Game of Thrones, Episode 8.01: Winterfell

Valar dohaeris, my friends, and welcome back after an excruciatingly long wait since we closed out season seven of Game of Thrones. Nikki Stafford and myself have spent the intervening months rebuilding fortifications, hoarding food and resources, forging weapons, and otherwise preparing ourselves for the day when we would again sally forth into the punishing battlegrounds of blog reviews of everyone’s favourite prestige fantasy TV.

And today is that day! Though it is a bittersweet day, as this is the first of the final six posts Nikki and I will be doing on Game of Thrones. This all started eight years ago when she emailed me, saying she’d heard good things about this new HBO show, and she remembered that I’d read all the books so far. She hadn’t, and suggested perhaps we could blog about it episode by episode, with me bringing the perspective of a GRRM devotee, and her coming at it with no knowledge of the books.

How innocent we were then. Since then, GRRM has produced all of one new book in the series, Nikki has herself read A Game of Thrones and A Clash of Kings, but the series has long since left behind its original author’s creations and ventured forth into new territory.

And now we’re almost at the end. Valar morghulis, indeed.

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Christopher: Before we get to the story proper, we need to talk about those opening credits! Same basic idea as we’ve seen for seven seasons, but startlingly different. For one thing, in case we didn’t remember that last season ended with snow falling all over Westeros, these rebooted credits let us know that winter is here, unfolding initially in stark (heh) black and white … and even when colour seeps back into the picture as we move farther south, the palette remains muted and the sky lowers darkly overhead.

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Also, the usual trajectory is reversed: for seven seasons we always began at King’s Landing, the seat of power, and then the gods’-eye view roved over all the locations that would appear in the episode. We ended last season with Jon Snow telling Cersei that thrones and crowns don’t matter in the great war between the living and dead; the graphics department seemed to have been paying attention, and started us off not with King’s Landing but north of the Wall, with a bleak image of the breach wrought by the Dragon Formerly Known as Viserion. As we pass through the breach, squares of the ground flip over like game-board tiles, turning from white snow to blue ice. My guess is that this indicates the progress of the army of the dead, and subsequent episodes will show them getting closer to Winterfell.

The armillary sphere containing the sun has also changed, and not just in the silvery sheen it now sports. The heraldry engraved on its rotating bands is different. As with previous seasons, we get three different glimpses of different images; in previous seasons, the imagery depicted scenes allegorizing the (relatively) recent history of Westeros: most specifically, Robert’s Rebellion, as we see in sequence the Targaryen dragon juxtaposed with a phalanx of armoured men, a dragon being savaged by a Lannister lion and Baratheon stag, and finally the stage triumphant. Now we have what looks like ice-Viserion laying waste to the Wall; a stylized Red Wedding, with a St. Sebastian-esque body inside a castle stabbed through with many blades and a figure holding up a decapitated direwolf head while a lion looks on; and finally, numerous dragons following what looks like a shooting star.

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In the interests of seeing how much I can glean from the credits on my own, as of writing this I haven’t yet looked on the interwebs to see what the fan readings are … but it strikes me that the final image is the most suggestive, as it hearkens back to the beginning of season two and the red comet that streaked across the sky—an omen that was variously interpreted by different characters, but accurately by only one. Osha the wildling tells Bran that it can mean only one thing: “Dragons.” And of course we know as much, having ended season one with Daenerys emerging from the fire with her three “children.” But in the image, there are four dragons. Assuming that ice-Viserion will have to get his quietus if the good guys are to win—and that he might well take one of the other two dragons with him—does this mean we can look forward to the birth of more dragons this season? In Fire and Blood, his history of the Targaryens, GRRM writes that there was a rumour that one of the former Targaryen dragons left a clutch of eggs un the crypts underneath Winterfell … might this rumour prove true?

Certainly, both the teaser and the official trailer for season eight placed heavy emphasis on the crypts; that might just have been for atmosphere, but we go somewhere we’ve never been in the pervious iterations of the opening credits—inside the clockwork buildings. When we enter both Winterfell and King’s Landing, an emphasis is initially placed on the gates as the snap into place while we pass though, a suggestion, perhaps, of the importance of these two strongholds in the wars to come. But we also pass into the bowels of each castle: into the crypts of Winterfell, and into the lower levels of the Red Keep where the skulls of long-dead Targaryen dragons gather dust. If we recall, those skulls once adorned the walls of the throne room, but Robert Baratheon banished them to the castle’s nether regions in an attempt to similarly banish memories of the Targaryens. There’s an interesting and suggestion thematic resonance here: if the Winterfell crypts do in fact contain dragon eggs, they ironically represent a space of rebirth; whereas the underlevels of King’s Landing contain only vestiges and the shadows of old power, which is possibly why the city is no longer the starting point for the credits’ tour of Westeros, but its end. Let’s remember that haunting image from Daenerys’ vision of a ruined throne room open to a snowy sky.

What did you think, Nikki?

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Nikki: I’m sure the fans are weighing in already as I type this first thing Monday morning, and I have no doubt the episode will have its detractors, but I thought it was an amazing return to Westeros. If you take your mind back to the very first episode of the series, we opened in Winterfell, with all of the Stark children there and Ned preparing for the arrival of King Robert Baratheon and his family, the Lannisters. This episode, which feels like 20 years later, finally finally FINALLY reunites all the living Starks, brings another royal to Winterfell, pays homage to Aladdin and How to Train Your Dragon in a single scene (ha), reveals the biggest secret of the series to the person it means most to (and yay for a beloved character being the one to deliver that news!), has a truly terrifying scene that would make horror fans stand up and cheer, and ultimately brings together two “old friends” for a final zinger of a moment. And that’s just skimming the surface.

That opening credit sequence was exquisite, but two and a half minutes later, we’re at Winterfell. And so is everyone else, by the looks of it.

The writers know that of all the characters on this show, there’s one whose death would probably cause mass mutiny, and that’s Arya. And so she’s the first familiar face the camera zooms in on, as she stands there excited to see the troops arriving, and anticipating the faces of who will pass her by. It’s a moment that could be easily mistaken for fan service—of all the people, let’s show Arya because the fans love her. But there’s so much more going on in this scene. As with much of last season, I believe season 8 will be the one where we keep going back in our minds to where they all began. Arya was the little girl at Winterfell who didn’t want to be like the other girls, who wanted to wield a sword and learn to fight, just like her brothers. They adored her, and Jon gave her Needle, the sword that has been at her side for most of the series. When she left at the end of season 1, she was on her own, wandering the countryside, kidnapped, trapped, fighting, killing, being a Girl with No Name… she’s done it all. And now she’s back where she started, having her This is Your Life moment of people going by: Jon Snow, her beloved brother; the Hound, the caustic SOB with whom she travelled much of the countryside and whose begrudging trust she earned every step of the way; Gendry, the boy who thought she was a boy for the longest time, who had been taken by the same people who were taking her away from Winterfell—he didn’t know she was the daughter of Ned Stark, and she didn’t know he was the son of Robert Baratheon. And now she watches them all parade past her, not one of them noticing her standing there, because they’d be watching the crowds for a little girl, and that girl is long gone. (Although we do see a glimpse of her for one brief moment when her face lights up with joy as the dragons swoop over the crowds for the first time.)

Jon Snow and Daenerys are in the middle of the massive number of Unsullied soldiers and Dothraki riders who march into Winterfell (and even before Sansa commented on it, all I could think was, where the heck are these guys going to sleep? What are they going to eat?) as a White Queen (in a fabulous outfit) and a Black Knight, two chess pieces on horses marching by their crowds of admirers—chess pieces, I might add, who are dressed like they’re on opposite sides of the board. I sense some foreshadowing going on here.

And riding along with them, in a carriage, is Tyrion and Varys, with Varys complaining about the cold of Winterfell and Tyrion mocking him as he always does: “At least your balls don’t freeze off,” he sneers. Varys asks him point blank why he takes great offense at dwarf jokes but likes telling eunuch jokes, and Tyrion says, quite plainly, “Because I have balls and you don’t.” Touché. I do love how these rivals have become as close as they have, but it’s mostly because they’re probably the two most cunning and conniving men in Westeros, and they both realize the old adage of keeping your enemies closest.

 

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And then the queen and her knight arrive in the courtyard of Winterfell, a courtyard that once had horses and sheep and little boys fighting with wooden swords and blacksmiths… and now has soldiers and hardened faces preparing for a war they don’t expect to win. Sitting in the middle of that courtyard is Bran, who should have been dead a long time ago, who was reported dead a long time ago, who is stoic, unsmiling, unmoving, and a warg. And the look on Jon Snow’s face when he sees him is worth the entire episode. Well, that and the resting bitch face that Sansa has perfected and gives to Daenerys moments later.

This opening scene is very grey, overcast, ominous, but also echoes and mirrors the same scene of Robert Baratheon entering King’s Landing in episode 1 of season 1. A much smaller army; a queen who didn’t want to be there; a jovial drunken king; an imp who had a much younger, clean-shaven face; a sneering heir to the throne; the Kingslayer staying close to his “queen”… the group arriving at Westeros was a very different one all those years ago, but they were coming to Winterfell for Robert to make one “simple” request of Ned Stark: to become the Hand of the King. And the moment Ned takes that job, everything falls apart. “Winter Is Coming” signalled the beginning of the great wars of Westeros; “Winterfell” is about the beginning of the end of those wars.

And then we move to meeting of the Houses at Winterfell, and of course one of my favourite characters taking a stand. What did you think of what happened when everyone was finally together in one room, Chris?

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Christopher: There was one little element that bugged me, which was that there was no acknowledgment among the northerners of Ser Jorah—who is, after all, a Mormont of Bear Island, and (I think) Lyanna’s uncle. He was once the Lord of Bear Island, until he sold slaves to raise funds to keep his young wife happy; but Ned Stark got wind and was going to have him arrested, but he fled, basically becoming persona non grata in the North. If we remember, that’s how he ended up in Essos (his young wife at that point having abandoned him), spying on Daenerys in exchange for the promise of a pardon from King Robert.

It’s been a long, long road since then … but wouldn’t his presence at Winterfell be looked at askance by the northerners? I find it difficult to believe that Lyanna wouldn’t have a sharp word or thirty to say on the matter.

