits the throne will be good, even if they are born of a monster.

Think about what Dany has said about her quest to rule: “I’m not going to stop the wheel. I’m going to break the wheel,” and “I was born to rule the Seven Kingdoms, and I will.” Or, consider what Jon says to Dany about her prospects: “The people who follow you know that you made something impossible happen. Maybe that helps them believe that you can make other impossible things happen. Build a different world from the shit one they’ve always known. “

Does any of that sound like the moral of the story? Does that strike the right tone? I prefer the words of Davos and Beric to Jon:

Jon: I did what I thought was right, and I got murdered for it. And now I’m back. Why?

Davos: I don’t know. Maybe we’ll never know. What does it matter? You go on. You fight as long as you can. You clean up as much of the shit as you can.

Jon: I don’t know how to do that. I thought I did, but, I failed.

Davos: That’s good. Now go fail again.

Beric: Death is the enemy. The first enemy, and the last.

Jon: But we all die.

Beric: The enemy always wins, and we still need to fight him.

Defeating the Night King is a worthy accomplishment for two chosen ones like Jon and Dany. It’s an act of heroism that will preserve life itself in Westeros, and thus it is an exploit that will outlive them. Whatever they would do as rulers would eventually fade into history books while other, lesser rulers undid their works. But that’s the way it goes – and that’s okay. Not only is it okay, it’s part of the magic of the story. The world of A Song of Ice and Fire is violent and cruel, but the beauty in the story can be found in characters doing what they think is good and right because that’s all they can do, not because they think a resurrected warrior or a dragon-riding revolutionary will save the day.

I still believe what I wrote long ago, that this is, in some ways, still Ned Stark’s story. We are where we are because Ned brought home his dying sister’s son, claiming it as his own bastard. He didn’t do it because he believed Jon was the Prince Who Was Promised, or that the boy would grow up to become a ruler who would change the world. He did it because he loved his sister, and because if he didn’t the boy would die, and he did it knowing it would be a mark on his spotless honor. As it turns out, that boy would go on to do extraordinary things, but he couldn’t have known that. He was just doing what he thought was right.

“What is the life of one bastard boy against a kingdom?” asks Stannis, regarding Gendry. To which Davos replies, “Everything.”

This story ends with A Dream of Spring, but it is only that – a dream. That dream exists amid feasts for crows and storms of swords and clashes of kings, and yes, even dances of dragons, and while the realm can hope for something better, the song of ice and fire remains – and will remain – a tune in harmony with the winds of winter as the game of thrones goes on.

Forth now, and fear no darkness.

Soli Deo Gloria

– Peter

Banning Cigarette Use on College Campuses Does Not Mean What You Think It Means

Tobacco-free policies can be harmful to campus health.

Because this post is about smoking and because I just watched The Florida Project. Wow that movie was stressful but also very good and Willem Dafoe was top-shelf.

Tobacco products, especially cigarettes, are harmful to the human body and everyone should avoid using them. That’s not a controversial statement, and Americans today are just about all on board with that. Which is good, because in some countries tobacco companies take advantage of uninformed populations, while thankfully in America we make fabulous catcentric ads to share the facts. However, enthusiasm for the eradication of cigarette smoking has made any motion towards that end sound like a no-brainer, even if the action has little to do with smoking prevention or cessation. One such example is the institution of tobacco-free policies on college campuses. University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee is the most recent college in Wisconsin to adopt this policy, a policy which about 35% of U.S. four-year colleges have in place (according to The American Journal of Public Health). This sounds, at first, like an excellent initiative, as it would eliminate second-hand smoke and cigarette butts while discouraging young people from continuing a harmful activity. No doubt parents on college tours would nod in approval as their tour guide mentions it. But, agreeable as the notion of tobacco-free campuses might seem, it is a discriminatory policy that creates more problems than it solves.

(In making my argument, I’ll lean on and respond to the write-up on UWM linked to above, though I do not have personal experience of that campus. But I do write this as someone who has attended a campus with designated smoking areas (St. Norbert College) and one that is tobacco-free (Oregon State University). Statements I make about tobacco-free campuses may or may not apply to UWM.)

