Thoughts on expanded universes, part one: Avengers: Infinity War and the problem of paratext

Our universe itself keeps on expanding and expanding,
In all of the directions it can whiz;
As fast as it can go, at the speed of light, you know,
Twelve million miles a minute and that’s the fastest speed there is.
—Monty Python, “The Galaxy Song”

Someone recently added me to the Facebook group “Genre Writers of Atlantic Canada,” and given that I don’t have much to say about the writing of genre fiction but a lot to say about genre fiction (and film, and television), I shared my previous post about my Fall grad course; since then I’ve had about a dozen people sign up to follow this blog. To those of you now following, welcome! Hopefully the next few months will see me being somewhat more prolific here than I have been in the past year or so.

Also, you should be warned: I tend to post fairly lengthy meditations on whatever I happen to be thinking about, and this entry is no exception. I started thinking about the nature of what we call “expanded universes” in popular culture, and this rumination has itself quickly expanded into what will have to be a series of posts (probably four of them, but possibly more).

This blog is basically a space for me to think out loud and work through ideas and arguments. That it’s a public forum forces me to try and be more coherent than I am when I argue with myself in the car or scribble notes in my journal. But that doesn’t necessarily lend itself to brevity, alas …

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The various expanded universes of fandom, from DC and Marvel to Star Wars and Doctor Who, might not quite be whizzing in all directions at the speed of light, but one could be forgiven for assuming so. It seems impossible these days to create an alternative universe that doesn’t get expanded: aside from the obvious examples above, there are now a handful of Game of Thrones spinoffs in the works; the adventures of Newt Scamander keep the Harry Potter Muggleverse alive; and there’s even plans at Amazon to create a Lord of the Rings prequel series. And all of this is just the most recent stuff.

From what I’ve been able to glean, the term “expanded universe” first came to be applied to Star Wars, to the constellations of TV specials, comic books, video games, and novels that accompanied and followed the original trilogy. However much the prequel films were generally loathed, they gave the expanded universe a lot of traction to expand even further, until finally the Disney purchase of Lucasfilm and subsequent production of The Force Awakens deemed, at a stroke, that all of the prior expanded universe creations were emphatically not canon.

The paroxysms of rage this arbitrary decision sent through the fan universe are, at best, incidental to my discussion here, which is more concerned with the broader concept of the “expanded universe” and the significant role it has come to play in popular culture. What was once the provenance of devoted fans has become a financial juggernaut for production studios and publishers, and (often to the annoyance of the devoted nerd community) has spread its appeal to general audiences.

Though I count myself a member of the aforementioned nerd community, my interest here is more academic: in anticipation of my graduate seminar this fall, I find myself thinking rather a lot about world-building and the relationship between such “expanded universes” as Marvel’s and the long tradition of alternative realities and worlds from medieval romance to Middle-Earth to contemporary fantasy. One way or another, this post and the ones following were precipitated by thoughts I had after watching Avengers: Infinity War. So, without further ado …

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Avengers: Infinite Cast

For a variety of reasons, it took me a week until I was able to see Avengers: Infinity War. By the time my girlfriend and I plunked our arses down in the theater seats, I had become very nearly frantic. Any longer not seeing the film, it seemed, and I would inevitably have the big reveals inadvertently spoiled. As it was, I knew there were going to be HUGE SURPRISES, as all of social media (seriously, it felt like all of it was mobilized to taunt me about Infinity War) alluded portentously to MAJOR PLOT POINTS and a certain HUGE THING THAT HAPPENS.

It is perhaps now that I should warn readers that there will in fact be SPOILERS in this post, both for Infinity War and a bunch of other stuff (well, for Game of Thrones, anyway).

Before I get to all of that, however, I should not bury the lede (as I tend to do on this blog), and point out that my interest in this particular film is incidental. I don’t have anything to say about Infinity War that hasn’t already been said, so here’s my tl;dr review: loved the story, was deeply impressed by how the directors and writers didn’t let the ever-expanding cast turn the narrative into an exercise in pulling taffy, laughed my aforementioned arse off (honestly, Thor calling Rocket and Groot “rabbit” and “tree” should not have cracked me up as much as it did, but here we are). Favourite moments: Cap appearing as a shadowy figure at the train station, Peter Dinklage as a huge dwarf, Rocket’s man-crush on Thor, Bruce Banner’s ongoing argument with a Hulk who, having had his ass handed to him by Thanos, has obviously turned timid. There are more, but that will do for the moment.

As much as I loved the film, the ending left me vaguely dissatisfied. Considering that the worst comes to pass and Thanos accomplishes his goal of wiping out half the sentient universe with a snap of his fingers, that cosmic genocide lacks the kind of gravity it should have had—mainly because we know that most of the characters will not remain dead for long. Tom Holland’s Spiderman had one of the more poignant departures (both because of Tony Stark’s protectiveness, and because his final seconds were reminiscent of the Tenth Doctor’s “I don’t want to go!”), but given the success of Spiderman: Homecoming ($880M worldwide), it’s highly unlikely that Disney/Marvel is going to let him stay dead. That goes doubly for T’Challa: though it was heartbreaking to see Danai Gurira as Okoye’s expression of abject loss as her king disintegrates, it is even less likely that Disney will let Black Panther and its $1.3B box office go at a single movie.

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Wakanda Forever!

All of this was in my head upon leaving the theater; when I got home and finally read the reviews I’d been avoiding all week, I found my thinking crystallized by John Scalzi:

What I know is that there’s no friggin’ way Spider-Man and Black Panther, to name just two, go out like punks.

This isn’t a question of story, this is a question of economics. Black Panther grossed $688 million in the US and $1.3 billion worldwide; even if a Black Panther 2 made half that (and it seems unlikely it would make just half that), it would still be one of the top five grossing films of its year. If you think Disney, of all companies, is going to leave that sort of money on the table, you are officially super high. Likewise, if you think Marvel is going to let Spider-Man, still their biggest and most well-known superhero, despite years of fumbling at the hands of Sony, lie fallow after they’ve just now reintegrated him into the official Marvel universe (and his most recent film did $880 million business worldwide), then, again, you are supremely buzzed, my friend.

I recommend reading the entire post—Scalzi pretty much hits the nail on the head and puts into words the inchoate thoughts rattling about my head after the movie.

So I’m not going to go on in this vein—suffice to say that the movie is great on its own terms, but the biggest spoilers aren’t what you might accidentally stumble across online so much as just knowing that huge Hollywood studios will always behave with a predictability that talented writers won’t … and that in a showdown between the former and the latter, the former always wins.

There is built into this “expanded universe,” however, something of an irony, given that, on reflection, Marvel’s long game has been hellishly impressive. The Marvel Universe has genuinely earned the modifier “expanded,” as each film has been carefully planned and slotted into a grand narrative, occasionally in ways that sabotaged the individual films (Age of Ultron being the prime example). Each new film that merged extant storylines and characters, such as Avengers and Civil War, was potentially satisfying but perilous for the reasons all crossover stories are: we’re eager to see our favourite characters meet and interact, but anything less than at least competent storytelling is going to at best annoy and at worst alienate devoted fans. That Infinity War with its near-infinite cast of characters not only does not disappoint, but emphatically delivers, is particularly impressive.

But as I said above, there is an irony to this meticulous world-building within the context of multimillion-dollar franchises, which is that success breeds success, and that means that successful stories and characters (i.e. profitable stories and characters) will be milked for all they are worth, or until their key actors’ contracts expire. None of which would be an issue if audiences existed inside a bubble of ignorance, cheerfully oblivious to box office takes and trade news about actors’ contracts and planned future productions. But of course we do not exist in such a bubble, especially not in this era of fan participation by way of social media on one hand,* and studios’ massive investment in long-term, big-budget franchises on the other.

thanos

Can someone please tell me: is it in keeping with comic book/superhero conventions that Thanos, with all of the mystical power of the infinity stones, still feels the need to resort to punching things all the time?

All of which goes to the broader point that we can’t feel too much dismay for the death of T’Challa—and by extension, everyone else extinguished by Thanos—when we know that there are hundreds of millions of reasons for the studio to resurrect him.

Which, oddly, is where I get interested, at least in terms of the theoretical implications for world-building. Normally we would be inclined to deal with such a storyline on its own terms, which is to say, according to the internal narrative and thematic logic it establishes. But the longer-running and larger-scale—i.e., the more “expanded”—a given “universe” becomes, the more it is subject to such external logic as economic considerations, actors’ contracts, internecine squabbles, and so forth. In the case of the Marvel EU, the external logic has come to inflect the internal. By contrast, even though most of us were all 90% certain Jon Snow wouldn’t stay dead after being stabbed at the end of Game of Thrones’ fifth season, we weren’t 100% certain … and that 10% of doubt proceeded from the show’s internal logic, i.e. five seasons worth the show pitilessly killing characters we assumed to be central, from the execution of Ned Stark to the Red Wedding. There were a lot of reasons to assume that Jon Snow would be resurrected in season six, but none of them involved Kit Harrington carrying a billion-dollar Jon Snow franchise on his brooding, fur-clad shoulders. The question of just how deep his grave was dug had rather to be considered against George R.R. Martin’s gleefully murderous storytelling.

jonsnow

Further, however, it is instructive to recall the misdirection in which Kit Harrington and HBO engaged during the months between seasons five and six, in an effort to convince fans that Harrington and therefore Jon Snow would not be coming back. Such extracurricular considerations, like our certainty that Disney/Marvel will be making Black Panther 2, play a role comparable to what in other circumstances we might call “paratext”—which is to say, ancillary texts that define and circumscribe the text proper: title pages, epigraphs, indices, forewords, footnotes, and so forth … or in the case of a film and television, the opening and closing credits. Other paratexts include such considerations as the author or editor or translator, or in film the director(s) and producer(s), or anyone else whose name connotes certain qualities (think, for example, of True Romance, which was directed by Tony Scott, but which was written by Quentin Tarantino, and is almost invariably associated with the latter rather than the former).

Paratexts serve to define a text, and provide tools for understanding and interpretation.

On an individual basis, we probably think nothing of them unless they are unusually invasive or self-reflexive; but every time you purchase a book because it has an intriguing cover (which, despite the cliché injunction not to, happens all the time), or, conversely, buy it specifically because of the author, paratext affected or inflected your reading and understanding of the text proper.

But in an expanded universe like that of Marvel’s films, we experience something like a cumulative effect, simply by dint of the small army of writers and directors involved; When we consider that many of the names attached—Kenneth Branagh, Joss Whedon, Taika Waititi, Ryan Coogler et al**—come with certain specific stylistic and thematic connotations, that cannot help but affect our expectations going into the various films. And while the Marvel films have attempted—mostly successfully—to attain a consistent aesthetic and tone, they nevertheless comprise an aggregate of directorial styles and varying quality of story that makes an entry like Thor: The Dark World seem dramatically out of place with Black Panther (or for that matter with Thor: Ragnarok). And while Infinity War certainly counts as one of the best installments, the contrast between the Guardians of the Galaxy aesthetic (faithfully rendered by the Russo brothers) was something of a jarring juxtaposition with the earthbound sequences.

pratt-downey

To be fair, I’m stretching the strict definition of paratext somewhat, but then the “expanded universe” as concept and practice invites a certain amount of boundary-stretching on any number of fronts—which is one of the aspects that fascinates me.

That being said, I realize I’ve now written somewhere in the neighbourhood of 2500 words and I haven’t actually attempted to define what we mean by “expanded universe.” Oops. Well, that will be installment the second: what determines an expanded universe? What differentiates it from a merely expansive universe? How does the Marvel or Star Wars EUs compare to those of Tolkien or George R.R. Martin?

Stay tuned.

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FOOTNOTES

*Social media is of course just one aspect of a broader participatory current that has always been present in fan culture, with fan fiction and slash fiction having long been key methods of creative and imaginative interaction. The internet has of course multiplied and disseminated fan creations, as have the various wiki pages that compile and catalogue arcane details of given universes. This participatory dimension is something I’ll look at more closely in my second installment.

**This list of prominent dudes serves to highlight Marvel’s need to introduce some estrogen into the mix. On that note, it should also be pointed out—as frequently and loudly as possible—that the best three films arguably to emerge from both the MCU and DCU in the past year, Thor: Ragnarok, Black Panther, and Wonder Woman were directed by an indigenous man, an African-American man, and a woman (Taika Waititi, Ryan Coogler, and Patty Jenkins), respectively.