Or perhaps she’s just too preoccupied with the fact that the man she helped make king threw his crown away mere months later and made the North subject to a silver-haired southerner. Certainly, her vitriol in the meeting is scathing.

Tyrion does a good job in mollifying everyone, lauding Jon Snow and citing everything he has done. It seems to be going well … until he says that the Lannister armies will soon be coming north. Peter Dinklage is great in this moment, losing whatever rhetorical momentum he has built as he realizes that news of the Lannisters’ imminent arrival likely won’t sit well with this crowd—what will all that war business and the Red Wedding and stuff.

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I’m with you, Nikki, in wondering about logistics, and it speaks well to Sansa’s maturity as a leader that she voices the question (however snarkily), though I worry that too much of this last season is going to dwell on the Sansa/Daenerys frenemy dynamic; we just got through the better part of a season’s worth of her suspicions about Arya, and her jealousy of Jon is obviously still a thing. At the same time, Daenerys’ response to her question of what do dragons eat, anyway? is pretty awesome: “Anything they want.” Even with just two dragons, having them pretty much remains the ultimate trump card.

Then we cut to the unloading of carts of dragonglass in the courtyard, as Tyrion and Sansa look on. Reunions of characters long separated was one of the highlights of the previous season, though not all of them are necessarily pleasant. It’s been easy to forget that Tyrion was forced to marry Sansa, and that her disappearance after Joffrey’s death at the Purple Wedding made things even more difficult for Tyrion—a fact she quite tactfully acknowledges. I quite loved this particular interaction. Sophie Turner and Peter Dinklage deliver a masterclass in understated acting, and Sansa once again displays her hard-won gravitas, light years beyond the callow girl we met in season one. “Many underestimated you,” Tyrion observes. “Most of them are dead now.” It is a wise observation, but it is notable that Sansa intuits something that escapes Tyrion—there will be no Lannister army coming north, because it is not in Cersei’s nature to do anything even remotely altruistic. When he responds affirmatively to Sansa’s question about whether he believed Cersei’s promise, she says, “I used to think you were the cleverest man alive.” And then exits.

Boom. I have a sneaking suspicion that Sansa might run out of mics to drop before we’re even halfway done this season.

Poor Tyrion. As he digests that little work of passive-aggressive poetry, he looks down into the courtyard to see Bran looking up at him with that thousand-yard stare that, I have to imagine, is really starting to freak the people of Winterfell the fuck out.

Sansa’s cruel burn finds an echo in the next reunion scene: when Jon Snow dismisses Sansa’s dislike of Daenerys by saying “Sansa thinks she’s smarter than everyone,” Arya rejoins, heartfelt, “She’s the smartest person I’ve ever met.” It’s a heart-clenchingly touching tribute, and one that—unfortunately—Jon Snow will almost certainly not heed. Indeed, he gets his back up a bit, asking why Arya’s defending her … saying it a little incredulously, as he remembers how Arya and Sansa used to be, when Arya loathed Sansa’s ladylike airs and idolized her bastard brother.

There is much in this episode that calls back to the very first one: the little boy running through the crowd to find a vantage point to watch the newcomers echoing Arya doing the same thing (and indeed, as you point out, Nikki, also doing it in this episode); the pageantry of a royal visit; Jaime coming full circle to be confronted by Bran; but really, the most poignant moment (to my mind) is Arya’s reunion with Jon—after their initial deadpan exchange, delight and love creases her face, and as she leaps into his embrace, she is, for just a moment, little Arya from episode one, season one. But much has happened, and it seems in this scene that while Jon feels his own experiences like a burden, he lacks the empathy to see it in others.

But the scene ends with a touching hug and Arya’s guileless, contented smile. And from there we go Cersei getting the news of the dead breaking through the Wall … and her response is not exactly what one might expect.

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Nikki: You’re right, the family reunions are so heavy in this episode I half expected someone to show up with a picnic table and a bucket of KFC, but I’m with you: the Jon Snow/Arya reunion slayed me. It’s probably the one I’ve been looking forward to the most, and it didn’t disappoint. (I also loved how they immediately began comparing sword sizes…)

Meanwhile, down in King’s Landing, Cersei has pretty much proven Sansa’s theory correct. As Qyburn tells her the Walkers have broken through the Wall, she says, “Good.” It’s so quick, and so unexpected, that my husband actually said, “Did she just say ‘Good’?!” Well of course she did. Despite the zombie demonstration that was laid before her in the previous season, we saw with the fallout between her and Jaime that she’s pretty much lost her mind at this point and doesn’t fear the White Walkers the way she should. She’s been so obsessed with Daenerys and her dragons that the moment she discovered Viserion had been killed—and was now a wight—she probably thought she and the White Walkers are on the same side.

We cut to good ol’ Euron, who, if you recall, kidnapped Yara and took out most of her crew, and Theon jumped in the water to save himself because he didn’t have the courage/ability in that moment to save her. But he regretted it, as we’ll soon see. As Euron reassures Yara that he hasn’t killed her yet, and won’t, because he really wants someone to talk to—read: someone to brag to about the royal copulation that will soon commence, as he’s just promised—just watch her face and the hatred that crosses it. I kept thinking, oh man, if she manages to get those shackles untied, buddy…

Euron’s thousand ships dock at King’s Landing, and Euron goes to see Cersei with Captain Strickland, whom he’s recruited from the Golden Company, who tells Cersei that he’s managed to bring her 2,000 horses. But Cersei, who’s become obsessed with watching the Dumbo trailer repeatedly on Pycelle’s YouTube account, asks where her elephants are. When he explains how difficult it would have been to transport elephants over water, Cersei’s face is unchanging, but in her head you can see her standing up and screaming, throwing all of her toys at the other toddlers, and stomping out of the Red Keep. Instead, she keeps all of that inside and just glares at him. Uncle Euron decides THIS is the moment to make a romantic move on the queen, and Cersei just stares him down: “You want a whore, buy one,” she says. “You want a queen, earn her.”

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And then, you know, she sleeps with him. And complains about her lack of elephants again.

Cersei’s actions continue from her unravelling in season 7. We remember in previous seasons her love of Jaime and those sympathetic moments of a mother falling to her knees over the losses of her children. But in season 7, Jaime was in King’s Landing with her, and they argued the entire time. He was terrified by the zombie demo and wanted her to join forces with the North. She wanted to leave them alone to destroy the North. He countered that there would be only two possible outcomes: one, the White Walkers destroy the north and then continue on to them, or two, the north somehow vanquishes the White Walkers and then marches on King’s Landing to destroy the family who refused to help them. Jaime talks to Tyrion behind her back, she talks to Euron behind his, and ultimately she sics the Mountain on Jaime, who manages to get away, telling her that he’s basically done with her.

Cersei has lost Robert, Joffrey, Myrcella, Tommen, and now Jaime. Everyone has turned their backs on her, and she’s becoming the female embodiment of Aerys Targaryen, the Mad King. Euron chides her about sleeping with the Kingslayer, wanting to know how he measured up to her brother in bed, and she doesn’t let this get to her the way she used to. Instead, she’s probably just mentally compiling a list of reasons she’ll have Euron flayed later. His final comment—“I’m going to put a prince in your belly”—is a rich moment, because Cersei already has a prince in her belly, and as long as she does, she believes she’s not alone in this.

In the middle of the Cersei/Euron scenes, we get a brief reintroduction to Bronn, who reminded me of Dracula and his three brides as he prepares to have a four-way (where the women are talking about Ed Sheeran’s character from last season, which made me giggle),, interrupted by Qyburn, a mood-killer if ever there was one. He delivers a message to Bronn: that Cersei needs him to hunt down Tyrion and Jaime, and kill them both. It’s a devastating moment where we realize just how far gone Cersei is. And that Bronn is really good at what he does, and will do whatever makes him the most money. And right now, Cersei’s got a lot of it. I liked Bronn in the beginning, and over the years he’s had some priceless zingers, but I wouldn’t shed any tears if something horrible happened to him at this point. Perhaps… he’ll be reunited with Brienne of Tarth.

And then it’s back to Theon and Yara, and another redemption of Reek.

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Christopher: Considering just how low Theon was brought, I suppose it makes sense that he gets multiple redemptions—and I guess he has only one last atonement, which is to stand with the Starks against the Night King.

When Yara thanked Theon for rescuing her with a headbutt, I wrote “different families, different customs” in my notes. Still, their final moment when she gives her blessing to him to go and fight at Winterfell was quite touching … albeit a little funny as well, as Yara realizes that the motto of the Iron Islands—“What is dead can never die”—doesn’t quite work as well when the enemy is literally a horde of dead people. “But kill the bastards anyway,” is as good an amendment to the traditional saw as any.

Then back to Winterfell and its ongoing preparations for battle—Unsullied encamped outside the walls, trebuchets being readied, long lines of soldiers and supplies tramping into the castle. Tyrion, Varys, and Davos watch as the most recent arrivals, the Karstarks, are greeted, and Davos attempts to make a point. He tells Tyrion that until just recently, the Karstarks were the Starks’ enemies. Jon Snow managed to bring them back into the fold and make peace. Tyrion’s boilerplate response—“And our Queen is grateful”—misses Davos’ point. Whatever the threat posed by the Night King, northerners are still not going to easily accept Daenerys. “The northmen are loyal to Jon Snow, not to her,” he says. “They don’t know her. The Free Folk don’t know her. I’ve been up her a while, and I’m telling you, they’re stubborn as goats. You want their loyalty? You’ll have to earn it.”

Given that the Night King isn’t that far off, one might argue that the common enemy will shortly obviate whatever distrust and resentments currently exist. But Davos is thinking ahead, seeing how the bases for further conflict might be avoided on the off chance that they survive the coming battle. “A proposal is what I’m proposing,” he says, as the three advisors look down from the wall to where Daenerys and Jon are obviously at ease with each other and happy in each other’s company. The attraction between them is obvious to most, and Davos is cannier than most … a dynastic marriage might be just the thing.

Of course, he doesn’t yet know what we do—that Jon is actually Aegon, and Daenerys is his aunt, a fact that may or may not be a spoiler as the show will necessarily pose the question: just how much incest is too much incest?

