Game of Thrones, Episode 7.02: “Stormborn”

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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 …

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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.

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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?

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

euron

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.

theon_yara

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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Don’t Ruin My TV With Politics! … and other absurdities.

Nikki and I will have this week’s Game of Thrones recap and review up in a day or two, but in the meantime I want to share my newfound Twitter celebrity.

Well … Twitter celebrity by my standards, which is to say the standards of someone whose blog posts top out at maybe one hundred page views and who tweets about once a millennium.

It’s my turn to lead off our Thrones discussion this week, so I wanted to get my first pass done before going to bed. I was in the middle of talking about Varys’ amazing speech defending his ostensibly flexible loyalties when a thought occurred to me. Quickly finding that scene on TMN Go, I took a screen cap of Varys and memed it. I posted it to Facebook and then—as an afterthought, because I hardly ever use Twitter—I tweeted it.

main tweet

Within a few minutes, my phone was buzzing every few seconds to tell me someone liked it and/or retweeted it (as I write this the next day, my phone is still going off with alarming regularity). I woke this morning to see that I had over a thousand likes, which by my standard makes me want to don a Garbo-esque scarf and seek solitude. I mentioned this to my girlfriend as we had coffee, and she immediately called it up on her phone. “Oh my god,” she said. “Have you read any of the replies?”

I had honestly forgotten than people can reply to tweets, mainly because I’ve had so few replies in the past. But now that I had a tweet being fairly broadly disseminated, it was inspiring responses beyond just likes and retweets—and many of the responses were, shall we say, less than enthused. To put it briefly: I’m apparently a lunatic libtard intent on destroying a great TV show by bringing politics into it. Case(s) in point:

justatvshow

politics

lib-lunatic

OK. So, I’m going to talk about the political content of Game of Thrones later in this post, but for now can I just say: Wha? Getting your nose out of joint because someone “brings politics” into Thrones is like getting upset with someone for suggesting that The Wire has a lot to do with race. The show is about politics, as a few respondents pointed out …

realvsfantasy

And here, a classic misapprehension of precisely what fantasy—and fabulation, fiction, and imaginative invention more broadly—is about. Perhaps you watch Game of Thrones to distract yourself from the world, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t, in some variety of ways, about the world.

But again, more on that below.

First, here’s a few of my favourite responses. It is taking ALL MY WILLPOWER not to respond to them individually on Twitter, but as my girlfriend reminded me this morning, it isn’t worth it to feed the trolls. As Jayne Cobb would say, there ain’t no percentage in it. Instead I’ll respond to them here for the benefit of my tens of readers.

swampMAGA

And how’s that working out for you?

At least one person granted that the show might have an allegorical dimension:

hilary

Then there was this one, a variation on the Trump-wrestling-CNN gif:

OK, so with this one I just have to ask: you do know that Euron is the bad guy, right? He’s a despot and rapist, and his attack on these key female characters is …

Sigh. Never mind.

democratsheep

By what metric? Obama was worse than Hoover, Filmore, or Pierce? Or Bush Jr.? Look, even if you think everything Obama did was disastrous, the key question here is competence. Hate what he did all you want, but dude at least got shit done.

Here’s someone who apparently took the few seconds to read my profile:

associateprof

Two things: one, what “associate professor” actually means is that I have tenure. Two, that’s the lawyers’ business what they call themselves. “Counselor” is a pretty cool title, so perhaps they’re happy with that. And for what it’s worth, the title “doctor” was employed by doctors of philosophy for centuries before physicians adopted it.

This one makes me wonder if the guy knows me:

jackass

That seems a wee bit personal. But as it happens, I’m in good company. There are plenty of jackasses who see real world politics in GoT (and over 1500 of them have liked my tweet so far).

entitlement

I’m just going to assume this one is a knee-jerk response this person tweets to anything resembling liberal/lefty sentiment, given that I really don’t see what it has to do with my tweet.

Speaking of WTF tweets:

republicans

I … what? I suppose I would be … if I had been. I mean, I am Canadian, and I suppose the balance of my bosses might have been card-carrying Tories, but …

Yeah. Really don’t get this one.

libtard

Dear Americans: fix that electoral college already, wouldya?

workday

Well, except for those who obviously watched the show and made a special point to take the time to call me an idiot.

sopolitically

I think my Twitter handle confused this poor fellow.

And my favourite thus far (as the hits keep coming):

butthurt

Yes. Yes. It’s true. I cannot hold more than one thought in my head. Trump is the only thing there is any more, and he has ruined every pleasure I might otherwise have. Samwell in the Citadel Library? All I can think of is Betsy DeVos. Ser Jorah’s greyscale? OMG, Medicaid cuts! I wonder if Melissandre is plagiarizing Michelle Obama. What bathroom would Grey Worm use in South Carolina? Is Cersei going to build a wall? Are all Dornishmen bringing drugs? Are they rapists? Littlefinger? Little hands! Ahhhhhhhhh!!!!!!

Idiot.

***

So, back to the question of Thrones and politics.

Is Game of Thrones about politics? Of course it is. It’s a show all about individuals and groups jockeying for power, and striving to maintain what power they have. It’s somewhat amusing that people would question this with regard to this episode in particular, considering that three out of the five principal storylines have to do with political maneuvering: Tyrion counseling Daenerys to proceed in a manner that will win her the support of the major houses, Cersei attempting to frighten other houses into falling in line behind the throne (and Jaime making an extra effort to recruit Randyll Tarly), and Jon Snow considering the risk vs. reward scenario of allying with Daenerys. The episode might have given us a thrilling sea-battle, and might have distracted us with the sexual shenanigans of Grey Worm and Missandei, and Yara and Ellaria, but ultimately this episode—like so many episodes preceding it—was a meditation on what it means to attain, retain, and exercise power.

And the show depicts the contestations of power and politics in a manner far more consonant with other HBO offerings like The Wire and Deadwood than with The Lord of the Rings or the Chronicles of Narnia. To the dude above who tells us “Don’t compare real and fantasy,” I say don’t confuse fantasy with “fantasy.” Game of Thrones might have magic and dragons and take place in an alternative reality, but it is an eminently political show.

But then, The Lord of the Rings is also political—just not in the same manner as Thrones. Power is treated in markedly different ways in the two works, but both make political statements. Tolkien’s masterpiece is an expression of nostalgia for a premodern world governed by extrinsic, spiritual laws and a rigid religious hierarchy, and was written in part as a vehement reaction against what he saw as the depredations of modernity, secularism, and technology. Is that not a political statement? Daenerys’ challenge to Varys in this week’s episode articulates a tension in GRRM’s work between an essentially progressive sensibility embedded in an essentially conservative genre—Varys’ impassioned speech is populist and democratic, but reflects the difficulty of finding a vehicle for such beliefs in a monarchical, undemocratic world.

As it is, sadly, in our own at the moment.

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Game of Thrones, Episode 7.01: “Dragonstone”

gameofthrones_teaser02_screencap10

Welcome back one and all to season seven of Game of Thrones and, along with it, the great Chris and Nikki co-blog—in which we dissect, debate, recap, and just generally dork out on an episode by episode basis.

In the season seven premiere, we watch the dissolution of House Frey, see Euron Greyjoy go all emo, sow the seeds of a Stark sibling rivalry, suffer through bad, bad celebrity casting, and suffer also alongside Sam as he learns that grad school isn’t what the brochure said. Oh, and Daenerys returns home.

Seeing as how Nikki played us out at the end of last season, she gets the first word. Nikki?

arya_dead-freys

Nikki: The episode opens not with its trademark credits, but at a party that looks suspiciously like the Red Wedding. Walder Frey is holding court in front of the people who aided him with the Red Wedding, which happened ages ago… or, wait, no, maybe this is a flashback, since we all saw Arya feed Frey some beautiful finger food (snort) in the previous episode before slicing his throat in the same way her own mother’s throat had been sliced at the wedding. So… if he’s alive and chatting, maybe we’re seeing a flashback to shortly after the wedding happened. But wait, there’s that frumpy wife of his who just became his wife recently, I think. He’s got his harem/daughters/who knows anymore pouring wine for all of his soldiers, thanking them for their work at the Red Wedding, and adding that they did a good job killing a bunch of innocent people (cue WTF looks being passed around by the soldiers) but they didn’t actually kill all of the Starks. “Leave one wolf alive, and the sheep are never safe,” he says.

And then the men start dropping, which we knew would happen. They die in horrific ways, much the same way Joffrey died at his own wedding. (Might I say that the wine murders are highly effective on this show.) And then, just as viewers are starting to catch on — if they hadn’t when Frey was talking — Frey pulls a Scooby-Doo, yanks off his face, and it’s our beloved Arya Stark. She turns to Frey’s shocked wife and says that if anyone asks what happened here, “Tell them the North remembers. Tell them winter came for House Frey.”

