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A Few Things

What I’m Reading     I first heard of Heather McGhee two or three years ago when she was interviewed on one of the political podcasts I listen to. She was then the president of Demos, a progressive think-tank focused on race and economics and strategies to strengthen American democracy; I was immediately impressed by how clearly and articulately she broke down the inextricability of race and economic policy, and the ways in which Republicans have successfully sold the idea to white voters of government spending as a zero-sum game in which every dollar that goes to help Black people and minorities is a dollar taken from them—and that government programs that help non-wealthy whites  are somehow stealing from them to benefit inner-city Blacks. And hence, non-wealthy whites have become reliable Republican voters who vote against the own interests in election after election.

To be clear, this is not a new insight. President Lyndon B. Johnson himself, who signed the Civil Rights Act into being in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act the following year, knew that he was alienating a significant portion of his own party. “Well, we’ve lost the South,” he is reported to have said on signing the civil rights legislation; he also famously acknowledged the principle on which Richard Nixon would successfully court southern white Democrats: “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.”

What impressed me about McGhee was how clearly she laid out the historical narrative, as well as how convincingly she argued her central premise: that systemic racism hurts everyone, white people included. I don’t remember which podcast it was on which I originally heard her, but that’s become something of a moot point as since then she’s been on all the podcasts—especially lately since her book The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together came out. Since that first podcast I heard, she resigned as Demos’ president and traveled the U.S., speaking to hundreds of experts, activists, historians, and ordinary people. The Sum of Us is the result, and it makes her original argument in an exhaustively detailed and forceful manner. It is an eminently readable book: personal without being subjective, wonky without losing itself in the weeds, and both rigorously historical while still relating straightforward stories that persuasively bring home the societal costs of systemic racism. The one example she shares in her interviews functions as the book’s central metaphor: starting in the 1920s, the U.S. invested heavily in public projects and infrastructure, one thing being the construction of public pools. During the Depression, Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration (WPA) continued this trend, using such community investment to generate jobs. By the 1950s, towns and cities across the country boasted ever-larger and more lavish public pools, which became a point of pride for communities—pools large enough, in some cases, to admit thousands of swimmers.

But such pools were, of course, whites-only. With the advent of desegregation in the mid-late 50s, courts decreed that these public pools were legally obliged to admit Blacks. Town and city councils responded swiftly, voting to drain the pools and fill them in with dirt and seed them over with grass (in Georgia, the Parks and Recreation Department was simply eliminated, and was not resurrected for ten years). Affluent whites did not suffer: there was a concomitant boom in the construction of backyard pools and the establishment of private swimming clubs, which could effect de facto segregation by leaving membership decisions to the discretion of a governing board. But non-wealthy whites were suddenly left without a key option for summer recreation, all because their communities could not countenance sharing a publicly-funded pool with their Black citizens. In what is one of the pernicious elements of systemic racism, McGhee observes, many of the non-wealthy whites who could no longer bring their children to swim in one of these magnificent pools for free probably thought that this was a fair deal—better to go without than be obliged to share with people you’d been brought up to consider beneath you.

I am at present about halfway through The Sum of Us; look for a longer blog post when I’ve finished it. Meanwhile, I would suggest that this book should be required reading for our present moment.

What I’m Watching     I wrote in my last post about how much I’m enjoying rewatching Battlestar Galactica, but as Stephanie and I took a hiatus from that show to binge The Mandalorian, so again we’re taking a hiatus to watch The Stand­—the recent mini-series adaptation of Stephen King’s mammoth 1978 novel in which 99.9% of the world is wiped out by a weaponized superflu nicknamed “Captain Trips,” and the remaining people of the U.S. gather in two opposing communities. On one side are the forces of good, who have been drawn to Boulder, Colorado by dreams of a 108 year old Black woman named Mother Abigail. On the other are those drawn by promises of power, licentiousness, and revenge by the evil Randall Flagg, a denim-clad and cowboy-boot shod demon in human form, who establishes his new society in (of course) Las Vegas.

As I’ve discussed a few times on this blog, last term I taught a fourth year class on pandemic fiction; I did not include The Stand, in spite of the fact that it’s one of the few actual pandemic novels written prior to the 21st century, mainly because it is way too long (almost 1500 pages) to shoehorn into a semester-long course. Given its significance to the topic, however, I did record a short lecture in which I ran down the key themes and plot points (which you can watch here if you’re so inclined). But one of the things I found interesting in retrospect—I first read The Stand in high school, and then read it again when King published the unexpurgated version in 1990—after doing all the preparatory reading for my course, was how King transformed a story about a biological catastrophe into a Manichaean light v. dark, G v. E, cosmic battle royale with Mother Abigail as God’s surrogate and Randall Flagg as Satan’s proxy. While the novel meditated at length on the nature of civilization and how one pragmatically goes about rebuilding after the apocalypse—with 1500 pages, how could it not?—it is obvious that it’s the metaphysical war that most interested King.

We’re slightly more than halfway through the new adaptation, and quite enjoying it. It was quite badly reviewed; and while I can agree with some of the complaints, it has been on the whole well-adapted to the screen, and (mostly) well-cast. Alexander Skarsgard is at his menacing best as Randall Flagg, James Marsden is all wry southern charm as Texan Stu Redman, Greg Kinnear plays the professorial Glen Bateman with the right balance of pomposity and insight; Whoopi Goldberg basically plays Mother Abigail as a devoutly Christian Guinan with a head of white dreadlocks; my favourite however is Brad William Henke, who plays the mentally disabled Tom Cullen with a guileless, earnest simplicity that avoids stereotypes (those who watch Justified will recognize Henke from season two as Coover Bennett, a similarly mentally delayed character whose disability manifests instead in sociopathic violence).

There is much that is left out, and much that could have been done better, but on the whole it is a pretty satisfying adaptation of an intriguing but flawed novel (“intriguing but flawed” is how I’d characterize most of King’s oeuvre, but I suppose that is to be expected when you churn out an average of two brick-sized novels a year). If you like The Stand, or are just amenable to Stephen King more generally, I’d recommend this series.

What I’m Writing     I recently dusted off an article-in-progress that had been mouldering for a year or two, on zombie apocalypse and celebrity; in a fit of energy I finished it and submitted it to a journal. I now have another that I’m looking to finish, on Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven and nostalgia. Given that I’ll be doing that novel in both of my classes over the next two weeks, it seems an ideal time to return to it. Given that it is also about apocalypse, though of the non-zombie variety—and indeed about a civilization-ending pandemic—I’ve been trying to rewrite my introduction to put it in the context of the past year. It’s been slow going, not least because finding the right balance between the personal and the objective can be tricky when your aim is to submit it to a scholarly journal. But the overarching argument—that Mandel’s post-apocalyptic world in which the main characters are actors and musicians travelling between settlements to perform Shakespeare and classical music comprises a nostalgic desire to return to a pre-postmodern humanism—is, I think, a strong one. I just have to fill out a core section in which I discuss humanism in a more granular way.

(This process will also be useful, as it will give me a lot of lecture material).

On a related subject, I’ve also been working on a new essay on Terry Pratchett and Discworld. I have an article on Pratchett and his campaign for assisted dying coming out soon in a new collection; I’m trying to carry that momentum forward on a handful of Sir Terry essays, but the one I’ve been focusing on is a reading the Discworld novels in the context of the philosophy of American Pragmatism and what I’ve been calling the “magical humanism” exhibited in a lot of contemporary fantasy.

As much as I love Sir Terry’s writing, I find it difficult to write about it in a scholarly manner, for the basic reason that I find it difficult to find a focus and not end up running off madly in all directions. The essay I wrote for the collection, which came in way past deadline, needed to be cut from nine thousand words to six thousand (one of the essay’s blind reviewers said something to the effect of “this is obviously a piece of work gesturing to a much larger theory of Pratchett’s fiction,” which was at once both gratifying and true). Part of the problem is the iterative nature of the Discworld’s world-building: each  of the forty-one novels is a standalone narrative, and with each new installment, Sir Terry modified and refined aspects of that world, but also returned to the same themes and preoccupations in such a way that it is close to impossible to discuss the political and philosophical preoccupations of a given novel without being obliged to reference a dozen others.

This isn’t the most conducive thing for my intellectual temperament, which at the best of times is digressive and inclined to run down whatever rabbit holes I find, until I realize that, several paragraphs of writing on, I’ve found myself discussing an entirely different topic. (Presumably, devoted readers of this blog will have noticed this). That being said, however, it is a pleasure to lose myself in this topic … not least because I increasingly see Sir Terry’s humanism as a necessary antidote to our present toxic political moment.

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In Which I Mark the One-Year Anniversary of the Pandemic With Some Thoughts on Monarchy

I did not watch Oprah Winfrey’s much-hyped interview of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle for much the same reason I did not watch the two most recent royal weddings: I didn’t care. Especially at this point in time, between marking a year of pandemic and the ongoing reverberations of the Trump presidency, the travails of Harry and Meghan—even inasmuch as I sympathize with them against the Royal Family—don’t really do much to excite my imagination or interest.

On the other hand, the fallout from the interview, coupled with related issues and events, has piqued my interest indeed. That people will be instinctively partisan for one party or the other is about as unsurprising as learning that some people in “the Firm” fretted about whether or not Meghan’s first child would be dark-complexioned. Racism in the Royal Family? Get away! But of course, this particular charge was picked up by right-wing pundits as further evidence of “cancel culture” at work, and we’ve been treated to the bizarre spectacle of self-described red-blooded American patriots rushing to the defense of HRM Queen Elizabeth II.1

Someone might want to remind them just what those boys at Lexington and Concord died for. Or perhaps tell them to watch Hamilton.

Notably, the one person emerging not just unscathed but burnished from the interview was the Queen herself—both Harry and Meghan were careful to say that none of the difficulties they’ve experienced emanated from her, and that she has indeed been the one person who is blameless (some reports have read between the lines and extrapolated that the Queen was prescient enough to have given Harry funds to see him through being cut off financially).

Leaving aside for the moment the possibility, or possibly even the likelihood, that this is entirely true, this sympathy is reflective of a broader reluctance to be critical of Elizabeth II. Even the 2006 film The Queen, starring Helen Mirren in the title role, which was all about the Palace’s cold and inept response to the shocking death of Diana, ended up painting a vaguely sympathetic portrait (though to be fair, that has a lot to do with the virtuosity of Helen Mirren). And The Crown (created and written by Peter Morgan, who wrote The Queen), which is largely unsparing of all the other royals and their courtiers, generally depicts Elizabeth as a victim of circumstance who spends her life doing her level best to do her royal duty and constrained by this very sense of duty from being a more compassionate and loving human.

The Queen is a person whom, I would argue, people tend to see through a nostalgic lens: nostalgia, in this case, for a form of stiff-upper-lip, keep-calm-and-carry-on Britishness memorialized in every WWII film ever—something seen as lost in the present day, along with Britannia’s status in the world. As we have seen in much of the pro-Brexit rhetoric, these two losses are not perceived as unrelated; and seeing Queen Elizabeth as the cornerstone of an ever-more-fractured Royal Family is a comforting anchor, but one that grows more tenuous as she ages.

There’s an episode in season four of The Crown that articulates this sensibility. In it, Elizabeth, having grown concerned that her children might not appreciate the scale and scope of the duties they’ve inherited, meets with each of them in turn and is perturbed by their feckless selfishness. Charles is in the process of destroying his marriage to Diana; Andrew is reckless in his passions; Anne is consumed by resentment and anger; and Edward is at once isolated by his royal status at school and indulgent in his royal privilege. Though her disappointment in her spawn is never put into words, it is obvious (Olivia Coleman can convey more with her facial expressions than I can in ten thousand words), and The Crown effectively indicts the younger generation of royals as unworthy of their status, and definitely unworthy of the throne.