But that will have to wait until the next episode; for the moment Jaenerys get to enjoy each other’s company, and hey—how about a dragon ride? (Oh, and I laughed out loud when Daenerys understood “eighteen goats and eleven sheep” as “the dragons are barely eating.” Yikes. I feel hard done by every time I have to buy a new bag of kibble for my cats. Dragons are expensive pets). There seems to be a bit of fudging here, as the understanding has always been that only Targaryens can ride dragons. So it makes sense that Jon can (clumsily) ride Rhaegal, but not so much that Daenerys blithely invites him to climb aboard. Perhaps she assumes that the dragons are now comfortable with Jon? Or so taken with his depthless eyes that she forgets that piece of family lore?

Whatever the reason, she convinces him, and they replicate a scene that I assume happens in How to Train Your Dragon 3, and end up at the base of a picturesque frozen waterfall. Daenerys is struck by the beauty of the place, and says “We could stay a thousand years.” Which, in an episode full of callbacks, is a particularly poignant one, as it recalls what Ygritte said to Jon in the grotto several seasons ago.

Their make-out scene is hilariously awkward, and will resonate with anyone who has pets—that feeling many of us have experienced when an intimate moment is made weird upon realizing that the cat or dog is watching intently. (I have to guess that the dragons are both thinking “Ohhhhh … OK, so he is a Targaryen”).

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Cut then to the forge, where Gendry and the other smiths are hard at work transforming dragonglass into weapons. The Hound’s axe is an impressive piece of work, but he doesn’t seem overly grateful, offering insults rather than thanks. And then: yet another reunion as Arya appears, telling the Hound to leave Gendry alone. “You left me to die,” says the Hound. “First I robbed you,” she points out in reply, and it’s obvious Sandor doesn’t know whether to be angry or impressed. “You’re a cold little bitch, aren’t you?” he asks, then allows, “Guess that’s why you’re still alive.”

“Still alive” is becoming a recurrent theme, which, after seven seasons of players being swept from the board, is not perhaps surprising. The characters who have made it this far and made it through hells both literal and figurative have earned their right to be still standing; but it also raises the question of who’ll still be standing as the final credits roll in six weeks.

Arya’s reunion with Gendry is somewhat warmer, even a bit flirtatious. Are these two about to become a thing, I wonder? In the very first episode, Robert Baratheon proposed joining houses to Ned Stark; that of course didn’t happen, but even if it had, Joffrey was not an actual Baratheon. Gendry on the other hand is Robert’s bastard; will the union of Stark and Baratheon happen after all, after all this time?

Perhaps. But awkward flirtation aside, Arya has a task for Gendry, which seems to be some sort of double-pointed spear tipped with dragonglass. Considering that she already has Needle and a Valyrian steel dagger (as Gendry points out), one might suggest that she’s being a little greedy with about her weapons. On the other hand, I have to imagine there’s all sorts of havoc Arya could wreak among the undead with just such a thing.

And then we have, finally, a confrontation between Jon and Sansa. What did you think of their squabble, Nikki?

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Nikki: I just want to add that I couldn’t help but imagine Jon singing, “It’s a whole new wooooorld” while riding on the dragon (which, HONESTLY, how do either of them stay on the backs of the dragons as the dragon spines violently undulate up and down the whole time…) with Daenerys reaching out to him singing, “Don’t you dare close your eyes!” I’ve always loved the scenes of the dragons and Daenerys riding them, but something about this scene felt a little cheesy, I’m not sure why. Though I was amused by the fact that Jon Snow rides a dragon the way the Greatest American Hero flies.

(And I also wrote in my notes, Chris, when they landed, “OMG it’s like when the cat is sitting on the end of your bed at night…”)

And this is probably as good a spot as any to say that Bran is one creepy mofo in this episode, constantly sitting and staring at people when they least expect him to be there. As I said to someone on Facebook, his storyline has always been the only kind of boring one, and this season they’ve just propped him up like a broom in the corner to remind us he’s still there (staring creepily at everyone when we KNOW he’s constantly watching them even when they leave the courtyard) but we don’t really have to deal with him. I couldn’t help but wonder if, when Drogon was watching Daenerys and Jon kissing (EW)… could it have been Bran warging and watching them? (DOUBLE EW.)

But back to Sansa. I’m thinking in the past two years Sophie Turner has used her time off well, standing in front of various mirrors and perfecting that hooded-eyelid “I am judging you” face to freakin’ perfection. Her side-eye, her resting bitch face, and her full-on shade are at their peak this season. Sansa was such a twit in season 1, and she’s a full-on warrior goddess now. I absolutely adore her.

And as for the dispute between her and Jon, she’s basically bringing to the fore what he’s been too blind to see this entire episode, but which everyone else sees as plainly as the noses on their faces: he’s brought the enemy into their midst. The northerners are all dressed in blacks and greys; she’s dressed in white. They are all northerners who live in cold and snow; she was born of fire and brought fire-breathing beasts to their lands. The Targaryens are the family of the Mad King, the family of dragons, the family that has destroyed so many of theirs. There’s no way they’re going to just accept her with open arms now that she’s shown up with Jon Snow hanging off hers. And as we’ve seen both last season and this season, Dany’s major flaw is her undying obeisance to protocol. She started off as the mother figure, the saintly leader who wanted to care for her flock; now she’s dressed similarly to Cersei (just at the opposite end of the colour spectrum) and demands you bend at the knee or she’ll bring on the dragons. She refused to allow Jon to retain his King of the North mantle, and so he’s given it up to proclaim her the ruler of all the Seven Kingdoms. And the northern folk are PISSED. Lyanna Mormont has voiced her concerns, and Ser Davos points it out to Tyrion and Varys, as you mentioned, Chris, and here Sansa takes a metaphorical sledgehammer and brings the point home.

Of course Jon counters with an excellent point: she’s brought the Unsullied to them, and without her they cannot win. She has two dragons, for goodness’ sake. But even he doesn’t look 100% convinced. Daenerys isn’t quite the Daenerys she used to be, for better or for worse. There was a time she was so attuned to her dragons she could feel their feelings; and now, when they won’t eat and my immediate thought was, “Because they’re mourning the loss of their brother Viserion,” she simply says that they don’t like the North. But on the other hand, her journey has been one through hell—remember, she’s 13 in the first book and roughly 17 in the TV adaptation of the first book—and she’s come out harder and smarter. And Jon’s right: does the North really stand a chance without her? “Did you bend the knee to save the North,” Sansa asks, “or because you love her?”

Cut to the return of our beloved Sam Tarly. Sweet, lovely Sam. He meets Daenerys for the first time and shows nothing but fealty and respect, and she thanks him for his role in saving Ser Jorah’s life. In return she asks if there’s anything she could do for him. Well, if it’s not too much trouble, he stutters… he could really use a pardon. For, you know, “borrowing” some books from the Citadel, and, you know, sort of, um, lifting a sword from his father’s palace. One that would eventually be his, you know, but… still. And that’s when the pieces fall into place for Daenerys, who at first is glancing at Ser Jorah with amusement and then suddenly isn’t. “Not Randall Tarly?” she asks. And then, with all the emotion of informing him that Baskin Robbins is out of the flavour of ice cream he asked for, she tells him that actually, Randall Tarly refused to bend the knee and her dragons incinerated him. Sam’s eyes grow wide with shock, and then he remembers his dad was a complete asshole, so he stammers that at least his brother will be lord of the castle now. And like the boss on Office Space, she’s like, “Yeeeaaaaah… I sort of immolated him too.” :::takes long sip of coffee:::

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I was a little worried he’d start running through other members of his family and she’d just say, “Yep… check… gone too… yep… oh that one fought a bit but yep…” and it would be a horrible reverse of the Stark family reunions. But instead, Sam’s bottom lip quivers and he asks very politely if he can leave.

As Sam rushes out of the crypt in tears (oh Sam…) he encounters none other than Creepy-Ass Bran sitting there in his chair. Bran knows what’s just happened below because He Sees All and, just as he did at the end of season 7, he tells Sam it’s time to tell Jon Snow the thing about the thing. And never before has Sam ever wanted to tell someone good news and bad news so badly before, especially since he just found out the bad news has barbecued his family.

And so off he goes to see Jon Snow, and as I said earlier, I’m so thrilled that the one moment of the entire series gets to be carried by the one character who never seems to have harmed a soul. In season 7 he’s the one who discovers the revelation, and now he’s the one who gets to carry that important news to Jon. But first, he wants to test his brother in arms by asking if Jon knew what Daenerys had done to his family. Jon looks slightly shocked for a moment, but recovers quickly, saying if the Tarlys hadn’t done what had been asked of them then he guesses they had it coming. “Would you have done it?” Sam asks quickly, his lips held tightly together as he knows that Jon would have never done it. He’s seen Jon faced with a conundrum, and has seen him choose mercy with the wildlings. Jon doesn’t answer, because he knows what he would say, and that it would directly contradict his lover’s actions.

And then, as the theme music begins to rise slowly in the background, Sam tells him what we’ve been waiting eight seasons to hear. What did you think of this moment, Chris? Is it what you’d always wanted it to be?

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Christopher: Tough question to answer … mainly because, on reflection, I had no idea how this moment would play out, and what the mechanism of revelation would be. They leveraged it nicely against Sam’s grief, as it gives him the impetus to argue that Jon should be the one to claim the throne. Which raises an interesting question: by the laws and logic of patrilineal descent, Jon has the far superior claim to the Iron Throne, as he is the heir of the heir. But as Game of Thrones has spent seven seasons establishing, hereditary claim is only one factor involved in crowning a monarch. The Targaryens, after all, arrogated the rule of the Seven Kingdoms to themselves by right of conquest, and had ruled for a paltry three centuries by the time Robert’s Rebellion kicked their arses out of the Iron Throne. And let’s not forget that A Song of Ice and Fire started, in part, as a dynastic fantasy based on the Wars of the Roses, in which hereditary right took a back seat to armies in the field.

Of course, the question of Jon and Daenerys could (and almost certainly will) be solved with a slew of “Save the Date” cards … but then, that brings us back to the incest question and whether Jon and Dany’s hormones can overpower the ick factor (again, I’m guessing yes).