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A literally fantastic autumn

I have a bad habit of letting this blog lie fallow for months at a time, and then posting something somewhat apologetically and promising to get back into regular posting. Well, I guess it’s that time again! At least this time I posted something substantive without comment first, but now I feel I should offer some explanation for what will hopefully be a more productive summer of blogging.

I’m extremely excited about my fall term: for one thing, I will once again be teaching English 3811: The Lord of the Rings. When I taught this course for the first and so far only time four years ago, I posted an awful lot under the header “Return to Middle-Earth.”

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I mean to do a lot more of that, both over the summer and during the term.

I will also be teaching a graduate course that I’ve been working up to over the past two years or so:

ENGL 7352 poster

As my ever-so-clever title suggests, the course will be looking at the intersection between “magic worlds,” as in the world-building and creation of alternative realities in fantasy, and “magic words,” as in the role played by language in the figuration of magic and conjuring, as well as the way in which these imaginary worlds are linguistic and semantic creations.

As you might imagine, that’s a lot of ground to cover in just thirteen weeks, so the reading list is by necessity somewhat eclectic and wide-ranging:

Anonymous, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Jorge Luis Borges, Labyrinths
Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
Neil Gaiman, Sandman: Season of Mists
Lev Grossman, The Magicians
N.K. Jemisin, The One Hundred Thousand Kingdoms
Ursula K. Le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea
John Milton, Paradise Lost
Thomas More, Utopia
Terry Pratchett, Witches Abroad
Vernor Vinge, True Names

(Students will also be enjoined to have The Fellowship of the Ring and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe under their belts before classes start).

A big chunk of my summer is going to be devoted to prepping this class, both because of the rather large scale of material it entails, but also because doing so feeds into my current research preoccupations. I’ll be posting as I go, using this blog as I so often do: as a means of thinking out loud.

Look for a multi-part series on the whole “expanded universe” phenomenon to lead us off, coming soon.

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Thoughts on the (non) cancellation of Brooklyn Nine-Nine (which spiral into a broader discussion of prestige TV vs. sitcoms)

I really need to get these posts written faster. I started writing this yesterday apropos of Fox’s cancellation of Brooklyn Nine-Nine on Thursday; I left a bit to be written today, and I wake up to see that NBC has revived the show for an abbreviated sixth season. So, rumours of the show’s death were greatly exaggerated, but I’ll keep my original intro out of laziness and the fact that I like it …

brooklyn99913

 

Thursday, Fox announced it was cancelling Brooklyn Nine-Nine after five seasons. After their indecorous shitcanning of Firefly so many years ago, I didn’t think there was any way for Fox to hurt me again … but then I let Andy Samberg’s cop sitcom worm its way into my heart, having been lulled in the intervening years to forget the first rule of avoiding heartbreak: don’t get attached to Fox properties, especially if they’re unusually intelligent and well made. That just never ends well.

As anyone who knows me can attest, I’m a television junky. Once upon a time this might have been considered a failing in an English professor, but since the rise of HBO and its various imitators, the tube now offers an embarrassment of riches. What has been perhaps most interesting in the past few years, however, is not so much the continued production of dramatic HBO and HBO-type juggernauts, with Game of Thrones and Westworld (among others) picking up the torch from the likes of Deadwood and Breaking Bad, but that some of the smartest and most progressive television has appeared in the form of network sitcoms. Brooklyn Nine-Nine is (or was) exemplary of this tendency, with a racially diverse cast than never reeked of tokenism, and nuanced, complex characters who transcended what were at first glance one-dimensional comedic tropes: Jake’s macho goofball obsessed with 70s cop shows, Rosa’s acerbic ass-kicking woman, Amy’s goody-two-shoes, Terry’s musclebound sergeant, and so forth. Each of these actors at once managed to have their cake and eat it too, playing the stereotypes for laughs while simultaneously getting laughs for playing against type and revealing depths of character that served as trenchant critiques of a host of things from toxic masculinity to racial profiling.

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To be sure, sitcoms have always tended to be the more subversive and insidiously political shows, from Mary Tyler Moore and All in the Family to The Simpsons; but in the first two decades of the twenty-first century, when television broke out of its formulaic box and aspired to the level of art with such series as The Sopranos and Mad Men, it tended to replicate a certain masculinist narrative logic and more often than not placed damaged, complicated, difficult, and frequently violent men—white men, pretty much exclusively—at the center of the story: Tony Soprano, Al Swearengen and Seth Bullock in Deadwood, Don Draper in Mad Men, Walter White in Breaking Bad, Jax Teller in Sons of Anarchy, Raylen Givens in Justified, and so on. Which isn’t to say that these shows don’t have anything to say or do with questions of gender, race, and identity, but that such considerations almost always serve to reflect back on the shows’ masculine center of gravity undercuts the substance of their critique.

By contrast, such sitcoms as Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Fresh off the Boat, Black-ish, Bob’s Burgers, and such non-network examples as Master of None, High Maintenance, Broad City, Archer, and Big Mouth—to say nothing of Parks and Recreation, quite possibly the greatest sitcom ever to air—have been doing yeoman’s work in introducing diversity in their casts, as well as articulating (generally) a politics of hope and understanding. It’s one of the reasons why Andy Samberg’s character Jake Peralta served to turn off a significant number of viewers at the outset, but rewarded those who stuck with the show: his heroes are the hard-bitten, cynical cops of 70s films, and most centrally, John McClane of Die Hard (I would be interested to know precisely how many episodes there are in which Die Hard or McClane aren’t name-checked). That is to say: his ostensible dream is to be the kind of take-no-prisoners, I-make-my-own-rules, go-ahead-make-my-day rogue cop that valorizes masculine violence and disdain for law and procedure. But as much as he might fantasize about being that kind of cop, Jake’s journey over the series’ five seasons has been a process of discovering the value of community and teamwork over gut instinct and radical individualism. That he would eventually get together with the Hermione-esque Amy Santiago was more or less inevitable according to the laws of sitcoms, but it was narratively hard-won—not least because it was in part Amy’s influence in eroding Jake’s John McClane delusions that he transcended his character’s initial defining tropes.

 

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About two weeks ago, a Facebook friend tagged me in the comments for a Slate article by Kathryn VanArendonk titled “Overly Long Episodes are the Manspreading of TV,” wondering what my thoughts on the argument were.

The article essentially argues that episodes of an hour or longer have become unnecessarily commonplace in prestige television, citing, for example, the 69-minute season two premiere of Westworld. For an HBO season premiere, VanArendonk allows, such a length episode is not unusual, but the second episode was even longer (71 minutes), “and I’d be astonished if it’s the last episode this season to run over an hour. The season-one finale episode, after all, was a full 90 minutes.” She continues,

It’s hard not to watch much of Westworld, especially those over-an-hour installments, and not feel at least a little frustrated with a show that has so little compunction about its own obtrusive length. In the (rare) instances where an episode fully uses and needs over 60 minutes, I’m perfectly happy to cede the time. But again and again, overly long TV episodes feel like self-important prestige signaling, more about muscle (and budget) flexing than they are about the best way to serve a story. They take up narrative space with all the blithe obliviousness of a story that assumes it’s the most important, most worthy thing you’re doing with your time. Long TV episodes imply they deserve that extra space—after all, they’re significant, quality TV. And bigger equals better.

“The time has come,” she asserts, “to call out this swaggering, unselfconscious expanse.” And per her title, she charges that “Interminable TV episodes are the manspreading of television storytelling.”

Before offering my two cents, I read further on in the comments thread, and was unsurprised to find the article’s premise largely mocked and ridiculed. “That has to be one of the most tortured analogies I’ve ever seen,” said one commenter; another, “This is to be filed under: ‘I have nothing of value to say, so choose an “unpopular” topic to complain about instead’.” “Ok, funny analogy, unbearably long text and nope for your theory.” And finally, “I agree that more may not necessarily be better, but what does gendering the pattern do aside from foment gender antagonism?”

The sentiment of this last comment recurred quite frequently, often expressed in, shall we say, much less polite terms. Why make your complaint about lengthy episodes a gendered one? said many people. To more than a few complainants, this was the main issue with the article. For my part, I also found the manspreading analogy somewhat tortured, but I knew precisely what the article’s title meant: that prestige TV is masculinist in its DNA, and that the key tropes of its early, groundbreaking shows have persisted even as television itself, more broadly, becomes more inventive and diverse across an unprecedented number of platforms and media.

The most insightful observation of the article to my mind was the attribution of episode bloat to “prestige signaling,” a means of communicating the weight and heft of a show’s thematic gravity:

The prestige signaling of HBO’s “we’re not TV” then drifted over to FX, where runtime bloat touched series like Nip/Tuck and The Shield, and then became especially noticeable on FX’s Sons of Anarchy. Midway through its run, Sons began to abjure its supposed hour timeslot and made a habit of moseying into a full 90-minute scheduling block. In talking about the unique scheduling for the series, a Variety piece pointed directly to the influence—and the prestige and “quality” implications—of longer runtimes on premium cable. Letting an episode of Sons relax into a 55-minute total length, bulked out to 90 minutes with commercials, “gives [FX] a chance to keep up with the creative scope of HBO and Showtime, which aren’t forced to cut into their series with commercial breaks.” Longer episodes mean more “creative scope.” Longer episodes are how you know something’s important.

This article would have been less glib had it directly addressed the tacit association of “importance” with the kind of violent and/or self-obsessed masculinity on display with all of the shows mentioned. In the early days of HBO, shows like Oz and The Sopranos were a revelation because they seemed to break all the established laws of episodic television in terms not just of their violence, profanity, and nudity, but also in terms of how they told their stories—and abjuring the rigid 42-minute run time of network dramas allowed for more flexibility for the writers and directors to take as much time to tell a story as the story demanded or needed. Sometimes that ran long, sometimes not so much. And often it was precisely the case that an episode might run over an hour because it needed that time to convey its substance and complexity.

I think a more useful way to consider the episode bloat against which VanArendonk rails is to think in terms of prestige television having come to comprise its own genre. The charge of “prestige signaling” points in this direction, as it suggests that these later-generation shows from HBO, AMC (we could spend an entire post just talking about The Walking Dead in this capacity), and FX, and now also Netflix and Amazon, are self-conscious about conveying their seriousness. Genre, as I tell my students repeatedly, is largely about expectations, of going in knowing the formulae. The more iterative a genre gets, the more formulaic, and in the end the satisfaction of expectations does not always serve the content in logical or coherent ways, which is, I would argue, one of the key reasons the victims in slasher films tend to behave stupidly—less because the characters are meant to be stupid than that is what satisfies the genre’s expectations. It’s a bit ironic that we can now start to discern generic conventions in prestige television, given that the early breakthroughs often tended to entail the utter disruption of genre: the mob movie with The Sopranos, the police procedural with The Wire, the western with Deadwood, the historical epic with Rome (stayed tuned for a future post in which I explain why The Walking Dead’s deficiencies proceed from the fact that it has not managed to subvert or divest itself of its own generic expectations).

Recently, a good friend of mine expressed horror and bafflement that I have not yet watched Westworld. Considering my long preoccupation with prestige television, both from an academic and a personal perspective, it seemed unthinkable to him that I would not yet have obsessively binge-watched it. And I will! Eventually. But as I told him, I think I hit critical mass with the self-conscious high seriousness of prestige television a while ago. I’m delighted that Brooklyn Nine-Nine has won a reprieve, not because such sitcoms offer an escape from the heavy fare of the Westworlds of the TV landscape, but because increasingly such shows exhibit the intelligence and complexity of critique of hour-long-and-longer dramas, while doing so with greater diversity and humanity.

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Returning to blogging, and a recent symposium

Yes, yes, this blog has lain fallow for quite some time … as usual, it’s not for lack of desire to write or a lack of anything to write about, just … well, a lack of motivation, I suppose. That and just the press of other obligations, professional and otherwise.

But it is strange, I suppose, that I never think of shuttering this blog or otherwise abandoning it—I’m quite proud of a lot of the stuff I’ve written here, and always have the best intentions of getting back to posting on a regular, or at least a semi-regular basis.