This, I think, is where we’re at right now with Harry and Meghan’s interview. I’ve joked on occasion that “shocked but not surprised” should be the title of the definitive history of the Trump presidency, but it might also function as a general sentiment for this particular epoch. It is difficult, precisely, to put one’s finger on the substance of the outrage over Meghan’s revelations, aside from an instinctive royalist animus directed at anyone with the temerity to criticize the monarchy. This is why, perhaps, some (<cough> <cough> PIERS MORGAN <cough>) have simply chosen to call bullshit on Meghan Markle’s story of mental health issues and suicidal ideation;2 but it was the charge of racism that seems to have becomes the most ubiquitous bee in a whole lot of bonnets. Shocking, yes; surprising, no. The entire British colonial enterprise was predicated on the premise of white English supremacy, and royalty of all different nationalities has always been assiduous in policing their bloodlines. Prior to the divorce of Charles and Diana amid revelations of his relationship with Camilla Parker-Bowles, the greatest scandal the British monarchy had weathered was the abdication of Edward VIII so he could marry his American divorcée paramour, Wallis Simpson. Meghan Markle, it has been noted by many, ticks two of those scandalous boxes insofar as she is American and a divorcée.

She is also, to use postcolonial theorist Homi Bhabha’s phrasing, “not white/not quite.” Which is to say, she is biracial, and as such will never thus be qualified to be a royal in a stubborn subsection of the British cultural imagination.

Wallis Simpson and the man who might have been king.

The fascination many people have with the British Royal Family—especially among those who aren’t British—has always baffled me more than a little. But on honest reflection, I suppose I shouldn’t be baffled. In spite of the fact that hereditary monarchy is an objectively terrible form of governance, it is also one of the most durable throughout history. Human beings, it seems, are suckers for dynastic power, in spite of the illogic of its premise; as the late great Christopher Hitchens wryly observed, being the eldest son of a dentist does not somehow confer upon you the capacity to be a dentist. And yet down through the centuries, people have accepted that the eldest son (and occasionally daughter) of the current monarch had the right to assume the most important job in the nation on that monarch’s passing.

Of course, “right” and “ability” don’t always intersect, and there have been good, bad, and indifferent kings and queens down through history (of course, being democratically elected is no guarantee of governing ability, but at least the people have the option of cancelling your contract every few years). For every Henry V there’s a Richard III, and we’re equally fascinated by both, while mediocre kings and queens who preside over periods of relative peace don’t tend to get the dramatic treatment.

Indeed, on even just a brief reflection, it’s kind of amazing at just how pervasive the trope of monarchy is in literature and popular culture more broadly. It is unsurprising that Shakespeare, for example, would have made kings and queens the subject of many of his plays—that was, after all, the world in which he lived—but the persistence of hereditary monarchy in the 20th century cultural imagination is quite remarkable. It’s pretty much a staple of fantasy, as the very title of Game of Thrones attests; but where George R.R. Martin’s saga and its televisual adaptation are largely (but sadly not ultimately)3 rooted in a critique of the divine right of kings and the concept of the “chosen one,” the lion’s share of the genre rests in precisely the comfort bestowed by the idea that there is a true king out there perfectly suited to rule justly and peaceably.

More pervasive and pernicious than Shakespearean or Tolkienesque kings and queens, however, is the Disney princess-industrial complex. Granted, the fairy-tale story of the lowly and put-upon girl finding her liberatory prince pre-dates Walt Disney’s animated empire by centuries, but I think we can all agree that Disney has at once expanded, amplified, and sanded down the sharp edges of the princesses’ folkloric origins—all while inculcating in millions of children the twinned conceptions of royalistic destiny and the heteronormative gender roles associated with hereditary nobility (to be fair to Disney, it has done better with such recent excursions as Brave and Frozen—possibly the best endorsement of the latter’s progressiveness is the fact that Jordan Peterson loathes it). It’s telling that Disney’s most prominent branding image isn’t Mickey Mouse, but the Disney castle,4 a confection of airy spires and towers that any medievalist would tell you defeats the purpose of having a castle to start with. Even your more inept horde of barbarians would have little difficulty storming those paper-thin defenses, but then it’s not the bulwarks and baileys that are important, but the towers … the towers, built to entrap fair maidens until their rescuing princes can slip the lock or scale the wall.

I have to imagine that a large part of the obsession over royal weddings proceeds from precisely this happy-ending narrative on which the Mouse has built its house: the sumptuous spectacle of excess and adulation that evokes, time and again, Cinderella’s arrival at the ball. The disruption of this mythos is at once discomforting and titillating: Diana’s 1995 interview presaged Harry and Meghan’s with its revelations of constraint and isolation, and the active antagonism of both the Royal Family and its functionaries toward any sort of behaviour that might reflect badly upon it—even if that behaviour simply entailed seeking help for mental health issues. There have been many think-pieces breaking down which elements of The Crown are fact and which are fiction, but it is at this point fairly well established wisdom that being born a Windsor—or marrying into the family—is no picnic. And while Meghan’s claim that she never Googled Harry or his family strains credulity, I think it’s probably safe to say that no matter how much research one does, the realities of royal life almost certainly beggar the imagination.

Also, The Crown was only in its second season when Meghan married Harry.

I confess that, aside from the very first episode, I did not watch the first three seasons of The Crown, the principal reason being that I couldn’t get my girlfriend Stephanie into the show. While I may be more or less indifferent to the British monarchy, Stephanie is actively hostile5 to it. Born in South Africa, she and her family came to Canada when she was fourteen; having imbibed an antipathy to her birth nation’s colonizer that is far more diffuse in Canada, she gritted her teeth through the part of her citizenship oath in which she had to declare loyalty to the Queen. Her love of Gillian Anderson (Stephanie is, among her other endearing qualities, the biggest X-Files fan I’ve ever met) overcame her antipathy, however, for season four, and so we gleefully watched the erstwhile Agent Scully transformed into the Iron Lady spar with Olivia Colman’s Queen Elizabeth (we’re also pretty sympatico on our love of Olivia Colman). With each episode, we reliably said (a) Olivia, for the love of Marmite, don’t make us sympathetic with the Queen!; (b) Gillian, please don’t make us feel sympathy for/vague attraction to Margaret Thatcher!; and, (c) Holy crap, Emma Corrin looks so much like Lady Di!

It will be interesting to see The Crown catch up with the present moment. But I also have to wonder if some commentators are right when they say that the Harry and Meghan split from the Firm signals the end of the British monarchy? To my mind, by all rights it should: it’s long past time this vestige of colonial hubris went into that good night. We’ve got enough anti-democratic energy to deal with in the present moment without also concerning ourselves with a desiccated monarchy. When Queen Elizabeth dies, with her dies the WWII generation. The Second World War transformed the world in countless ways, one of them being that it spelled the end of the British Empire and the diminution of Great Britain’s influence in the world. Brexit is, among other things, a reactionary response to this uncomfortable reality, and a vain, desperate attempt to reassert Britannia’s greatness. Across the pond, fellow nativists in the U.S.  have latched onto Meghan Markle’s accusations of racism to make common cause with the monarchy. Not, perhaps, because they’ve forgotten the lessons of 1776, but most likely because they never learned them to start with.

NOTES

1. Perhaps the stupidest defense came from Fox and Friends’ co-host Brian Kilmeade, who opined that the fact that British Commonwealth countries are “75% Black and minority” demonstrated that the Royal Family could not possibly be racist. Leaving aside the pernicious history of colonialism and the kind of white paternalism epitomized by the Rudyard Kipling poem “White Man’s Burden,” can we perhaps agree that Kilmeade’s juxtaposition of “75%” and “minority” sort of gives the game away?

2. I’ve always felt that Piers Morgan was the result of a lab experiment in which a group of scientists got together to create the most perfect distillation of an asshole. Even if we grant his premise that Meghan Markle is, in fact, a status-seeking social climber who has basically Yoko Ono’ed Prince Harry out of the Royal Family, his constant ad hominem attacks on her say more about his own inadequacies than hers. And for the record, I do not grant his premise: to borrow his own turn of phrase, I wouldn’t believe Piers Morgan if he was reading a weather report.

3. We may never know how George R.R. Martin means to end his saga—at the rate he’s going, he’ll be writing into his 90s, and I don’t like his actuarial odds—but we do know how the series ended. The last-minute transformation of Daenerys into a tyrant who needed to be killed could conceivably have been handled better if the showrunners had allowed for two or three more episodes to bring us there; but the aftermath was also comparably rushed, and Sam Tarly’s democratic suggestion for egalitarian Westrosi governance was laughed off without any consideration. I will maintain to my dying day that GRRM effectively transformed fantasy, but also that he was too much in thrall to its core tropes to wander too far from their monarchical logic.

4. I recently bought a Disney+ streaming subscription in order to watch The Mandalorian. While writing this post, I remembered that Hamilton’s sole authorized video recording is Disney property. So of course I immediately clicked over to Disney+ to watch parts of it, and was treated to the irony of a play about the American revolutionary war to overthrow monarchical tyranny prefaced by Disney’s graphic of its castle adorned with celebratory fireworks.

5. When I read this paragraph to Stephanie, she liked all of it but objected to my use of the word “hostile.” “I don’t actually hate the Royal Family,” she said. “I don’t wish them harm. I just find the entire idea pointless and antiquated, and it embodies some of the worst aspects of British history.” So: she’s not hostile to the Royal Family, but I’m at a loss to find a better word, especially considering the invective she hurls at England during the World Cup.

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The Reality of QAnon

I was reading an article about QAnon in Politico yesterday. This, as anyone who has read this blog over the past few months knows, is hardly unusual for me. What struck me about this article, however—“When QAnon Invades American Homes” by Anastasiia Carrier, which is all about people who have lost family members to the Q-cult—was a more profound sense of how this patently absurd conspiracy theory is genuinely infectious, indoctrinating people to the point where their closest loved ones have to decide whether to abandon them. The article tells the story of Emily and her husband Peter (not their real names); forced by the pandemic to work from home, Peter started going down the rabbit hole of QAnon message boards and YouTube videos. Emily was vaguely aware of QAnon, but it was only this past October that, slowly realizing the hold it had on her husband’s imagination, she sat down and watched a handful of videos he’d been talking about: “That was when she learned that her husband had been consumed by a complex and false conspiracy theory that accuses ‘deep state elites’ of running a secret pedophile ring. By then, it was too late to pull him out.”

Emily’s husband, whom she loved dearly and who she described as having previously been a compassionate and attentive man, had become a stranger to her, treating her with anger and disdain—sometimes in front of their children—when she pushed back on his newfound bigotry and the assertion that such people as Tom Hanks were pedophiles. “I was told that I buried my head in the sand and couldn’t see the ‘real’ problems,” she says.

Eventually, Emily found her way to a Redditt forum called “QAnonCasualties,” in which people like her who have had loved ones become obsessed with the absurd conspiracy theory share their experiences and console one another. Her relief at finding a space to share her grief was mitigated by just how many others like her there were:

Emily is just one of thousands who have found their way to r/QAnonCasualties. Started in 2019 by a Reddit user whose mother was a part of the “Qult,” the subreddit has ballooned in popularity over the past year,growing from less than a thousand followers in February 2020 to more than 133,000 in February 2021. The group’s followers more than doubled in the weeks following the Capitol riot alone. And as QAnon continues to spread—about 30 percent of Republicans have favorable views about the conspiracy theory, according to a January poll by YouGov—so does the forum’s reach.

Such numbers are shocking, not least because the basic elements of the QAnon conspiracy are so objectively absurd. It is, indeed, all too easy to dismiss QAnon: while it has become increasingly baroque in all its moving parts, its most basic premise is that Donald Trump has been working surreptitiously to foil a monstrous cabal that includes the Deep State, prominent Democrats (especially the Obamas and the Clintons) and the Hollywood elite, all of whom are accused of being pedophiles who sex-traffic children and drink their blood for the purpose of prolonging their lives. Some day soon (March is now the new forecast, apparently, after many disappointments) Trump will emerge to declare martial law and bring such malefactors as Hillary Clinton and Tom Hanks to justice. This much-anticipated event is referred to as “The Storm.”