YES!!! And with that, cue credits. What a wicked opening.

zombie_giant

For the last time, people, it isn’t Wun Wun!

Because the writers have to cover a ton of territory from this point on, we get a flash of The Walking Dead: Northern Exposure as the white walkers come in a swirl of blizzard, moving southward while bringing the storms with them. Then there’s a quick cut to Bran arriving at the Wall with Meera (Eeee! Reunions are coming!). And then we cut to Jon Snow and return to the main story.

What I really loved about this episode is that at the end of season six we were left with a few “certainties”: Sam Tarly had the best job ever, Jon Snow and Sansa were aligned in their leadership in the North, Jaime was going to probably kill Cersei for what happened, Euron was going to take a while to get to King’s Landing… and many of those expectations were undermined in this first episode.

What did you think of Jon Snow’s meeting when we see him for the first time this episode, Chris?

jon_meeting

Christopher: Well, first, let me just say it’s amazing to be back discussing this show with you, Nikki, especially after having to wait two and a half months longer than usual. Worth the wait, though—that cold open was, to my mind, the best the series has given us (not that it has much competition—there’s only been a few in the entire run of the show). And I had the same Scooby-Doo vibe when Arya pulled off her Walder Frey mask, though it occurred to me that it was a reverse Scooby-Doo—in which the werewolf / ghost / vampire pulls off his own mask at the end to reveal Old Man Jones, who laughs at the success of his evil plan while the gang all lie dead at his feet.

Yeah, my mind takes dark turns at times.

Sansa is right when she later tells Jon “You’re good at this.” He is—he carries authority well, and commands the room, no thanks to Sansa herself. But more on that in a moment.

As always, Lyanna Mormont is the star—this time telling off one of Jon’s lords when he scoffs at the notion that he should put a sword in the hand of his granddaughter. It was a wonderful speech, but it also left me thinking “would this hard-bitten Northman really cede authority to a woman, much less a girl, so meekly?” Don’t get me wrong, I’m totally team Lyanna in this; and the look on Brienne’s face as she’s speaking is worth the price of admission. But for a fantasy series that invests so much of its capital in a certain amount of historical realism, I found the lord’s diffidence a bit of a stretch. To be certain, the larger portion of the ass-kicking that has happened on this show (literally and figuratively) has been doled out by women, but I hardly expect Lord Wossname from the remote North to have internalized such a fact. At least a little truculence or annoyance on his part would have made the scene more believable (and would have set us up for a deeply satisfying moment at a later date when Lady Lyanna saves his ass).

brienne_impressed

That look you get just before you file adoption papers.

Most significantly, of course, what this scene sets up is what will likely be one of the sticking-points of the season: a conflict between Jon and Sansa, aggravated by Littlefinger’s whispers. We saw that coming a mile off at the end of last season; Jon is stubborn and doesn’t recognize that Sansa has a subtler mind than him (“So I should listen to you?” he asks. “Would that be so bad?” she responds); after several seasons of being by turns passive, victimized, and abused, Sansa has come to recognize her own abilities, and is clearly frustrated to be sidelined. Jon would do himself a great favour by in fact listening to her, but I did more or less agree with him that it’s a bad idea for her to undermine him in front of the lords. Their argument about the castles could really go either way for me—rewarding loyalty with land elevates those you trust; on the other hand, Northerners are deeply invested in tradition, and Jon’s reluctance to disenfranchise families with centuries of fidelity because of the actions of a few just recently likely resonated with many of the people in the room—but Sansa’s opposition on a potentially very divisive question could have the effect of sowing dissension at a dangerous time.

But again, to be clear: Jon needs to listen to Sansa. I have a sinking feeling I’m going to be spending much of this season smacking my head over the bloody-mindedness of Jon Snow.

(Incidentally, Sansa throwing “Joffrey never let anyone question his authority” in Jon’s face totally effaces any moral standing she might have had here, which she seems to recognize a few minutes later when she has to admit that Jon “is as far from Joffrey as anyone I’ve ever met.” Yet that comes to be a bit of a backhanded compliment, as she makes clear that the kind of pure virtue that is the antithesis of Joffrey—which Jon embodies—is its own detriment. “You need to be smarter than Father,” she says. “You need to be smarter than Robb”).

jon_sansa

However this division develops, I do hope they don’t make it about jealousy or resentment. It was clear in this episode that Jon and Sansa have what might prove to be incommensurably different worldviews, which each arrived at by way of how they learned hard lessons over the previous six seasons. Sansa’s maturation occurred in the stew of King’s Landing intrigues, and her personal experience of just how cruel people can be to one another; when she tells Jon she “learned a lot” from Cersei, that’s shorthand for learning not to trust other people and looking out for oneself. Her concern at this point is worldly politics: the Lannisters are a threat, she thinks it folly not to disenfranchise formerly disloyal houses, and is generally preoccupied with her own survival and the survival of those closest to her. Too much honour, she tries to tell Jon, got their father and brother killed.

Jon, by contrast, is preoccupied with otherworldly concerns, and I don’t just mean the supernatural threat from the North. Though we now know he wasn’t Ned Stark’s son, he’s nevertheless very much Ned Stark’s son, if by temperament rather than birth. And he has internalized the North’s deep obsession with tradition and honour, and its long, long history. The idea of disenfranchising families with centuries of loyalty to the Starks, however they might have acted in recent days, in nonsensical to him … as, probably, is the notion that he can have “too much” honour. With regard to the White Walkers and the threat they pose, he sees the big picture—or rather, having been confronted by the big picture north of the Wall, he’s disinclined or simply unable to see anything but. “I’m consumed with the Night’s King because I’ve seen him,” he says. “And believe me, you’d think of little else if you had too.” As far as he’s concerned, the squabbles of warring houses are all but irrelevant in the face of the White Walkers; unless everyone can get on the same page, they’re all going to die anyway.

And while, as I said, I do more or less agree with Jon that undermining each other in public is a bad idea, he needs to listen to Sansa. She’s the pragmatic one; he’s the wide-angle guy. I came away from their argument thinking that he’s the equivalent of someone who recognizes climate change as an existential threat. Everyone else, including Sansa and Archmaester Quincy, Medical Examiner, seems inclined to downplay the threat: “the wall has always stood” is the Westeros equivalent, it seems, of recycling and buying a hybrid car. And that’s not even getting to all those White Walker Deniers. But at the same time, arriving at a solution requires a certain amount of political savvy, which is increasingly looking to be Sansa’s forte. Together, they could be a pretty formidable team, if only Jon would listen and Brienne could relieve Littlefinger of his head.

What do you think, Nikki?

sansa

Nikki: Agree with you as usual, my friend, and I love how close our notes are at times. I’ve written down that awesome throwdown line from Lyanna — “I don’t plan on knitting by the fire while men fight for me” [under her watch the TARDIS would have never allowed a man inside yet] — and then beside it I have written “OMG Brienne’s FACE.” Every season you and I mention what spinoff road-trip-show pairings we want, and my new one is Lyanna and Brienne. With Tormund bringing up the rear.

The scene was very well played, as you point out, with Jon saying one thing, Sansa another, viewers trying not to reach into the TV to smack Jon in the head, but then realizing well, ok, he’s got a point, and then Sansa saying something else, Jon contradicting her, Sansa posting angry emojis under Jon’s comments on Facebook, Jon blocking her from his feed… and all the while Baelish smiling to himself in the corner while all our stress levels rise steadily. The Karstarks and Umbers will keep their family castles, but the only people left in those families are children (and I can’t be the only one who thought Alice Karstark was Sansa’s younger double). Now, when it comes to Lyanna, we certainly can’t undermine children in any way, but this also isn’t Lord of the Flies: will they be able to fight the White Walkers?

Though, you know, something tells me Lyanna could have them turning tail and running.

Like you, I’m hoping I don’t spend the season flipping out over Jon and Sansa. They must get on the same page, and I don’t want to see Littlefinger smiling smugly in the corner anymore.

But then Jon gets a raven from Cersei demanding fealty, and as he says to Sansa, he was so caught up in the enemy of the North, he forgot the one in the South. Just as Sansa had made the Joffrey comment earlier — almost making it sound like Jon fell short of that little bastard by not being like him — now Sansa tells Jon not to mess with the Lannister queen, because she’ll murder anyone who gets in her way. “You almost sound as if you admire her,” he says. “Learned a great deal from her,” Sansa replies.