Perhaps the most obvious objection to this policy is that it won’t stop students from smoking, because nicotine is addictive and a little old policy isn’t going to stop people from getting their fix. It will, instead, make for new smoking-related problems, including an increase in littering as smokers unable or unwilling to go to receptacles off-campus will smoke in secrecy (or not) and cast their butts down wherever. Smoking isn’t, after all, illegal, and so there’s not much to be risked by shirking the rules. Furthermore, policies like the one at UWM include e-cigs, which a staggering number of teens are using. E-cigs are easy to smoke in secret (so much so that it’s become a game kids play), and if schools insist on banning vapes from campus, secretive vaping is going to increase, including in places like bathrooms, dorms, and classrooms. Schools are better off setting aside designated smoking areas and maintaining those areas with clean receptacles.

And then there’s the sort of basic philosophical questions we tend to ask: is it even “right” for the college to ban something that isn’t illegal? Why don’t we ban fattening foods from the cafeterias, when those are inherently dangerous, especially to obese students or those with a family history of heart failure? Worth at least kicking around Socrates-style.

But the more pressing issue is the way in which tobacco-free policies discriminate against certain demographics. Certain groups tend to smoke more, including people of color[1], those who identify as LGBTQ, veterans, and international students. At predominately white, middle to upper-class American four-year colleges (so, most of them), these populations already face marginalization, as people of color…well, duh, LGBTQ persons…well, duh again…okay, VETERANS, veterans face marginalization as they enter school already in their 20s and with an uncommon life experience, one that may have left them with acute psychological and emotional burdens. They’re not always a natural fit with your “typical” college student. International students face obstacles like cultural difference and a language barrier. It can be challenging for them to get integrated into campus life, and they are sometimes cordoned off into places and activities for international students.

Tobacco-free policies exacerbate marginalization of these groups. Think about it: these policies further ingrain the stigma on cigarette-smoking (which I find a little harsh, even given how harmful smoking is) by making those who partake physically remove themselves from the campus, expelling them from the physical community like a leper colony. Standing around a designated area littered with cigarette butts are people of color (who white folk already wrongly associate with trashy habits), LGBTQ persons (already considered deviant), veterans (already on the fringes of campus life), and international students (whose very designation as international Others them at all times). They’re there because The College says they have to be. They’re not allowed to do that thing (that might be commonplace in their country or a coping mechanism) in the presence of more clean-living citizens on the pristine grounds of their campus.

The optics aren’t great. But it doesn’t just look bad. It is bad. It hinders the community-building goals that every college should have.

Tobacco-free campuses reinforce marginalization of certain student groups in a literal way, which is a heavy price to pay for what amounts to very little reward. Because, after more careful consideration, what do these policies actually do? They don’t promote cessation in a meaningful way, nor do they reduce litter. If second-hand smoke is the concern, well, that just isn’t valid. Second-hand smoke is dangerous, but generally only if someone breathes it.

That was sarcasm. Just keep a safe distance from the designated smoking area. I think you’ll be okay. Worry more about that brain-melting piece of toast looking for a wifi signal in your pocket.

It would seem, then, that colleges are instituting these policies either because they are mistaken about their efficacy, or because merely having the policy sounds good. Either one is a possibility, as college administrations have been known to be out of touch with student life and also to make decisions based on what looks good in a pamphlet or press release for prospective students and potential donors. Whether it’s misguided good intentions or calculated marketing, the institution of tobacco-free policies is harmful to groups of students already at a disadvantage in higher education.

And now for the obligatory local news-style wordplay in the kicker: By waving at the smoke, these policies are fanning the flames.

Forth now, and fear no darkness.

Soli Deo Gloria

-Peter

1 Statistically, a higher percentage of white Americans smoke than Black or Latinx Americans, but I include this here because the Journal-Sentinel article mentions that, in Milwaukee, tobacco ads are especially focused in Black and Latinx neighborhoods. I would guess that the smoker demographics of some universities do not align with the country’s.

A Stranger and Stronger Religion

First Reformed (2018)

Afternoon coffee is better with an afternoon cigarette. It’s just so. But life is better without cigarettes, when it’s all counted up. So the coffee makes do on its own and does so with aplomb. At least until the jitters, which not everyone gets, and some people get but don’t realize they’re getting, because not everyone is so aware of cause and effect.