So here’s an attempt to get back to it, and hopefully get myself back into the habit of working out my thoughts out loud, as it were—which, really, is the greatest value this forum has for me. I have no illusions that I’ll ever have a huge readership—the stuff I post about and the format I tend to write in (i.e. long) pretty much guarantees that my audience remains somewhat limited—but that doesn’t bother me. I have come to think of this space as an intermediate stage between scribbling in my journal and writing more formally. My ruminations here have more to do with the former, but in putting in out publicly, at least I have to keep myself honest (to a point).

visual symposium

Anyway, the occasion for getting back into it is a symposium in which I took part, organized by a colleague of mine, featuring brief (5-7 minute) presentations on various aspects of visual culture.

Now, keeping an academic-ish presentation to five to seven minutes is hard. I can reliably burn through five to seven minutes at the start of a lecture just clearing my throat. And as anyone who has read my posts on this blog knows, brevity isn’t exactly my strong suit (to quote President Josiah Bartlett, “In my house, anyone who uses one word when he could have used ten just isn’t trying hard”).

But it was a useful exercise; my topic is one I’ve aired on this blog before, namely, maps, fiction, and fantasy. I’ve been kicking around a variety of thoughts and ideas about this for a long time now, but never really had the impetus to find my traction. I don’t know, necessarily, that I’ve got that now, but this talk certainly forced me to distill the key ideas down to the point where I can see a few avenues opening up for future exploration.

The symposium itself went extremely well—five presenters, each of us compressing our thoughts into the crucible of five to seven minutes. It’s always a shame that academics can get so insular in our own research, writing, and teaching—especially in winter, and especially as the semester gets busier—because one thing I love about this job is listening to my brilliant colleagues share their work.

As it turns out, my medievalist colleague John Geck was also presenting on maps, looking at medieval conceptions of space and place, especially in terms of “itinerary” maps that stress the experience of travel as opposed to the abstraction of a god’s-eye empirical perspective. We sat down a few times before the symposium to share ideas, and to see whether our respective topics would have any overlap.

As things happened, they did. Here’s the text of my presentation along with the slides I showed.

1 - fantasy and cartography - title card

What I want to do here is make a bridge from John’s discussion of medieval itinerary maps to the maps we find in fantasy, a genre which for the purposes of my talk could be usefully characterized as the bastard love child of medieval romance and historical fiction.

2 - earthsea

My representative fantasy map, chosen to honour one of the greats. R.I.P. Ursula K. Le Guin.

Given the brevity of this presentation, I need to make one point quickly and hope to stick the landing: that maps and cartography are by definition fictional. Mapping resembles the writing of fiction in at least two principal respects: one, it is mimetic; two, it invariably distorts or deforms what it imitates according to its preoccupations—or, to put it another way, according to the story it wants to tell.

4 - world maps

The fact that we speak of maps as projections is a useful point to keep in mind, considering that term’s use in psychology to refer to forms of ideation.

3 - projections

7 - mercator-peters copy

Wish I’d had time to show the “Cartographers for Social Justice” clip from The West Wing.

All of which is to say nothing of the more overtly fictional elements of mapping, such as the consensual hallucinations of place-names and borders, all of which come freighted with their own histories, stories, conflicts, and connotations. I mean … we live on a peninsula named “Avalon” by Sir George Calvert in the hopes that, like its namesake, it would be paradisaical.

5 - Arthur - Avalon

To take the analogy between mapping and fiction a step further, we could liken the itinerary maps John discussed to the genre of romance, and “empirical” maps to realism … and as I suggested, it is at the intersection of these two that we find fantasy, or at least the kind of fantasy modeled on J.R.R. Tolkien’s example (which is to say, most of it).

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And as those who read fantasy know, maps frequently play a key paratextual role, and are distinct from “real” maps for obvious reasons. They do not render or imitate territory. Maps in fantasy are deterministic, which is to say they define the territory rather than vice versa. They provide readers with a gods-eye view not available to the characters—and in this respect comprise a conflation of fantasy’s premodern and/or quasi-medieval sensibilities and those of modernity’s empirical presumptions.

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As a case in point (to use my favourite example): in The Fellowship of the Ring, some time after departing Rivendell, the Fellowship hoves into view of a western spur of the Misty Mountains. When Pippin protests that they must have turned eastward in the night, Gandalf says, “There are many maps in Elrond’s house, but I suppose you never thought to look at them?” (283). To which Gimli the dwarf declares that he needs no map, and proceeds to name the peaks on the horizon. “There is the land where our fathers worked of old, and we have wrought the image of those stone mountains into many works of metal and of stone, and into many songs and tales.”

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Shortly after, Sam confides to Frodo that “I’m beginning to think it’s time we got a sight of that Fiery Mountain, and saw the end of the Road, so to speak. I thought perhaps that this here [mountain] … might be it, till Gimli spoke his piece” (285). Tolkien then observes that “Maps conveyed nothing to Sam’s mind, and all distances in these strange lands seemed so vast that he was quite out of his reckoning.”

A few points here: maps are presented in this instance as all but useless to those who have no wider knowledge of Middle-Earth, and unnecessary for those who do. The provincial hobbits are quite at sea, while Gimli’s rather intuitive knowledge of the landscape evokes the experiential understanding of space and place discussed by John in his talk: Gimli can recognize and name the mountains because of his familiarity with “many songs and tales.”

By contrast, the paratextual map of Middle-Earth provides readers with a privileged perspective, one that lets us know, even without Tolkien’s somewhat patronizing observation, precisely how naïve Sam Gamgee’s hopeful sense of place is.

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This privileged perspective creates an interesting thematic contradiction at a point in the narrative most deeply embedded in the conventions of medieval quest romance. We as readers can pin Sam and the Fellowship to a specific place—as if we could pull up Google Maps and inform Sir Gawain that he’s just half a kilometer east of Bertilak’s Castle, or let Hansel and Gretel know that if they carry on past the gingerbread house for another hour or so they’ll be literally out of the woods.

This, for the record, is the nub of my particular interest in fantasy: the contradiction of Tolkien’s (and by extension, fantasy’s) nostalgic rendition of medieval romance, and the imaginary but exhaustive empiricism of his invented mythology, for which the map of Middle-Earth functions emblematically, subverting the mystery and caprice of romance with cartographic, historical, and linguistic determinism. Tolkien’s “mythology” is ultimately evocative of Jorge Luis Borges’ Tlon, a fictional world so scrupulously detailed and imagined that it takes on corporeal reality.

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This contradiction is doubly interesting insofar as both Tolkien and his good friend C.S. Lewis both created their fantasy worlds in part as a corrective to what they saw as the spiritual aridity of secular, scientific modernity with its emphasis on the empirical at the expense of mystery. Echoing Keats’ injunction against unweaving the rainbow, Tolkien writes in his poem “Mythopoeia” that “I will not walk with your progressive apes, / erect and sapient. Before them gapes / the dark abyss to which their progress tends / … I will not tread your dusty path and flat, / denoting this and that by this and that.” It is thus perhaps something of an irony that Tolkien privately loathed Lewis’ Narnia chronicles, considering them slapdash and careless in their world-building and too reliant upon allegory, and lacking the kind of exhaustive intellectual rigor he would ultimately bring to the creation of Middle-Earth.

I have no conclusion other than to say that this is my starting point from which to explore how this contradiction in the “cartographic imagination,” more broadly considered, is deployed by contemporary fantasists to articulate a secular and humanist worldview.

 

 

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Thoughts on Reading The Road in a Time of Crisis

ENGL 4272 - title

I must admit that it is somewhat unsettling to be starting a course on post-apocalyptic fiction at this particular moment. Uncertain of how to order my selected texts, I finally decided—for the sake of everyone’s sanity as the term progresses—to start with the bleakest and most cynical novels, and finish with the most hopeful. Which means I’ll have the pleasure of finishing the term with Emily St. John Mandel’s beautiful Station Eleven. But it means starting with Cormac McCarthy’s well-nigh nihilistic vision in The Road. Now, I do love The Road, but it means I’m reading about an environmentally devastated world that has reverted to Hobbesian brutality and scarcity. This while the direst predictions of climate scientists are burning up huge swaths of the American and Canadian west while drowning Houston, Florida, and Bangladesh; while an unhinged despot with nuclear weapons taunts and goads a dangerously incompetent and thin-skinned president; and while we’re seeing the kind of social cohesion and trust necessary to address such large-scale, transnational problems dissolving into nationalist and nativist tribalism.

There are times when the obvious contemporary relevance of a given text I’m teaching is a gift. Then there are times when I wish it wouldn’t feel quite so on the nose. Perhaps comparing the bleakness of The Road to our present moment seems a little extreme—after all, we’ve hardly witnessed the collapse of social order. This much is true. And yet as I have watched the images of devastation, specifically those of Hurricane Harvey, it’s not the destruction that evokes McCarthy for me so much as the feel-good news stories about ordinary citizens stepping up and risking life and limb to help strangers.

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To be certain, these are inspiring stories, and the individuals pictured in the image of the long line of trucks towing boats into Houston should be celebrated. I should hope that we all might find it in ourselves to behave in such a manner if presented with such circumstances. But as someone pointed out on a podcast I was listening to (don’t remember who or which podcast, unfortunately), this celebration of individual heroism highlights a flaw in the American character: people are eager to be heroes in a crisis, but collectively unwilling to do the tedious stuff or make the minor sacrifices that might ameliorate or even prevent a crisis. Run into a disaster area to volunteer? Sign me up! Raise property taxes slightly for the sake of infrastructure and regulate development in potential flood zones? Don’t tread on me!

I hasten to add that this is a bit of an over-generalization, and Americans are hardly unique in their penchant for individual action and collective apathy; but the mythos of rugged individualism that inflects the national psyche is one much better suited to reaction than foresight. Part of the problem is that individual heroism and sacrifice makes for much better news copy, and resonates more powerfully with audiences. Perhaps the most iconic moment in coverage of Harvey is the guy who, when asked by CNN (as he prepped his boat) “What are you going to do?” replied “Go try to save some lives.” That sound bite went viral almost instantly—both because it was admirable, but also because it had the kind of laconic “git ‘er done” sentiment one expects to hear from Bruce Willis or Tommy Lee Jones in a Hollywood blockbuster. It put me in mind of the way in which “Let’s roll” became a catch phrase after 9/11—spoken by a passenger on United 93 just before they rushed the cockpit and crashed the plane, sacrificing themselves but preventing greater carnage, it came to symbolize American resilience in the face of crisis, and the willingness of civilians to step up. As well it should.

Heroism, however, especially the kind that entails great sacrifice, is a compelling narrative that tends to paper over the uncomfortable fact that many crises are avoidable; heroism is the proverbial pound of cure that would be unnecessary had an ounce of prevention been applied—better urban planning, for example, or a president who took seriously his national security memos. Heroism is also contingent on a certain amount of altruism, which itself entails a certain amount of privilege. Not “privilege” in the way the term tends to proliferate now—though class and racial privilege can certainly play a part—but the privilege of being confident that one’s own corner of the world is not directly threatened.

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The Road (dir. John Hilcoat 2009).

Strip that confidence away, and altruism and sacrifice will become entirely contingent on whom they benefit. In its extreme vision, The Road makes this point plain: while all post-apocalyptic narratives depict some form of social collapse or another, few match the level of scarcity of McCarthy’s novel. Indeed, in many there is material pleasure to be taken in the apocalypse, as the sudden depopulation of the world leaves behind the excess of consumer society: such is the centerpiece of both versions of Dawn of the Dead, as the survivors plunder the goods in the malls in which they shelter; one thinks of the grocery scene in 28 Days Later, and The Walking Dead certainly has no shortage of cars, gasoline, guns and ammo, and food. In all of these examples, of course, there is the clash between different pockets of survivors and the perennial moral and ethical questions about survival versus humanity; but none truly present the problem of scarcity as McCarthy does, and the dehumanizing process that entails.

All of which is by way of saying that the kind of heroism on display in localized catastrophes is unlikely to manifest itself when catastrophes are not so localized. It is sadly not surprising that the far more devastating floods in Bangladesh received a tiny fraction of the coverage devoted to Houston and Florida, but that goes to my point: what’s missing in the coverage of the heroism here is that it’s responding to a global crisis affecting the people there. And what happens when the crisis becomes even more prevalent? Harvey, Irma, and now José … and whatever comes after that. Individuals are not going to step up when they are themselves under threat, and in the absence of a collective will, the state itself will fail to cover all its bases—something we see in the hypocrisy of Ted Cruz clamoring for relief for Texas a mere five years after he voted against an aid package for Hurricane Sandy victims.