Conspiracy theory and conspiracism is nothing new, especially not in American culture, a point made quite thoroughly in Richard Hofstadter’s landmark 1965 essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” Like so much else in the age of social media, QAnon is not different in kind but in degree—it is a massive amplification of tendencies that have been around for centuries. That amplification is not merely one of size and scope, but also of its adherents’ devotion. As detailed in the Politico article, QAnon is very much a cult, and like most cults it features a leader in whom the cultists invest all of their hopes and adoration—Donald Trump. Indeed, if there is one aspect in which QAnon differs from most conspiracy theories, it is in its figuration of a saviour figure leading the fight against the malevolent conspirators.

What is also remarkable about QAnon is how it functions as an all-encompassing sort of “key to all mythologies” for the conspiracism-inclined, welcoming any and all other extant conspiracies: 9/11 trutherism, anti-vax rhetoric, the old chestnut about lizard people, anti-Semitic and white supremacist fantasies about malevolent globalists, paranoia about world government, “the Great Replacement,” and of course the more recent assertion that Biden’s election was the result of election fraud on a massive scale. The alacrity with which QAnon incorporates such disparate threads keeps me coming back around to Umberto Eco’s 1988 novel Foucault’s Pendulum, which now comes to seem prophetic—not least because, like all good prophecies, it deals entirely with things that have already happened.

The novel is about a trio of young, overeducated and underemployed graduate students, who find themselves working at a scam publishing house. The publisher’s business model is to lavish praise on submitted manuscripts—which find their way there because they’ve been rejected by all respectable publishers for being ludicrous, awful, or clinically insane—and then charge the starry-eyed authors an exorbitant sum to publish their books (with the assurance that their inevitable massive success will soon earn their investment back). They then only print a fraction of the run promised while pocketing the extra cash.

As you might imagine, the manuscript submissions they receive are largely the work of execrable novelists and crackpots—many of whom in the latter category are conspiracy theorists determined to share with the public their earth-shattering exposés of the Templars, the Illuminati, the Freemasons, the Elders of Zion, or a host of other shadowy cabals responsible for anything and everything that happens in the world. Our trio of disaffected intellectuals—Belbo, Casaubon, and Diotallevi—are predictably disdainful of these authors, referring to them as the “Diabolicals.” For their own entertainment, they create a narrative-building computer program into which they input the plots outlined in these manuscripts, building them into a massive, overarching conspiracy theory they simply call The Plan.

TL;DR: the Diabolicals catch wind of The Plan, and conclude that these too-clever-by-half smartarses actually hold the key to the secrets they’ve been seeking all this time. Determined to know the “truth” of The Plan, they pursue our heroes, whose lives are now in danger.

Or to put it another way: our heroes create a conspiracy theory so compelling that all those who “want to believe” essentially give it substance through their belief.

In this respect, Foucault’s Pendulum tells a story in six hundred pages that Jorge Luis Borges told in less than fifteen. In Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, the narrator stumbles across a secret project begun by an eccentric American millionaire to exhaustively imagine a planet—“Tlön”—over forty volumes of an encyclopedia, because “he wanted to demonstrate to this nonexistent God that mortal man was capable of conceiving a world.” When the encyclopedia makes it out into the world, people are so captivated by the planet of Tlön that they allow it to infect their minds and displace reality:

Almost immediately, reality yielded on more than one account. The truth is that it longed to yield. Ten years ago any symmetry with a semblance of order—dialectical materialism, anti-Semitism, Nazism—was sufficient to entrance the minds of men. How could one do other than submit to Tlön, to the minute and vast evidence of an orderly planet?

Borges’ allegory is not less troubling for being heavy-handed; neither is Eco’s (whose debt to Borges is writ large in all his fiction). QAnon might be a cult, but it is a cult that needs no suave and persuasive recruiters who target vulnerable new acolytes—that work is done by the algorithms of social media, and the ease with which reality yields in our current cultural and political environment. In Foucault’s Pendulum, the character of Casaubon outlines the basic rules for constructing a conspiracy theory:

Rule One: Concepts are connected by analogy. There is no way to decide at once whether an analogy is good or bad, because to some degree everything is connected to something else. For example, potato crosses with apple, because both are vegetable and round in shape …
Rule Two says that if tout se tient in the end, then the connecting works … So it’s right.
Rule Three: the connections must not be original. They must have been made before, and the more often the better, by others. Only then do the crossings seem true, because they are Obvious.

Tout se tient—“everything fits.” Or, as Thomas Pynchon phrased it in Gravity’s Rainbow (aka the Ulysses of conspiracy novels), “paranoia … is the leading edge of the awareness that everything is connected.” Paranoia lends itself, ironically, to inclusivity; almost anything can function as evidence for the truth of one’s paranoid projections. One of the most striking examples of this was detailed by Michael Kelly in a New Yorker article from 1995, titled “The Road to Paranoia,” in which he profiled the Militia of Montana (MOM), one of the many anti-government paramilitary groups that proliferated in the 1990s. The militia’s bible was what they called “the Blue Book,” which purported to contain the proof of the U.S. government’s ultimate plot to disenfranchise American citizens, take their guns, and accede to world government under the U.N. As Kelly observed, however, the Blue Book was in fact

an ordinary three-ring binder to which [MOM] is always busily adding what [they] regard as further evidence of conspiracy, so that it bulges like an eccentric lawyer’s briefcase with scraps of this and that, from here and there, which purport to show that the globalists’ scheme to subvert American sovereignty and American citizens to vassalage is in its final hours.

Exhibits in “The Blue Book” ranged from newspaper clippings to UN development reports (in which the conspirators openly discuss world government), photographs of the notorious black helicopters, and an illustrated map of the US taken from the back of a 1993 Kix cereal box. MOM’s leaders declared that the division of the states shown in this last item—eleven regions, such as the mountain region, the coasts, the Heartland, etc.—was “a representation of the New World Order plan for dividing the United States into regional departments after the invaders emerge to take over the country.”

The Militia of Montana’s Blue Book is as apt a metaphor for QAnon’s all-encompassing umbrella of conspiracism as any, though it’s probably safe to say that the sheer volume of connections it makes probably wouldn’t fit in a single binder—as some industrious chart-makers have shown us.

 The most troubling aspect of the Borges/Eco allegory is the prospect of how easy it would be for QAnon to become reality. I don’t mean that somehow the power of its adherents’ belief could literally transform the Obamas and Clintons into pedophiles—hopefully that’s obvious—but how it could become the accepted reality under certain circumstances. The ubiquity of QAnon followers taking part in the Capitol assault should give us pause, almost as much as the assault itself should. The numbers cited in the Politico article most likely reflect a spectrum ranging from passionate believers to people who don’t necessarily buy into the Q myth, but who wouldn’t be surprised to find out it is true; one doesn’t have to imagine a violent coup to overthrow the Biden Administration, but a 2024 election in which Trump cruises back to power with a supine Justice Department infested with Q-cultists, who begin legal proceedings against all of Q’s villains. The unrest that would greet such a scenario would be met by armed Trumpists who spent the previous four years nursing their sense of grievance and hatreds, and martial law could be invoked … at which point the show trials of the Deep Staters, the pedophile Democrats, and Hollywood elite could proceed. Reality would yield.

I want to be clear that I don’t think this is a likely scenario. It is, indeed, a highly unlikely scenario. But in a nation where thirty percent of Republicans find amenable the idea that Hillary Clinton drinks the blood of children, it is not unimaginable.

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The Mafioso-in-Chief

In the virtuosic opening sequence of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, we are treated to a sumptuous and lavish wedding reception. Present is Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) and his girlfriend Kay (Diane Keaton). Michael wears a Marines dress uniform; the Second World War has recently ended. In his conversation with Kay, Michael notes that his father Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando), a powerful mafia Don, was none too pleased with Michael’s enlistment. At the end of Godfather II, we get a flashback to the moment when Michael reveals to his brothers that he has enlisted. His eldest brother Sonny (James Caan) is incensed—immediately prior to Michael’s revelation, he had been going on about how people volunteering to go fight in the war were “saps,” because they’re risking their lives “for strangers.” Michael counters, “They’re risking their lives for their country.” “Your country ain’t your blood,” Sonny snaps back. “Don’t you forget that!”

Within the limited economy of organized crime, especially crime organized around family connections, Sonny’s perspective makes a certain amount of sense. If there is no higher loyalty than family, and the family’s prosperity, signing up to fight for a country whose laws the family in question flouts and rejects is, at best, an act of stupidity; at worst, of betrayal.

Michael Corleone will of course become the new Don by the end of the first Godfather, and become one of the most compellingly villainous anti-heroes in American film. But at the outset, nothing sets him apart from his family more, and nothing invites audience sympathy more, than his uniform. One of the great tensions at work in the Godfather films is this contrast between the blood ties of family and the abstractions of nation—given that politics is depicted as being as much of a scam as the rackets of organized crime, with law enforcement and elected officials all having their own price, the only real, authentic connections one has are to family. But like much art that challenges prevailing cultural mythologies, The Godfather uses Michael’s enlistment and his family’s anger at it in the service of troubling audience perception—the contrast between the gorgeous wedding reception and the usually-universal approbation attached to a WWII uniform, here the mark of Michael’s shame.

This week in The Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg published an article citing a variety of anonymous sources who quote Donald Trump echoing Sonny Corleone on numerous occasions. Referencing the time Trump cancelled a visit to the Aisne-Marne American cemetery in 2018, during the centennial of the end of WWI in Paris, because of “rain,” Goldberg writes:

Trump rejected the idea of the visit because he feared his hair would become disheveled in the rain, and because he did not believe it important to honor American war dead, according to four people with firsthand knowledge of the discussion that day. In a conversation with senior staff members on the morning of the scheduled visit, Trump said, “Why should I go to that cemetery? It’s filled with losers.” In a separate conversation on the same trip, Trump referred to the more than 1,800 marines who lost their lives at Belleau Wood as “suckers” for getting killed.

I’m beginning to think that “Shocked but not Surprised” should be the title of the definitive history of the Trump presidency.

The White House has of course denied these allegations and condemned Goldberg’s article, so I suppose we must in good faith acknowledge the possibility that his sources were, for reasons passing understanding, all lying. And indeed, it would be difficult to credit that any sitting U.S. president would voice such thoughts aloud. To anybody. Ever. Even if they were genuine sentiments.

But of course we’ve heard such things from Trump before, such as when he denied that John McCain was a war hero, because “I like people who weren’t captured.” Or his attacks on the parents of Humayun Khan, an Army officer was killed in Iraq, for having the temerity to speak for the Democrats at the 2016 convention. Or, as was detail in Philip Rucker and Carol Leonig’s book A Very Stable Genius, when he called the assembled Pentagon brass who were trying to give him a crash course in geopolitics, “a bunch of dopes and losers.” Or, when he saw that the White House flags had been lowered to half-staff when John McCain died, he exploded, “What the fuck are we doing that for? Guy was a fucking loser.”

The point here isn’t that we unequivocally owe military personnel our respect and reverence—I would, indeed, argue that the “thank you for your service” default setting, which allows people to be utterly unreflective about the nuances of uniformed life, is about as harmful as the reflexive hostility of anti-Vietnam protesters—but to observe, with an exhausted sigh, that these most impolitic of thoughts on Trump’s part only serve to reinforce what we know about the President’s narcissism and sociopathic self-regard. Perhaps the most appalling distillation of this is summed up by another tidbit from Goldberg’s article:

On Memorial Day 2017, Trump visited Arlington National Cemetery, a short drive from the White House. He was accompanied on this visit by John Kelly, who was then the secretary of homeland security, and who would, a short time later, be named the White House chief of staff. The two men were set to visit Section 60, the 14-acre area of the cemetery that is the burial ground for those killed in America’s most recent wars. Kelly’s son Robert is buried in Section 60. A first lieutenant in the Marine Corps, Robert Kelly was killed in 2010 in Afghanistan. He was 29. Trump was meant, on this visit, to join John Kelly in paying respects at his son’s grave, and to comfort the families of other fallen service members. But according to sources with knowledge of this visit, Trump, while standing by Robert Kelly’s grave, turned directly to his father and said, “I don’t get it. What was in it for them?”