I get the jitters sometimes. From coffee on an empty stomach, from those moments before a phone call, from the sound of my neighbor trying to find a way to climb up on the snow-weighted roof and shovel it off so that water will quit leaking through my bedroom window, the plunk-plunk of which gives me the jitters when I wake up in the night from the droning and crunching of the plows come to make our life easier. And certainly I would get the jitters up on the roof just inches from broken bones.

There are times when I get the jitters thinking about my religion. I’m a Christian, and painfully aware of my own shortcomings as a follower of Christ as well as the shortcomings of the way my religion operates in America. I know some of what Christians and non-Christians think of one another, what they know and think they know, and sometimes these things keep me up at night when I wake up overheated with a full bladder and a fierce thirst.

The cat I do not own because I don’t think I can afford it is concerned with the way these things affect me. He knows something of religion, considering that “he is the servant of the Living God” and “he keeps the Lord’s watch in the night against the adversary,” as Christopher Smart has noted about feline companions. His ancestors were quite appreciated in Ancient Egypt, you know (the cat’s, not Christopher’s). At one time, his ancestors were running around pyramids built by the slaves who would walk on up out of there after a shepherd gained clout through magic tricks and dunking on the god-king. It turns out that story has really held up, even if cats don’t make an appearance but Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston do. It’s an important story for Christianity, but first it was an important story for Judaism. Many Jews must have thought of that story when the walls went up and help arrived only after millions were dead. I wonder what those who survived think when they see that cursed symbol worn again – its bearers treated leniently. It was also an important story for many African American Christians, at least for those who were allowed to read it instead of the parts of the book that say slaves should serve without grumbling. I wonder how they felt about a religion which their masters used to justify the way things were.

I get to thinking of these things, and I get the jitters as my thoughts unfurl and disperse like the smoke from the cigarette I am not smoking, and I’m confronted with a terrible knowledge and the fear of having no power over it, of being tossed about in a dark cauldron like the hot bean water I sip in the hopes of finding the alacrity and focus to address the problem.

I’m not sure sentences like that get us any closer. But neither do sentences like, “Just talk about the Gospel,” “Christianity is illogical,” “Leave politics out of it,” or “Thoughts and prayers,” (which is neither a sentence nor helpful).

Out of my feline fairyland of nicotine and caffeine might someday emerge a coherent, well-researched, well-argued piece of writing, but that would require a level of coherence, research, and argumentativeness which I, like a cat and a cigarette, currently lack. It’s the sort of thing I would organize a dissertation around, the sort of thing I would present at conferences. I’m not there yet, but this idea has infected me, and it chases me around the halls of my workplace and boils up in the water that will cook my brown rice for lunch and drips through the frame of my bedroom window and jumps off the page of whatever it is I’m reading. So I gotta say something about it, even in grand, sweeping, propositional terms.

American Christianity’s criticisms from within and without often stem from one inconvenient character trait – a predisposition to fascism. While a religion can (and I would argue should) strive for and uphold orthodoxy and sound doctrine, Christianity has taken the pursuit of Truth and the prescription of righteous living to an extreme. In upholding the Christian God as the God and the Bible as the holy book and Christianity as the faith, American Christians have created a religion that is dominated by a white, affluent, heteronormative Western perspective, resistant to counter-narratives, expansive interpretations, and anything strange or new. It is a religion about behaving, following rules, and learning “correct” Biblical interpretation.

Again, believers can insist that there is Truth, and that their religion is the way to it. They can insist that there is one God, and that their God is it. But if that belief system engenders a rigid set of rules which works rather nicely for straight white men of wealth and is settled on what is true and not true, then it is a religion that lacks the brawn to face serious challenges, the flexibility to account for contingencies, and the spirit to move human beings in meaningful ways outside the walls of church buildings. Fascist faith is doomed for implosion. Lao Tzu said an army that cannot yield will be defeated, and a tree that cannot bend will break.

For all its generosity, American Christianity has wed itself to capitalism. For all its inclusiveness, it has upheld white supremacy and led the opposition to LGBTQ rights. For all its morality, it gave us President Donald Trump.

Maybe I’m talking about your church and maybe I’m not. I know that a lot of good is done by Christians at home and abroad. I know there are open-minded, generous, selfless Christians. Again, I’m a Christian! I admit that the Christians that give me the jitters are – more often than not – the ones out there, not specific ones I know. More often than not. But just as systemic racism ends up being more oppressive than the sum of its mildly racist individual parts, the systemic rot of American Christianity is more than any one church (or Christian’s) failures. All our faults and failures coalesce into a destructive monolith.