Like you said, Chris, just because Sansa is listening to whispers from Littlefinger and making comments about Joffrey and Cersei that are… questionable… doesn’t mean we should not listen to her. Cersei and Baelish might be the bad guys but they also know a thing or two about power. And with Sansa’s knowledge of how they work, funnelled through Jon Snow’s inherent goodness, they might have something here. Together I would think these two could be nearly unstoppable, he just needs to pay attention to her and give her the respect she’s more than earned.

cersei_map-overhead

This episode’s lesson: if you want to be queen, you need a sweet map.

But now let’s to King’s Landing, where Cersei is drinking (natch) while walking on a giant map on the ground, since apparently a small one drawn in a book wouldn’t have been good enough (listen closely and you hear a very quiet version of “Rains of Castamere” playing in the background… it’s like Cersei’s personal breakup music or something). Dragonstone might have a wooden slab with little people on it that Stannis could move around, but Cersei’s going to have a goddamn map drawn on the floor, to scale, by someone she will no doubt kill as soon as he’s done. It’s a beautiful visual, though, when the camera peers down from the ceiling: Cersei, standing mighty over the kingdoms of Westeros, in the centre, and as she walks around she talks about how Daenerys is going to land at Dragonstone to the east, that Ellaria and her Sand Snakes threaten her from the south, the Tyrells are in the west, and the Starks are in the north. She’s surrounded, but unfazed. In her new black get-up, she stands over these kingdoms and proclaims she will prevail.

Jaime, standing off to the side, quiet, wonders why they’re bothering. They’ve lost everything — all three of their children they’ve created together — all for this, and yet, without them, what does it mean? Cersei is saying she wants to have a dynasty — not one with Joan Collins and Linda Evans, that’s a DIE-nesty, and Cersei quite Britishly calls this one a dinnesty — but as Jaime adeptly points out, a dynasty suggests it’s being passed down to future generations, and does he have to repeat himself that they no longer have any children?? Cersei then basically says she’s going to do it for their own honour, that they’re the last of the Lannisters “who count” and that she will win this bloody war, dammit.

But then again, her army consists of an orange-haired musician who can’t bloody well act so WHAT DOES SHE KNOW. #whenstuntcastinggoeswrong

ANYWAY… and while Daenerys was already on her way over to Dragonstone at the end of the previous episode, but Euron had to build a thousand ships in order to get to Cersei, somehow he beat her there and here he is on Cersei’s steps pledging himself to her. (And yes, I know people are going to say that the ships are probably being built and he headed over there on a single ship but I found some of the way these storylines lined up seemed a little odd timewise.) There’s something about Euron I kinda love, I don’t know why. I tend to hate the Greyjoys on principle, and he’s a complete dick, but I love that he shows up looking totally different from when we last saw him with this new rock star appearance: shirt opened at front, hair shorn closer to his head… still giving off a distinct Oliver-Reed-as-Bill-Sykes vibe but now with a distinct Noel Gallagher swagger about him. And he has the nerve to show up at the steps of what is probably the most powerful woman currently in Westeros and say, “So, yeah, whaddya say: you, me, few goblets of wine, we could spend the rest of our days plotting the deaths of our family members, amirite?!” like he’s somehow the greatest catch in the land. In fact, this gave me the one big laugh-out-loud moment of the episode when he proclaimed himself the greatest captain of the 14 seas, and Cersei mumbles, “But not the most humble.” Ha!

euron

I don’t know how seriously I can take anyone who looks like an emo version of Pacey from Dawson’s Creek.

Cersei, to her credit, declines. She knows if he could stab his own brother in the back, what the hell would he do to his wife? “You murdered your own brother,” she says to him. “You should try it, feels wonderful,” he responds with a sneer. Jaime shuffles and hopes this isn’t foreshadowing. But Euron’s not giving up, and says he’s going to come back with a gift. Whose head will it be, I wonder…

And then… the montage from HELL. As I said on Facebook, at the end of the previous season, when we saw that spectacular library of the maesters, I said if I could be one character on the show, it would be Samwell Tarly. I take that back now. What did you think of this, um, shitty symphony that was Sam’s new life, Chris?

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Christopher: Well, first I just want to add how much I loved Pilou Asbæk’s performance in that scene—I was underwhelmed by his turn as Euron last season, but he’s definitely upped his game. And he has one of the two best burns of the episode: “Here I am with a thousand ships and two good hands!” he leers, as Jaime looks on angrily (the other best burn being Sansa’s elegant “No need to seize the last word, Lord Baelish—I’ll assume it was something clever.” Ouch!).

As for Sam … well, about halfway through the oddly rhythmic books/bedpans/food montage, I said “Ah! Sam’s a grad student now!” Considering that at least half the people with whom I watched the episode are former and/or recovering grad students, it got a big laugh. But of course, such drudgery is something we should have expected; though both you and I ended last season in a Sam-like state of bibliophilic bliss looking at the Citadel’s unearthly library (both of us, as I recall, likened it to our own first visits to U of T’s Robarts Library Rare Book Collection), the truth of any apprenticeship (academic or otherwise) is one of tedium and drudgery punctuated by moments of epiphany. (I can’t possibly be the only person who saw Sam sneaking by night into the restricted area and thought of Hermione’s forays into the forbidden sections of the Hogwarts Library). Sam is training to be a maester, which is not exactly something one can fast-track. His exchange with Archmaester Ebrose, aka Quincy, was a few moments of quiet brilliance in the way it articulated both the virtue and drawback of the scholarly mindset. The Archmaester employs the Westrosi equivalent of Occam’s Razor to Sam’s claims: “The simplest explanation for your grating obsession with the White Walkers,” he says, “is that you’re telling the truth. And that you saw what you say you saw.” Not that that means he’s about to aid Sam in his quest. “In the Citadel, we lead different lives,” he tells Sam. “We are this world’s memory.” And as the world’s memory, they stand aloof from the occasionally catastrophic events of the realm, always enduring. He echoes Sansa’s assertion that the Wall has always stood, and that winter always ends.

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His speech is a paean to knowledge and scholarship, and hearkens—for the real world—back to the role played by monasteries in the dark and middle ages of Europe in archiving books and knowledge. For me, however, his words resonate with the ostensible role of the university, whose oft-maligned “ivory towers” maintain spaces of inquiry and research free from the pressures and incursions of quotidian politics. Of course, this characterization bears little resemblance to the reality, but the Archmaester’s words strike a chord because the inertia of the academy is at once its greatest virtue and its greatest flaw. In the context of Game of Thrones, we know that his complacency is foolishness; in the present moment, we in the university environment with the privilege of full-time positions are being shaken out of our institutional torpor by the pressures of austerity economics and the push toward corporatization. And yet that torpor is slow to slough off—too many of us assume the Wall will always stand.

Ahem. Sorry. Sometimes these university analogues strike too close to home.

On a lighter note: Twitter was ablaze after this episode with the Ed Sheeran cameo, and I can tell you have some, er, rather strong thoughts on the subject. Tell you what, Nikki: considering I wouldn’t know an Ed Sheeran song if it walked up and bit me in the arse, I leave commentary on that bit of casting to you. I will however say that my fangasm came during the autopsy scene when I realized that the archmaester was played by Jim Broadbent. Not sure what that says about me, but here we are.

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We shift from Oldtown back to Winterfell, and witness the next stage in Tormund’s courtship of Brienne. Gotta say—dude has to up his game. If all he’s going to do is make googly eyes and waggle his eyebrows, the Lady of Tarth is going to remain resolutely unimpressed. Though given his wistful observation that Pod is “a lucky man”—just after the poor boy has been made to faceplant into a snowdrift—it might be that he’d be happy just receiving arse-kickings from Brienne. I hear some men like that sort of thing.

What did you think of Sansa’s wintry conversation with Littlefinger, Nikki? It’s obvious he means to stir the pot, and just as obvious that we’re being primed for conflict between Jon and Sansa, but she seems about done with his shit. “He wants something,” says Brienne in her role as Captain Obvious. “I know precisely what he wants,” Sansa replies.

What gives? Is Sansa seriously ready to kick him to the curb, or is she just playing it close to the vest?

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Nikki: I loved Sansa in this scene, because there are moments in Game of Thrones where you glance at a character and can’t help but think of how far they’ve come in the past seven years. This was one of those moments. In season one, Sansa was an insufferable girly-girl who needed Arya to start acting girlier, who giggled and flirted with any boy who looked in her direction, and who left the real thinking to the men. And look at where we are now. She’s strong, she never even looks at Baelish once in this scene the entire time he’s talking to her, and she just stares off into the fighting grounds with her eyelids heavy, as if his very presence bores the hell out of her. Baelish remarks that Brienne is “an impressive woman” and Sansa’s face looks like she’s fighting back an eyeroll, as if to counter, “Brienne isn’t an impressive woman, you twerp, she’s an impressive fighter, period. For god’s sakes the Ghostbusters are women, Wonder Woman has the best superhero film out there, and the main hero of Star Wars is Rey, get with the effing program, you twat.” Instead, she just holds back that eyeroll.