Part of me doesn’t want to believe this. Not just the sentiment, but the fact that anyone would say as much to the father of a dead soldier while standing at the graveside.

Part of my doesn’t want to believe it, but at the same time, I have no difficulty believing it—not because, as some might charge, I’m invested in thinking the worst about Trump, but because he has, during the five years since announcing him campaign, given me no reason whatsoever to disbelieve it. Everything Trump does is transactional—as I said in my last post, he has made it obvious that his worldview is absolutely zero-sum. To paraphrase John Goodman in The Big Lebowski: say what you will about Sonny Corleone, but at least he had an ethos. Trump’s business and Trump’s presidency have both been compared more times than I can count to mafia-style operations; but to my mind, Trump et al are the mob at the end of the movie, when all of the original bonds of family and loyalty have been frayed by corruption and graft and over-reach. There was a time when I thought Goodfellas was a superior film to The Godfather and its sequels, because it seemed to me that, where Coppola romanticized his mafiosi, Scorsese was far more clear-eyed in depicting their sociopathy and moral bankruptcy. I’ve since come around on that: the decline and fall of Michael Corleone is the subtler of the two tales, not least because it showed how, criminal though the Corleone enterprise might have been, it had its roots not just in family, but a community at once ignored and victimized by an indifferent nation.

If the history of Fred Trump, Sr. and his successor Donald has showed anything, it’s that there was never that originary matrix of family and community. As Mary Trump details, the Trump legacy was never not zero-sum.

What was in it for them? Trump isn’t just asking that of dead soldiers. He’s asking it of anybody who does anything not just for themselves. He’s asking it of anybody who takes on a job whose labour and effort exceeds the fiscal reward—teachers, nurses, EMTs, firefighters, social workers—but which is done in the name of helping others, of serving a community. In Trump’s worldview, they’re all suckers.

And I think what’s most frustrating in the present moment is that his most ardent supporters—those that aren’t rich, that is—don’t grasp that he thinks the same thing about them. He loves their adulation, but was never about to stand for four hours of selfies like Elizabeth Warren did, or hear their stories. His attitude is best summed up by Bono, of all people, who told Jimmy Kimmel, “”He likes to see their faces in the crowd, but I don’t think he wants to know who they are when they go home.”

Of course he doesn’t. They’re not people to be served, they’re means to an end.

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Isolated Thoughts: Pandemic Reading

I’d been wracking my brain trying to figure out how to theme the fourth-year contemporary American literature seminar I’m teaching in the Fall, when I realized the obvious topic was right in front of me: Pandemic Fiction! Having taught a course a few years ago on post-apocalyptic narratives, I already had a handful of titles under my belt. A quick internet search yielded an embarrassment of riches, and I put in an online order for some that seemed likely candidates.

pandemic reading

(Possibilities not pictured: Katherine Ann Porter’s 1938 novella about the Spanish Flu, Pale Horse, Pale Rider; Jack London’s weird post-plague dystopia The Scarlet Plague [1912]; and Philip  Roth’s last novel, Nemesis [2010], about a polio outbreak in 1945 New Jersey).

When I mentioned on Facebook that I’d decided on pandemic fiction for my course, the response was pretty uniformly enthusiastic. Some people asked me to post the reading list when I’d finalized it; a few others, some of them former students, wistfully said that would be a course they’d love to take. And more than one person said it would likely be a course that would draw in a lot of students.

I think it will, but I also think there will be a not-insignificant number of students who will, as I commented back, “avoid it like the plague.” (The bad joke was unintentional, but apt). For everyone who might welcome the perspective a course on pandemic fiction might offer on our current moment, I’m sure are those who would much rather not either revisit the coronavirus experience or deal with such fictionalizations during an ongoing crisis (fingers crossed pretty damn hard for the first eventuality).

It’s an odd quirk of human idiosyncrasies that some of us lean into fictional figurations of crisis in response to the experience of a real one, while others most emphatically do not. It makes me think of the way in which, after September 11th, Clear Channel distributed a memo to all its radio stations listing the songs they were to avoid playing because they might evoke thoughts of the attack (including some truly bizarre choices, like “We Gotta Get Out of this Place,” or risible ones, like “Walk Like An Egyptian”), and movie studios froze production or postponed release of films depicting terrorism or large-scale destruction; meanwhile, video stores (remember those?) reported that movies like Armageddon and Independence Day were constantly being rented. In the present moment, one of the highest-trending offerings on Netflix has consistently been Contagion, Stephen Soderbergh’s 2010 film about a pandemic. I have seen a significant number of discussions of this sort of thing on social media, i.e. people soliciting pandemic/apocalypse/dystopian themed isolation viewing, as well as people voicing incredulity that anyone would want to watch or read such stuff in the present moment.

I suppose it doesn’t come as a great galloping shock that I fall into the former category, and not just because I need to read a bunch of titles and make final reading list decisions before the call comes from the English Department to submit our book orders for the Fall (usually, that happens early-mid May). Speaking personally, it’s not the fictional representations of pandemic that bother my soul, but the daily news that makes me afraid for my blood pressure. As I mentioned in my initial “isolated thoughts” post, what narrative tends to offer is catharsis; it is, to paraphrase Fredric Jameson (my copy of The Political Unconscious is currently in my campus office and thus inaccessible), the symbolic resolution of irreconcilable real-world contradictions … even when that resolution entails something putatively negative, like a pair of sclerotic old men in a Beckett play, or the wholesale destruction of society in a zombie apocalypse.

In the latter, at least you might get to use a crossbow.

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Isolated Thoughts: What’s Next?

THE WEST WING, clockwise from top left: Janel Moloney, Stockard Channing, John Spencer, Dule Hill, B

I find myself missing The West Wing. I don’t miss it because I can’t watch it (Netflix might have dropped it, but I have the first four seasons on DVD); I miss it because I can’t watch it in the way I did when it first aired, or when it was comfort food TV to rewatch over the years, or when I turned to it as solace in the aftermath of Trump’s victory. The series is, of course, fantasy—liberal utopianism of the highest order that is (or was during the Sorkin seasons) unapologetically earnest and invested in the ideals of intellect, expertise, and good governance. Like all of Aaron Sorkin’s television series, it depicted extremely smart people who are extremely good at their jobs, and who place high value on the work they do. And for all of the unrealistic, soaring rhetoric spoken in perfect paragraphs, it always foregrounded the conviction that democracy functions best when forged by smart, committed people arguing with each other in good faith. At its worst, the show could be pedantic, implying that all wrong-headed people needed was one more lecture to bring them around; at its best, it embodied a credo voiced by Robert Guillame’s character on Sports Night, Sorkin’s first series: “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.”

Honestly, can you imagine anything that would be more anathema to Donald Trump? Any more than you can imagine Trump employing President Jed Bartlett (Martin Sheen)’s oft-iterated prompt, “What’s next?”

One thing The West Wing gets right that many former White House aides and staffers have pointed to is the hectic, breakneck pace the contemporary presidency; this is something perhaps best exemplified by the series’ oftparodied but directorially bravura “walk and talk” sequences, in which meetings happen on the fly at breakneck speed through the West Wing. “What’s next?” became Bartlett’s catch phrase indicating the completion of one item of business and the imperative to move on (consonant with “what’s next?” was the admonition “break’s over!”).

I have a hat, which I purchased from the podcast The West Wing Weekly’s online merch store, that asks “What’s Next?” However, given that I bought it about two years into Trump’s presidency, the sentiment is now less about wanting to move on to the next thing on the agenda, than it is something of an expression of existential dread. The unspoken words in the middle are “what could possibly be next?” and the tone one of baffled incredulity, as the cumulative effect of the Trump presidency piles up more detritus at the feet of Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History.

what's next?

What’s next? The other day I vented on Facebook about Donald Trump’s new custom of holding two-hour press conferences, in which he shares the latest “news” about the pandemic and the response to it; and while he periodically gives over the lectern to experts, business leaders, and Mike Pence, these briefings are really just The Trump Show, something to substitute for his rallies, which are, along with Twitter, his preferred method of communication. He obviously relishes having a captive audience, and frequently boasts of his ratings; but he just as obviously misses the adulation of his rally crowds, and gets sulky and resentful of the fact that the handful of carefully spaced reporters won’t congratulate him on doing an amazing job and indeed have the audacity to challenge his assertions and pose “nasty questions.”

What led to my Facebook rant was the sudden realization that Trump is giving over two hours out of his day, every day, to conduct his infomercials (a recent one of which literally included a campaign-style montage of Trump looking decisive and the media looking dishonest). What surprised me about the realization was that it hadn’t happened sooner, that I hadn’t really thought “this isn’t normal” from the moment Trump started running the coronavirus task force briefings. Well, I suppose I did think that, but it was such a relatively minor blip in the overwhelming noise of the Trump Experience, that it did not register as significant. But on reflection, it serves to exemplify so much about the discordance of this moment in time.

Put simply, taking two hours out of the day to address the press is not something presidents do—that’s why they have a large staff of people, including communications directors and press secretaries, and the small armies of experts from across the executive branch and the military, whose job it is to keep the public informed. The president only emerges on occasion, to make announcements of significance; previous presidents might make themselves available at a press conference once or twice every few weeks, and they rarely talk for long, for the simple reason that they have shit to do. The American presidency, John Dickerson writes in The Atlantic is “The Hardest Job in the World,” perhaps untenably so, which is why it is typical to watch presidents age in real-time, emerging at the end of their term(s) with grey hair and wan, lined faces.

We are by now however quite familiar with Trump’s lack of interest in the job and his utter incuriosity with anything that does not flatter him: chafing at any briefing lasting more than a few minutes; aides instructed to reduce the their notes to a single page of bullet points, and to include colourful pictures and charts, and press clippings that mention Trump favourably; his contempt for expertise and his unfounded confidence in his own instincts; his lack of preparation with any scripted remarks, obviously reading them for the first time as they scroll up the teleprompter; and above all his monumental laziness, with hours of his day given over to “executive time,” which numerous anonymous sources have confirmed as essentially Trump watching cable news, about which he live-tweets.

I suppose if there will have been any benefit to the Trump saga in the aftermath of this debacle, it could well be the definitive demolition of certain myths and illusions that have sustained the status quo for so long, not the least of which is the false premise of The West Wing that the key players within a democratic system might disagree, but operate on a basis of rationality and good faith. It’s a nice thought, but Trump disproves it—not so much through his own behaviour as by the simple fact of his election, and the rise of his army of opportunists, sycophants, enablers, and cultish adherents, whose only concerns are the arrogation of more power to them and their donors, basking in the reflected orange glow of their god-king, and owning the libs.

Trump should not be possible. The fact that he was, and is, makes it difficult to find comfort in Sorkin’s idealism, not least because it exposes to me my own oblivious privilege. After Trump won, white liberals like me were stunned and caught flat-footed. You know who wasn’t surprised that a critical mass of white people would pull the lever for Trump? Everyone else—people of colour, undocumented immigrants, queer folk, women, the working poor … anyone for whom the illusion of people in power arguing in good faith has always been obviously an illusion.

 

“What’s next?” is now the most important question. What does a post-coronavirus and (oh gods, please) a post-Trump world look like? We need to resist formulation of “getting back to normal.” Normal gave us Trump.

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Three reflections on the occasion of Remembrance Day

Don’t mention the war!

Last week in my fourth-year seminar, we covered Tim O’Brien’s book The Things They Carried—a not-quite-a-novel, not-quite-a-memoir about his experiences as a combat soldier in the Vietnam War. It’s an extraordinary piece of work that I recommend to everyone. I prefaced our discussion as I always do whenever I teach a text about war, with an anecdote about James Joyce living in Zurich during the First World War: when asked why his current project (which was to be an obscure little novel titled Ulysses) wasn’t an explicitly anti-war novel—Joyce was, after all, living in the middle of a community of vociferously anti-war artists who had come to Zurich specifically to avoid military service—Joyce responded that the best way to write an anti-war novel was simply “don’t write a novel about war.”