The key question that Sam poses to Jon as they argue over whether he or Daenerys should rule is “You gave up your crown to save your people. Would she?” It’s a good question, and one that I suspect will be put to the test sooner rather than later. Since leaving Meereen, Daenerys has become more imperious, more absolute in claiming her right as queen, less forgiving to those ambivalent about bending the knee (the Tarly men being a case in point where she was resolutely deaf to Tyrion’s strenuous pleas for mercy). Her preoccupation with “the people,” which was constantly foregrounded back east, seems to have gone by the wayside. The fact that she has not made any attempt to ingratiate herself or win the northerners over—why on earth did she have nothing to say in the meeting in the Great Hall?—is a huge mistake that, apparently, only she and Jon are blind to. For someone so determined to “break the wheel,” she’s starting to behave an awful lot like her ancestors.

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Fortunately or not, it doesn’t look like she’ll need to resolve this in the short term, as we’re reminded of the progress of the Night King and his army of the dead. Beric and Tormund, having miraculously survived the destruction of the Wall unscathed, lead their small band to Last Hearth—the seat of the Umbers, to which li’l Ned was dispatched at the start of the episode … a small bit of exposition whose purpose becomes horribly apparent after Tormund et al run into Edd Tollett and his small collection of Night Watch (an encounter which gives us the funniest exchange in the episode, when Edd thinks Tormund is a white walker because his eyes are blue. “I’ve always had blue eyes!” Tormund cries).

It seems li’l Ned arrived back home just in time for him and his people to be overrun by the Night King—signs of a battle in the courtyard, many bloodstains … but no bodies. When Beric asks Edd if they’d seen anyone, Edd gets grim and leads them to possibly the most gruesome piece of wall art ever. “It’s a message,” says Beric, “from the Night King.” Well, OK … but what’s the message? We’ve seen similar such designs in previous episodes—the split circle of body parts in the very first, a spiral almost identical north of the Wall in season three, and the wall etchings Jon Snow finds on Dragonstone have both such shapes displayed. Is it a message, or a calling card? Or perhaps some kind of occult incantation? And if the last option, did Beric inadvertently activate it by setting it aflame? (Sorry, I just finished teaching a course on H.P. Lovecraft, so this sort of thing is very prominent in my mind).

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One way or another, it was a delightfully creepy scene, especially when li’l Ned’s glowing blue eyes opened over Tormund’s oblivious shoulder just before he screamed.

What did you think of the encounter at Last Hearth Nikki? And what was your reaction when you realized which “old friend” Bran had been waiting for?

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Nikki: I screamed when Ned’s eyes popped open. It might be one of the most horrific scenes we’ve seen on this show—which has certainly had its share of them. No one is spared on Game of Thrones, not even small children (think Shireen). And Ned was just so damn cute at that Great Hall meeting, yet, like Lyanna, professional and acting far beyond his years. Maybe we should have figured that no one named Ned on this show is going to make it to the end of the season. When he burst into the fiery spiral I, like you, felt like I’d seen this before. To me it looks a lot like the Targaryen sigil, but perhaps that was also because it was, you know, fire. But as you say, we’ve definitely seen a spiral motif like this before. Maybe the writers are just big fans of Vertigo.

And then we return to The Creepy One, still sitting in his spot in the courtyard, unmoving, waiting for his old friend to show up. Of course, it’s not like you or me sitting in a chair in a courtyard; I assume he’s watching some sort of Tele-Vision in his mind of pretty much everyone in the world—right now, last week, next year… I doubt he’s bored. And that old friend turns out to be… the one who put him in the wheelchair in the first place. My first thought was to quote the great Senator Clay Davis: “Shiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiit.” But I assume this is going to be far more complicated than a normal reunion of perpetrator versus victim: Bran isn’t really Bran anymore. Of all the Starks, none of whom resemble the person they were in season 1, he’s the most far gone. He’s barely human at this point. And he knows what’s coming and what needs to happen. If Jaime Lannister is important in the fight against the dead, the least of Bran’s concerns is his spinal injury.

Jaime doesn’t know any of this, though: he thought Bran was dead. One can only imagine the complicated emotions running through his head in this moment, not the least of which is that the person for whom he put this child in a wheelchair has turned on him and is treating him like a traitor. And, comc on, we really do want to watch Jaime blubber for a bit at the beginning of the next episode, don’t we? But once again, just like the episode opens the same way episode 1 of season 1 opened, it now ends the same way episode 1 did. But this time, instead of a seven-year-old boy looking through a window and seeing what Jaime’s doing, Bran is a young man, staring at Jaime and thinking, “I know everything you’ve done… and everything you’re going to do next.”

And with that, the first of the final six episodes is over, and we meme our way to next week, where Jon has to come to terms with he’s bonking his auntie; Tormund needs to clean out his armour; Jaime must find a way to get past that unmoving reminder of the worst thing he’s ever done (and that’s saying a LOT); and Sansa continues to perfect that stink-eye. Until then, thank you for reading!

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12 Rules of Pratchett: Mourning Sir Terry, Four Years On

sir terry

Four years ago today, Terry Pratchett died from complications from Alzheimer’s Disease. His death was not a surprise, as he had been quite candid about his affliction—which in typical Sir Terry mode, he referred to as his “embuggerance”—but it still hit me like a truck.

It still does, even four years on. Last June, memorializing Anthony Bourdain on this blog, I observed that “There is comfort to be had in knowing there are rational, humane, deeply intelligent thinkers at large in the world to whom we can reliably turn to for wisdom,” and that losing any such person makes the world poorer. Since Sir Terry’s death we’ve had the Brexit referendum, the election of Donald Trump, the resurgence of white supremacism and white nationalism, a worrying uptick in authoritarianism around the world, and the coarsening of a political discourse reliant on fear and division rather than comity or a figuration of the common good. It’s not as though Sir Terry, were he still alive, would be talking at length of any of these things; but there would be a comfort to be had in having him still in the world and of the world, as an exemplar of kind, rational humanity … and knowing that there would be more of his fiction to look forward to.

Those of us who are devoted readers of Sir Terry’s—and there are an awful lot of us—know that his fiction, especially the forty-one Discworld novels, articulate a deeply humane, humanist, pragmatic philosophy that is both personal and political. And I use the word “pragmatic” there deliberately, as it is generally consonant with the philosophy of pragmatism as developed by thinkers like William James, John Dewey, and Richard Rorty. That is to say, it is a philosophy that is preoccupied with contingency and irony and a general rejection of transcendent or absolute Truths; not a radical relativism, but rather an acknowledgement that we exist within an overlapping series of shared vocabularies, and, as Judith Shklar asserts in her book Ordinary Vices, that “cruelty is the worst thing we do.”

Perhaps the best example from the Discworld novels is the relationship between gods and mortals. In the Discworld cosmology, gods do not pre-exist mortals; rather, gods are themselves created by people believing in them, giving them their relative power and status through the volume and depth of people’s faith. This trope is most specifically explored in the novel Small Gods, but is more or less consistent throughout the entire series. It’s important to recognize how profound this inversion is: among other things, it’s a symbolic rejection of the principle of extrinsic power or transcendent verities, reimagining power much as the philosopher Michel Foucault does, as something not unitary and external to us, but contingent on circumstance and context. It becomes a function of people themselves, and the gods’ existence, far from being sparks of the divine, are reliant upon unreliable, capricious, and often silly and irrational mortals.

This theme—and the concomitant mingling of affection and exasperation for human foibles—is ever-present in Sir Terry’s writing. “We’re monkeys,” he said in discussion with The Guardian. “Our heritage is, in difficulty, to climb trees and throw shit at other trees.” Even in Good Omens (which he co-authored with Neil Gaiman), a comic cosmic tale about an angel and demon’s efforts to avert the biblical apocalypse, the thematic preoccupation is with human nature.

Superficially, the novel is a creationist’s dream: the first scene takes place in the Garden of Eden as the angel Aziraphale and demon Crowley watch Adam and Eve flee, and just one page later 4004 BC is established as the year of Creation and the fossil record characterized as a hoax. And yet the pivot of the narrative lies in the fact that Aziraphale and Crowley, having been the respective representatives of Heaven and Hell on Earth since the beginning, have (1) become something resembling friends, and, more importantly, (2) have both developed a deep affection for the world and the mortals who inhabit it. They have, in effect, let humanity rub off on them, in all of its messy glory. As Crowley reflects at one point, “It may help to understand human affairs to be clear that most of the great triumphs and tragedies of history are caused, not by people being fundamentally good or fundamentally bad, but by people being fundamentally people.”

There were people who called themselves Satanists who made Crowley squirm. It wasn’t just the things they did, it was the way they blamed it all on Hell. They’d come up with some stomach-churning idea that no demon could have thought of in a thousand years, some dark and mindless unpleasantness that only a fully-functioning human brain could conceive, then shout “The Devil Made Me Do It” and get the sympathy of the court when the whole point was that the Devil hardly ever made anyone do anything. He didn’t have to. That was what some humans found hard to understand. Hell wasn’t a major reservoir of evil, any more than Heaven, in Crowley’s opinion, was a fountain of goodness; they were just sides in the great cosmic chess game. Where you found the real McCoy, the real grace and the real heart-stopping evil, was right inside the human mind.

“People being fundamentally people” could well be the tagline for the entirety of the Discworld series, provided you add the caveat that the designation “people” in this instance includes trolls, dwarfs, gnomes, vampires, werewolves, goblins, orcs, and the wee free blue men in tartan called the Nac Mac Feegle. Discworld is a diverse place, nowhere more so than in its principal city Ankh-Morpork. It is hardly accidental that Ankh-Morpork is frequently and pungently described as messy—both in terms of the squalor of its streets and the messiness of its denizens, who come from all over the disc and coexist in something that can never exactly be described as peace, but which mostly stops short of open warfare if for no other reason that people’s competing self-interests tend to balance things out.

It is significant, and reflective of Sir Terry’s pragmatic humanism, that his worst villains aren’t brutal, violent sociopaths but individuals and entities who cannot abide the messiness of the world and seek to perfect it: the fairy godmother of Witches Abroad who forces an entire city to behave as if they lived inside a fairy-tale; the evil ideologue in Night Watch who seeks to perfect people according to his narrow definitions; the fundamentalist dwarfs in The Fifth Elephant, Thud! and Raising Steam, who are thinly veiled allegories of the Taliban; the shadowy cabal of aristocrats in The Truth who scheme to restore the ascendancy of the nobility; and perhaps most chilling of all, the entities known as the Auditors who periodically (Reaper Man, Thief of Time, Hogfather) appear and attempt to eliminate caprice and unpredictability from the universe. As Samuel Vimes reflects in Night Watch, “As soon as you saw people as things to be measured, they didn’t measure up.” And that, in Sir Terry’s world, is the greatest evil of all.