All I can hope is that things get more hopeful in lock-step with the progression of my course readings. Though even the end of the course will see us traveling around a post-apocalyptic landscape … performing Shakespeare, yes, but still …

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New courses, and a new school year

As those who follow my blog know, my posting tends to come in bursts of productivity interspersed by long fallow periods (at this point, I’d estimate my Game of Thrones posts account for about a third of the material here).

I’m hoping the next few months will be more productive. This time last year, I managed to post on a more or less weekly basis about the texts I was doing in my Revenge of the Genres fourth-year seminar; I want to repeat that, this time with a new fourth-year class. Introducing “The Triumph of Death”!

ENGL 4272 - title

Basically, we’re looking at twenty-first century narratives of post-apocalypse—a sub-genre that is coming to rival (if only because of the ubiquity of zombie apocalypse) young adult dystopia as the most prevalent dystopian SF on the market. Here’s our schedule of readings for anyone who wants to play the home version:

Sept. 12-21: Cormac McCarthy, The Road
Sept. 26-Oct. 5: Colson Whitehead, Zone One
Oct. 12-19: Lidia Yuknavitch, The Book of Joan
Oct. 24-Nov. 2: Edan Lepucki, California
Nov. 7-9: Kevin Brockmeier, The Brief History of the Dead
Nov. 14-16: Max Brooks, World War Z
Nov. 21-30: Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven

If you followed my course-based blog posts of last fall, you’ll note two repetitions: Zone One and Station Eleven. That’s due in part to the fact that it was thinking about Station Eleven (I also taught it in my winter SF/F class, so now I’ve basically put it on a course for three straight semesters) that led me to the project I’m currently working on, a book I’m tentatively titling The Spectre of Catastrophe, about—you guessed it—twenty-first century post-apocalyptic narratives. I wrote a draft of an article on Station Eleven, which grew too long, so I hived off a digression about zombie apocalypse to be its own article, which itself grew too long and so I’ve divided it in two. Meanwhile, another digression in the Station Eleven paper gave rise to a meditation on the shift from disaster films in the 1990s, which are preoccupied with the spectacle of catastrophe, to the post-apocalyptic boom of the new century, which is preoccupied with the aftermath of catastrophe. Then the play on “spectacle” vs. “spectre” popped into my head, and suddenly I had a book title.

I made a fair bit of progress writing this past summer, with four articles in varying stages of completion and a reasonably good idea of what the other chapters of the book will look like. And in the interests of keeping the momentum going, I decided that a fourth-year seminar would harmonize nicely and keep these topics in the forefront of my mind during what promises to be an insanely busy fall term.

Hence, the blog posts: once again, I want to post once or twice a week as a supplement to our class, but also as a way of testing out new material (as it were). Words on the page, as my thesis advisor used to say, are money in the bank—even if you don’t end up using them in your finished product.

***

I’m also teaching two second-year courses this term, one on American literature after 1945, and one on popular culture for our Communication Studies program. The American literature course is a new addition. Prior to this year, our curriculum had two second year American courses, one on 19th and the other on 20th-century U.S. fiction. Last year, my colleague Andrew and I changed that, replacing them with three courses that would cover not just fiction but poetry, non-fiction, and drama as well—on the principle that lower-level courses should be surveys that introduce students to a range of genres and forms. So now we have three second-year courses in American literature: 1776-1865, 1865-1945, and after 1945 (the reasoning behind that periodization might make for a blog post in the near future, as it comprises at least part of my intro lecture on Tuesday).

I’m also returning to Critical Approaches to Popular Culture, a required course for our Communication Studies degree. The English Department absorbed Communication Studies last year; last fall was my first chance to teach the class, and the first time I taught popular culture since 2004-2005, when I taught it at UWO. Western’s version was (and presumably still is) a full-year course, which gives one a certain amount of leisure to develop themes; like every course here at Memorial, this one is a single semester. Twelve and a half weeks can be a remarkably tight time frame to teach, well, anything … hopefully I’ll be learning this year from the mistakes I made last year.

One way or another, I’m happy with my syllabus cover image, even though we’re not doing either The Simpsons or Game of Thrones:

simpsons-GOT

I’m pretty stoked about this incarnation, though, and hopefully will have a post or three inspired by it here (I’m already making notes toward one. Fingers crossed).

One way or another, happy September, everyone. My new year always begins the day after Labour Day—it has since I first started going to school, and that’s still the way of things. Until later …

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Game of Thrones, Episode 7.07: The Dragon and the Wolf

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Greetings once again fellow Throne-heads, and welcome to the final installment of season seven—it was a short season, but did not lack for action and stuff happening, especially with regard to the resolution of certain narrative threads that have been dangled in front of us from the beginning … as well as some new shit going down.

As always I am joined by the incomparable Nikki of House Stafford (house words: “Hale and Well-Met”). And this is a super-sized blog post for a super-sized episode, so pour yourself a drink and settle in. Gonna be bumpy. Lead us off, Nikki!

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Nikki: This week featured some more awesome vistas, amazing CGI, incredible acting (Lena Headey you are on fire this season!), and the loss of a beloved longtime character.

It begins with the Unsullied lining up in their proper, perfect lines, as they’ve been trained to do, and then the Dothraki racing through those lines as if to say, “Yes, we will follow military protocol… but we’re also just here to randomly slaughter you, so…” The music that was playing in this opening was new and awesome. It felt like a more ominous version of the guards music from Wizard of Oz. Bronn tells the Lannister soldiers to get 500 barrels of oil in addition to the 500 they already have, and the soldier responds, “Yes, m’lord.” I wrote in my notes, “Bronn’s gonna love that” and then immediately he told Jaime how much he likes being called that.

Bronn watches the Unsullied prepare, and crassly (and hilariously) says to Jaime, “You wouldn’t find me fighting in any army if I had no cock. What’s left to fight for?” Jaime counters that gold is worth fighting for, and you use that gold to protect your family. Bronn responds that you won’t have a family if you don’t have a cock, and Jaime pauses for a moment and concurs that yeah, maybe all this IS about cocks.

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Which is a beautifully ironic comment, given that everyone who is currently in power is a woman.

Jaime looks hopeless, because he’s already been here once before, and Bronn agrees that their chances aren’t good. “I think we’re about to be the downtrodden,” he says. In several moments in this episode you’ll see Jaime’s face be almost unreadable, but one thing you can read is how torn he is about following Cersei, whom he knows is wrong. While he sits by her side, he understands the threat in the north is far greater than anything they’re dealing with here, he knows that she’s as murderous as everyone says she is, and he knows that Daenerys would massacre their armies in minutes. But his loyalty (for now, at least) is to the woman carrying his child.

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Doesn’t anyone ever sit down on ships in Westeros?

Meanwhile, on the ship, Tyrion watches as they approach King’s Landing. Jon Snow stands beside him, and wonders aloud how many people live in King’s Landing. When Tyrion says over a million, Jon asks why so many people would want to be crammed all together like that. He comes from the north, with its open moors and wide vistas of sky, and here’s a metropolis that smells like shit with people living on the streets. But Tyrion says for many this is their only hope of survival, and besides, the brothels are far superior in King’s Landing. Coming home to King’s Landing is never easy for Tyrion, but you can tell he’ll always have an uneasy fondness for the place.

In the hold of the ship, the Hound knocks on the crate and the wight sounds like a small dragon trying to fight its way out. Even I was frightened, and I’d already seen that thing.

At the Red Keep, Cersei prepares for the meeting, which she’s attending against her better judgment. She instructs the Mountain that if anything goes wrong, he’s to “kill the silver-headed bitch first,” followed by her brother Tyrion.

As Tyrion et al disembark and enter the royal gardens, they see where the dragons had been kept long ago in the time of Aegon, and Tyrion comments that given the madness of the king and the size of his dragons — which would have dwarfed Dany’s children — King’s Landing at one time must have been the most terrifying place in the world.

And then we get a ton of reunions all at once — Brienne and Jaime, Podrick and Tyrion, Brienne and the Hound, Bronn and Tyrion. It’s like covering off a ton of lost time in one fell swoop. What did you think of all of these former allies/enemies all coming together again, Chris?

 

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AWKWARD.

Christopher: It had me thinking about the difference between Game of Thrones and our other favourite examples of prestige television: namely that, more than any show I can think of, this series has been playing—of necessity!—the long game. As I’ve written elsewhere, I’m particularly susceptible to well-written and intelligent television for the simple fact that I’m a narrative junkie. I love a good story well told, and love the slow burn of a Breaking Bad or The Wire. Series like that are about as close to a sprawling, chunky novel as you’re likely to find in a visual medium, something that speaks to the fact that the most revolutionary aspect of “prestige” television is the shift from episodic to serial storytelling. David Chase, creator of The Sopranos, more or less made this case in annoyed response to those who said that his show had an “unfair advantage” because HBO didn’t have to play by the FCC’s rules:

All of us have the freedom to do story lines that unfold slowly. We all have the freedom to create characters that are complex and contradictory. The FCC doesn’t govern that. We all have the freedom to tell stupid, bad jokes that may actually turn out to be funny. And we all have the freedom to let the audience figure out what’s going on rather than telling them what’s going on.

But in many cases, if not most, the laws of television still govern on some level for most shows, and the perennial question of renewal versus cancellation has tended to dictate that narrative arcs describe seasons rather than entire series. Nowhere has this been more explicit that with The Wire, with each season exploring a different aspect of Baltimore within the larger context of the War on Drugs. This innovation of David Simon’s was in part a genius compromise with the television imperative of season-ending cliffhangers—episodes of that show often ended surprisingly, with none of the narratives cues that usually tell you the credits are about to roll. But because of the thematic continuity of each season, the finales provided definite ends, while still leaving you wanting more.

Game of Thrones, by contrast, is all about the cliffhangers—but to a great extent, its cliffhangers are doubly effective because this is a series whose endgame was established early on (arguably, in the pilot episode’s cold open). Even though the novels are still in progress (dammit, GRRM!), it’s been pretty clear from the start just what kind of ultimate confrontation we’re heading to—and though we’ve seen skirmishes (Fist of the First Men, Hardhome), we end this season with the first real battle of the great war. (It’s amusing to speculate on just how much bigger the sales of the novels would have been if HBO had pulled the plug after season four or so—how many people would have run to the bookstore to see what happens in the end).

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And so—to finally answer your question, Nikki—what we’re seeing in this episode, and what we’ve been seeing in the various reunions over the past ten episodes or so, is a deeply satisfying narrative convergence. What did I think of everyone coming together again here? It felt like a payoff for all the time we’ve been watching this show. Considering that for six seasons, one half of the action was taking place on an entirely different continent—with Daenerys building her strength, her confidence, and her armies—having her actually in the same space as Cersei Lannister was brilliant.

But as for the leadup, I can’t tell you how much I loved this scene—Tyrion and Pod’s heartfelt reunion, the Hound and Brienne’s comically respectful exchange (“I thought you were dead”; “Not yet. You came pretty close”), in which she tells him Arya is alive and well at Winterfell; when he asks who’s protecting her, Brienne says, “The only one that needs protecting is whoever gets in her way,” to which the Hound responds, feelingly, “It won’t be me.” Ha! Ol’ Sad Eyes is learning some wisdom in his age. And then, of course, Tyrion and Bronn: on reminding Bronn of his offer to double whatever anyone else pays him, and suggesting that arranging a meeting between him and Jaime might make Bronn suspect in Cersei’s eyes, Bronn counters that it’s because of him that Cersei now has the option of beheading a bunch of traitors as soon as she gets bored with their badinage, “All thanks to Ser Bronn of the fucking Blackwater! If that’s not looking after myself, I don’t know what is.” Tyrion’s expression is priceless—caught between knowing the danger they’re all in, the fact that if everything goes pear-shaped that Bronn will have out-thought him, and grudging respect for Bronn’s survival instincts. “It’s good to see you again,” he says after a moment, and we know he’s sincere when he says it. “Yeah, you too,” Bronn admits.

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Lots of side-eye going on in this scene.