Baelish asks her why she’s not happy, and what will make her happy, and she simply says peace and quiet in a bid to get rid of him. But I couldn’t help but look at her in that moment and think, in the past six years she’s lost her parents, her siblings, and she believes she’s the last Stark standing. The only one left is her bastard brother who is currently at odds with her on how to lead, and despite the leaps and bounds she’s made in her life she’s still struggling to earn anyone’s ear or respect. As Littlefinger leaves in his rather Cersei-ish gown (did anyone else sense a weird flip of gender stereotypes between Sansa and Baelish’s body language?), Sansa mutters to Brienne that they do actually owe him their lives, and that without the Vale the battle would have been lost.

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And then we cut to Sansa’s sister, who was having a nice, peaceful ride through the woods until she heard the voice of an angel breaking through the trees. Arya pauses for a moment, thinking, “Oh wow, I feel like I know this voice but usually his songs are so bland and boring and yet this is intriguing and…” and… yes it’s Ed Sheeran, member of the the Lannister army (as IF, worst casting ever) singing “Hands of Gold.” I had to look it up to see if this was a song that actually existed in the books, and turns out it does. (Chris can probably elaborate more for context in his next bit.) Apparently a singer in book three finds out about Tyrion and Shae and writes this song about them, threatening to tell everyone. Tyrion pays him blackmail money but eventually orders Bronn to kill him, and as Tyrion kills Shae with the golden chain around her neck, he sings one of the lines of the song:

He rode through the streets of the city,
Down from his hill on high.
O’er the winds and the steps and the cobbles,
He rode to a woman’s sigh.
For she was his secret treasure,
She was his shame and his bliss.
And a chain and a keep are nothing,
Compared to a woman’s kiss.
For hands of gold are always cold,
But a woman’s hands are warm!
For hands of gold are always cold,
But a woman’s hands are warm!

Of course, during the song I couldn’t help but think that the lyrics seemed to fit Jaime: his hand is made of gold, and it’s even referenced earlier by Euron, as Chris pointed out. And he does ride and sail to get to the woman who is both his shame and his bliss.

But back to the horrible stunt casting of Ed Sheeran. And, a wee bit of behind-the-scenesery here. As many of you know, Chris and I write this in stages. I write my bit, send it to him for his pass, he lobs it back to me, etc. It usually takes a few days, and during that time I avoid other reviews of the show and try to avoid anyone’s comments on social media because I don’t want anyone else shaping my opinions. I assumed I was going to be in the minority on Ed Sheeran because he’s a hugely popular singer whose popularity has always surprised me, because his music is sooooo boring to me. But then I saw an article that showed I was actually in the majority, and that people didn’t just hate his cameo, they loathed it. So much so that he’s been getting a ton of hate mail via Twitter and as of Tuesday, actually deleted his account.

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While he was deleting his Twitter account, I was writing a vicious takedown of his appearance in this scene. And then I found out that happened, and I’ve deleted it. Because here’s the thing: I don’t actually hate Ed Sheeran. I don’t even think of Ed Sheeran. He’s just not my thing and I find his immense popularity kind of baffling.

But he was cast in this role as a surprise to Maisie Williams, who is a huge fan. Which… is cute, but… seriously? This is the biggest show on television and they’re now basing their casting decisions on what would make their young stars giddy? We all love Maisie, but that seems a bit much.

Now, for those who are Sheeran fans, I know what you might be thinking: you were jumping up and down when members of the National appeared at the Red Wedding. You were squeeing with delight when Sigur Ros played the troubadours at the Purple Wedding. But the thing is, they were cast to play musicians and then disappeared from the scene. The problem here isn’t Ed Sheeran. The problem is the writers who thought it would be fun to keep him in the scene, having him sit next to his biggest fan, and then give him NOTHING to do. My original takedown talked about how he just sat there like a big grinning idiot with a brain injury. But that’s the thing: what else was he supposed to do? They didn’t give him any lines, they just made him sing and then he was forced to sit there. And he’s ED SHEERAN, meaning many, many, many people were going to recognize him. Even Sigur Ros fans don’t know what Sigur Ros look like, so when they were fumbling on the ground for the money Joffrey nonchalantly tossed at them, they just looked like three extras. But Ed Sheeran is a massive star, and instantly recognizable to a lot of people, and for that entire scene we were taken out of Westeros and it was made abundantly clear that this is Ed Sheeran sitting next to Maisie Williams, who is trying desperately not to make eye contact with him. She ceased being Arya, he was never a soldier, it was just two stars sitting on a log with her giggling and him giggling and viewers taking to Twitter to tell Ed Sheeran he’s the worst actor in the world.

My daughter begged me to take her to Pitch Perfect 2 last year. Aside from being two hours of my life I’ll never get back, the movie had an Ed Sheeran cameo that was actually kind of funny. Now, he was playing himself, and he wasn’t in Westeros, so it worked. Making him a Lannister soldier with no lines who has to sit through a scene that now feels SO MUCH LONGER than it should have been, didn’t work. The fault isn’t with Sheeran: who among us would say NO to Benioff and Weiss if they asked us to appear in an episode of Game of Thrones? Not one of us. It’s the fault of the writers for doing this. They could have found a way to use him in a funny way, perhaps even just having him sing to himself in a ditch as Arya was passing by, maybe even have her make a comment about how grating she finds his singing to be ironic, and we would have all found that amusing. Yes, for that one brief moment it would have been Maisie and Ed, but it still would have been funny. This scene simply didn’t work, and now I’m actually sad to know that Sheeran has deleted Twitter, is probably having one of the worst weeks of his life, and will probably never be able to watch the show ever again.

I remember being infuriated when Ashanti was cast in an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and yet, oddly, they made it work. The gal could actually act. But the writers just couldn’t make this scene work at all.

But enough about terrible stunt casting and back to the episode (see, Game of Thrones? You pulled me so far out of the world of Westeros I’m talking about Buffy again… but I won’t get into that time Oberyn was on Buffy or we’ll be here all day).

So Sheeran and his fellow troubadours soldiers have been sent up from King’s Landing to the Riverlands because they heard there were problems at Frey’s. Arya keeps her poker face the whole time and then flatly tells them she’s going to kill the queen. There’s silence, they all stare at each other, and then they start laughing. Because of course I’m not going to kill the queen I mean OH MY GOD did I just say that out loud hahahaha!

And then we cut away to the next scene. I assume that she gets on her horse and travels away from them and they head off to Frey’s where Ed Sheeran’s character contracts dysentery. A girl can dream.

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And we’re back to the Hound, making fun of a guy’s man bun (HA!) in a scene that harkens back to a scene from season four, when the Hound and Arya came upon a little house with a man and his daughter. The farmer was kind to both of them, and offers to give them some money, but when the Hound realizes the man has a bag of silver he takes it from him, leaving the man hurt and the little girl tending to him. Arya is angry, but the Hound argues that they’ll be dead by winter anyway. And now, in the present, the Hound is back at that farmhouse and he sees their corpses, but enough of their bodies remain that he can see the agony on their faces, and knows what he’s done to them. In the midst of starving to death — probably due to a lack of funds to buy any seeds or food — the farmer killed his daughter for her own good, before taking his own life. We all know the Hound is not one to show sentiment, but we know he feels it. He was fond of Arya, and he cares about people. Unlike his brother he’s not an automaton that was put on this earth to bring misery, so when he actually does, he atones for it.

Clegane snidely refers to the “fire worshippers” who make up the Brotherhood Without Banners with whom he’s now travelling, and he comments that he distinctly remembers seeing Beric at the tournament at King’s Landing, Beric being the man who keeps dying and is brought back to life by Thoros of Myr. Thoros tells Sandor to come and look at the fire. If there’s one thing the Hound is afraid of, it’s flames (it’s how he lost one side of his face) but he very carefully comes close to the fire… and sees something. And in a moment that surprises everyone in the room — most of all, Clegane — he sees an image of the Wall, the castle, and the dead marching towards that castle. The show has had so much destruction on it, but with fewer than two seasons left now, we’re going to start seeing solutions. If Beric was brought back to life, could there be an answer coming soon as to how?