Those of us who are devoted readers of Sir Terry have long argued for the value of his work, but that has been an uphill argument for four big reasons. First, he wrote fantasy, which the gatekeepers of capital-L Literature tend to dismiss (consider the fact that when The Lord of the Rings received the number-one place as best novel in a Guardian public poll, many pearl-clutchers bemoaned the apparent decline of the British reading public). Second, he wrote side-splittingly hilarious novels, which many people tend to see as a mark of unseriousness. Third, he was mind-numbingly prolific: forty-one Discworld novels in thirty-seven years, and that doesn’t count his many other collaborative projects. That level of productiveness suggests to some a certain shallowness to the works. And finally, he was, and is, hugely popular. Before a certain young wizard received his first owl-post, Sir Terry was the best-selling novelist in the U.K. And if that many people like something, it can’t possibly be worthwhile, right?

Fortunately, we do seem to be inhabiting a moment in which those four qualities no longer hold quite the same power over what we consider worthwhile. I say this as an English professor who is currently teaching a senior seminar on H.P. Lovecraft and weird fiction, and last semester taught a course on The Lord of the Rings and a graduate seminar on “Magic Wor(l)ds.” (In this last course we studied Witches Abroad, which was a class favourite).

And for the past few months I’ve been finally working through some thoughts on Sir Terry, which is turning into a much bigger project than originally intended. It started as something of a lark when I was out for a long walk last May, during which I was working through in my mind the structure and schedule of the aforementioned graduate seminar. I was also simmering with annoyance over the most recent public utterances of a certain psychology professor who shall remain Jordan Peterson, someone who, whatever you think of his writings and teachings, has been embraced and celebrated (and turned into a celebrity) by all manner of alt-right, “western chauvinist,” men’s-rights types; his work (which, it should surprise no one, I hold in general contempt) provides for many such people an intellectual scaffolding for their hatred, resentment, and sense of victimhood.

As I walked, I started thinking of Sir Terry’s philosophy, and it occurred to me that it could function as useful counter-narrative. And I wondered: what would Sir Terry’s “12 Rules” be?

When I got home I started sketching out possibilities, and by the end of the day had a draft. I tweaked it now and then, but was never sure what to do with it. At first I thought I would post it here, with little blurbs explicating each of the rules. But as time went on, I was reluctant to give it short shrift—I wanted to do it justice. I ran it up the flagpole with my grad students when we did Witches Abroad, and it seemed to get a good reception. But still I wasn’t sure what form this thing would take, and there was also a certain reluctance to really dive in, as that would require me to do a deep dive on Peterson’s writings and prolific YouTube presence.

And, well … Reader, I did. Am still doing. And have somewhere in the neighbourhood of fifteen thousand words written, with no end in sight. Once it is done, I will post it here in installments. In the meantime, here are my 12 Rules of Pratchett:

  1. Well, maybe “rules” is the wrong word to use here.
  2. Cruelty is the worst thing we do.
  3. As soon as you see people as things to be measured, they don’t measure up.
  4. The opposite of “funny” is not “serious”; the opposite of funny is not funny.
  5. Always read the footnotes.
  6. Mythology is just folklore with a budget.
  7. Buggere Alle This For A Larke.
  8. Better a rising ape than a falling angel.
  9. We make our own stories—our stories do not make us (unless we let them).
  10. Diversity is strength.
  11. Democracy is the worst form of government there is, except for all the others.
  12. CATS. CATS ARE NICE.

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Of zombies and rabbits

Warning: spoilers ahead for Watership Down and The Walking Dead.

Watership Down

I have done a lot of thinking and writing about zombie apocalypse and what I’ve been calling (in my as-yet unfinished scholarly articles on the topic) the “spectre of catastrophe.” So imagine my surprise when, after watching a recently-dropped limited-series show on Netflix last night, I had a weird revelation.

Much zombie apocalypse, but most especially The Walking Dead, is essentially based on Watership Down. Or, rather, not based on Richard Adams’ 1972 novel about rabbits—but the uncannily similar tropes and themes are somewhat illuminating.

This past weekend, my girlfriend and I watched all four episodes of the Netflix-BBC co-production, and quite loved it. The one major downside to this version is that the animation is quite terrible, and makes it very difficult at points to differentiate between the characters. On the upside, voice-cast is truly staggering: James McAvoy as the reluctant leader Hazel, Nicholas Hoult as the runty Fiver, whose oracular visions prompt them to flee their warren at the outset, Gemma Atterton as Clover, Olivia Colman as Strawberry, and a host of others like Daniel Kaluuya, Gemma Chan, Tom Wilkinson, Rosamund Pike, Mackenzie Crook, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (aka Simon Adebisi from Oz), and Ben Kingsley as the menacing General Woundwort. But for me the standouts were John Boyega as Bigwig, a bruiser  who has to learn subtlety, and, in one of my favourite bits of voice-casting ever, Peter Capaldi as the caustic and sarcastic seagull Keehar.

I read Watership Down when I was in high school and loved it; but I am also of the generation of children who were absolutely traumatized by the 1979 film, which doubled down on the violence and death in the novel to create an animated spectacle that I think was burned indelibly on my young cerebral cortex (even doing a Google image search made me tremble somewhat). My experience in this regard is not uncommon, given the number of parents who thought, “Oh, a cute film about bunnies,” little knowing the horror they were about to visit on their children.

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The 2018 iteration retains the novel’s sensibilities with regards to the precarious existence of prey animals, but dials back the violent visuals. It still builds tension extremely well: we are never not aware of how vulnerable the rabbits are all the time, and indeed the prologue to the first episode relates the rabbits’ creation mythology in which the sun god Frith punishes them—the earth’s original animals—for their proliferation by introducing a host of predators to cull their numbers.

So basically, they live in a word where everything wants to eat them—dogs, foxes, cats, owls, hawks, and, of course, people … and when people don’t want to eat them, they want to domesticate them and put them in cages as pets. More pernicious, however, is humanity’s rapacious need for land, which is what drives Hazel and Fiver and their small band of believers from their warren to start with. Fiver has visions of death and destruction that baffle him, but which we recognize as backhoes callously digging up the land for the construction of a new subdivision with no regard for the society of animals living below. Hazel and his tiny band of followers get out, and later on hear of the destruction from the warren’s sole survivor.

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But … what does this have to do with zombie apocalypse, you ask? Good question, though I will draw your attention to my above observation that everything out in the world wants to eat these rabbits. Leaving the safety of their warren and its environs, Hazel et al are exposed and endangered, and every step they take into the unknown world is one that could end suddenly with claws and teeth.

What’s important to keep in mind about Watership Down—and what I’d either forgotten in the intervening years, or (more likely) never grasped to begin with—is that it is essentially a dystopian story. It’s about the violent and capricious destruction of a society and the harrowing journey to find a new safe haven. And for all of the monsters populating that landscape, the greatest danger posed to our main characters is other rabbits—just as, in your average zombie film, the true threat isn’t from the dead but from the living.

Over its eight and a half seasons, The Walking Dead has driven this particular theme home … again and again and again. And again. My biggest beef with the storytelling in TWD is that it hasn’t done much to break from the narrative formula of zombie films: which is to say, the panic and flight following the initial outbreak, fighting one’s way through the undead hordes to sanctuary, respite within that sanctuary for a time (whether it be a mall, a military compound, a pub, or Bill Murray’s house, as in Dawn of the Dead, 28 Days Later, Shaun of the Dead, and Zombieland, respectively), until something happens that forces you to leave and once again brave the world without. TWD reiterated this narrative season after season, always with a new safe haven (Herschel’s farm, the prison, Woodbury, Terminus, Alexandria) and a newer, badder big bad to contend with (the dead themselves, their own weaknesses and infighting, the Governor, the Wolves, cannibals, and of course Negan).*

All of which leapt to mind as I watched Watership Down. Hazel and his small band encounter two other rabbit warrens, each of which offers a chillingly dystopic vision. In the first, all of the rabbits are well-fed and welcoming, and our heroes gorge themselves on a massive pile of lettuce and leafy greens and carrots deposited nearby. It seems too good to be true, and of course it is—though only the clairvoyant Fiver sees as much, and refuses to join his fellows at the feast. Bigwig threatens Fiver, warning him not to spoil this for the others, but when he marches off in anger he finds himself caught in a wire snare—because that’s the deal at this warren, they get to live comfortable and well-fed lives, in exchange for one of their number being taken on a regular basis for the local farmer’s pot. And this has become the ethos of the warren: they reject the usual stories told by the rabbit bards that celebrate speed and cunning, instead offering sermons on the virtues of gratitude and complacency, and not questioning generosity that keeps them well-fed.

Dystopian visions of complacency range from the Lotus-Eaters of The Odyssey to Aldous Huxley’s self-medicating society in Brave New World. The devil’s bargain Richard Adams introduces in Watership Down allegorizes more explicitly the dangers of trading freedom for comfort. While there is no obvious correlative in zombie apocalypse narratives, I did think of the Terminus episodes of TWD. Desperate to find safe haven and suffering from hunger and thirst, Rick Grimes et al follow signs leading to a settlement calling itself “Terminus,” which promise safety and comfort and welcome. The promise proves to be merely a lure by which the people of Terminus draw in the unwary and proceed to kill and eat them, trading their humanity for safety and plenty (the first thing some of Grimes’ people encounter is a wholesome-looking women presiding over a grill heaped with meat).

TWD-Terminus

Ewwww.

Aside from Bigwig’s close encounter with the snare, the rabbits make their escape without much difficulty, and are joined by Strawberry (Olivia Colman), who tells them that no one in the warren makes friends because they know they might lose them to the snare. At the same time they are eager to welcome newcomers to the warren, as greater numbers lessen the chances of being taken next.