But then we arrive, everyone wearing their game faces as they enter the Dragonpit for a confrontation we’ve been waiting six freakin’ years to see—everyone, that is, but the Mother of Dragons herself (the fact that Bronn and Pod leave to have a drink “while the fancy folks talk” was hilarious—I think I’d almost rather have been present to hear their conversation than that of the A plot). There follows several moments of watchfulness as some of our principals—Jon, Brienne, Jorah, Tyrion, the Hound—survey the arena for possible threats or treachery. “I left this shit city because I didn’t want to die in it,” the Hound snarls at Tyrion. “Am I going to die in this shit city?” When Tyrion acknowledges that possibility, the Hound says, with equal measure venom and fatalism, “This is all your idea. Seems every bad idea has some Lannister cunt behind it.” “And some Clegane cunt to help them see it through,” says Tyrion through gritted teeth, and at that moment Sandor sees his brother Gregor—surely the most poisonous of all the reunions of the episode, even more so than Cersei and Tyrion. As the queen’s procession passes through, there are a series of glances: Brienne and Jaime, Cersei and Tyrion, and Euron and Theon. Before Cersei can complain about Daenerys’ absence, the Hound strides up to confront the Mountain. “What did they do to you?” he asks. “Doesn’t fucking matter. You know who’s coming for you. You always know.” (Ser Gregor might want to pay special attention to the upcoming tutorial on how to kill the undead).

 

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That moment you stop complaining about someone’s tardiness.

Cersei is quite irked by Daenerys’ tardiness, quite possibly because showing up after her enemies had been her power play. But of course Daenerys knows better than anyone how to make an entrance, and on rewatching the sequence in which she swoops in on Drogon, I paid more attention to the expressions of everyone assembled—and it’s more or less a masterclass in face-acting. Jaime, presumably still somewhat traumatized by his last dragon encounter, is fearful and nervous; Cersei, discomfited, but refusing to stand and give her adversary the satisfaction; Euron, genuinely perturbed for once; Davos, stoical as always; Jorah, obviously trying to suppress a grin; and Jon, lovestruck—or possibly slightly gassy, it’s hard to tell with him.

I think however that the prize for face-acting in this entire sequence goes to Qyburn—not afraid of the dragon so much as fascinated in a deeply creepy way … just as he is when he first sees the wight. When he later picks up the severed undead arm, he wears an expression that one imagines Tycho Nestoris would wear on seeing Smaug’s hoard—one of something approaching lust. Anton Lesser, the actor playing Qyburn, does a masterful job conveying a mad scientist’s sociopathic fascination with stuff that could further his diabolical studies. The things I could do with this, he seems to think of both the dragon and the wight.

Truly, if there was ever a character who might happily work for the Night King …

Also great face acting: the “WTF?” Tyrion gives Jaime when Euron interrupts him to yell at Theon.

I quite enjoyed this scene: I wasn’t sure how it would play out when I saw the episode preview, but I loved the balance of egos and personalities, and the way in which the good guys present their case to Cersei. “There is nothing that can erase the past fifty years,” Tyrion admits. A truce is the best anyone can hope for in this situation, a pause in hostilities while the greater threat is dealt with. Eventually, it will come down to Daenerys versus Cersei, and Cersei can see no reason to pause—as far as she is concerned, all of this is a pantomime, designed to neuter the Lannisters while Daenerys and Jon Snow muster even greater forces.

Which, to be fair, is precisely the response they’d expected from her, which is why “We have something to show you,” says Tyrion. Cue the Hound emerging from the Dragonpit green room with the crated wight.

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I loved this protracted nature of the sequence that follows: the excruciatingly slow reveal as the Hound unlocks and unbars the crate, while Cersei shares skeptical glances with Jaime; the expectant looks on the faces of Daenerys et al; and finally, the long moment after it has been opened in which we all wonder if perhaps the ice zombie has disintegrated in the interim … and what that might mean for this summit.

And then: The Walking Dead: Westeros!

What did you think of the reveal, Nikki, and of Cersei’s response to it?

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Nikki: I thought the same thing, that the wight was actually completely dead and not sorta dead, and we were about to be in big trouble — of course, I was thinking this while simultaneously knowing deep down it wasn’t, and thinking of the writers, “You sly bastards.” Of course it’s alive, and it’s effing TERRIFYING.

On The Walking Dead, zombies can freeze. There’s an onrunning joke that if they would just walk north, for god’s sakes, instead of hanging around in Atlanta, they would be in the frozen tundra and the zombies would freeze where they stand. Here in Westeros, of course, the rules are different. When you’re created in ice, you can move in ice, and that last battle north of the Wall was a formidable one. And yet, this wight has been chained in a box for a few days, and now he’s in a warmer temperature for the first time, and he just seemed to move SO FAST. That’s not what we typically think of the slow-moving, lumbering beasts. The audience is privy to the Cersei-cam view, and just as it runs right at her, we see it coming for us, all sinew and bone and grey, hanging skin… and screaming. The look on Cersei’s face when that thing flung itself at her was one of the best moments in the series for me. She looks genuinely terrified, but just as she tried to keep her face neutral and unimpressed when Daenerys arrived via Dragon Express earlier in the meeting, here she similarly tries not to show her fear.

It doesn’t work.

At some point Cersei moves from “I’m not going to show anyone I might be scared” to “OMG GET THIS HORRIBLE THING AWAY FROM ME” and her hands clutch the sides of the chair and her eyes grow to the size of saucers and she pulls herself as far back into the chair as she can get. To her credit, she does NOT jump out of the chair and run screaming from the Dragon Pit, but she looks about as scared as I’ve ever seen Cersei, except for the moment when she was kneeling by Joffrey’s side and saw the life flow out of him.

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Moments earlier Cersei had referred to the Army of the Dead as nothing but a colossal joke, and Dany as nothing but a usurper. Now… shit just got real. Now everyone is silenced, even the loudmouthed Euron, who showed just how uncouth he is by interrupting the only major summit of everyone trying to lay claim to the Iron Throne and making it all about him just a few moments earlier. Westeros’s own Dr. Frankenstein Qyburn, as you mentioned, Chris, looks utterly fascinated.

The dead are coming back to life and they will eat us all.

We don’t stand a bloody chance.

Dragons schmagons, that is a DEAD GUY in front of us and he almost ripped out Cersei’s throat.

Suddenly, all the politicking and battles between human armies seems completely petty, and mean nothing. Cersei will truly be the queen of the ashes if this guy persists. I mean… she’ll be queen for one minute before she’s eaten, too, of course. Much was made of the Dragon Pit on the way in as being the most terrifying place in all of Westeros. Now, given what they now know is coming for them, the Dragon Pit seems positively safe, and yet in that one moment, it truly is the most terrifying place in Westeros. Even Brienne looked like she was about to soil her armour.

Euron asks if the zombies can swim, and the answer is no. Welp! That’s THAT, then, and he grabs his things and says he’s running back to the Iron Islands. He leans in to Dany on his away out and tells her she’d best head back to her island, too, because when all is said and done, and when this winter is over, the people on the islands will be the only ones alive.

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Which… seems like a good plan until we remember that now, they can fly. D’oh. But more on that later.

As he walks away, Cersei admits Euron is a complete coward, but moves back to official business, and says she will join forces with them and will accept their truce. “Until the dead are defeated,” she says, “they are the enemy.” For once it looks like Cersei’s going to do the right thing. However, she has a tiny little request in return: after the dead have been vanquished, the King of the North needs to retreat to the north and stay there. He cannot take up arms against her army, he cannot choose sides. He has to be Switzerland. “I know Ned Stark’s son will be true to his word.” (At which point GRRM, sitting in the back, stands up, looks around and says, “Sorry, does anyone see one of Ned Stark’s sons sitting anywhere here because I DON’T.” Ahem.)

Okay, this is easy, Jon, you just look at her and say, “Cool, cool… no problem. As soon as the wights are all dead Ima head back to my homestead and y’all can fight this one to the end, that’s totally cool.” Then he can turn and give a big wink to Dany when Cersei isn’t looking and it’s all great, this is going to be ea—

I am true to my word, or I try to be. That is why I cannot give you what you ask. I cannot serve two queens. I’ve already pledged myself to Queen Daenerys of House Targaryen.

GODDAMMIT JON SNOW.

Davos stands there, dumbfounded, suddenly realizing he really should have counselled this kid better because clearly Jon Snow is more of a dumb shit than even Ygritte thought he was. Daenerys goes wide-eyed. Tyrion just closes his. Somewhere, off in space, Captain Picard is face-palming in frustration.

Cersei has a brief moment where she probably thinks, “Well, good luck with this one then, Dany, because Jon Snow’s armies will be marching on Dorne when they take a wrong right turn on their way to King’s Landing. Seriously, where do you find these guys?!” And she stands up, tells them there’s nothing more to discuss, and to have fun fighting the White Walkers in the north — she’ll deal with whatever gets past them.

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As the King’s Landing contingent leaves the stage, Brienne races after Jaime and tries to appeal to him. She saw how scared he looked when that thing jumped out of the box, because it mirrored her own face, and she knows that he knows they can’t just let it happen, that if they deal with “whatever is left” it’ll be not only the 100,000 marching south, but everyone in the north that will have been killed and reanimated to march on the south. Jaime counters that he can’t help her: “I’m loyal to the queen and you’re loyal to Sansa and her dolt brother.” (HAHA!) Brienne stops him in his tracks when she says, “Oh fuck loyalty!”

Whoa.

Brienne is a character who is loyal to a fault. She has actually made questionable decisions at times due to her unbending loyalty, has put herself in harm’s way constantly for loyalty, has even questioned her own loyalty knowing it’s not leading her down the right path… and yet, she remains loyal to Renly Baratheon, to Catelyn Stark, to Sansa and Arya Stark. So even Jaime almost gets whiplash when his head jerks back at this statement coming from her, of all people. “Fuck loyalty?!” he says. She tells him they can’t beat this alone, and he knows it, and he has to tell the queen. At this point Cersei has stopped and is staring at the two of them — two people, by the way, who actually became quite intimate at one time, with Brienne being the only person who is a rival for Jaime’s affection. But he just says, “Tell her what?” and keeps walking.

Back on the stage, people are pissed. Tyrion watches Cersei leave. He knows his sister better than anyone, and knows that not only have they just lost her army, but Jon Snow would have lost all Cersei’s respect for not lying. She doesn’t respect honesty — the last person she met who was this stupidly honest was Ned Stark, and we all know what she did to him. Even Theon is standing there looking surprised in the background, and I couldn’t help but think only Jon Snow could make Theon Greyjoy look like a Rhodes Scholar in comparison.

Davos flat-out says, “I wish you hadn’t done that.” Daenerys marches over and says, “I’m grateful for your loyalty, but my dragon died so we could be here, and if it’s all for nothing, then he died for nothing.”

Jon looks torn — in his heart he believes he did the right thing, but he knows he’s just betrayed the very queen he swore an oath to, which is the OPPOSITE of the right thing in his world. Tyrion turns on his heel and says with evident frustration in his voice, “Have you ever considered learning how to lie now and then JUST A BIT??”

And Jon Snow looks at them all with that look of his and says he won’t swear an oath to uphold, because the world is built on lies and over time words mean nothing and blah blah blah self-righteous blah blah blah I’m ushering in a better world yadda yadda yadda.

Tyrion says the more immediate problem they have to face now is that they’re all FUCKED. And he has decided the only way they could possibly get unfucked is if he goes to Cersei himself. I couldn’t help but wonder, by the way, if the Lannister army is truly the only real shot they have against the White Walkers? Daenerys slaughtered their army in the valley, and I know that wasn’t the entire Lannister army but it was certainly a large portion of them. And she reduced them to fewer than a thousand men. So… is that really their best chance? But anyway…

Dany rushes to his side and says she didn’t come all this way to have her Hand murdered by the queen, and he said neither has he, but it’s the only way. Jon Snow offers to go himself — because somehow even being a major player in what just happened he seems to have missed WHAT JUST HAPPENED — and they all look at him like he’s even stupider than they thought three seconds ago and Tyrion says NO, he will go to the queen because it’s his sister, and he knows her. And if she kills him she kills him, but this is the only way we’ll get anything done.

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And Tyrion heads off to see Cersei, but first he has to get through his brother Jaime. I know we’ve already seen one reunion between Tyrion and Jaime, but this one felt more like the one I wanted to see: you can see that Jaime still has some affection for Tyrion — and perhaps, now that he’s seen Tyrion’s queen up close and sees that Tyrion is actually there for good reason and means well, he actually respects and feels some awe for his brother. Tyrion is the imp who was never cared for or loved by his mother, who was the bane of his father’s existence, who was despised by his sister, who became a drunk who was going to amount to nothing, but who got a lot farther by working a lot harder by being a lot smarter by being a self-starter… and he became the Hand of Queen Daenerys. Jaime sits next to Cersei’s throne, but only because at night she’s, you know, sitting on his. And despite being put into the dungeon and exiled and Jaime saying he would kill him if he ever saw him again, Tyrion has never stopped looking up to his older brother, never stopped wanting him to respect Tyrion for everything Tyrion has done. He believes his brother is one of the most fearsome warriors alive, and while that respect has cooled somewhat, you could tell in this scene he’s still seeking that approval.