I have always been struck by the simultaneous wisdom and inadequacy of this zen-like assertion. On one hand, Joyce identifies the principal problem of depicting warfare, which is that in aestheticizing it you risk celebrating it. To illustrate this point, I showed my class the notorious helicopter attack scene in Apocalypse Now, in which Robert Duvall’s sociopathic Colonel Kilgore swoops in with his air cavalry on a Vietnamese village to the strains of “The Ride of the Valkyries,” a mission he’d rejected until one of his soldiers told him the beach there was perfect for surfing. The scene is part and parcel with the film as a whole, a commentary on the absurdities and psychopathies of warfare; in and of itself, however, it is one of the most thrilling depictions of combat ever put on celluloid, a point made strikingly in the film adaptation of Anthony Swofford’s memoir of the first Gulf War, Jarhead. When Swofford’s Marine unit is given its orders to ship out to the Middle East, they get the men’s bloodlust up by showing them Apocalypse Now:

Possibly the most famous line from the film—and one of the most famous lines in cinema—is Kilgore saying “I love the smell of napalm in the morning,” just after a flight of jet fighters rain fire down on a treeline.

 

napalm

The moment is iconic: the shirtless Kilgore, wearing a traditional cavalry hat, crouches down beside Captain Willard (Martin Sheen), who, with a handful of other soldiers, lies prone as bullets snap and whiz about them; Kilgore, heedless or perhaps oblivious of the danger, regretfully tells Willard, “This war’s gonna end one day.” Then he stands and walks off.

kilgore

As I said, the moment is iconic, but almost certainly for all the wrong reasons. We’re not meant to identify with Kilgore, but with the soldiers cowering on the ground. Between Francis Ford Coppola’s direction and Duvall’s performance, however, Kilgore has become a compelling symbol of badassery, and his iconic line a celebration of warfare.

 

I’m here today because my grandfather was good at math

My maternal grandfather, Norman Brown, was one of the kindest, gentlest, and most intelligent people I’ve ever known. He never went to university because he had to work as soon as he was done school to help support his family, which was something of a minor tragedy—if there was ever anyone who would have loved academe and flourished within its ivied walls, it was my grandfather. Even without postsecondary education, however, he showed his acumen, winning an award in mathematics. When World War Two began, he volunteered for the Royal Canadian Air Force, and became a navigator on Lancaster bombers.

lancaster

A Lancaster-class bomber

I remember him showing me the various ways in which he would figure out the location of his bomber. He’d pull out pads of graph paper and draw lines with a pencil and ruler, writing numbers in the margin, and show me how to calculate one’s position. All that was lost on me, and would almost certainly be lost on me today, but I loved him so much, and loved listening to his stories, that my grasp of his words was beside the point.

I was a devoted reader of WWII history from an early age, and would have loved even more to hear stories about his bombing missions over France and Germany. But he had none to tell. He never shipped overseas. He was so good and so precise in his navigation that he was kept in Canada to teach others. (My grandfather, modest to a fault, never said as much; it was my grandmother who told me, recounting how, upon receiving his letter with the news, she wept with relief).

The fact that my grandfather had no actual war stories to share was, to my young self, the sole element lacking in those discussions. It would only be much later, after he had passed, that I fully appreciated the substance of my grandmother’s relief. Bomber crews sustained one of the highest rates of attrition of any combat units of the war. Some forty-five percent of bomber crews were killed in the skies over Europe. That’s a number that gives me what I can only characterize as existential vertigo. Had my grandfather been just decent at math as opposed to extraordinary, there’s close to a fifty-fifty chance I would not be sitting here writing this post.

And as I write this, another eventuality presents itself to me: had he gone overseas and survived, would he have been the same man I loved and idolized? After suffering the trauma and terrors of night-time bombing, seeing crewmates chewed by flak, looking death in the face, seeing the bombers on his wing explode in flame, would that gentleness of spirit have survived?

“Thank you for your service” is the emptiest of sentiments if we’re not going to acknowledge that sometimes the greatest sacrifice is surviving.

 

Seriously, can Don Cherry just retire already?

Almost eighteen years ago, I went to a bar in London, Ontario with a good friend to watch Team Canada play Finland the Salt Lake City Olympic hockey quarterfinals. Canada won, and went on to take the gold. That evening sticks in my memory because there were two things that struck my friend and I as the quintessence of Canada.

First was a young Sikh man in a turban and a Toronto Maple Leafs hockey jersey; where the player name would be, it said THE HIP. He was with a group of racially and ethnically diverse friends, all cheering exuberantly for Team Canada.

Second was a moment between periods featuring Don Cherry declaiming in his usual strident tones about the game thus far. He was rinkside; a group of Canadians who had made their way to Salt Lake City started cheering and chanting his name, loudly enough that they were drowning him out. Annoyed, Cherry turned and pointed at them and said “Shut up!” And they did. Everyone in the bar burst out laughing, because of course Canadians, however excited to be watching their team hand Finland its ass, would be polite enough to be chagrined to have their rambunctious behaviour called out.

It has been quite awhile since I thought of that evening, but it came to mind today when I read and then watched Don Cherry’s asinine suggestion that what he perceived as a dearth of Remembrance Day poppies on the streets of Mississauga and Toronto was attributable to a surfeit of immigrants disrespecting Canadian traditions and history:

You people love – they come here, whatever it is, you love our way of life, you love our milk and honey, at least you could pay a couple of bucks for a poppy or something like that. These guys pay for your way of life that you enjoy in Canada, these guys paid the biggest price.

Don Cherry might be a Canadian institution, but he has been descending into the nativist know-nothing reactionary well for some time now—or, more likely, has always been there and finds the present moment amenable to voicing his antipathy to anyone he perceives as not being a “real” Canadian.

I don’t know that his anti-immigrant comments regarding wearing the poppy are the worst thing he’s said in recent years, but they do serve to exemplify the kind of pernicious nativist thinking that has consumed contemporary conservatism. On the day we put aside to solemnly observe the sacrifice of our nation’s soldiers, it’s worth considering just why Cherry’s rant was not merely asinine and bigoted, but also displayed precisely the kind of ignorance and disrespect of history of which he accuses immigrants.

To start with, I’ve written at some length on this blog about how the assertion that Canadian soldiers fought and died “for our freedoms” irks me. Click the links to read my thoughts in full, but here’s the TL;DR: Canada has never faced existential threat from a foreign foe, whether from the Central Powers or the Axis or North Korea or Saddam Hussein or the Taliban; we have fought for the freedoms of others, which should be celebrated and memorialized, but that is not the same thing; and to unthinkingly celebrate our soldiers’ sacrifice and our veterans’ service without understanding its context and complexity is to do it a disservice.

That is why I wear the poppy, while some on my section of the ideological spectrum consider it an endorsement of war and aggression. I understand that argument while respectfully disagreeing; as I outlined in the first section of this post, the depiction of war is a fraught affair—so too is its commemoration, not least because while November 11th invites us to remember all who have fought for and served Canada, the day specifically honours the First World War.

Given that I’m a third-generation Canadian of predominantly British heritage (with just enough Irish mixed in to sharpen my Catholic guilt), the legacy of WWI resonates with me quite strongly. But I can’t blame people whose families emigrated from formerly colonial nations if they’re ambivalent about commemorating a war that was fought by imperial powers over imperial holdings. There was a host of reasons for the tensions in Europe leading up to the outbreak of war, but a major factor was Germany’s imperial expansion, encroaching as it did on French and British interests in Africa and Southeast Asia. WWI was, as I’ve argued here before, an entirely unnecessary conflagration contested by imperial and generally nondemocratic powers in the name of keeping possession of their colonial interests.

Which is not, I hasten to add, a reason for not commemorating the horrific sacrifice made by soldiers fighting for what poet Wilfred Owen called “the old lie: / Dulce et decorum est / Pro patria mori” (translation: “It is a proper and beautiful thing to die for one’s country”). And the particular idiocy of Don Cherry and his ilk omits how many of “you people’s” forebears fought for and alongside the imperial powers: by conservative estimates, “well over four million non-white men were mobilised into the European and American armies during the First World War, in combatant and non-combatant roles.” (Just going out on a limb here that the “you people” Cherry’s targeting aren’t Swedish immigrants). To say nothing of the significant number of indigenous Canadians who fought in both world wars, to no great benefit to their communities.

Commemoration and memorializing are important, but even more important is having a nuanced appreciation of history. When we boil it down to the mere presence or absence of a flag pin or a poppy on one’s lapel, it is profoundly disrespectful to the very people we’re ostensibly remembering.

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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 after a shitty, shitty week

I’ve never been asked why I’m a liberal and a progressive. I’ve had many political and ideological arguments with conservatives, but no one has ever asked me why I hew to a left-of-center viewpoint.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, not least because we seem to be bearing witness to the collapse of thoughtful conservatism in both the U.S. and Canada (or Ontario, at any rate). I can deal with thoughtful conservatism and sympathize with its most basic precepts, even when I disagree. Conservatism, the way I understand it, is preoccupied with the individual: personal responsibility and individual freedom are its most basic principles. Anything infringing on the latter is thus a transgression, and if you yourself transgress, fail, or otherwise don’t measure up, you have nobody to blame but yourself (perhaps the most perfect distillation of this principle is Ron Swanson’s characterization of capitalism as “God’s way of determining who is smart and who is poor”).

Yes, this is a radical oversimplification. But to radically oversimplify my liberalism, I’m to the left of center because I see culture and society as a series of overlapping and interlocking systems, and thus hold that any societal problems—especially the big ones—are systemic, and solutions need to address systemic issues. The shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, was emblematic of this: I burst several blood vessels yelling at liberal pundits on the TV every time they took the bait and argued about whether or not Brown was a thug or an upstanding young man. The moment anyone attempted to ameliorate whatever petty larcenies he committed, they fell into the trap of arguing about whether the police were justified in shooting him as opposed to arguing the real point, which was about systemic police brutality against Black people. From the perspective of Personal Responsibility, if Michael Brown was a criminal, then hey … what do you expect? And by the same token, however, if he wasn’t a criminal, then his death was just the behaviour of a bad actor, and how dare you paint all cops with the same brush.

This same sort of logic has been at work in the arguments over the Trump Administration’s policy of family separation. Leaving aside for a moment the obvious racism and xenophobia animating the Jeff Sessions / Stephen Miller “zero tolerance” policy, the rhetoric suggesting that people crossing the border are criminals, thieves, murders, and rapists—and that such miscreants are cynically using children to pose as asylum seekers—is of a piece with the logic that says Michael Brown got what was coming to him.

Trump’s enablers have been deflecting with the talking point that “the immigration system is broken!” The thing is, I haven’t seen anyone really disputing that. By all means, let’s fix the system. But let’s also recognize the historical context, in which the United States’ frequent military and political meddling in Central and South America has created the circumstances in which people are fleeing the violence of failed states. A border wall and “zero tolerance” policy focuses the fault on individuals fleeing a shitty situation, and takes no responsibility for creating the shitty situation.

I realize that using the words “ethics” and “Trump Administration” in the same sentence is risible, but the U.S. is, frankly, ethically obligated to deal with the influx of would-be immigrants and refugees, not only because the United States is an immigrant nation, but also because it has been responsible for so many of the circumstances worldwide that make people desperate to emigrate. There’s a great line in a season one episode of The West Wing, in which Lord John Marbury (Roger Rees), tells the president that he’s obliged to insert the U.S. between bellicose India and Pakistan because “That’s the price you pay … for being rich, free, and alive, all at the same time.” Being rich, free, and alive at the expense of others should entail somewhat more nuance in border policing.