More terrifying, and more actively threatening, is the second warren—an authoritarian regime called “Efafra,” overseen by General Woundwort, in which most of the rabbits—largely females—are essentially held captive in terrified thrall to a quasi-military hierarchy sustained by Woundwort’s chosen “captains,” thuggish rabbits who take pleasure in tormenting the others. Their cruelty is its own reward, as they revel in their authority and privileges. The parallels between Woundwort and Negan, and Efafra and the Sanctuary are fairly obvious, but that likely has mostly to do with the ways in which both stories show how despotic societies are sustained by a cult of personality surrounding the leader, his willing subordinates chosen for their own talent for cruelty, and a cowed populace. Of all the threats faced by Hazel et al, greater than an entire ecosystem seemingly mobilized to snack on them is the threat of other rabbits in thrall to violence. Holly, the lone survivor of the original warren, tells one of Woundwort’s captains that he lacks “animality”—that what Efafra has done is emulate humans, and in doing so, has given up what we might call a basic rabbit-sense.

Not, perhaps, the subtlest of messages, but one that resonates strongly in a world where humans are depicted as thoughtlessly destructive, and the Efafran rabbits are genocidal, determined to exterminate any neighbouring warrens that might compete for resources. As stated above, I was struck by the critical mass of voice talent recruited for this remake, which poses the question of why remake Watership Down in the present moment (aside from Netflix’s voracious need for more and more content, of course)? There are, I have to imagine, many answers, not the least of which is the pressing need to reassess our relationship to the natural world, coupled with the apocalyptic preoccupations of so much popular culture. Richard Adams wrote Watership Down at the dawn of the environmental movement in a moment that saw the first celebration of Earth Day and the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency. All of the themes baked into the narrative have, sadly, only become more acute and immediate in the intervening half-century. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised when a recent retelling of Adams’ story resonates with the various other catastrophic narratives I’ve been writing about.

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*To the show’s credit, it has broken this cycle since settling in Alexandria and making contact with the various other settlements in the area. Since the defeat of Negan and the Saviours this past season, TWD has opened the possibility of a more nuanced and open-ended narrative evolution.

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World War One and the Lessons of Pernicious Nationalism

canadian ww1 soldiers

Canadian soldiers on the Western Front.

On this day, the 100th anniversary of the armistice ending the First World War—then called, optimistically, the War to End all Wars—it behooves us to remember that it was an avoidable, unnecessary catastrophe fought for no clear, moral, or even straightforward political reason. And while it is right and proper to commemorate the fallen, we need to avoid the platitude that the soldiers who died in the trenches and in no-man’s land did so for the sake of our “freedom.” Canada faced no existential threat from Germany and Austria-Hungary, and indeed, Canadians fought along with other Commonwealth forces on behalf of a monarchical, imperial power—which was itself not facing an existential threat, and which fought other monarchical, imperial powers.

WWI was a war fought between imperial nation-states over long-held nationalist prejudices, for pride of place in a factious Europe, and for control of imperial holdings around the world.

These facts do not denude the sacrifice of the soldiers killed and maimed, who fought less for the abstraction of king and country than for the men on either side of them. But it demeans their memory when we sentimentalize and mythologize their loss.

In the present moment, we should also keep in mind precisely why the First World War was so catastrophic: namely, it was a 20th-century war fought with 19th-century tactics over 19th-century politics. When Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz said in On War that “war is the continuation of politics by other means,” he articulated what was basically an ancient premise: that when regular politics failed, nations used the application of violent force in pursuit of political ends. For centuries, realities of weapons technology, manpower, and logistics, meant that lengthy, sustained wars were untenable and undesirable, and even such arguable exceptions as the Peninsular War still hewed to von Clausewitz’s notorious dictum.

In hindsight, the apocalyptic experience of the Western Front was predictable from such precursors as the American Civil War, which began as a familiar 19th-century conflict and ended with the Union prevailing because of its ultimate massive advantage in industry and logistics; or the Franco-Prussian War, in which the crushing Prussian victory showcased new generations of weaponry that anticipated the horrors of the trenches.

The collective trauma WWI visited on Europe shook people’s faith in technological progress as an inevitable good, as well as related conceptions of social and cultural progress. For some more astute observers, however, it also troubled assumptions about the sovereign nation-state as an ideal political entity. Such voices were unfortunately few and far between, as the failure of the League of Nations attested. And indeed, the two decades between the wars instead saw the emergence and entrenchment of inward-looking nationalism and political isolationism. There is a broad tendency to think of Nazism as born in a crucible of expansionist dreams of conquest, but as Benjamin Carter Hett observes in his recent book The Death of Democracy, which examines the collapse of the Weimar Republic and the rise of Hitler, the dream of the extreme right of Germany in the early 1930s was autarky—that is, the creation of an economically and racially self-contained and self-sustaining nation, answerable to none. Conquest and expansionism—Hitler’s notorious need for “elbow room”—came later, at least in part as a pragmatic realization of the need for resources Germany alone could not supply.

I recite this history here because we all know what happened from this point on. And if we’re to look at the Second World War as the “good war,” fought genuinely in the name of freedom from tyranny (though even that is something of a myth, as I argued a few years ago), we also have to acknowledge that the seeds of that conflict were planted by WWI. But at least WWII accomplished something the Great War did not, in the acknowledgement of a global and interconnected world: the United Nations, the enshrining of international law, the International Court of Justice, the early political moves that would eventually give rise to the European Union, NATO, as well as the dissolution of European empires.

All of this, I hasten to add, is and has been deeply flawed: globalism has been hijacked by massive corporations with the willing assistance of western nations, and in many senses one form of empire has been supplanted by another, something made painfully evident by then global effects of the economic meltdown of 2008. The return of populism as a political force and the distressing resurgence of nationalism are not unpredictable, but on this day of all days we should see the latter for the existential threat it genuinely is. Today at the Paris for Armistice ceremony, French president Emmanuel Macron—with Donald Trump sitting stony-faced nearby—called nationalism a betrayal: “Patriotism is the exact opposite of nationalism: nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism … By pursuing our own interests first, with no regard to others’, we erase the very thing that a nation holds most precious, that which gives it life and makes it great: its moral values.”

What Macron did not say (so far as I know), and what I am saying here, is that nationalism is untenable in the 21st-century; and more than untenable, it is potentially cataclysmic. The kind of politics espoused by Steve Bannon and his ilk enjoins us to wall ourselves off into impermeable sovereign states based on difference, rather than overlapping communities based on common good. Bannon waves away the kind of racist and misogynist extremism his populism inspires, telling Joshua Green in Devil’s Bargain that “that sort of thing always burns itself out over time,” a claim that is either deeply dishonest or dangerously disingenuous: if the past two years of American politics has shown anything, it is that nationalist populism falls open to racial, ethnic, and gender biases like a book with a cracked spine.

The First World War, to reiterate my earlier point, was catastrophic because it waged politics made obsolete by terrible new weapons. That fact was exacerbated by a magnitude in the Second World War, which ended with Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Cold War, even at its various nadirs, recognized the need for a global consciousness lest we visit our own extinction upon ourselves. And even more dangerous than nuclear warheads in the present moment is the spectre of climate change, an existential threat that cannot be solved by insular, nationalist nation-states.

One hundred years ago today, the Great War ended. Over sixty thousand Canadian youths died in the slaughter, sacrificed on a pyre of nationhood. We love to say how Canada was forged in the fires of that war; we honour their memory best by committing ourselves to an idea of Canada that rejects nationalism.

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Thoughts on the Kavanaugh Thing (part two): A Tale of Two West Wing Episodes

Since Trump’s election, one of the ways I’ve tried to escape daily reality is by rewatching episodes of The West Wing. This is not, from what I have gleaned, an uncommon strategy. I have also rewatched Aaron Sorkin’s proto-West Wing film The American President at least three times, and watched President Andrew Shepherd’s (Michael Douglas) climactic speech more times than I can count.

Since the announcement of Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination, I’ve been wanting to rewatch what I think is easily the best post-Sorkin episode of The West Wing: season five’s “The Supremes.” Unfortunately, Netflix no longer carries The West Wing, and I only own the first four seasons on DVD (first world problems). But after last Thursday’s testimonial drama, I bought the single episode on iTunes and watched it.

The premise and the resolution is classic West Wing, to the point where it made me wonder when I first watched it if it was an episode Sorkin had written before his exit from the show (it wasn’t). Justice Owen Brady, a young(ish) conservative firebrand, dies suddenly, and so the Bartlett White House is given the gift of replacing a conservative judge with someone more in their wheelhouse. Of course, given the Republican control of Congress, anyone too liberal—or really, liberal at all—is out of the question. But in a bit of theatre to scare conservatives and make their ultimate nomination more palatable, the senior staff make a show of interviewing some liberal firebrands—most specifically, Evelyn Baker Lang (Glenn Close), whose judicial history defending women’s reproductive rights has made her a bête noir of the right. Meanwhile, as her presence in the West Wing causes conservatives to shake in their space boots, the president and senior staff set their sights on moderate Brad Shelton (Robert Picardo), who is pretty much guaranteed not to rock any ideological boats:

supremes - robert picardo

BARTLETT: Affirmative action is going to be back in the next few years. Let’s start there.
SHELTON: What do I know about it?
BARTLETT: What do you think about it?
SHELTON: I don’t know. [pause] Not the answer you were looking for?
BARTLETT: Not really.
SHELTON: Unnerving, isn’t it?
BARTLETT: Is there another topic you’d be more comfortable with?
SHELTON: Nothing comes to mind.
BARTLETT: Perhaps you should make something up.
SHELTON: I’m not trying to be cagey, but I don’t position myself on issues and I don’t know what I think about a case until I hear it. There are moderates who are called that because they are not activists. And there are moderates who are called that because sometimes they wind up on the left and sometimes on the right.

I’ll come back to this passage momentarily, but meanwhile, long story short: the episode is an indictment of moderation, depicting the need to find milquetoast candidates for SCOTUS as a failure of the higher ideals of debate and argument between fiercely opposed but honest camps. A compromise is brokered: Chief Justice Roy Ashland (Milo O’Shea), a brilliant liberal lion suffering from dementia, will step down and be replaced by Evelyn Baker Lang. In exchange, the Republicans get to replace the dead Brady with conservative firebrand Christopher Mulready (William Fichtner), who earlier in the episode articulated the value of having ideologues on the Court.