We know that the Hound will never become an acolyte, it’s simply not in his nature. Later he buries the bodies of the dead farmer and his daughter, and Thoros comes out to find him there and help him. Sandor begins to say a prayer to the Seven, but forgets how it actually goes and says some pithy words that they deserved better than to die like this. Thoros ascertains that the Hound actually knew the people, and that’s why he’s burying them, but the Hound brushes him off. This isn’t going to be a guy dressed in robes and chanting around a fire, but perhaps his skepticism has been shaken a wee bit now.

What did you make of the Hound’s vision in the fire, Chris?

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Christopher: I didn’t love it. It makes a certain perverse sense that the flame-phobic Hound should be the one to see a crucial vision in the fire, but the whole scene was played without any affect. I find it difficult to believe that someone as cynical and skeptical as Sandor Clegane could suddenly find himself having a vision, and be so blasé about it. Where’s his incredulity? His anger and resistance to the whole thing? It was a little too pat for me, which is unfortunate, because Rory McCann is otherwise so brilliant in this episode. He does such an amazing job of bringing a sense of humanity to a person who has otherwise only known brutality, violence, and cynical self-preservation his entire life. His atonement and redemption narrative is subtle and nuanced precisely because we understand just how little use he has for the ideas of atonement and redemption while desiring them in spite of himself.

When he tells Thoros that he’s “burying the dead,” it occurred to me that this is the Hound’s raison d’etre from here on in: burying the dead of his past both literally and metaphorically.

From there we move to Sam and Gilly and Little Sam, where Sam is forcing himself to read in spite of his exhaustion and Gilly’s remonstrance. Once again, overtones of grad school! He pores over his ill-gotten texts, finally coming to a map of Dragonstone with the island’s wealth of dragonglass clearly marked.

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Did you notice how maps are a crucial motif in this episode? We see Circe plotting her next move as she paces around an unfinished map of Westeros, the episode ends with Daenerys entering the map room of Dragonstone (more on that in a moment), and Sam discovers what will presumably be a key plot point in episodes to come almost literally marked off like a treasure map. Two maps that represent dreams of conquest, and a third that promises salvation: we begin every episode with a reminder of Westeros’ geography in the opening credits, and it seems to me that, as we move toward the endgame, the show is intent on hewing to the “game” metaphor by giving us maps on which the players will place and move their pieces.

Sam’s discovery of the Dragonstone map sets us up for Daenerys’ arrival—finally!—at the island itself, but there’s a brief, poignant scene in between that acts almost as a connection between Sam and Dany. In yet another tedious task, Sam takes empty food bowls away from what look like prison cells. But as we realize, it’s more of a sanitarium, in which people infected with greyscale are kept quarantined. Including, as it turns out, Ser Jorah Mormont, who begs Sam for news of the Dragon Queen. Sam of course knows nothing, but presumably that will change as news of her landing spreads.

The last we saw Jorah, he’d been sent away with orders from his Queen to find a cure for his disease—a quest that seems to have led him to the Citadel. Judging by the progression of the disease and the quality of his voice, Jorah’s in a bad way. Will the Citadel be able to cure him?

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The reminder of his plight tempers the triumph of Daenerys’ long-awaited return home—as she is rowed up to the beach, it is hard not to think of Jorah’s despair and what he would be feeling if he could be there with her. That being said, it is a deeply affecting scene: beautifully shot, and done without words until the final moment. (I couldn’t help thinking as we see the craggy spur of land to Daenerys’ right as she approaches the beach, that there’s where the dragonglass is).

When last we saw Dragonstone, it was inhabited by Stannis Baratheon and his forces, and it was invariably dark and brooding—most of the scenes took place at night, and we never really saw the castle in all its glory. Here it is the precise opposite: seen in beautiful and sunny weather, the oppressive castle of Stannis’ days is breathtaking in its architecture and the rugged cliffs from which it rises. Though the symbolism is not overt, the suggestion is the dawning of a new day.

Walking through the throne room (pausing to tear down a Baratheon banner on the way), she passes into the room with the ornate table carved into a map of Westeros by her ancestor Aegon the Conqueror, who plotted his Westrosi campaign in that room. Again, the set design here is stunning, especially the dragons carved in bas-relief into the walls. I loved Tyrion’s quiet awe—one senses in Peter Dinklage’s expression Tyrion’s sudden apprehension of the enormity of what they are about to attempt.

And then: “Shall we begin?”

Yes. Yes we shall.

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That’s all for this week, friends and neighbours! It kind of sucks that we’re only getting seven episodes this time around, but we’ll make the best of it for you. Once again, Nikki, it is a delight to team up with you on this ride. For everyone else, stay warm and beware of stingy old men who suddenly want to give you wine.

 

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American Gods Episode 1.02: “The Secret of Spoons”

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Apologies for such a late posting—writing about the second episode three days after episode three went up is rather more than tardy, but I plead a particularly recalcitrant piece of writing I needed to get done for this past Sunday that occupied all of my attention. So, without further ado: episode two!

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First, a review.

My first impression of this episode was essentially meh. It started well with Mr. Nancy’s magisterial speech aboard the slave ship, but from that point on was rather uneven—the pacing was odd, and it lacked a cohering through-line, thematically or otherwise. There were some stellar stand-out moments, to be sure—Mr. Nancy, Gillian Anderson as the god of Media in the guise of Lucille Ball, Wednesday’s many little brilliant moments, Cloris Leachman!, and of course Peter Stormare’s vituperative, chain-smoking Slavic god Czernobog—but at first glance, the episode felt like a patchwork of unevenly-paced set-pieces interrupted by a montage of Bilquis’ equal opportunity predatory sex.

My second and third viewings made it clear that this is a series that rewards rewatching. That’s not necessarily what television execs want to hear, but it speaks to the depth of material on display here, the quality of the writing, and the brilliance of the performances.

On this last point: can we sing songs of triumph for Orlando Jones, Gillian Anderson, Cloris Leachman, and Peter Stormare? I’m particularly hung up on Cloris Leachman, whom I’ve loved since first I watched Young Frankenstein. I want to single her out because the other three are given virtuosic text—and they all rise admirably to it—but she manages to bring remarkable gravitas to a part that could easily be played as a one-dimensional stereotype. Considering the dark threat Stormare brings to his role, it’s a testament to Leachman that she makes it clear this is her home.

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Second, my thoughts.

As I said above, there’s no clear unifying theme in this episode, with the exception of Czernobog’s comments about race, which close a circle with Mr. Nancy’s speech aboard the Dutch slaver (about which, more below). Rather, the episode unfolds almost as a trio of one-act plays—or four, if we include the wordless montage of Bilquis consuming her lovers/worshippers, and then having a wistful moment at a museum where she looks upon a statue of her old self and the jewelry her acolytes would wear.

I cannot say enough about Orlando Jones’ impassioned rage as the trickster spider god Anansi, appearing in flamboyant twentieth-century garb on a Dutch slave ship. Did I say last week that American Gods seems to be leaning into the racial politics of American history? The raw rage he communicates here is mind-numbing, and strips away whatever platitudes and obfuscations we might employ to euphemize the brutal, inhuman reality of slavery and its legacy:

“Shit! You all don’t know you black yet!” he says, a line that will resonate later in the episode. “You think that you’re just people. Let me be the first to tell you that you are all black!” As much, however, as he inspires and channels the anger of the slaves—and as much as his speech communicates his own rage at what has been done to his people—Anansi ultimately goads them into a blood sacrifice that will benefit him. When one of the prisoners protests that they will be killed if they rebel, Anansi sneers, “You already dead, asshole. At least die a sacrifice for something worthwhile.” A sacrifice, it turns out, for Anansi, whose incarnation crawls ashore amid the flotsam of the destroyed slave ship, an African god transplanted to America.

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It is a reminder of something we’ve already been learning from Mr. Wednesday: gods in the Gaiman firmament are not deities who exist prior to humanity, on whom we are dependent; they are the product of human belief, and are therefore dependent upon us for devotion, worship, and above all, sacrifice. As such, they are grifters, reliant upon trickery and prestidigitation to goad us into giving of ourselves. Mr. Wednesday, we have seen, is quite the accomplished con man, playacting his way into a first-class seat in the first episode; in episode three, he employs an even more elaborate grift to rob a bank (but more about that in my next post). On one hand, his roguish behaviour is entirely in keeping with the Odin of Norse myth, who delighted in outsmarting his enemies even more than he took pleasure in battle. But his grifting is also what passes for worship in his new reality, as he feeds on the gullibility of everyone he cons. In a speech to the other old gods in the novel—which I will be very surprised if it isn’t repeated verbatim in the series—he says,

We have, let’s face it and admit it, very little influence. We prey on them, and we take from them, and we get by; we strip and we whore and we drink too much; we pump gas and we steal and we cheat and we exist in the cracks at the edges of society. Old gods, here in this new land without gods.