American Christianity’s insistence on conformity and orthodoxy has made for a an intolerant religion constrained by its own adherence to the rules. It wants so badly to be, well…normal.

The solution might be to make Christianity weird again.

Let’s return to the catless story of Moses and the Exodus. It’s absolutely wild. There are plagues on plagues on plagues, of course. There’s a pillar of cloud and a pillar of fire, which sounds pretty. The sea parts. When Pharaoh is all like “Oh yeah Moses you think you’re so tough go ahead and prove it,” Moses is like “Show ’em, Aaron,” and his brother throws down his staff and it turns into a snake, and then Pharaoh turns to his magicians and is like “Step up my guys,” and they turn their staffs into snakes, and then Aaron’s staff is like “You come for the king you better not miss,” and eats the other snake staffs.

Oh, and before any of this happens, while Moses is on his way to Egypt, God rolls up on him and is about to whack him but Zipporah (Moses’ wife) saves Moses by cutting of their son’s foreskin, touching it to Moses’ feet, and exclaiming “Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me!”

But never mind all that. Christians use the highlights of this Jewish story to teach God’s power and the importance of obedience. There’s a “right” way to explain it. Children learn it as part of their moral instruction. VeggieTales found a way to adapt it. “Everyone” knows it, except for some slaves who might have gotten the wrong ideas.

We have here what Dr. Raymond Malewitz (shouts) made sure we grad students knew to call a problem of contradiction. There are several at work in the way Christians read, understand, and apply the Bible.

First, the Bible is magical. Moses, Jesus, and other heroes are known for doing magic tricks. But only the Bible is allowed to be magical. Any other sort of magic is to be abhorred. Remember when Christians lost their minds over Harry Potter? Second, the Bible is bizarre. Like we could sit here all day and smoke cigarettes and pet cats and talk about all the weird stuff in the Bible. Some of it is funny, some of it is disturbing. Some of it is weird when you think about it long enough, and some of it is outright what did I just read? And yet, the Christian life is defined by normalcy, conformity, and uniformity. Christians don’t like weird things. Unless it’s teenage boys watching Nacho Libre and Napoleon Dynamite, well, then I guess we can allow for a little silly fun. Third, Christians believe in the miraculous, not just in the Bible, but in the everyday. Christians believe that miracles, even ones that defy the laws of nature, happen. But only if it happens within a Christian context, both now and in stories from history.

There is also what Dr. Malewitz made sure we knew to call a problem of clarification. The Christian worldview and its pursuit of Truth has made Christians wary of science based in rationalism and empiricism (your child’s science teacher) AND of progressive humanism (your child’s humanities professors). This is an inconsistent, anti-intellectual, untenable booyah which leads to embarrassments like the God’s Not Dead films. So what, exactly, do Christians base their beliefs in? How do Christians come to their understanding of the world? How did their orthodox understanding of an ancient compilation of histories, prophecies, testimonies, erotica, and letters come to inform what they deem too rational and what they deem too loopy?

These problems exist in part because of Christianity’s insistence on normalcy, and the consequence is that unfortunate susceptibility to fascism. The solution may be to free the Christian worldview from these constraints. The solution may to be weird.

Let’s allow – nay, embrace – magic, the absurd, the bizarre. Let’s re-imagine the way Christianity looks and feels, and explore how that can change from person to person across years, across borders. Let’s re-envision the stories of the Bible, reckon with what is lost in translation, and imagine new ways to see ourselves in the text and the text in our lives. Let’s find innovate ways to apply Christian belief to secular art and to create art that is Christian.

If the Bible is really “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword,” then it should be able to be interpreted and applied in diverse, innovative ways, free from rigid constraints. If Christian faith is a pervasive, all-encompassing worldview, then it should be able to engage with culture and concepts with creativity. The results can be enrichment of faith and culture.

What would this look like? In my Master’s Thesis, I wrote about envisioning abstract Black Jesus in literature (two novels in particular), but the possibilities abound – that’s what makes this idea so compelling.

So when I write this thing properly, maybe I’d have a chapter about Black Panther, and how the mythical world of Wakanda evokes separation from a heavenly country, paradise lost, and the aforementioned Black Jesus.