***

I started writing this post in part because I was reading this GQ profile of Donald Trump Jr. I wouldn’t have thought that I could ever feel sympathy for someone who embodies the worst aspects of frat/bro culture and his father’s sociopathy, but apparently I’m having all the feels today. Money quote:

The source’s impression of Don was that he, like seemingly everyone else in Trump’s orbit, was uselessly trying to impress a man who can only be impressed by himself. “He’s hustling and trying to do what he can to contribute but without knowing where the lines are,” the source said of Don, adding ruefully, “He’s a sad and tragic figure.”

As I was reading this profile, I couldn’t help but think of my own father, and his relationship with his father. My paternal grandfather, from what I know from my parents, was kind of an asshole to my dad when he was young. He loved my dad and was proud of him, but never said so. Once, when my father was in high school, he won a debating contest. My grandfather never acknowledged his accomplishment. My dad only learned of his own father’s pride one day when mowing the lawn, and their next door neighbour called him over and said, “I heard you won a debating contest! Your father is so proud of you.”

My earliest memories are of my father telling me he loved me and that he was proud of me—no matter what I’d done. He has told me many times that his own father’s reticence made him determined to tell his children he loved them every day.

See, here’s where I feel for Don Jr. He is in every way an asshole and a douchebag, but I see where that assholery and douchebaggery is fruit of the asshole tree. From everything I’ve read, Fred Trump, Donald’s father, was also emotionally abusive (and, from what evidence we have, a card-carrying member of the KKK). None of this excuses their egregious behaviour, but one can begin to see how an absence of love deforms the mind. In the process of writing this post, I called my father to make sure he was OK with me citing the story of his conversation with his neighbour. He said yes, absolutely, and also told me that, after I was born and my grandfather would come over for Sunday dinners, he confronted him on the doorstep: “I love you, Dad,” he said. And when my grandfather equivocated, my father said, “No. From now on when you come here, I greet you with ‘I love you, Dad,’ and you say ‘I love you too,’ and we hug. We do that, or you go back home.”

I don’t have children. That’s at least partially by design. I have a niece and nephew, whom I love beyond reason, and I have a brother and sister in law and parents whom I do not see with anything resembling proper frequency, but then, I’m an adult whose career took him to the easternmost fringe of Canada. I cannot imagine what it would have been like to have been separated from them, even for a short time, at an early age. Even in my teenage years, when parents are anathema, it would have scarred me.

One of the most decent human beings I have ever known is my high school math teacher, Vincent Delisi. He recently posted the following to Facebook:

I taught math for a very long time and one of the hardest concepts to get across was the notion that infinity isn’t just a really big number. I was reminded today of the example I used when our second child was born. You love your first one so much that sometimes you wonder if you have enough love for another. Then you hold the second (and the third) and realize the measure of infinity. An infinite love for each. Today as I held my 19 day old (third) granddaughter I was reminded of this.

In what is, to my mind, W.H. Auden’s greatest poem, “September 1, 1939,” he offers one of the most profound pieces of wisdom I’ve ever read: “We must love one another or die.” The poem—as is obvious from its title—was written on the occasion of the start of WWII. Of all the dark moments of the 20th century, there are few that are darker. Auden would later amend the line to read “We must love one another and die,” and later still eliminate the line entirely, saying that it was overly sentimental.

It makes me happy that editors today disagree with Auden, and that it’s hard to find a version of the poem with either of his edits. I might be an atheist, but I was raised Catholic, and one of the teachings that stuck with me is that love, while it might not be all you need, is nevertheless the most powerful weapon we have to combat fear and hate.

“September 1, 1939,” is, in my opinion, his greatest poem, but my favourite is “Lullaby,” and I leave you with its first verse:

Lay your sleeping head, my love,
Human on my faithless arm;
Time and fevers burn away
Individual beauty from
Thoughtful children, and the grave
Proves the child ephemeral:
But in my arms till break of day
Let the living creature lie,
Mortal, guilty, but to me
The entirely beautiful.

 

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Game of Thrones, Episode 7.02: “Stormborn”

gameofthrones_teaser02_screencap10

Hello again, and welcome to episode two of the penultimate season of Game of Thrones! My apologies for the lateness of this posting–entirely my fault–but here we are with our weekly recap/review/analysis. And by “we,” of course, I mean myself and the incomparable Nikki Stafford.

Lots to get through, so let’s just jump in …

maproom

Christopher: Well, we’re in it now! We begin with Daenerys’ first major war council, and end with her first major setback, as Yara’s fleet is waylaid by Euron’s while en route to Dorne. So much for the best laid plans.

Remember last week when I said the brooding gloom of Stannis’ Dragonstone scenes had been replaced with the sun and blue skies of Daenerys’ homecoming? Well, that didn’t last long. We open on Daenerys’ new seat of power barely visible through the sheeting rain and dark—we might be on the island of Dragonstone, but the castle feels like Otranto. It’s such a wonderfully gothic intro, I couldn’t help wondering if Qyburn had relocated his cadaver reanimation lab to one of these towers, along with a supercilious hunchback assistant.

If ever I need to define pathetic fallacy to classes of mine in the future, I think I will just show them this scene: the hope of triumph of last week has given way to the stormclouds of distrust (yes, I just wrote that sentence), in a suitably portentous way. As Tyrion observes, it was on Dragonstone on just such a tempestuous night that Daenerys was born. (A quick recap of Thrones history: Daenerys was still in her mother’s belly when the queen was forced to flee King’s Landing with her young son Viserys and a handful of loyal followers, just before the Lannister army sacked the city. They sailed for Dragonstone, and it was in the throes of a terrible storm that she was born. Her mother died soon after). Daenerys, however, does not seem particularly happy. “I always imagined this would be a homecoming,” she says. “It doesn’t feel like a homecoming.” Whether it’s the foul weather or the dawning awareness of the enormity of the task she’s taken on, the Mother Dragons seems to be in a bit of a mood—and less inclined than usual to deal with anyone’s bullshit. When Varys speaks encouragingly of how disliked Cersei is by any measure, suggesting that Daenerys’ arrival will erode even more support for the newly crowed queen, she’s having none of it. Flatterers and knaves had long pumped up Viserys’ dreams with lies about how the common people of Westeros drank secret toasts to him and prayed for his return; and all the while, aggrandized by such illusions, he’d abused and demeaned his little sister and his enablers facilitated her sale to Khal Drogo.

varys

I will admit, Daenerys’ castigation of Varys seemed to come from nowhere; and it felt entirely unfair, but only because Varys has come to be one of my favourite characters. At first I was affronted on his behalf, but as Daenerys added to the list of charges, I couldn’t help but think … well, yes—he has been playing all sides. He was complicit in essentially enslaving her to the Dothraki. She navigated herself through that magnificently, as Varys points out, but that doesn’t really negate his willingness to use a helpless girl as a pawn on his board, and to assist a cruel and capricious fool in his quest for power.

So where do Varys’ loyalties lie? His response is one of my favourite Varys moments yet, and it is a speech I kind of want to send to every Republican in Congress cynically working with Trump:

Incompetence should not be rewarded with blind loyalty. As long as I have my eyes I’ll use them. I wasn’t born into a great house. I came from nothing. I was sold as a slave, and carved up as an offering. When I was a child, I lived in alleys, gutters, abandoned houses. You wish to know where my true loyalties lie? Not with any king or queen, but with the people, the people who suffer under despots and prosper under just rule. The people whose hearts you aim to win.

Daenerys comes around to his perspective, making him swear he’ll tell her if she forsakes her duty to the people. It’s an interesting moment, and an interesting question for a fantasy series that has, for all intents and purposes, progressive politics: how to square a contemporary, democratic worldview with a neo-medieval narrative? One thing Game of Thrones has done well—both the novels and the series—is complicate the traditional regressive tendencies of fantasy, which as a genre is nostalgic about rather emphatically undemocratic politics, i.e. hereditary monarchy. As a rule, the genre cheats: employing the trope of fate or destiny, the suggestion is always that the person or people destined to rule will always be great rulers simply by dint of being destined (Aragorn, King Arthur, the Pevensie siblings, e.g.). One thing Thrones has made clear is that hereditary kings and queens—and the absolute power they wield—are pretty much a nightmare, and the best you can hope for is a ruler that isn’t actually sociopathic.

But then we shift from Varys’ quasi-egalitarian and vaguely humanist manifesto to an audience with someone who is all about the destiny. What did you make of Melissandre’s return, Nikki?

melissandre

Nikki: I’m a huge fan of the complexities of Melisandre, and I think the actress playing her is astounding, so I was thrilled when she showed up. And it’s so interesting to think, in a way, that she’s literally back where she started when we first saw her: at Dragonstone, where she was with Stannis Baratheon in the season two premiere. And as Dany points out, her timing is rather fortuitous. Just moments earlier Tyrion stood between Daenerys and Varys as they went back and forth, and watched the two of them like a tennis match, occasionally interjecting with support for Varys. You could tell he was nervous: the Mother of Dragons seemed suddenly pissed, and, you know, she has dragons so all the little birds in the world weren’t going to help The Spider in that moment. And now we have Melisandre, standing before Daenerys and telling her that she needs to ally herself with Jon Snow, King of the North (cough your nephew cough), to stop the White Walkers. Once again Daenerys begins to challenge the person standing before her, and once again Tyrion jumps in to stick up for Jon Snow. He seems A) surprised to hear that Jon Snow is still alive, and B) impressed at how far he’s come, and happy to advise Dany to align herself with him because he knows Jon Snow is a man of honor. Daenerys replies that she will allow Jon Snow to come and talk to her directly, but under one condition: he needs to bend the knee to her. As I’ve often said, the main difference between Daenerys and Jon Snow in the game of thrones is that she actually wants it; he does not. But all I could think of at the end of this scene is, “EEEEE, we’re finally going to see Daenerys and Jon Snow in the same scene!!”

I love your summary of Varys’s scene above: I mentioned to you in one of my emails last week, Chris, that I was this close to mentioning politics in my post last week but decided against it. But now, two weeks in a row, much like you I can’t help but mention how easy it is to read the insane politics of the real world into the insane politics of this show. It’s not that Game of Thrones has changed — I mean, this has always been a show about politics, and we’ve been discussing and analyzing the different political stances of the characters for years now — it’s that Western politics have changed so drastically in the past year that now we’re seeing real parallels between our world and Westeros. No more having to reach back through history to talk about parallels between this show and real leaders: we just have to check yesterday’s Twitter feed to do that.

Last week we had Sansa and Jon going toe to toe, with Jon taking more of the position of the left — yes these Houses may have been against us but we are willing to forgive to keep our promises and to keep the government moving forward — versus Sansa’s more right-wing strategy — they betrayed us, and this is every man for himself and if betray us, we leave them behind. Neither side took an extreme position, but it was an excellent demonstration of how each side has its positives and negatives. Jon comes off looking weak in his pursuit to keep things moving, and Sansa comes off looking heartless and filibustering in her pursuit to deter others from making the same move. And yet Jon also looks like he has a heart, whereas Sansa looks like she’s got a good point: if we let anyone betray us and we forgive them, won’t more people betray us?

And then we had the discussion between Samwell Tarly and Archmaester Ebrose during the autopsy last week. As Sam is lamenting the white walkers coming and the world descending into madness and wondering how they’ll ever get out of this one, the Archmaester reassures him that actually, the world was descending into this terrible place before, and they survived it once. Sam is like, “But but but the white walkers are different, and they’re carrying banners saying they’re going to make Westeros great again!” but the Archmaester waves off his concerns and says that the white walkers used to carry banners with swastikas on them and we survived that.

And now we have Lord Varys being brutally honest in the opening that it’s not that he’s disloyal, but he will call out any leader who is no longer leading the people in the manner they deserve. In a monarchist system, he’s the one imposing a measure of democracy.

What’s really interesting is that you and I read the scene the same way, Chris, because we’re both pretty entrenched on the left. I imagine a viewer who supports Trump probably read it entirely differently, cheering equally loudly, thinking that Varys would be the one to unseat a despot like Obama and make sure the people’s voices are heard through Trump. (But even if Varys ever DID think something like this, six months into this presidency I would assume he would be infiltrating the Russians just to figure out a way to burn down Trump Tower.)