Except, as we’re coming to realize, America isn’t entirely without its own gods. For those who haven’t read the novel, last episode’s encounter with Technical Boy might have been somewhat baffling; Shadow’s latest run-in brings things into slightly more focus, as Media—played brilliantly by Gillian Anderson as Lucille Ball (sorry, Ricardo)—makes her pitch for Shadow’s defection:

“The screen’s the altar,” she tells Shadow. “I’m the one they sacrifice to … Time and attention—better than lamb’s blood.” The battle lines are being drawn: the old gods versus the new, the transplants from around to the world to this “new land without gods.” Religious devotion has changed, shifted, to the deities of secular modernity. Media’s crass little proposition to Shadow—“Ever wanted to see Lucy’s tits?”—provides a striking contrast to the kind of desire at the root of religion most obviously, and explicitly, manifested in this episode with the extended Bliquis montage. Religion, or more elementally, belief, is rooted in desire as much as anything else: desire for knowledge, for safety, for plenty, for health, for children, for another year of life. There is a dual critique built into Gaiman’s novel, and it will be interesting to see how much of it the series realizes: a very humanist critique of religion itself, and a critique of the postmodern moment’s monetization of the needs and impulses that led people to create gods in the first place—a critique that is as much about America itself. There’s something vaguely pathetic in Bilquis’ serial seduction of willing victims, both on her part and theirs—her need degrades the rite, as does the obliviousness of her lovers. Her moment of nostalgic longing as she looks on her statue evokes a time in her past when she was worshipped openly and her acolytes were willing sacrifices, which reflects poorly on her need to employ internet dating to feed her needs.

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By the same token, one of the novel’s unanswered questions, which has come up whenever I’ve taught American Gods—if the New Gods have so much of America’s attention, why can’t they just crush the Old Gods?—speaks to the degraded nature of worship itself in the present moment. “Time and attention—better than lamb’s blood,” claims Media, but how powerful is a sacrifice when it is partially a product of indifference? “They sit side by side, ignore each other, and give it up to me,” Media tells Shadow, but “Now they hold a smaller screen in their lap or in the palm of their hand, so they don’t get bored watching the big one.” Obviously, Media seems to think of this as a good development for her, but it is hardly exemplary of worshippers’ focused devotion. Her offer to show Shadow Lucy’s breasts degrades the understanding of “icon,” with all of the word’s religious connotations, and sets itself squarely in a media environment of hacked cell phones and nude selfies.

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But, onward to Chicago, where Wednesday means to acquire his “hammer.” It’s worth acknowledging the little head-fake here: by this moment in the second episode, viewers will undoubtedly have grasped the central conflict between old and new gods; which of the old gods Wednesday is might still be unclear to some, and his mention of a hammer followed by images of lightning might lead some to wonder if he’s Thor. That question is cleared up, however, when Czernobog calls him Wotan—the Germanic name for Odin (and those who know their days of the week know “Wednesday” is derived from “Woden’s Day,” Woden being the Old English name for Odin). And the hammer is question is Czernobog’s, a relic of his days working in a slaughterhouse before the introduction of the captive bolt gun (used to such devastating effect by Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men).

Czernobog is an old Slavic god—the “black god” of death (whose brother Bielobog, the god of light and sun, is alluded to but never named), who came to America with the Zorya sisters (more on them in my next post). I’ll admit to being a little skeptical of Peter Stormare’s casting in this role—in the novel he is described as being much older, but I was not accounting for Stormare’s ability to play a dissolute and embittered old man who wears the threat of violence on his shoulders like a thundercloud. I loved everything about this sequence, from Zorya’s first ambivalent greeting of Wednesday (“You are worst man in the world!”), to her response to Shadow calling Czernobog her husband (“Family is who you survive with when you need to survive … even if you do not like them”), to the final scene in which Shadow loses a game of checkers, and with it the wager of his life, to Czernobog. “A shame,” he sighs, “You’re my only black friend.”

I freely admit to laughing out loud to this closing line, which would have been funny under any circumstances, but was particularly poignant after Czernobog’s dinner conversation with Shadow. When he observes that Shadow is black, and Shadow tightly asks whether that’s a problem, Czernobog essentially shrugs:

We never cared so much about skin like the Americans. Where we’re from, everyone is the same colour. So we must fight over shades. You see, my brother had light hair and beard, and me dark … like you. I was like the black man, over there. As against my brother, the white. Everybody thought he must be the good one! So I became me.

This little speech resonates with Mr. Nancy’s revelation to the African slaves: “The moment these Dutch motherfuckers set foot here and decided they white, then you get to be black, and that’s the nice name they call you.” It’s a reminder that the very idea of blackness is an imperial invention: a distinction that drew lines between those with power and those without, between those who arrogated to themselves the innate right of rule and those unfit to rise in American society; between the “worthy” nations and countries of origin (i.e. Anglo-Saxon and Protestant Christian), and those whose people possessed the taint and degradation of lesser blood. While we should never equate the immigrant experience with that of African slavery, it is nevertheless important to remember that the waves of immigrants in the nineteenth century from Ireland, Italy, and Eastern Europe—the Czernobogs of America, in other words—were not considered “white” in the way their descendants are today. Czernobog’s words to Shadow—and Mr. Nancy’s words to the men in the slaver’s hold—speak to the contingency and constructed nature of race.

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Who is “white”? Who is “black”? Who decides? Those to whom we give power. And if Neil Gaiman’s inversion of our relationship to the gods teaches us anything, it’s that we hold the power ourselves.

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American Gods Episode 1.01: “The Bone Orchard”

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Whenever a beloved work of fiction gets adapted to film or television these days, one can almost hear the prayer murmured in unison by fans: please don’t suck, please don’t suck. As someone more or less indifferent to the Marvel and DC universes, I have been spared the worst of pop culture’s sins on this front in recent years, and have in fact been rewarded with Game of Thrones and The Expanse (the less said about the three Hobbit films the better, however).

When I first heard that Neil Gaiman’s American Gods was going to be adapted by Starz, however, I was more than a little concerned—Starz not being known for high-quality drama on par with, say, HBO, AMC, or Showtime. (I will admit that my attitude about Starz is largely coloured by my experience of watching the first few episodes of Spartacus shortly after finishing HBO’s Rome. Where Rome is a beautifully written and acted show, watching Spartacus was not unlike having a DVD of 300 taped to a brick, wrapped in a 1970s Penthouse, and flung at your head). But as we learned more, some of my anxieties lessened—especially after learning it would be co-produced by Bryan Fuller (late of Hannibal), and that Mr. Wednesday would be played by Ian McShane.

Still … you just don’t know until it airs. The early reviews were positively orgasmic, which could be a good or bad sign. But then I watched the first episode “The Bone Orchard,” and I have to agree with the reviews.

So given that Game of Thrones will not be airing until mid-July and thus you’ll have to wait several months for my co-blogs with Nikki, I think I will endeavor to post about American Gods episode by episode. I won’t do recaps: ideally, I’ll find something intriguing in each episode that I can tease out into a discussion related to the original novel. So without further ado, here’s my take on episode one.

somewhere in america

First, a review.

I have now watched “The Bone Orchard” twice; my first viewing was largely suffused with delight and relief at how good the show is. Ricky Whittle is powerful and compelling as the laconic, brooding, watchful Shadow; Jonathan Tucker is a minor revelation in the role of Shadow’s cellmate Low-Key (especially considering what we’ll learn about him in later episodes); the scene with Bilquis was startling in that it was precisely how I pictured it unfolding in the novel (which, I presume, inspired a good number of “WTF?” moments among those who haven’t read it); I’m always stoked to see Pablo Schreiber, whether as Nick Sobotka in The Wire or Pornstache in Orange is the New Black—and he’s amazing here as the leprechaun Mad Sweeney (“Okay, you’re a little tall for a leprechaun.” “That’s a stereotype. Represents a very narrow view of the world”); and of course, Ian McShane steals every scene he’s in, bringing a hint of the old Al Swearenegen darkness, but embroidering it with an outrageous, loquacious, and audacious charm. Already there’s a substantial amount of Gaiman’s text making it into the show more or less verbatim, but I have a sneaking suspicion that the balance of it will be coming out of Mr. Wednesday’s mouth over the course of the series.

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Demore Barnes as Mr. Ibis.