Tyrion looks at Jaime and says he might be an idiot, but he’s about to walk into a room with the most murderous woman alive (considering how many people Dany has killed with that dragon that might not be completely true but let’s not fixate on that). And of course, Jaime doesn’t argue with him. He tells him that perhaps he should say his goodbye now, and even though there’s a joke underlying that moment, you can tell Jaime would be saddened and torn if that does, in fact, play out to be true. I loved this quiet little scene between the two brothers.

And then, Tyrion walks into the lion’s den. What did you think of this scene, Chris? Did you think in another life Tyrion and Cersei might have made good drinking buddies?

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Christopher: Um, no. I can’t imagine the circumstances in which Cersei would ever be friendly with Tyrion. There was an Imagur.com visual recap of the episode with comic captions making the rounds on Facebook; it is worth reading just because it is hilarious, but also because it is the only thing I’ve seen that points out that the Hound’s presence goes unremarked by the Lannisters (in spite of the fact that he used to work for them—and was, in fact, Joffrey’s sword shield, and that his desertion at the Battle of Blackwater Bay was kind of a big deal for that reason):

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“All ugly people look the same to me” is perhaps something of a reductive distillation of Cersei’s worldview, but it is not unhelpful in summing up a certain aspect of her character: she doesn’t mind ugliness when it is coupled with power and serves her purposes (e.g. the Mountain), but when it falls outside her use, it is beneath contempt. One imagines that had Tyrion been born a clean-limbed version of her and Jaime, Cersei might have been inclined to forgive him her mother’s death in childbirth; by the same token, had he not been such a clever little shit and rebellious to boot, she might have been satisfied with contempt as opposed to outright loathing. Cersei’s hatred of Tyrion (in contrast to Daenerys’ valuing of him) is representative of her congenital antipathy to anything not falling within her very rigid sense of herself, which is also her sense of how the world should work. Euron’s sneering comment that children born like Tyrion were left to die of exposure reminds us of Tyrion’s first-season observation that peasant families in Westeros did the same—that the only reason he was allowed to live was because he was a Lannister. And for all of Cersei’s veneration of her father, we know all too well she wishes he had treated Tyrion as the Iron Islanders or peasant Westrosi would have.

In a more metaphorical sense, though, Tyrion represents the peasantry and all the rest of the people(s) Cersei sees as beneath her. If her conversation with Tyrion makes anything clear (if it wasn’t already clear), it’s that her sole and primary concern is for herself and for her family.

So no—I cannot envision a parallel reality in which Cersei and Tyrion would be good drinking buddies.

That being said, this scene between them is one of the best acted parts of the series thus far (and as we both know, that’s saying a lot). The intensity in this scene is remarkable, due in part to what I mentioned before about how long it’s been in coming—but in the hands of lesser actors, it would have been … well, less than it is. It took me some time, as you and our more devoted readers will remember, Nikki, to warm up to Lena Headey as Cersei—not because I didn’t think she was a good actor, but because she was so very different from how GRRM depicts her in the novels. But she has so totally owned this character that when The Winds of Winter finally comes out in thirty years, I suspect I’ll find the Cersei of the novels out of step with what I’ve become accustomed to.

What I loved most about this scene relates to what I was just saying about Cersei’s absolute sense of order—her anger with Tyrion for killing Tywin has little or nothing in this moment to do with love or grief, but rather with the fact that the death of Tywin left the Lannisters vulnerable. Tyrion’s defense is that his father had sentenced him to death, knowing full well he was innocent; and further that Tywin had humiliated and belittled him his entire life. But they’re speaking different languages. Cersei might feel grief for her children, and blame Tyrion’s murder of Tywin for that, but the greater sin—the absolute sin, as far as she is concerned—is the betrayal of family, the making vulnerable. As we have seen this entire series, vulnerability is precisely the thing that Cersei loathes and fears the most.

Which is not to say there is no humanity in her—no, that would be too simplistic, too easy, and unworthy of this series. Cersei is, as characters from Olenna Tyrell to Tyrion himself have professed, a monster—but she’s hardly a Bond villain or some sort of mustache-twirling, cackling caricature of evil. What I love about this scene is the pain and fear that Lena Headey brings to the character, roiling just beneath the surface and inflecting the rage she professes. Everything she does in this episode is about restraint; the genius of the summit scene was, in part, due to Cersei’s studied calm, betrayed only in minute gestures and facial expressions. Ditto her scene with Tyrion. Peter Dinklage gets to emote here, which isn’t at all a knock against his performance—his speech that crescendos with him daring Cersei to order the Mountain to kill him (and his shuddering relief when she doesn’t) is brilliant. But the tension of that moment doesn’t lie in the Mountain starting to unsheathe his sword so much as the close up of Cersei’s face and the hunger there as she balances on the line between desire and pragmatism.

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But of course she doesn’t accede to her own wish to see Tyrion dead—instead, she plays him. It’s really only obvious on rewatching—and it makes me doubly suspicious that her pregnancy is a sham—that she seeks to fetch Tyrion in with her talk of how seeing the wight narrowed the world for her down to concern for her immediate family. What’s brilliant about her deceit here is that one suspects it isn’t really deceit: I have little doubt Cersei is speaking truth when she says that the specter of the army of the dead didn’t make her fear for the world at large, but for herself and those close to her. If nothing else, this is what this tête-a-tête articulates to us: that Jon Snow and Daenerys, whatever their flaws, are the good guys because they care for the whole of Westeros and not just those close to them. Dany’s encounter with the Night King transformed her thinking, even though it came at the cost of one of her children. Jon Snow has always been on the side of the masses. In the moment when she’s most obviously signaling her ostensible pregnancy to Tyrion, Cersei wonders whether or not Euron had the right idea about retreating to an island—and we wonder if, in that moment, she’s sincere.

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With that, we return to the Dragonpit, and the next installment in the Jon and Dany chronicles. Of the various complaints about this season, and the final few episodes in particular, those not preoccupied with geography (guilty) have fixated on the fact that we don’t really get a better development of the romance between these two. The most critical have charged that there’s NO chemistry between these two WHATSOEVER, but I disagree with that—I think there’s definite chemistry between Dany and Jon, it just needed more cultivation. And perhaps a little more subtlety in the writing? I mean, it seems that every time the two of them talked, Daenerys saw fit to remind him that she couldn’t have children … which can be read as (1) Dany already thinking about getting it on, (2) offering a caveat in advance of a possible dynastic marriage, or (3) basically letting him know that, hey, birth control? not an issue! That being said, the final seconds of this scene were redolent with desire—it was totally a moment in which the two would-be lovers really wanted to kiss, not least because Jon Snow (who might know something after all) has, to coin an expression, the audacity of hope. When Dany tells him that she learned of her barrenness from “the witch who murdered my husband,” Jon asks, “Has it occurred to you that she might not have been a reliable source of information?” Really, what’s remarkable here is that after all these years it’s JON FUCKING SNOW who points out this rather obvious flaw in Daenerys’ reasoning.

Cue Tyrion’s return, in advance of Cersei and her entourage. “My armies will not stand down,” she informs them all. “Nor will I pull them back to the capital. I will march them north to fight alongside you in the great war.” Awesome! Nothing could possibly go wrong now, right?

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Well, as if to distract us from the UTTER CERTAINTY of Cersei’s insincerity, we cut to Sansa’s conversation with Littlefinger, and a further suggestion that Sansa means to do Arya harm. In order to emphasize this, we open on her tapping a scroll on the table—news that Jon had chosen to bend the knee to Daenerys, which is bad enough, but also reminding us of the incriminating scroll Littlefinger had left in his mattress for Arya to find. But it is Jon’s choice to submit to Daenerys that is the first item of business, with Sansa (rather understandably) irked and a bit incredulous that he would do such a thing. Littlefinger of course wants to make it sordid: citing the rumour that Daenerys is beautiful, he says “Jon is young and unmarried; Daenerys is young and unmarried.” An alliance, he says, makes sense—together they’d be difficult to defeat, but though he was named King in the North, “he can be un-named.”

And here’s the point at which, in hindsight, we wonder how much Sansa and Arya have already started plotting? Is this entire scene a means of drawing Littlefinger out, or is this where Sansa has her epiphany thanks to Littlefinger’s “game” of imagining worst intentions? Is it after this scene that Sansa goes to Arya and says, “Hey, I know we’ve been bitching at each other, but where did you get that scroll?”, or is she now just knowingly giving him enough rope to hang himself? I guess we can’t ever know that, but it’s still a pretty decent scene, especially considering it’s Mayor Carcetti’s swan song. Of all the characters on this series, he’s had a good run—of those who we met in season one, he’s one of the few who has made it this far.

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He leads Sansa through all of the worst possible scenarios, all of the worst possible reasons Arya has acted as she has—leading her, ultimately, to the conclusion that she wants to be the Lady of Winterfell.

If I’d really been thinking, this is where I’d have gotten off the Sansa-vs-Arya train and realized (for certain) that Littlefinger’s number was up. Not because I considered it unlikely that Arya might be murderous, but because of a flaw in Littlefinger’s logic, one based in his own desires—he assumes that everyone else has ambitions comparable to his own, that everyone else wants power and status. Or else that everyone else can be convinced that ostensible rivals are driven by a desire for power or status. But however creepy Sansa’s encounter with Arya and her bag of faces was, one thing that emerged from that (and from every encounter they’ve had since Arya’s return) is that Arya has no desire to be the “Lady”—that she has spent her life charting a different course.

I’d like to think this was the moment that a part of Sansa’s brain called bullshit. But I guess we’ll never know.

From there we cut to Daenerys’ war room, and whether or not it’s in Dany’s best interests to fly or sail. What did you think of Daenerys’ declaration that “We’ll sail together,” Nikki? Was she already thinking of that sumptuous stateroom she has on her ship?

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Nikki: It’s possible she was thinking of that stateroom, but more importantly, she chose a side. Like you, as our readers know, I was late to the “Dany ♥ Jonny” party because I really just wanted to see it as a political match-up. (And, you know, that whole auntie thing.) And I’d like to think that Daenerys here is ruled by her head and not her heart and was making a solid political move in saying she’ll sail and going against the advice of Jorah, much to Jorah’s chagrin (and he obviously can see the attraction between the two). But then again, so what if she is ruled by her heart? It would only show us that she’s human. She’s been involved in so many political moves for someone so young, and the only person who’s ever truly had her heart — Khal Drogo — was a union she was forced into, one that began with rape. So hey, why not have her fall for the cute, dumb jock?

Mr. November leaves the war room and is crossing the throne room when Theon stops him, and we have the only private discussion between these two former sort-of brothers of Winterfell. Neither one was legitimately a Stark brother, both of them had lived on the periphery, although Jon had more stake than Theon (remember way back in season one, when they found the direwolves, Jon got one but Theon didn’t). Theon tells Jon that he respected what he did back at the Dragon Pit, and unlike everyone else present, Theon wasn’t surprised by Jon’s actions, because they were in keeping with the honourable Jon Snow he grew up with. “Every step you take [every move you make] seems to be the right one,” he tells Jon. Jon plays it humble, saying he’s made many mistakes, and we know he has. “Not compared to me, you haven’t,” says Theon, and Jon immediately agrees.

Theon explains that when he was at Winterfell he was always torn between loyalties: he had been taken as Ned Stark’s ward away from the Iron Islands during the Greyjoy uprising against the Iron Throne, but even though Ned took him as a prize when Balon Greyjoy surrendered to Robert Baratheon, Ned has raised him with love, not as a slave. He’s eaten and slept and grown up alongside the Stark children, and became very close to Robb. And yet, he was torn. He was born a Greyjoy, and remained a Greyjoy. He had worshipped the Drowned God as a child and had a sister, Yara (his brothers were killed in the war). And yet, he was also a Stark, living at Winterfell, learning archery and sword-fighting among the other Starks. In this declaration we finally get to the central problem in Theon’s head: having grown up torn between two loyalties, it’s difficult for him to remain loyal to anyone. It’s why he so easily switched sides in the early seasons before Ramsay Bolton nabbed and tortured him. And he lives with the pain of knowing how his lack of loyalty ended up hurting both the Starks and the Greyjoys. Jon listens to him, and you can see his loathing dissipate for Theon as he does, because he knows how it feels — Jon was accepted as a Stark by Ned, but was always treated like an outsider by Catelyn because Jon represented her husband’s infidelity. (What I would give to bring Catelyn back to life for one minute just to tell her that Ned had never been unfaithful to her.)