I could write about First Reformed, and how that film comments on faith and the religious experience by turning a seemingly simple clergyman with into an ecoterrorist. We’d have even more to say about the iconic moments in that film like the pepto-bismol in the whiskey and that wild ending.

We could see the Book of Jeremiah as a dark comedy, because that’s how it plays in my head. Why do we have to take everything in the Bible so…seriously? Can’t we be a little playful, and see how that might bring to light some things that reading the Bible like we’re reading the Bible might blind us to?

WE CAN READ HARRY POTTER!! We can embrace what a magical story reveals to us about love and choice. And we can get schadenfreude from Christians who lambasted the story before realizing how explicit J.K. Rowling would eventually be with Christian themes in the final book.

I can explore how Tolkien’s work is way, way more useful than the Chronicles of Narnia, even though only one is an explicit Christian allegory.

I’d explore the literary genre of magical realism, and by studying the ways masters like Gabriel García Márquez use it to explore complex topics, we can see how it can be used to explore content and concepts that defy the bounds of realism.

We can stop watching “Christian” movies and instead discuss films like A Serious Man, which has more to say about faith and theodicy than just about any piece of art I’ve encountered.

And on and on. Magic, absurdity, and the bizarre can enrich our understanding of the sacred and secular and provide new avenues for the creation of new culture.

What’s more, this is the season to speak, as I believe secular culture is ready to embrace this awakening in Christian discourse. Realism and strict “enlightened” skepticism is tired; the Western world is realizing how the Enlightenment produced its own oppressive structures. Notions of Truth are being eroded, and while its pursuit is as important as ever, the security of we used to find in absolute truth is seriously changed. Truth is something we work towards, a way of thinking and understanding that we speak into existence. The President is a prodigious liar and scientific conclusions are ignored. We need journalists and other truth-tellers to relentlessly pursue and speak truths, but we also need to approach truth as the elusive thing that it is, something that we come to know through experience as often as we come to through intellectual assent. This part of the story requires its own pack of cigarettes, but what I mean is this: I suspect secular society is ready to accept the truths presented by the magical, bizarre, absurd book called the Bible, but not through logical proofs and hardline doctrines aimed at presenting the Gospel as irrefutable truth and the Christian life as the only one that is not deluded by human fallibility (not to say there is no value in apologetics). Rather, I think secular culture is ready to accept concepts of Christianity like the existence of God, original sin, and the Gospel, Christian answers to questions like the problem of evil and the meaning of life, and Christian perspectives on love, family, and work if these things are presented artfully, and if conclusions are reached through a discussion, interpretation, or presentation that is guided by a worldview, not bent on a religious dialectic.

And so here we are. I’ve worked through some jitters and put these thoughts together and you’ve read and/or skimmed your way through them. I’m sure I will write more about this, whether or not I ever do the serious academic work which I think could make this something substantial to work with. It’s possible this was not the best way to start getting these ideas down on paper and out into the world, but, then again, this has all been about considering new ways to work through and exchange weighty ideas.

I’m a Christian. I believe Christian faith has truth and power that can transform people and societies, but I believe that truth and power has been distorted in terrible ways in America. I believe Christianity provides Truth for this life and the next, but I believe the presumption that Christians know just how that Truth works has created a rigid system of belief that is not only ineffective but oppressive. I believe Christianity is weird, but that American Christianity is both weird in the wrong ways and not weird enough.

“So, yeah…let’s do this,” he says, exhaling a thick cloud of smoke into the air, noting how the fleeting wisps resemble his mortality. He performs his nonchalance well, putting out the cigarette and sauntering on, even as his next cold breath shudders with the unbearable weight of what he thinks he knows. He puts one foot in front of the other in defiance of the petrifying fear that what he says will never matter, and he curses himself at the thought that it might.

And yet he draws hope from his cat:

“For by stroking of him I have found out electricity.
For I perceived God’s light about him both wax and fire.
For the Electrical fire is the spiritual substance, which God sends from heaven to sustain the bodies both of man and beast.
For God has blessed him in the variety of his movements.
For, tho he cannot fly, he is an excellent clamberer.
For his motions upon the face of the earth are more than any other quadruped.
For he can tread to all the measures upon the music.
For he can swim for life.
For he can creep.”

Forth now, and fear no darkness.

Soli Deo Gloria

-Peter