There were a number of near-squee moments in this episode, the first one coming when we open, not on Shadow in his cell (as in the novel) but on Mr. Ibis in his study, writing out the history of mendicant gods brought to America in his elegant script. Opening with the story of Vikings touching American soil a century before Leif Eriksson—and the sacrifices they made to flee—is a very smart framing device for reasons I’ll get into momentarily. Visually, however, it signaled its aesthetic kinship to Hannibal: the gouts of blood thrown up into the air as the Norsemen engage in ritual combat, would, in other contexts, be comically excessive—and indeed they are here, but we soon see how consonant they are with the saturated colours of the rest of the episode. The palette on display is a mark of how Bryan Fuller and Michael Green take visual ownership of Gaiman’s text. When I read American Gods, the visuals in my mind (and this is a purely subjective reading) are pale and washed out, as if filmed through a blue filter. The rich and vibrant world on display here is not dissonant, just a different interpretation: one that will, as I will hopefully discuss in this post and the ones to follow, tease out elements of Gaiman’s text not immediately apparent.

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Ricky Whittle as Shadow Moon.

Second, my thoughts.

On my second viewing of “The Bone Orchard,” I was struck by the way in which the episode starts laying thematic groundwork for a story about “foreign” or immigrant gods—brought to the continental U.S. by immigrants, refugees, indentured servants, and slaves, and then more or less forgotten by their erstwhile worshippers—in the context of American history. In this episode the striking motif is that of hanging, which bookends the story.

In the novel, Shadow is presented as racially ambiguous, described as having “coffee and cream skin.” In the early pages of the novel, one of the prison guards quizzes him on his ethnicity, suggesting that he might have black blood in him (except he doesn’t say “black”). Shadow’s indeterminate ethnicity and race, coupled with his tendency to be quiet and watchful and aloof, establish him as a liminal figure in a nation preoccupied—both historically and presently—with assigning explicit identities to anyone not falling under the broad rubric of whiteness. In this respect, with his indeterminate origins, Gaiman’s Shadow comprises a sort of symbolic mongrelization, one that allows those around him to project their assumptions upon him, while also functioning as a walking metaphor for the melting pot. (It occurred to me on my most recent re-read that if the showrunners wished to hew to this description of Shadow, they could have done worse than to cast Jason Momoa in the role).

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Shadow meets the leprechaun, Mad Sweeney (Pablo Schreiber).

In casting Ricky Whittle, the series makes Shadow unambiguously African-American, a decision that mercifully occurred—to the best of my knowledge—without the kind of racist carping that accompanied the casting of Rue in The Hunger Games (who was explicitly described as black in the novel, a fact that eluded the carpers) or Hermione in the stage production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. And as I said above, based on the first episode, Whittle perfectly captures Shadow’s quietly observant, slightly brooding mien, something occasionally disrupted with a cutting and sarcastic sensibility. In making Shadow racially unambiguous, however, the show commits him to an overdetermined identity within U.S. culture and history.

This is not, I should be clear, a mistake or a bad thing: on the contrary, “The Bone Orchard” leans right into what I suppose we have to call, for lack of a better expression, the “racial politics” of American Gods. I hesitate to use that phrase because it is inadequate to the history of violence wordlessly presented moments after we meet Shadow: a knot of tattooed neo-nazis glaring daggers at him from across the prison yard, one of whom threateningly holds up a small noose. Later, when a guard leads Shadow to the warden’s office, another Aryan makes a hanging gesture as he passes.

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There are, I would hazard to say, few symbols quite as fraught for African-Americans as the noose, evoking as it does the bloody history of lynching and violent suppression. Nor does the episode leave the hanging rope in the realm of symbolism, as Shadow is subjected to a brutal beating and lynching by the “new god” Technical Boy’s drones at the very end of the episode. It is important to note that this scene is a creation of the show: in the novel, Shadow gets picked up by Technical Boy on his way back to the motel, and their conversation is repeated in this episode very nearly verbatim. But it ends in the novel with Technical Boy dropping Shadow off a few hundred yards away from the motel. Here, he orders his drones to kill Shadow, and what follows is a terrifying and bloody scene in which the drones brutally beat Shadow in the pouring rain and then hang him from a lonely tree in the midst of flat fields. That the drones are then killed in spectacular fashion by an unseen assailant and Shadow is cut down does not detract from the nauseating imagery of lynching.

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Taken in and of itself, this scene retrospectively looks back to the neo-nazi’s noose as foreshadowing, and plays out as a literal realization of white supremacist violence—perpetrated, in the end, not by incarcerated Aryans, but by a petulant and privileged white guy angered by Shadow’s snark (“Then why the fuck am I wasting my time sitting her talking to you?” Technical Boy asks, to which Shadow—in a line not from the novel—responds, “You know, I was curious myself, how long you were going to go on sucking your own dick?”). The violence is more than strictly allegorical, as the new gods against whom Mr. Wednesday and his cohort set themselves are essentially the embodiment and vehicles of hegemonic, cultural power in the contemporary U.S. (technology, media, wealth, celebrity, conspiracy, and so forth). One review I read of the episode said “If a black character is going to get lynched, American Gods better have a good reason for bringing that disturbing act to the screen.” I would argue that the most basic reason is the one I’ve outlined here: that these power structures are even more deeply rooted in white supremacy than the facile and simplistic hatred of the incarcerated Aryans. But I would also further argue that this episode grounds that understanding of power in a more complex, mythic history.

Aesthetically, American Gods shares DNA with Hannibal; thematically however, the series that suggests itself most persistently in this episode is Deadwood—and not just because of the presence of Ian McShane and Mr. Wednesday’s subtle echoes of Al Swearengen. The gritty neo-realism of David Milch’s western might seem completely at odds with Neil Gaiman’s mythopoeic American fantasy—and in many respects it is—but they do share a crucial commonality, which is an understanding of national mythology born in blood. Deadwood is about democracy and civil society emerging from lawlessness and violence (“improvised order” in the words of David Milch), and is an unsentimental critique of the delusion that civilization can be rooted in anything other than brutality. The series is, in part, a dramatization of Walter Benjamin’s assertion that “There is no document of civilization that is not at the same time a document of barbarism.”

American Gods is fundamentally about sacrifice. Gods in Gaiman’s legendarium are the product of worship and belief, and do not exist prior to human invention (I have written at some length about the novel previously), but are sustained by belief—but even more powerfully by sacrifice (something vividly illustrated by Bilquis’ rejuvenation after she consumes her would-be lover). What Deadwood tells us about democracy, American Gods tells us about religion: that it emerges from blood. The noose that taunts Shadow in the prison-yard foreshadows the lynching, but it is not the first noose to appear in the episode. The opening sequence depicting Vikings landing on an inhospitable strip of North American shore sets the stage for what is to come: denied egress from the strand by hostile natives and becalmed, the Norsemen carve an effigy of Odin and perform a series of ritual sacrifices: first, in emulation of the one-eyed god, they all put out an eye; when that does not work, they burn one of their own alive; and finally, in order to get the god’s attention, they stage a real and very bloody battle. Finally, Odin grants them wind enough to set sail, but their sacrifice brings an avatar of the god to the strange shore. “Over one hundred years later,” Mr. Ibis narrates, “when Leif the Fortunate, son of Erik the Red, would rediscover that land, he found his god waiting.”

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Just in case you forgot that one of the producers was also responsible for Hannibal

Odin, among his many names, is known as the Gallows God, because he hanged himself in order to gain wisdom. As Neil Gaiman writes in his recent book Norse Mythology,

He hung from the world-tree, Yggdrasil, hung there for nine nights. His side was pierced by the point of a spear, which wounded him gravely. The winds clutched at him, buffeted his body as it hung. Nothing did he eat for nine days or nine nights, nothing did he drink. He was alone there, in pain, the light of his life slowly going out.

He was cold, in agony, and on the point of death when his sacrifice bore dark fruit: in the ecstasy of his agony he looked down, and the runes were revealed to him. He knew them, and understood them and their power. The rope broke then, and he fell, screaming, from the tree.

Now he understood magic. Now the world was his to control.

The Vikings hang Odin’s effigy from a noose in the episode’s opening sequence, in honour of the god’s sacrifice, and then proceed through their own ever more brutal sacrifices.

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When we cut to the present day where Shadow lifts weights in the prison yard, his manic cell-mate Low-Key is riffing on the word “gallows,” speculating on the relief of receiving a death sentence: “You get a few days to let it sink in, and then you’re riding the cart on your way to do a dance on nothing.” Leaving aside for the moment that this is a rather nineteenth-century understanding of a death sentence, Low-Key’s evocation of the death penalty—while standing in the midst of a prison’s carceral space—draws a thematic line from the Vikings’ sacrificial violence, to the violence enacted on the bodies of citizens by the penal system, to the history of systemic violence perpetrated against African Americans. Human sacrifice, American Gods comes to suggest, was not merely the barbaric practice of premodern peoples, but is in fact the unspoken and necessary cornerstone of “civilization.”