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Game of Thrones is a story of outsiders. Tyrion is the imp who didn’t belong in the Lannister clan. Jon Snow is the bastard who was never fully welcomed at Winterfell. Theon Greyjoy was a boy torn between two Houses. Ramsay Bolton lost his mind as the bastard son of Roose Bolton. Brienne of Tarth was so large she could never be trussed up like a lady, but because she was still a woman she could never be fully treated like a male soldier. The Hound’s own brother pushed his face into the fire, scarring him for life and making him an outcast. Samwell Tarly didn’t have the desire or ability to be the military leader of House Tarly like his father wanted him to be, so he was shipped off to the Wall. Ser Jorah was exiled from House Mormont after he had participated in the slave trade, which shamed his family. Gendry was one of the many bastard children of Robert Baratheon, but he lives in fear of Cersei finding him and killing him so he can’t lay claim to the throne. The list goes on and on. Even within the legitimate families, you have characters like Arya who don’t fit, or Tommen, who knows he’s a bastard but goes along with the whole “Baratheon” story.

Despite his sympathy, Jon acknowledges that Theon has been guilty of many crimes. “I can’t forgive you for all of it, but what I can forgive, I do,” he says. And then he finally looks right at Theon and adds, “You don’t need to choose. You’re a Greyjoy, and you’re a Stark.” This is such an important line: all of the people I’ve just named above have been treated as outcasts, but they are part of something. Tyrion is still a legitimate Lannister. Theon a legitimate Greyjoy who could just as easily swear fealty to House Stark. Despite Ramsay’s bastardy, he took over as the head of House Bolton (well, you know, after he murdered his legit baby brother). Brienne is the most formidable swordsperson in the Seven Kingdoms (save, perhaps, Arya) and has been accepted into many folds. And similarly, Jon Snow is a Stark, even if he’s not a Stark by way of Eddard (something we know and he doesn’t). He’s been raised as one, he thinks more like Eddard than any other character on this show, and he remains loyal to his House.

Theon tells Jon that Yara actually tried to save him when no one else would, recalling the scene where she breaks in to save Theon, who cowered in the back of the cage and refused to go with her. “She needs me now,” he says. “So why’re you still talking to me?” asks Jon, and he leaves. I was a wee bit disappointed at the very ending of this conversation. Jon just told him he’s as much a Stark as he is a Greyjoy, and should be proud of that. And then when Theon hints that he could use some help in the next little bit to retrieve his sister before Euron departs with her, Jon says, “You’re on your own.”

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Theon heads down to the beach to try to conjure up help from the Iron soldiers since Jon didn’t offer any, but the men will not be led by the man they perceive as Reek. They tell him they’re going to start over, find an island, kill all the men, and take their women (incidentally, this is actually part of the Drowned God philosophy and very much what the culture of the Iron Islands is based on). In the fight that ensues I actually thought Theon might die, but no matter how many times he knocks him down and screams at him to STAY DOWN, Theon conjures up his inner Rocky Balboa and stands up again. And then he gains the upper hand when the Greyjoy soldier kicks him in the crotch… and then does it again… and Theon just stands there grinning at him.

It reminded me of that scene in my favourite episode of King of the Hill, where Bobby Hill goes to the women’s self-defense classes and learns the best way to take down a bully is to kick him in the crotch while yelling, “That’s my purse! I don’t know you!” (What ensues is comedy GOLD.) And when his Mom starts to berate him at the end of the episode, he kicks her squarely in the crotch… and she doesn’t go down.

Where Peggy Hill does not kill her 10-year-old son on the front lawn at that point, Theon does move in for the kill and takes out the soldier with his bare hands, which is a pretty awesome display of ferocity, and then he moves to go get his sister.

I’ll admit the lack of the actual Yara rescue scene was a little disappointing to me in this episode — I felt like that’s something that could have been resolved now so we don’t have to wait until season eight, but whatever. That said, time is of the essence at this point, and I wouldn’t want that scene to be rushed, despite the whole Greyjoy saga being rather peripheral at this point.

And from here we move to the scene with Arya and Sansa. Remember last week when you said that for the first time in the series you truly hated Arya, and then I spent about 3,000 words explaining to everyone exactly where the sisters were in season one and how if we look at it entirely from Arya’s point of view, it actually stands to reason that she would hate her sister, although the only part I thought felt suspicious is when she said Sansa has nothing to worry about if she’s innocent, when Arya’s experience would tell her that’s not true at all?

Well… this week all I have to say is:

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Anyway. I still think it was well done and fitting that Arya should go after Sansa, and I swear not 10 minutes after we posted our blog last week, the fan theory that Arya and Sansa were actually playing Littlefinger blew up all over my FB newsfeed. But my first response, as I posted on my FB wall, was, if someone is actually being played, I believe Arya’s doing it and Sansa’s not in on it. And therefore my explanation still stands because I believe Arya was playing everyone knowing that Littlefinger was watching and Sansa — thinking that her sister really was about to kill her — would be able to pull him into a trap, but at the same time, she was releasing some of the hostility and pent-up feelings she’s had towards her sister for many years. It’s a perfect way to get off her chest what she really thinks of Sansa, while at the same time going, “Well THAT was a fun pantomime of which I didn’t mean a single word, eh sis??”

What’s come out in the last few days — I’m not sure if you saw it or not, Chris — is that there was a deleted scene where Sansa actually went to Bran and asked if Mr. I Can See Across Time could look at Arya for her and tell her if she’s actually planning to kill her. They took out this scene for time reasons, but it goes a LONG way to explaining that no, Sansa wasn’t actually in on it, but in this moment she finally realized Arya’s stunning endgame, and that it would help the two of them put an end to Lord Baelish once and for all. It’s too bad they took it out, because without that scene, it leaves the [non]-trail a little too jarring, and for a show that shows us SO much exposition with every character, putting the audience into their heads, it rarely falls to such trickery.

That said, Arya’s dagger slice was pretty awesome to watch.

Though, oddly, I’ll admit, I think the show loses a little something without Lord Baelish in it. Not only does he keep everyone on their toes — and he’s actually put that delightful Lucky Charms Leprechaun lilt back into his voice in recent episodes — but he’s actually a rather sympathetic character in the books, I felt, simply because the books provide the flashback to his childhood where you see what a sweet person he was, always hanging back beside Catelyn trying to impress her, while Eddard was a bit of a buffoon to him.

What did you think of the quick death of Lord Baelish, Chris? Were you at all sad to see him go, at least from the show’s narrative point of view?

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Christopher: Before I get to that, I want to dispute your characterization of Jon Snow as a not-too-bright jock. I’d say rather that he’s the not-too-bright emo guy who writes really bad poetry, but whom everyone likes anyway because he’s a genuinely nice guy. I mean, as long as we’re slotting everyone into Breakfast Club-style designations. He’s really kind of a combination of Ally Sheedy and Anthony Michael Hall.

But anyway … I’m at once delighted that Littlefinger got his comeuppance in such dramatic fashion (“as justice goes, it’s not unpoetic”), and also sad to see him go—both from a narrative perspective, but also because I just love watching Aiden Gillen do his thing so much. He’s such a good actor. The first thing I ever saw him in was the British Queer as Folk, in which he played Stuart—the sexpot character in the small group of friends on which the show focused. He was kind of an asshole on that show too, but so very compelling. It’s a testament to his acting that when the American adaptation was made, they cast an actor (Gale Harold) in the Gillen role so good-looking that he might possibly have Greek god lineage. Gillen is himself quite an attractive man, but he acted his sex appeal—there are moments in the British Queer as Folk in which be basically exudes sex. (Fun fact for anyone who likes to play television series master-universe crossover: the teenager Stuart deflowers in the first episode of Queer as Folk, Nathan, is played by Charlie Hunnam. So for those keeping score, Jax Teller of Sons of Anarchy had his cherry popped by Lord Petyr Baelish).

From there, Gillen went on to play idealistic councilman Tommy Carcetti on The Wire, whose election to the role of mayor starts with him having all the best intentions, but soon he become compromised by his own ambition and ego. When he was cast as Littlefinger, I joked (after I’d done my Dance of Joy for such brilliant casting) that this was perfect because Littlefinger was basically Carcetti ten years on, having lost whatever idealism he’d had at the start. I’ll miss him for all of those reasons, and for the fact that he’s always just a value-added character in any scene he graces (his occasional lapses into Irish Batman notwithstanding).

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“Wait. What?”

 

But alas, Littlefinger is gone—and we cut from his death to the shadowed outline of Cersei from behind and she walks to where Jaime is briefing his generals (just as an aside—is it just me, or have they been using this shot, i.e. the medium close-up from behind featuring a character’s head and shoulders, as they walk to whatever significant meeting they have, an awful lot this season? It could very well serve as the cover for the DVD collection). Jaime is, unsurprisingly, doing what he does best—leading the Lannister armies. He bites out a series of orders crisply and clearly, and the impression we get is one of extreme competence. He’s in his element here. So of course it’s up to Cersei to disabuse him of his assumptions.

Dismissing his generals, she marvels at his stupidity—did he really imagine they were joining up with Jon Snow and Daenerys? To be fair, Jaime isn’t the most subtle of thinkers—much to Tywin’s dismay, his heir was, as Cersei observes, always far more interested in hunting and fighting. Tyrion was the true thinker, though Cersei now seems to have adopted the role of the key Lannister intellect now that the Imp has gone over to the enemy.

It’s worth pausing a moment to note once again the way in which different characters have evolved over the seven seasons of this show. Jaime Lannister when we first met him was brash, arrogant, and amoral—something encapsulated in how he pushes Bran out the window at the end of the pilot episode, obviously not wanting to do so, but also more or less indifferent to the fact that he’s killing a child. (Interesting thought—one assumes some time next season he’ll meet Bran; will the new Three Eyed Raven bear a grudge?). Since then, he’s been captured by the enemy, imprisoned, released, re-captured and de-phalanged, returned home, lost his son, watched his brother convicted for a crime he didn’t commit, helped his brother escape, lost his father to that brother’s vengeance, lost his daughter, and lost his other son.

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“But … but … I’ve only JUST NOW developed this sense of morality!”

So, y’know, he’s been through a lot. And apparently for Jaime Lannister, that puts him in touch with his inner Ned Stark: he’s appalled at Cersei’s plot, mostly because he’s given his word, and her betrayal means he must betray his own honour. The amorality of Season One Jaime is nowhere to be seen; instead, we have an older, wiser (but apparently still unsubtle) Kingslayer for whom words actually mean something. Not so much his sister: “I’ll say whatever I need to say to ensure the survival of our house,” she tells him, but Jaime has shifted into a new paradigm. “This isn’t about noble houses,” he rages, “this is about the living and the dead.” He gets it—he’s had his Saul-on-the-road-to-Taursus moment, or what I suppose in Westeros we now have to call his Jon Snow moment. The stakes are clear to him. He made a promise … but Cersei only concerned about survival. Her survival, and that of her family. All of the scenarios she outlines for him—the dead win, they come south; the living win, they come south—she frames not perhaps as win-win, but certainly that their would-be allies have about the same designs on them as the wight they’d seen that morning. That is to say: there is no eventuality in which the Lannisters are not ultimately on the chopping block.

One can almost admire her cold calculus: if one’s only concern is oneself and those closest to you, it makes total sense not to risk anything when your enemies will destroy each other. The one variable Cersei doesn’t seem to have considered, however, is that if the Night King wins, he comes south THAT MUCH MORE POWERFUL. If Jon and Dany prevail … well, they’ll almost certainly be very depleted, to the point where Cersei’s armies have a fighting chance. That’s an awfully big risk to take, but Cersei doesn’t seem to have figured that out. Jaime, by contrast, has—and despite his prospective fatherhood, Cersei’s maybe-baby is not a poker chip one wants to play in this imminent war.