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And from this scene we move to Cersei, sitting on the Iron Throne and twisting the truth about Daenerys so far it’s screaming for mercy when she makes up a bunch of lies. She tells them that as the Mad King’s daughter, she’ll similarly destroy all of Westeros. She’ll destroy the castles, and her Dothraki will butcher small children. They are the foreigners who will invade their free land and rape and pillage their people (I half-expected her to propose a wall). Daenerys will open a pizza parlour in Dorne and traffic children through it in the basement (despite the fact it has no basement) and by the way this bullshit about winter coming being blamed on the environment is crap because climate change isn’t real!!!! Cersei is charismatic, and has every person hanging on her every word. She takes real things and twists them into what she knows her people want to hear. She whips her people into a frothy angry mess until they’re all willing to go after the Dragon Queen, while certain viewers at home (like me) are yelling, “FAKE NEWS!!” the whole time. And it seems that she’s got them all in the palm of her hand until Lord Randyll Tarly steps forward (yes, that would be Samwell Tarly’s cruel and horrible father) and wants to know exactly how they plan to stop three full-grown dragons. Qyburn says don’t worry, we have a solution.

While Cersei sits on the throne waving her small hands around and shouting epithets, Jaime takes Lord Tarly aside to try to woo him. He knows Tarly is powerful, as is his House. He also knows that the Tarlys’ strongest allegiance is to the Tyrells, who are now their worst enemy after Cersei managed to blow up Olenna’s grandchildren real good. Tarly is hesitant: once you swear an oath, you should stick to it, but Jaime reminds him that Olenna Tyrell was the one who brought the Dothraki to their shores. (If you’ll recall, at the end of season six, Ellaria Sand talked Olenna into joining forces with her, and then Varys stepped out of the shadows to offer revenge in return for the Tyrell ships, and it’s those ships that carried Daenerys and the Dothraki army and the Unsullied to the shores of Westeros.) Jaime tells Tarly that if he switches his allegiance from the Tyrells to the Lannisters, he will make him ward of the South. And you can see in Tarly’s eyes that his allegiance just changed.

From there we’re back over to Oldtown (now with far fewer scenes involving fecal matter!). What did you think of the scene in the Citadel and Jorah Mormont’s diagnosis, Chris?

jorah_greyscale

Christopher: I’m loving Sam’s continuing education, what few scraps of it we’re party to—it’s become obvious that Archmaester Ebrose is his mentor, or advisor, or however they designate that relationship in the Citadel. Sam shadows him, and apparently acts as his research assistant as well (more on that in a moment). And in the course of such duties, he’s present for the Archmaester’s diagnosis of Ser Jorah, who is now well and truly afflicted by greyscale (though, fortunately, leaving his ruggedly handsome face untouched).

One of the things I loved about this episode was the serendipitous intersections that occur—after six seasons, one has the sense of things starting to come together. Tyrion’s moment of surprise on hearing Jon Snow is King in the North; Arya encountering Hot Pie again, and hearing from him the same news; and of course the heartbreaking scene in which Arya is briefly reunited with her direwolf Nymeria. But for me it was so affecting to see Sam’s expression when Ser Jorah tells Sam his last name. “Mormont?” Sam repeats the name, almost incredulously.

Is it the knowledge that Jorah is related to his belated, beloved Lord Commander that inspires Sam to attempt a desperate cure? One assumes so, though before he goes rogue he has to run the idea past Ebrose—who is far more preoccupied with his own research project, which is a “chronicle of the wars following the death of King Robert I.” As he leads Sam through the labyrinth of the stacks, loading him up with an increasingly vertiginous pile of books, he lectures him pedantically about the need to split the difference between conscientious research and an engaging writing style.

I like this moment because it makes clear the fact that the Citadel is basically a medieval / early modern university. It may seem odd to contemporary sensibilities that a physician would also be engaged in writing history, not as a hobby but as part of his scholarly pursuits; but the model of scholarship outlined by GRRM is one in which maesters earn their chain of office by mastering different disciplines, with each link in their chain forged from a different metal symbolizing a specific area of expertise. Given that we live in an age of hyperspecialization, it’s worth remembering that, once upon a time, the premise of the university was built into that very word—i.e., universality. The last vestiges of that philosophy are present in the way we make students take representative courses in humanities, social science, and science … the holdover of a time when one could actually become an expert in most things.

sam_ebrose-stacks

It occurred to me that Ebrose is basically writing the story we’re living—again, “a chronicle of the wars following the death of King Robert I.” “What?” he says to Sam. “You don’t like the title? What would you call it then?” As tactfully as he can, Sam replies, “Possibly something a bit more … poetic?” Something, perhaps, about thrones? And the games people play to get them?

I’m just spitballing here.

But Sam has been doing some research of his own, and thinks he’s found a way to cure Ser Jorah. And of course, his advisor quashes the idea, as advisors have been doing since the dawn of academe. But Sam is undeterred: we fade to Ser Jorah writing what we assume is his final missive to Daenerys (all that is legible is “Khaleesi, I came to the Citadel” before the text blurs into unintelligibility); as in a brief moment earlier, when Ebrose said he’d give him an extra day “to use as he wished,” Jorah pauses to look at his sword—the rather obvious suggestion being that he intends suicide rather than be sent to Valyria to live among the stone men. But enter the Samwell ex machina! Who tells Jorah he knew his father, and was there when he died, and that Jorah will not be dying today.

A very poignant and touching moment—followed by one of the more excruciating sequences since Ramsay’s torture of Theon. Yikes. “Have you ever done this before?” Jorah asks. The expression on his face when Sam says no is such a lovely bit of wordless acting by Iain Glenn: communicating, even before Sam says as much, that this is his only choice, and that there’s no question that he’ll suffer whatever he’s subjected to.

The less said about the cut to Arya’s scene the better. Suffice to say, I won’t be eating chicken pot pie any time soon.

But in skipping to the possible cure for greyscale, I’ve leapfrogged some key scenes. What did you think of Daenerys’ meeting with the allies, of Tyrion’s war plan, and Olenna’s advice? And what did you think of the consummation of Grey Worm and Missandei’s love?

greyworm-missandei

Nikki: Yeah, I’m with you on that one. I just bought a bunch of meat pies and they’re in my freezer. They might be there for a while now.

In the midst of Sam dealing with Jorah’s greyscale, we see Cersei descend into the caves with Qyburn where he shows her his device, the very thing he believes will give her an edge over the Mother of Dragons. They stare at the skull of a dragon that once belonged to Aegon, a dragon even bigger and fiercer than Drogon, Daenerys’s largest and most beloved “child.” Qyburn leads Cersei to a giant crossbow armed with a spear, and tells Cersei that in a recent battle one of the dragons had been hurt by a much smaller spear. He allows her the honour of pulling the lever of the crossbow, and this massive iron spear pierces the dragon’s skull, taking out the eye cavity and back of its head. Cersei stands there smiling slyly.

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It’s interesting how many times revenge has been wreaked on Cersei’s offspring. When Cersei had Oberon killed, Ellaria got her revenge by killing Myrcella. When Olenna Tyrell had had enough of the Lannister sister, she killed her son, Joffrey. And when Tommen had had enough of his mother, he killed himself. So now that Cersei is faced with possibly the biggest challenge to her Iron Throne, she decides to go after Daenerys’s three children the same way people came at hers. I can’t even begin to imagine what Dany would do if Cersei hurts her dragons. But knowing this show, we’re gonna find out.

Meanwhile, at Dragonstone, Dany is meeting with her allies — Yara Greyjoy (with her brother Theon standing silently behind her), Ellaria Sand (with the Sand Snakes backing her), and Olenna Tyrell, who needs no entourage. They’re skeptical at first, and Olenna looks upon Dany as one who is too young and inexperienced to possibly go up against Cersei. They believe the only way to win this is to lay a siege upon King’s Landing. When Daenerys declares that she will not be queen of the ashes, Olenna explains that Margaery was the most beloved queen of all time (whitewashing that history just a wee bit) and now she’s nothing but ashes. But Daenerys holds strong: she won’t attack King’s Landing. And that’s when Tyrion steps up and states his plan: the Tyrell and Dorne armies will surround King’s Landing and starve out Cersei. And meanwhile, the Unsullied will attack and take Casterly Rock, the ancestral home of the Lannisters. Olenna smiles, and gives her permission for the attack to take place, as do the rest. But when the others leave the room, Olenna cautions Daenerys that Tyrion is a clever man, but that doesn’t mean she needs to follow everything he tells her to do. “You’re a dragon, not a sheep,” she tells her, and reminds her that she’s a powerful woman going up against a powerful woman (and listening to the advice of a powerful woman). Westeros is not the sort of place where women heed men. All of the power on the show currently resides in the hands of women. And while it seems like a good plan, let’s not forget that the one place Tyrion would want more than any other would be Casterly Rock. What better way to return to the world in blazing glory than to take his father’s home from the conniving siblings who have ousted him from everything he’s owed?

BUT… I think Tyrion’s plan is sound. We saw the way Cersei was twisting who Daenerys is, and portraying her and her armies as the foreigners who were going to come into their land and sully everything by destroying King’s Landing. Tyrion knows his sister, and knows this is the sort of thing she’s going to say, and so by going to Casterly Rock they make it personal, and don’t alienate all of the people who live in King’s Landing. They’re looking to take out Cersei while keeping the civilian casualties to a minimum.

And then we get the moment of boom chicka bow bow with Grey Worm and Missandei. I shouldn’t actually minimize it, because it was a beautiful moment between two people who have been tortured and treated like animals their entire lives, who have had their freedoms and sense of agency stripped from them, and in this one moment they finally do something both of them want to do, and it involves the wishes or desires of no one but them. Though I couldn’t help but think the scene went on for a long time, and when we have only eleven episodes left after this one — ELEVEN! — there’s a part of me that feels like we don’t have time for this!!! But then again, maybe that’s the point: we’re so caught up in the giant politics and the Houses and the chess pieces moving all over the huge map of Westeros that we’re forgetting about the little people, the ones who don’t belong to great houses, the ones whose lives won’t fundamentally be changed by whoever is sitting on that throne, who are focusing on the things they could gain and the things they could lose in this war. We spend so much time on the key families — the Lannisters, Starks, Targaryens, Greyjoys, Tyrells, Mormonts, Tarlys, Baratheons… and several bastards — that we never actually see anyone outside of them. And it’s lovely to see them. BUT LET’S GET BACK TO THE ACTION.

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I actually loved the camera cut here again, Chris. Just as earlier they did the oogy camera cut from the pussy scab to the oozing pot pie (NOOOOOOO), here they cut from Grey Worm about to put his head between Missandei’s legs to… Ebrose sliding his hand sideways between two books. I laughed right out loud.

And now over to Arya, who, as you mentioned, is reunited with Hot Pie. I was so happy to see him again! I think he last saw Arya in season three when she left him at this inn and he gave her a lumpy little loaf of bread sort of shaped like a direwolf. When Brienne returned to the inn (a meeting he mentions here), he gives her another one, and this is a very highly skilled shape of a direwolf. Now it seems his cooking skills have improved once again as Arya tucks hungrily into his food. I loved watching the way she eats, all messy and constantly wiping her hand across her face. I couldn’t help but once again remember her back in season one, with Sansa complaining that she’s not ladylike and Arya complaining that that’s simply not who she is. I hope the reunion with Sansa includes Sansa sitting there slightly disgusted while Arya slurps up her stew.

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But after he gives Sansa the shocking news that Jon Snow has won the Battle of the Bastards and Ramsay Bolton is dead, she goes outside and changes direction. No longer is she heading for revenge on Cersei; she’s realized being with her family is what she really wants, and she’s been alone for far too long.