MULREADY: Who’s at the top of the list? [pause] If I leaked it would they believe me?
BARTLETT: Brad Shelton.
MULREADY: Really?
BARTLETT: You don’t like him?
MULREADY: He’s a fine jurist. And in the event that Charmine, Lafayette, Hoyt, Clarke and Brandagen all drop dead this summer, the center will still be well tended.
BARTLETT: [laughs] You want another Brady?
MULREADY: Sure, just like you’d like another Ashland—who wouldn’t? The court was at its best when Brady was fighting Ashland.
BARTLETT: Plenty of good law written by the voice of moderation.
MULREADY: Who writes the extraordinary dissent? The one man minority opinion whose time hasn’t come, but 20 years later some circuit court clerk digs it up at three in the morning.

This tune wasn’t written by Aaron Sorkin, but sounds like a pretty accomplished Sorkin cover band. The attractive mythos of his work is that all people in the wrong need is one persuasive argument to come around; that, and the depiction of workplaces staffed by intelligent, dedicated, honestly devoted people. My favourite line from his first series Sports Night is when Isaac Jaffe (Robert Guillame) says, “It’s taken me a lot of years, but I’ve come around to this: If you’re dumb, surround yourself with smart people. And if you’re smart, surround yourself with smart people who disagree with you.” It’s sentiments like this that make The West Wing and other Sorkin products feel like safe harbour in the present moment of rampant bad faith, hypocrisy, and mendacity.

BUT.

Perhaps you’ve already figured out where I’m going here.

I rewatched “The Supremes,” but it was unsatisfying … even as fantasy. Its principal centerpiece was when Evelyn Baker Lang runs into Christopher Mulready in the West Wing, and the two proceed to have an animated argument about various points of law—ideological enemies who obviously enjoy each other’s company, and enjoy even more the cut and thrust of legal debate.

supremes - close & fichtner

Which, for what it’s worth, I have no doubt happens in the actual SCOTUS. Both Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan have expressed affection for the late Antonin Scalia, someone whose opinions and personality you would think would be anathema to them. But the fact remains that the Court has become almost absolutely polarized in the past few decades; the fact that Anthony Kennedy voted with the liberals on abortion and gay rights made him the sole justice whose vote wasn’t a foregone conclusion. The prospect of a court filled with Brad Sheltons, who might honestly consider cases on their individual merits and whose votes would not be predictable, seems vaguely utopian in the present moment. I suppose that in the imaginary SCOTUS of this West Wing episode, in which, apparently, five out of the nine justices are centrists, a couple of extreme voices would be good for the sake of debate; but that has not been the nature of the Supreme Court for a very long time, if indeed it ever was.

Fortunately, The West Wing boasts more than one episode devoted to nominating a Supreme Court justice. Well … one other episode, from season one, which is actually far more germane to our present situation for a variety of reasons. In “The Short List,” the senior staff plan to nominate a justice who is, to use one of Donald Trump’s favourite expressions, right out of central casting. His name is:

JOSH: Peyton Cabot Harrison III.
DONNA: Yes.
JOSH: Peyton Cabot Harrison III. He sounds like he should be a Supreme Court justice.
DONNA: It’s a good name.
JOSH: Phillips Exeter, Princeton, Rhodes scholar, Harvard Law Review, for which he was, oh yeah, the editor. Did I mention that he was dean of Harvard Law School? Did I mention that his father was attorney general to Eisenhower?
DONNA: Peyton Cabot Harrison III.
JOSH: That’s right.
DONNA: Jewish fellow?
JOSH: You’re not gonna ruin this moment for me, Donna.

(There’s a “Merrick Garland” joke to be made here, but I’m just going to ignore it).

When the President later meets with Justice Joseph Crouch (Mason Adams), whose retirement is opening the seat, the justice takes Bartlet to task for not living up to the promise of his campaign:

CROUCH: You ran great guns in the campaign. It was an insurgency, boy, a sight to see. And then you drove to the middle of the road the moment after you took the oath. Just the middle of the road. Nothing but a long line painted yellow.
BARTLET: Excuse me, sir…
CROUCH: I wanted to retire five years ago. But I waited for a Democrat. I wanted a Democrat. Hmm! And instead I got you.

He also upbraids Bartlet for making such an obvious choice for his replacement, and begs him to reconsider nominating someone else:

CROUCH: You’ve decided on Harrison.
BARTLET: I haven’t made a decision yet, Joseph.
CROUCH: You’ve made the call. [beat] Did you even consider Mendoza?
BARTLET: Mendoza was on the short list.
CROUCH: Mendoza was on the short list so you can show you had an Hispanic on the short list.
BARTLET: That’s not true, Joseph.

Long story short: Bartlet has second thoughts, enough to make him ask his staff to put together some information for him on Mendoza—“I just want to be able to know something. There’s gonna be a lot of questions. I don’t want it to be ‘we had a Hispanic on the short list’”—but not enough to make him change his mind. That is, until Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe) uncovers an old article of Judge Harrison’s making the argument that there is no constitutional protection for privacy. Long story even shorter, they throw Harrison out of the boat and bring in Judge Roberto Mendoza (Edward James Olmos) for an interview.

(Full disclosure: I love Edward James Olmos, and would happily watch anything he’s in. He’s one of those actors who brings such immense gravitas to everything he does, and his sole two appearances on The West Wing are no exception).

weat wing - olmos and sheen

Some people in the West Wing are not overly pleased with the change in game plan, however:

MANDY: I’m the one who has to sell this. And he is not exactly America’s idea of Supreme Court justice.
JOSH: Mandy, I don’t…
MANDY: Let’s do a side-by-side comparison. [reads from piece of paper] Harrison went to Walnut Park Country Day, Phillips Exeter, and Princeton undergrad, and Harvard Law. Mendoza attended P.S. 138 in Brooklyn, City University of New York, and the New York Police Department. Harrison clerked for Warren Berger. Mendoza…
JOSH: [off of the top of his head] New York City Police Department ’65 to ’76, Assistant District Attorney Brooklyn ’76 to ’80, Assistant U.S. Attorney Eastern District, Federal District Judge, Eastern District. Let me tell you something, Mendoza went to Law School the hard way. He got shot in the leg, and when they offered him a hundred percent dispensation, he took a desk job instead and went to law school at night. He’s brilliant, decisive, compassionate, and experienced. And if you don’t think that he’s America’s idea of a jurist, then you don’t have enough faith in Americans.

OK—this is where this episode resonates with me in the present moment. My next post in this series will be about the pernicious myth of meritocracy, something present, I’m sorry to say, in almost every other piece of Sorkin property. Generally, The West Wing is obsessed with credentials: Sam’s secret service code name is “Princeton,” C.J. has a Masters from Berkley, Josh was a Fulbright scholar and went to Harvard Law, and the President is a graduate of Notre Dame, has a doctorate from the London School of Economics, and was awarded a Nobel Prize in economics. I’ll talk more about this in my next post, but Brett Kavanaugh’s repeated, plaintive mantra of “I went to Yale!” made me think of this moment in the episode, especially the point at which Peyton Cabot Harrison III, under intense questioning from Sam Seaborn, says

HARRISON: This sideshow is over. With all due respect, Mr. President, I find this kind of questioning very rude.
SAM: Well then, you’re really gonna enjoy meeting the U.S. Senate.
HARRISON: Be that as it may, it’s disgusting. We all know you need me as much as I need you. I read the same polling information you do. Seven to ten point bump, 90 votes, unanimous out of committee, I was courted. Now, you have me taken to school by some kid.

This, of course, is hardly the spittle-flecked rage exhibited by Kavanaugh, but it is a dramatization of the same sense of entitlement. A few moments later, Harrison says, “I am an extremely well credentialed man, Mr. President, and I’m unaccustomed to this sort of questioning.” Again, resonance with the present moment: the anger Kavanaugh exhibited last week was this sort of sentiment cranked up to eleven: anger at the effrontery that you might be denied what you feel you deserve. “The Supremes” is a great episode, and one that articulates an idealized vision of good-faith debate; “The Short List” articulates something more immediate and crucial to our present moment, which I’ll get into in my next post: namely, that diversity isn’t just about race and gender, but also about thought and background. As I said in my previous post, the fulminations from Lindsey Graham et al that these accusations levelled at Kavanaugh will “ruin his life” are just so much horseshit. Kavanaugh’s suggestion that his admission to Yale was due entirely to his own hard work is more of the same.

That said, it’s not hard to understand why he might consider his educational background a defense. Looking at the current SCOTUS, every single justice went to either Harvard or Yale law school; the only sort-of exception is Ruth Bader Ginsberg, who transferred to Columbia from Harvard.

I’m not saying an Ivy League education is a bad thing. What I am saying is that I will address this question in my next post.

To be continued.

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Thoughts on the Kavanaugh Thing (part one)

BK LOSING IT

I spent much of this past weekend watching highlights (and lowlights) of the testimony delivered last Thursday by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Judge Brett Kavanaugh, I think it’s safe to say I have a lot of thoughts about this situation, and after several very long walks and a lot of yelling at my laptop screen, they’re starting to sort themselves into something coherent. So this will be the first of several posts I make on the topic. Hopefully I can contribute something useful to the discussion, but really, after several days of stewing and mulling, the key point here for me is to vent.

Hopefully it’s helpful venting.

The thing I’ve had to remind myself of since Trump’s election is “if you (i.e. me) are so angry and outraged and feel so helpless and afraid, just imagine how people more directly affected by all this feel.” Which is to say: I am white, male, cis, straight, tenured, and not only live in Canada, but have an ocean between myself and Trump’s America. All of which might suggest I don’t have a dog in this hunt and shouldn’t exhaust myself shouting at the TV.

The problem with that is that where I refer above to “all this,” I’m not just referring to Trump and his administration, but to the broader cultural currents that made his election possible; I’m referring also to the license Trump has given for people to indulge racist, sexist, and all other forms of hateful tendencies; I’m referring also to the election of Doug Ford in Ontario, the rise of Rebel Media, and the fact that someone who proved too white supremacist for even the Rebel is running for mayor of Toronto; I’m referring also to the fact that all of the above is fuelled by white male resentment.