Especially not when one considers the fact that his relatively newfound honour puts him at odds with the woman he’s loved literally all his life. Seeing the wight pushed Jaime past a certain point, but Cersei’s own recognition that “The monsters are real” doesn’t change her calculus, for a reason that was made explicit to Jaime by the Queen of Thorns: though Cersei goes on to name all the figures of myth and legend from White Walkers to Dothraki Screamers, the fact becomes unavoidable to Jaime is that the true monster is the woman he loves.

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What I love about this scene is that it really is a paradigm shift for Jaime, and it makes clear the fact that they’re no longer speaking the same language. In an effort to convince her, he falls back on the logic of armed force and his memory of being routed by the Dothraki and a dragon—there is no way to defeat them, he reminds her. But say what you will of Cersei, she is nothing if not observant, having noticed that Dany brought only two dragons to the summit. When Jaime lamely suggests that the third might be guarding her fleet, she deals him a withering look. No, she says: Daenerys brought her full force so as best to intimidate them. That should have included all three dragons; the absence of one means that they’re vulnerable.

(Which is of course a moment of dramatic irony for all of us: knowing as we do that Viserion was brought down by the very threat to which Cersei is indifferent, and that he’ll be a weapon deployed against the living , is something she cannot know. And we, the audience, only come to appreciate the magnitude of that threat in the final moments of the episode).

And then we come to grasp the full extent of Cersei’s plotting in her revelations about the Iron Bank and Euron’s deception. I must admit, I had a grudging admiration for Cersei in this moment—genuinely thinking a few steps ahead. One wonders what excuse Euron would have made to beat a hasty exit during the summit if the good guys hadn’t brought the wight? But he’s off, one way or another, gone to fetch twenty thousand swords to bolster the Lannister host. Though it is rather questionable just how loyal mercenaries from a different continent will prove when faced with the army of the dead. Not really something the Bronns of the world would be willing to face, no matter what the payday.

(Huh. Writing that makes me realize: Bronn went to have a drink with Pod at the start of the summit, and so wasn’t there for the release of the wight, was he? Clever work, GoT writers! Because I have to imagine that, on seeing that thing, he wouldn’t be quite so keen to have a castle in continental Westeros—probably would have pledged his sword to Euron at that point).

What follows then is a brief but heated argument over betrayal and treason. Jaime is irked that Cersei plotted with Euron behind his back; but Cersei—not unreasonably—is still angry at Jaime for treating with Tyrion and, by extension, with Daenerys. She’s not wrong in calling that betrayal; whether it’s treason is a matter for the lawyers, but what becomes obvious in this moment is that Jaime has started thinking globally (as it were). He has a bigger picture in mind, even as he worries about the survival of House Lannister. In the end, however, he is resolute in hewing to his promises—as I said above, he finds his inner Stark!—and basically breaks up with Cersei here.

Let me repeat that in all caps. HE BREAKS UP WITH CERSEI.

Though not without concern for his life: the Mountain, once again, offers the threat of death. Twice in this episode has Cersei been challenged by one of her brothers to order the Mountain to kill them, and twice she blinked. And while Tyrion emitted explosive gasps of relief when he wasn’t summarily cut down, I suspect Jaime didn’t care much one way or another—he was deserting his sister, the woman he’s illicitly loved all his life, and if Ser Gregor had actually put up a fight, he might well have welcomed death.

Instead, he’s on the road … alone. I suppose it was naïve of me to think he might have taken some of the Lannister army with him. But no—he’s alone, and as he pulls a glove over his golden hand, a snowflake falls on it.

(I suppose it’s only appropriate that, given how long this show has been saying “winter is coming,” when winter comes, it takes an awfully long time to do so).

What follows is a rather beautiful and poignant sequence in which we see snow and night falling—over the desiccated jawbones of dwarf dragons, over the Dragonpit itself, and over the rooftops of King’s Landing. (I’m having a James Joyce moment here: “the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead”).

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Jaime-snow

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The falling snow provides an elegant segue back to Winterfell, where Samwell Tarly has arrived! And for once I won’t complain about the brevity of the journey, which really should have taken all of next season. What did you think of Sam’s reunion with Bran, Nikki, and Bran’s, um, exposition?

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Nikki: First, I think “maybe-baby” is my new phrase, so thank you for that! And also, while I’m with you that I would have loved to have seen Podrick and Bronn have that break for the beer, and that not letting Bronn see the wight means he’ll actually stick around, there was actually a more pragmatic reason that Bronn splits at the very beginning of the scene. Turns out Jerome Flynn and Lena Headey were very much an item, but the relationship ended so badly that when he was cast as Bronn on the show, both actors had it included in their contracts that they would never, ever appear in a scene together. So the writers had to come up with a way to have Bronn lead the group to the Dragon Pit and then immediately leave — and sure enough, if you watch, he’s never actually in the same shot, which means the moment of him putting a hand on Pod’s shoulder and saying “Let’s go grab a drink” was probably filmed separately with just the two of them.

Ah… love.

But anyway, back to the scene with Sam and Bran. First of all, I loved loved LOVED this scene, and not for the reason that everyone else probably did (although that moment was AMAZING) but because we actually caught a glimpse of the old Samwell Tarly. Eager to please, hilarious, stuttering… not the world-weary Sam we’ve seen at the Citadel. He comes into Bran’s room and finds the Bran we’ve been dealing with all season staring at the fire, and he asks him, “What happened to you north of the Wall?” Bran replies cryptically, “I became the three-eyed raven.” Sam stands for a moment in stunned silence and says the way one would to a child who just showed you a special picture they’d drawn, “Oh!” Pause. “I don’t know what that means.”

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And then my favourite bit of dialogue of the episode (for its irony): “I can see things happening in the past… I can see things happening now, all over the world. Why did you come to Winterfell?” I actually laughed out loud at this scene. “I CAN SEE ALL. So… um… why are you here because obviously I didn’t see that.” Sam says he knows Jon is going to fight the White Walkers, and he’s here to help. This makes me SO happy. While I’ve enjoyed the glimpse of the Citadel this season, having Sam back in the fold will be so fantastic next season.

And then Bran gives the big reveal to Sam, the one we already knew but was so much fun to finally hear spoken aloud: Jon Snow is the son of Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark, and his last name is Sand. At that point Sam goes wide-eyed and excitedly explains that NO, his last name is NOT Sand, it’s Targaryen! He tells Bran that he translated a book for the High Septon and discovered an interesting bit of information in there (wrong: you were translating another book for the High Septon and GILLY found the bit of information and you then took that book from her and handed it to little Sam to shut her up but sure, we’ll let you take the credit, because we love you) and then we flash back to the actual wedding ceremony of Lyanna Stark and OH MY GOD IS THAT VISERYS oh thank god no it isn’t but lord, were they twins or something?? And that’s when all of history shifts for Bran. “Robert’s Rebellion was built on a lie,” he says. Robert Baratheon invaded King’s Landing in order to get his beloved Lyanna Stark back from the horrible Rhaegar Targaryen, whom he believed had kidnapped and raped her, but Lyanna died in childbirth, Aegon was killed by Jaime, and this whole “who has the right to sit on the Iron Throne” battle all started there and has spiralled downward when the original thesis was entirely wrong.

D’oh.

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“Rhaegar didn’t kidnap my aunt and rape her…” Bran says as the scene cuts to Jon Snow knocking on Daenerys’s door (no no no)… “He loved her,” he continues as the door closes with him inside the room (no no no please make it stop no), “And she loved him,” and we all throw up in our mouths a little as we see Jon Snow — sorry… AEGON TARGARYEN… as he makes love to his aunt and shows her that maybe she thought she was barren, but his powerful Starkaryen sperm has other ideas.

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They did that to us on purpose, you know. They made that scene oogie and awful and it could have been really great but it was like watching Princess Leia and Luke Skywalker get it on AFTER we knew the truth.

And yet still… god I loved how they intertwined the two stories, because it was like it was daring us. The showrunners were saying, “oh come ON, you want to look away but you are loving this. Totally loving this.” I hate them all. And I love them so freakin’ much for filming it that way.

As we see the two of them making love — while Tyrion glowers in the hallway — we hear Bran say in his clipped Hemingway-like prose, “He’s never been a bastard. He’s the heir to the Iron Throne. He needs to know. We need to tell him.” These four sentences become the key to the entire series.

And what of Tyrion standing in that hallway? Some have suggested that perhaps he’s jealous of Jon Snow, and has been secretly in love with Daenerys this whole time. That’s possible, although we’ve never seen any sign of that whatsoever, and Tyrion is usually pretty open when he likes a woman romantically. I think instead he’s seeing possible disaster ahead. Jon Snow is now romantically linked with Dany, and that could cloud his judgment — and hers — when they’re trying to line up battle plans. Think about it: the last time a Stark and Targaryen got together, the world rained blood for a generation and is still doing so. Tyrion knows his Westerosi history, and this kind of pairing NEVER turns out well for anyone.

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From here we have a quick and quiet little scene with the two Stark sisters as we once again remember Ned Stark and the impact he’s had on the whole show. Has there ever been another series that has gone on for eight years where a character who died in season one had such a long-standing impact on the rest of the show? Here’s my one and only wish for season eight: that Sean Bean returns for just ONE scene, whether it’s in flashback or as some Mufasa-type of thing talking to Bran from the clouds (I would totally buy that), I just would give anything to actually see Ned Stark one more time in the form we originally saw him.

Here his two daughters remember their father, and Sansa tells Arya that she is the strongest person she knows, and Arya smiles and says that’s the nicest thing her sister has ever said to her. Though Sansa adds that she still finds Arya annoying, which is really funny. And then Arya says, “I miss him.” “Me too,” says Sansa.

Tears.

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And then it’s off to the inevitable end of the season, which has to happen north of the Wall. This has been a White Walker–free episode, with the exception of the wight, and has instead focused on the politics and romantic entanglements, which I much prefer, but back at the wall, Tormund and Beric spot the White Walkers approaching much quicker than they thought they would. But just as they’re probably thinking, “We’ll send a FedEx raven and surely Jon and Daenerys can get from Dragonstone to the Wall in 20 minutes on season seven time…” Tormund’s eyes widen as he sees Viserion fly in, with the Night King on its back.

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I don’t know about you, Chris, but while this scene was truly awesome, it was also so sad for me to watch. Viserion’s wings had holes in them, and he’s clearly rotting. The Night King just doesn’t… belong on his back (especially considering Daenerys only rode Drogon and not the other two). As the men on the Eastwatch section of the Wall race down the rickety stairs in a vain attempt to reach the bottom, Viserion just blasts away at the Wall with his new butane flame breath as the rest of the Army of the Dead just stand and watch. And as the last of the Wall crumbles — seconds after we see Tormund and Beric still standing on it — the White Walkers advance south of the Wall and make their way into Winterfell.

 

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Is Tormund dead? Will he never get to make those giant babies with Brienne? Has Beric finally found his final resting place without Thoros of Myr to bring him back to life? How long before the dead reach Winterfell?

ALL QUESTIONS FOR NEXT SEASON, MY CHILDREN!

But first, I just want to address one fan theory that’s been circulating the past couple of days: that Bran is actually the Night King. We see him warg right before the dead march on Eastwatch, and even though it cuts to the ravens to show how he’s watching this happening, some fans have noticed that the dead seem to form what appears to be the Stark sigil as they enter the north:

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This has fans in a tizzy, and instead of seeing this as a cool Easter egg showing that the first House that will hit will be Winterfell, someone on Reddit has jumped from point A to point M and seems to think this means Bran is the Night King himself, and that the Night King was the good guy all along.

Erm. Okay. Maybe I’ll be wrong a year or so from now, but I’m going to lean to no on that one. Remember, just a couple of episodes Bran was warging into a raven and saw the Night King and nearly fell out of his wheelchair when he was spotted by him. And it was made very clear that he can warg into living things, and the Night King isn’t exactly living.

But who knows. This show has made greater leaps. In my opinion, this isn’t going to be one of them. We have bigger things to worry about with only six episodes left.

And whether those episodes are going to be 90-120 minutes long, as some rumours are suggesting, or whether the season won’t actually begin until 2019, as some other sources are saying, only time will tell.

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Well, we’ve officially topped our longest post with this one. I want to extend another huge thanks to the brilliant Christopher Lockett, without whom I simply couldn’t do these. Thank you for joining me once again, and thank you to everyone who actually manages to read these to the end! (My own husband rolls his eyes and says NO ONE reads anything this long on the internet.) We will see you back here for season eight, and until then, stay warm and beware of… actually, pretty much everyone.

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