And that’s when we get the scene I’ve been waiting for since season one. We’ve both maintained that that direwolf is out there somewhere, and when Arya is at first surrounded by wolves I thought, but she’s from House Stark; would wolves automatically stand down knowing that she used to have a— and just then, the giant direwolf steps up. I leapt right off the couch when it happened, stammering through my words as my husband said, “Is that a direwolf?” “It’s HER direwolf oh my GOD it’s Lady NO WAIT that was Sansa’s it’s the one she let go when she thought Joffrey was going to have it killed it’s NYMERIA!!!” This scene was BEAUTIFULLY done. There’s no way anyone else would have walked away from that moment alive, but Arya recognizes her direwolf right away. She walks up to it tentatively, and after a few moments of baring her teeth, Nymeria recognizes her human and steps back to look at her for a moment. Arya tries to coax her to come with her, to tell her that she’s returning to Winterfell… but the direwolf makes eye contact, they have their moment, and then it’s over. Arya says, “That’s not you,” as Nymeria leaves her, and all of the other wolves from her pack follow her. I took the line to mean that Arya was speaking for both of them in that moment. Just as I mentioned the rough eating reminded me of Arya saying she’s not meant to be ladylike, and now, all these years later she’s proven that’s exactly the case, Nymeria, too, wasn’t meant to be someone’s direwolf. We can’t imagine the things she’s been through or seen, but being by Arya’s side is no longer her place. She has her own life now, and it’s not with Arya. She acknowledges that she remembers her human by looking right at Arya and leaving her intact, but she’s going to return to her pack now, and go on with her life. And, perhaps, Arya’s life no longer requires a direwolf to be at her side, either. I can’t stress how gorgeous I thought this scene was. It played out exactly the opposite of how we wanted it to, and yet it seemed perfect. The last time Nymeria saw Arya, Arya hugged her and then shooed her away into the woods, and despite Nymeria constantly looking back, pleading with her eyes to return to her, Arya continued to shoo her away. She can’t just ask the direwolf to return now: she has her own life, and it doesn’t include Arya.

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And that’s when I couldn’t help but think… does Arya even belong with the Starks? I joke about the eating scene with Sansa, but could you imagine the two sisters actually living together beyond that initial reunion? I can think of so many characters Arya would be better suited to hang out with than Sansa — hell, the Hound comes to mind — and it’s unclear now if Arya will continue on to Winterfell, or turn that horse around yet again and head back to where she was originally going.

But speaking of people coming together that I cannot WAIT to see happen, Jon Snow has gotten Dany’s raven, and he insists he’s going to see her. And we get a reprise of the government scene from last week. What did you think of Jon Snow’s performance before the Houses of the North this week, Chris?

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Christopher: Well, first it begins with a brief scene in which Jon pores over a map, which seems to be becoming a key motif this season. The solitude of power: here he is, alone, weighing his, and the North’s, options. His maester arrives with Sam’s message about dragonglass on Dragonstone, and whatever question he had about responding to Tyrion’s message is suddenly resolved.

As I said last week, Jon is a single-issue leader: the threat from the Night’s King consumes him, and whatever qualms he might have had about meeting Daenerys in person are overruled by the prospect of access to the weapons he needs to win that war. In the earlier scene when Davos points out that dragonfire would be a great asset against the wights, I wrote in my notes “Davos gets it!” Which is of course unsurprising—Davos has proven himself to be one of the smartest and most astute characters on the show. The fact that Jon means to travel to Dragonstone with him speaks both to this fact, and to Jon’s own occasional bout of common sense.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. How did he do with the northern houses? Like last time we had this scene, he has to deal with Sansa’s objections; unlike last time, he has to deal with the unanimity of opinion against his decision. The houses, it seemed, could go both ways on the question of who should get the traitorous houses’ castles; but they’re all pretty united in the idea that Jon needs to stay put. Even Lyanna Mormont, usually the reliable voice of dissent, says “Winter is here, Your Grace—we need the King in the North in the North.”

We feel the weight of history in this scene: “A Targaryen cannot be trusted,” Yohn Royce tells Jon. “Nor can a Lannister.” The spectre of the Mad King lies over Daenerys—whatever his actually crimes, the intervening years have augmented them and the Targaryen name by association. The weight of recent history pervades as well. Lord Glover reminds Jon that his brother Robb died when he went south, not on the field of battle, but in a craven trap set by the Lannisters. Why would he willingly put his head in the lion’s mouth, as it were, knowing everything that has happened before?

I think it’s safe to say we’ve all smacked our heads in the past at Jon’s poor judgment. At least here we, as the audience, have the gods’-eye view that lets us know this is the right choice—his instincts about Tyrion are correct (and vice versa), and we know Daenerys is not her father. So it’s an odd turn on dramatic irony to watch this scene and want to scream at the people trying to dissuade Jon as opposed to the other way around. Plus, we’re all just SO FUCKING STOKED to finally have Daenerys meet the only other living Targaryen (even if both are oblivious to the fact).

But of course, he still needs to convince his people that he’s making a good decision, or at the very least that he’s not leaving them in the lurch. “You’re abandoning your people!” Sansa accuses him. “You’re abandoning your home!” Jon’s declaration that the North will be Sansa’s until he returns seems to satisfy the room, including Sansa—whose expression (Sophie Turner is so good in this moment) is a beautiful mélange of surprise, happiness, and anxiety. Of course, the expression we then cut to is Littlefinger’s, which is somewhat less confused—Sansa will be in charge? How delightful! We can see the gears turning right away.

(Speaking of conflicted expressions, both Brienne and Davos look at best ambivalent, possibly because both have the same misgivings about Littlefinger as EVERY HALFWAY INTELLIGENT PERSON IN THE WORLD).

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Speaking of Littlefinger, I can only imagine it’s because he was emboldened by Jon’s declared intention to (1) transfer power to Sansa and (2) leave Winterfell for an indeterminate time, that he felt compelled to join Jon in the crypts and tell him lies about his relationship to Ned. And then—and this is where he gets brazen—tell truths about his love for Catelyn and now Sansa. Jon reacts predictably, in fact reacts precisely the same way as Ned did in season one when Littlefinger, promising to bring Ned to Catelyn, brings him to a brothel. You’d think the man would get weary of being choked by Starks, but here we are …

“Touch my sister,” Jon growls, “ and I’ll kill you myself.” He stalks off, leaving Littlefinger to catch his breath and smirk.

Right now I’m hoping Littlefinger dies a particularly gruesome death before all is done, and I hope Varys presides over it.

Which brings us to the final spectacular scene of the episode, which unfortunately begins with the Sand Snakes squabbling and with what qualifies as some of the worst pre-coital chat I’ve heard outside of “Yeah, I’m here to fix the cable?” What did you make of this episode’s ship-burning finale, Nikki?

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Nikki: No one does fiery battles like Game of Thrones. The special effects are spectacular and jaw-dropping… this show can’t be topped when it comes to scenes like this one. It hearkened back to the Battle of the Blackwater: ships on the water, fire floating atop it, major characters’ lives at stake. And with us coming down to the final episodes of the series, there’s so much at stake now the tension seemed to be fraught the entire time.

The scene began below decks with Yara coming on to Ellaria, who immediately takes the bait and moves over to the other side of the table to have her way with the Greyjoy daughter… although I couldn’t help but wonder if Ellaria was pulling her into a Sand trap in that moment and was going to stab her in the back for reasons I hadn’t yet figured out and didn’t need to because OMG what is happening above decks?!

And sure enough, good ol’ Uncle Euron has shown up to the Thanksgiving dinner pissed again, and everyone’s going to pay for it this time. I won’t go into detail on the battle itself — it just needs to be watched, and I simply stopped taking notes because I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen — but the Sand Snakes immediately jump to the decks to protect their mother… and don’t fare so well.

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Before I say anymore, I must admit that I’ve been a little disappointed by the Sand Snakes. They were built up so much by the readers of the books that I feel that they were more well-rounded in GRRM’s version, because over here they talk a tough talk, but we rarely see them actually do anything. It’s like I’ve spent the entire time they’ve existed on the show just waiting for the moment they’ll be truly spectacular, and that moment has never come.

And so, when Obara is killed first (my favourite Sand Snake, but only because Keisha Castle-Hughes plays her and Whale Rider is one of my all-time favourite movies), I was actually quite upset. Not because we’ve lost someone who was a great character, but because we’d lost someone who had the potential to be a great character and I was still waiting for her moment.

The next one to go was Nymeria — how strange that one episode showed the reappearance of Nymeria the direwolf, and the death of Nymeria the Sand Snake — who is strangled by her own whip. My husband was quick to call both of the now-deceased Sand Snakes “useless” in this moment, but I will say they fought a hell of a lot harder and longer than I would have done. Again, I think they had the potential to be formidable foes, but in a story that so far has featured 27,741 main characters, there just wasn’t a lot of room for three more.

But speaking of how useless I would have been in a fight, we now come back around to Theon. Or, should I say… Reek. For yes, he’s back, and in a poignant moment that actually made my chest hurt, the show didn’t shy away from Theon’s inability to perform in this moment to save his sister. Nor did it hang on to the fiction that he was going to be just fine. As I’ve maintained before, he will now always be Reek, because he’s broken. He will never be whole again.

Yara fights brilliantly, but her uncle overpowers her. As Euron grabs Yara and holds his axe to her throat, he begins to goad “little Theon” to come and save her. And for a brief moment Theon doesn’t hesitate, and moves to do exactly that… until he hears the screams of the men around him. He looks down, and sees Euron’s men torturing the Ironborn army, and you can see the PTSD flash through his brain and return in an instant. His face takes on a different look, and he begins to jerk his head with that strange tic he developed when he became Ramsay’s dog. And as Yara looks on, the hope fades from her eyes as she sees her brother disappear and Reek pop up in his place, and she knows she’s a dead woman. Moments before she’d been telling Ellaria that Theon would become her bodyguard and advisor, but she had tricked herself into thinking her brother was somehow better.

I loved this moment, because in the midst of a spectacular battle scene, we have this small moment where the show deigns to touch on a severe mental illness that’s been brought on by the torture of a man, and that one moment changes the course of the entire battle. The Theon Greyjoy of old might have had a shot against Euron Greyjoy (might) but Theon left the building a few years ago. Reek can do nothing but jump overboard as Yara resigns herself to her fate, tears of anger and hopelessness running down her face.

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As the episode ends, Theon floats on some driftwood in the water looking at the ships on fire around him. He can’t board any of them, he’s let down his sister and his leader, and he watches Euron Greyjoy’s boat sail away with Obara and Nymeria impaled and hanging on the prow of the ship, like human figureheads. Theon has nowhere to go now.

And Euron Greyjoy sails back to King’s Landing, with Ellaria, Yara, and Ellaria’s daughter… and now he’s got his gift for Cersei. Last week I said, “I wonder who’s head it will be?” but he’s not bringing back heads — he’s going to let Cersei do the torturing. I’m thinking he hands her Ellaria and Tyene and keeps Yara for himself. And Cersei is going to make Ellaria watch as she tortures Tyene. Ugh.

This was such a packed episode — deaths, a great battle, small moments, political movements forward, and lots of old faces. But it definitely had a recurring theme as we come to the end of this incredible series, and that is that people have been changed fundamentally. Just as Arya says, “That’s not you” to Nymeria, recognizing that the direwolf has changed, and so has she, we look at so many of the characters on this show and realize they’ve changed, too. Theon Greyjoy will never be the same because of the events of the last few years. Arya has changed, Sansa has changed and become much tougher politically… Sam Tarly never would have had the guts to do what he’s doing right now before he’d fought in the Night’s Watch and saved Gilly and her baby… Cersei has become even colder and more heartless than she used to be. And yet Daenerys and Jon Snow seem to be moving along in the same course they always were, never wavering from their original beliefs. They’ve both been changed forever, and yet intrinsically they remain the same. I can’t wait to see them on the screen at the same time next week.
And that concludes yet another week of our Game of Thrones chat. Thanks for reading this far, and we’ll see you next week!

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