And anyone who couldn’t see that white male resentment in Kavanaugh’s testimony on Thursday is either literally or willfully blind.

Watching Dr. Blasey Ford’s testimony brought me to tears at several points, and again, I thought how much worse must the experience be for women, especially those who themselves are survivors or harassment, abuse, assault, and worse. And indeed my Facebook feed was full of rage: women with whom I am friends, many of whom are close and dear friends, expressing admiration for Dr. Blasey Ford and anger that her poignant, credible, emotional testimony will almost certainly be for naught. And through it all ran a palpable sense of exhaustion. My girlfriend Stephanie expressed it to me this morning: “I feel like I’ve reached peak anger,” she said. “What else can we do? Where else do we go, emotionally?”

I wish I had an answer to that.

***

Going for a walk this morning, mulling all of this over, it occurred to me that the testimony on Thursday was like the pendulum swing from Obama to Trump writ small.

It was telling just how taken aback Republicans and their media mouthpieces were by the effectiveness of her testimony (even Trump, apparently, berating his staff for not having had any advance sense of how well she’d do). That surprise on their part shouldn’t really be a surprise, however, given the nature of the particular tightrope she had to walk. Any more emotional, and she’d have been dismissed as hysterical; any less emotional, and she’d not have been considered credible, and likely been accused of being a Democratic operative. She combined poise and fragility, humour and gravitas, and could speak to the specifics of memory and trauma from a professional perspective. And of course she is white, and comes from the same sort of privileged background as the man she accused, which made the Republicans on the committee doubly loath to be seen attacking her character.

Barack Obama needed to thread a not dissimilar needle: to be the first Black president, he couldn’t be too Black, or too redolent of Black American culture; he had to have superlative credentials—not just a graduate of Columbia Law School, but the first Black editor of the Harvard Law Review. He had to be the most pristine family man to occupy the White House possibly ever, and could not have had even a whiff of personal scandal attach to him. And on such occasions as the Jeremiah Wright affair, he had to have preternatural oratorical skill to ford those rapids. In his famous 2004 DNC speech, he uttered a line that would become a trope of his later campaign and presidency: “in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.” In other words, he had to be not just a forceful and eloquent proponent of American Exceptionalism, he had to be its living embodiment.

As Ta-Nehisi Coates pointed out at length in The Atlantic, Donald Trump stands as the epitome of white privilege: “It is insufficient to state the obvious of Donald Trump,” he begins, “that he is a white man who would not be president were it not for this fact.” He is in every respect the antithesis of Obama: ignorant, incurious, adulterous, venal, cruel, narcissistic, incoherent. Any one of these qualities attached to Obama would have tanked his presidential chances before leaving the gate. And yet Trump was elected, not least because he told white Americans that they were the victims of history.

When Brett Kavanaugh came out swinging, cranked to eleven in a veritable tantrum of resentful accusation, my initial thought was “He’s done.” But of course I should have known better: whatever good Dr. Blasey Ford had done was, like Obama’s presidency, all but obviated by the bilious rage of a petulant and entitled white man, whose sense of affront that he might have to account for his past behaviour gave license to his peers to harmonize with his aria of wounded privilege.

Since the first moments when it became clear that Dr. Blasey-Ford’s accusations were likely credible and stories of Kavanaugh’s teenage drinking emerged, I’ve wondered why he didn’t nip the thing in the bud with a simple expression of contrition: “I’m deeply ashamed of my behaviour in my youth. I have no memory of the event described by Christine Blasey Ford, but I am horrified at the thought that, in a drunken stupor, I might have done anything that could be construed as assault. I have in the years since those days worked hard to become worthy of my country, my family, and my own conscience.” Even after his initial denials, he could have course-corrected at any time: “I apologize for not being forthcoming before, but you must understand how ashamed I am of my behaviour in those days.”

Of course, this suggestion is entirely disingenuous: what has become clear, especially since his testimony Thursday, is that making such a statement would never occur to him. Bad behaviour, excessive drinking, and a sense of entitlement to the bodies of the girls he knew was a privilege afforded youths like him—it was his birthright, and it is obvious from his testimony that, far from feeling any remorse, he nostalgizes those days, unfolding his memories to the Judiciary Committee like an early 80s frat movie with the sex scenes redacted. The “boys will be boys” attitude of his supporters, along with the sentiment that “why should he be punished for something that happened so long ago?” is consonant with the latitude given the male children of the elite. As Lindsey Graham and others suggest that these accusations have “ruined” Kavanaugh’s life, we really need to remember that even if he doesn’t win the SCOTUS seat, he goes back to a lifetime appointment on the second highest court in the U.S. It’s not as if he’ll be selling cigarettes under a bridge.

We should also keep in mind that, had Kavanaugh and Mark Judge been Black youths attempting to rape a white girl, they’d likely still be in prison today. “Tried as an adult” isn’t really an expression that gets applied to teenagers at Georgetown Prep.

 

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Wente, again.

dalhousie-sign

Anyone who has followed my blog over the years knows the contempt in which I generally hold the Globe and Mail’s Margaret Wente, not least because it seems that, whenever she’s at a loss for something to carp about in her column, she reverts to her favourite target: the contemporary university, especially humanities programs, and even more especially English departments.

Reader, she’s at it again.

I’d gotten pretty good at ignoring Wente, something made easier by the Globe’s general decline—given that I no longer read the paper as a matter of course, that has tended to relieve me of the occasional temptation to click on her invariably cickbaity columns, and I’ve been of much sounder mind for it. But in her most recent screed, she’s taken aim at the Dalhousie University English Department, and I can’t help but take that a little personally: I know a significant number of the professors in that department, people whose devotion to teaching and research and to generally making the world a better place is unimpeachable.

Well, unimpeachable if you’re not a lazy, sinecured columnist with little actual idea of what she’s talking about.

Let’s start with her title: “Universities preach the new religion of anti-racism and anti-oppression.” I could go on for a long while about the reactionary right’s antipathy to “social justice,” but I’ll try to be succinct: who, precisely, is pro-racism and –oppression? Aside from the obvious, I mean; Wente isn’t stupid enough (not yet, anyway) to come out and declare that racism and oppression are net positives, but it’s emblematic of our current cultural moment that the Wentes of the world are comfortable slagging people actively engaged in opposing racism and pursuing social justice. The usual argument tends to say that racism and sexism are bad and all, but the puritanical PC left (or, in Jordan Peterson’s framing, postmodern neo-marxists) have morphed into the equivalent of Orwellian thought police, silencing all who dissent.

Because, yeah … hardly a peep to be heard. It’s not as if Canada’s newspaper of record would employ such dissenting voices.

I suppose this argument is now so frequently made that Wente doesn’t really feel the need to rehearse it; she spends the first half of her column sneering at Dal’s attempts to address the fact that their founder (George Ramsay, Earl of Dalhousie) was, well, hella racist, a fact made more problematic by the city of Halifax’s troubling past of racial injustice. She similarly sneers at the university’s attempts to promote diversity among its faculty and student population, writing:

Why is diversity so important? “Diversity is a powerful agent of change,” insists Dalhousie. “Indeed, diversity is an imperative that must be embraced if colleges and universities are to be successful in a pluralistic and interconnected world.”

Actually, I thought that colleges and universities got to be successful through excellent scholarship and teaching. But I guess that’s old-fashioned thinking.

This is why reading Wente is bad for my blood pressure. First, a proven plagiarist has no standing to opine on “excellent scholarship.” But more importantly, the canard here is the suggestion that diversity, and excellence in scholarship and teaching, are somehow mutually exclusive. Wente’s columns on the sorry state of university curricula today almost invariably nostalgize the halcyon days when the canon was ascendant and only Great Books by Great (Male) Authors were considered worthwhile of study. (I wrote a post eerily similar to this one five years ago on this very topic). So rather than continue to harp on Dalhousie’s social justice preoccupations, she turns to their English department offerings, and needless to say,

I was shocked. I knew the field had fallen on hard times, but little did I realize how marginal it has become. Judging by the meagre offerings, would-be English Lit majors have fled to the greener fields of Social Justice Studies.

Gone are many of the staples of my youth, when I was an English Lit major at a different university. Now on offer is less taxing fare, seemingly designed for people who are ambivalent about reading books: a heavy sprinkling of courses on pulp fiction, popular culture, mystery and detective fiction, science fiction, fan culture, and afrofuturism. I did find one lonely little course on Shakespeare – but it’s not required. One thing you can say for it, though the English curriculum is certainly diverse.

(Excuse me while I take some blood pressure medication).

The second most galling thing about this characterization of Dal’s course offerings is how easily refuted it is. Check it out for yourself: the courses ostensibly “designed for people who are ambivalent about reading books” are crowded out by such “traditional” fare as Chaucer, Renaissance poetry and drama, medieval literature, as well as a course devoted entirely to the Brontes.

The most galling thing about this characterization of Dal’s course offerings is that I felt obliged to write the two previous sentences. What the actual fuck is wrong with offering courses on “pulp fiction, popular culture, mystery and detective fiction, science fiction, fan culture, and afrofuturism”? None of which, I feel compelled to add, suggest that students will not have to read. All of those topics Wente apparently disdains are embedded in the contemporary cultural moment: if an English degree is at least partly about developing critical reading and writing skills, it doesn’t hurt to be able to deploy those skills with regard to the various discourses in which we live.

***

While I was writing this post, my friend Jason, who is chair of Dal’s English Department, wrote a wonderful response to Wente’s idiocy. He begins by imploring people not to read Wente’s column and thus reward her trolling with ad revenue for the Globe (which is why I just removed my own link to the column—if you must read it, by all means do so, but I won’t facilitate it).

I’ll end here by quoting Jason:

We don’t need to defend ourselves against Wente’s spurious claims; we need to double down on what we do. Nothing would make me personally happier than to have a program that makes Margaret Wente shudderingly, inconsolably uncomfortable, simply because that would mean it more fully and accurately reflects the growing and ever diversifying field of English Studies as new and previously silenced authors, texts, approaches, and contexts, past and present, make themselves heard.

Let’s walk past the braying calls for a bounded and bordered ignorance and into an open space resounding with an ever more complex cacophony of voices. Let’s commit curiosity.

Amen.

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