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Ian McShane as Mr. Wednesday.

Low-Key continues to say, “This country went to hell when they stopped hangin’ folks; no gallows dirt, no gallows deals!” To which Shadow wearily rejoins, “No gallows humour.” It is an ironic little throwaway line, considering that Shadow’s association with Mr. Wednesday will provide a great deal in the way of gallows humour going forward.

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Caesarism, Crowds, and Populism

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When I was doing my MA, I stumbled into taking part in a local production of Julius Caesar. I had a tiny part—literally, about two lines, plus some shouting during the crowd scenes—but because the director had the idea that the Roman mob should double as a sort of chorus and witness, I spent about eighty percent of the play draped around the apron of the thrust stage with the rest of the non-principal cast.

The run was an interminable four weeks; at the time I did not appreciate just how exploitative that is for an amateur show, where the theatre company makes money but none of the actors do. For me it was a lark, and the fact that I managed to get decent grades in all my classes that term still amazes me somewhat. But it did grind on after a time, and to this day I still have most of the text of the play embedded in my unconscious.

One line in particular: the play started with a large mound of people pulsating and chanting “Caesar!” in murmurs as the house lights came slowly up. The actor playing Cassius then boomed “He doth bestride the narrow world like a colossus!” and the people in the heap peeled away in slow, stylized fashion, revealing Caesar, Antony, and the other principals.

Every night I heard that line, and every night it tugged at something in my subconscious, until it suddenly struck me: “He doth bestride the narrow world like a colossus” scans almost exactly the same as Darth Vader’s line to Princess Leia, “You are part of the Rebel Alliance, and a traitor!” And from that point on, I have never heard either line without thinking of the other.

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I’ve been thinking about that production lately, in part because I had the privilege yesterday of organizing and directing a play reading for my good friend and colleague Andrew Loman’s “48 Months of Finasteride.” Andrew, whose encyclopedic knowledge of theatre is truly astonishing, decided that he wanted to publicly read a play for every month of the Trump presidency—selecting politically themed plays dealing in some capacity with fascism or tyranny, political buffoonery, or really anything that could be used to reflect upon the current clusterfuck inhabiting the White House. Months forty-eight and forty-seven featured Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, and A Bright Room Called Day by Tony Kushner, respectively. I suggested that he do the version of Julius Caesar first performed under the direction of Orson Welles at the Mercury Theatre in 1937. Welles, who starred as Brutus as well as directing, made the play explicitly about Nazi Germany—the lighting evoked that of the Nuremberg Rallies, the actors dressed in Gestapo-esque outfits, and pamphlets advertising the play read “JULIUS CAESAR: DEATH OF A DICTATOR!”

Andrew liked the idea, and suggested I direct it. Which I did, and, thanks to a lovely cast of readers, last night it received an enthusiastic response.

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Our lovely cast. Back row: Fionn Shea (Cinna, Cobbler), Olivia Heaney (Flavius, Calphurnia, Publius), Zaren Healey White (Marullus, Portia, Decius, Cinna the Poet); front row: Dean Doyle (Carpenter, Lucius, Casca, Artimedorus, Soothsayer, Ligarius), Luke Ashworth (Julius Caesar), Your Truly (Brutus), Jennifer Lokash (Cassius), Ruth Lawrence (Mark Antony)

I’m always amused and gratified by the little serendipities of life, which seem to appear all the time in my teaching and research—it doesn’t really matter how dissimilar the classes I’m teaching in a given term are, I can be reliably guaranteed to find points of connection in my lectures that are surprising and enlightening (to me, at least). Given that I’ve been expanding research I’ve been doing, on zombie narratives on one hand and militaristic SF on the other, into theories of crowds and mobs (militaristic SF shares a tendency with popular narratives of elite soldiery to depict the enemy as an undifferentiated mass), sitting down to work with Orson Welles’ vision for Julius Caesar was fascinating.

Shakespeare’s Roman plays have long been fecund ground for pointed political stagings, which is entirely unsurprising considering their preoccupation with individual versus collective power, divine right versus egalitarianism, the Great Man versus the mob (and of course, the persistence of ancient Rome in the political memory of the West—no less acute for Shakespeare than it is for us today). At the heart of these plays, especially Coriolanus and Julius Caesar is the spectre of populism and its discontents: Julius Caesar has functioned since its first performance as a cautionary tale about the dangers of the mob, depicting the Roman masses as fickle, dumb, violent, and easily led. Indeed, the manner in which Shakespeare depicts them is almost risible at times. One of my favourite moments is almost Monty Python-esque in how quickly the mob’s attitude turns. Emerging enraged at the assassination of Caesar, they listen to Brutus’ impassioned argument that it was better Caesar was dead than Rome crown him king, and thus sacrifice their native freedoms; so taken is the mob with his words, so happy are they that Brutus saved them from making Caesar king, that they then cry out that Brutus should be crowned.

BRUTUS: With this
I depart—that, as I slew my best lover for the
good of Rome, I have the same dagger for myself,
when it shall please my country to need my death.

ALL: Live, Brutus! live, live!

First Citizen: Bring him with triumph home unto his house.

Second Citizen: Give him a statue with his ancestors.

Third Citizen: Let him be Caesar.

Fourth Citizen: Caesar’s better parts
Shall be crown’d in Brutus.

As they say today: <facepalm>.

Such a scene does resonate, however, whether we’re Shakespearean groundlings or 21st-century social media users, for a simple reason helpfully distilled by the British Marxist critic Raymond Williams in his landmark study Culture and Society (1958): “The masses are always the others, whom we don’t know, and can’t know … To other people, we also are masses. Masses are other people.” This basic fact, to my mind, is the contradiction at the heart of both mass culture and populism: we partake but cannot conceive of ourselves as part of the mass, something played for comic effect in The Life of Brian when Brian leads his followers in an affirming chant of “We’re all individuals! We’re all different!”, only to have a small voice pipe up, “I’m not.” As much as I hate explaining a good joke, it’s funny because it’s an unthinkable sentiment, even as it undercuts its own claim of non-individualism by being a lone voice of dissent in a chorus of groupthink.

My own research in this area has been about the critical mass of zombie films, television, and fiction in the past fifteen years—teasing out a sense of the relationship of the undead hordes to our ambivalent relationship to mass culture. In the past two years it has taken on an added resonance with the resurgence of “populism” as a political force. Re-reading Julius Caesar—and this is what I mean by serendipity—touched a nerve, as the ravening crowd, riled to bloodlust by Antony’s oration, sets upon hapless Cinna the Poet and tears him to pieces. To be certain, this is the dystopian view of populism, but then one’s view of populism is entirely based on where one stands. If you’re on the left, Trumpian populism is pernicious, a melding of unreconstructed racism and white resentment, framed in nostalgia for an America that never really existed, whereas the Bernie Sanders version was an organic grass-roots revolt against systemic injustice and a broken political system. And if you’re an Establishment elite, both groups are the Roman mob—your political leaning only changes whether Antony or Brutus is the hero.

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Orson Welles as Brutus.

What I loved about sitting down with Welles’ script was seeing how carefully he’d orchestrated the crowd scenes. And I mean “orchestrate” quite literally—he made them much more complex than the original Shakespearean text, arranging the lines on the page in a way that indicated when people should talk over one another or speak in succession. Considering how exacting a director Welles was, I have little doubt he tortured his cast until the scene played symphonically.

Where Shakespeare identifies the crowd-shouters as “First Citizen” and so on, Welles instead just assigned specific lines to specific cast members. This allowed for a more precise allocation of speaking roles, but in reviewing the script, it also individuates the mob—Welles’ Roman masses have more personality, and come across not as a chorus but a series of individual voices. This dramaturgical change is interesting, considering that the overt object of the play’s critique is the terrifying rise of Nazism in Germany. As a friend of mine once drily observed, Nazis make the best villains—for the simple reason that you don’t ever have to explain why they’re villains. But Welles has another object in his sights: not an always-already malleable mass of “gullibility, fickleness, herd-prejudice, lowness of taste and habit” (to again quote Raymond Williams), primed to give in to their basest hatreds at the slightest provocation, but a heterogeneous group of thinking people convinced to throw over their own freedoms by a talented demagogue.

Most tellingly, Welles completely dispenses with the crowd’s sudden eagerness to crown Brutus—they are swayed by his arguments, but understand them enough to not seek a substitute king. Antony’s funeral oration thus becomes that much more masterful, as he leads his initially skeptical audience through four stages of his speech: sarcastic rhetoric (“And Brutus is an honorable man”), pathos (showing them Caesar’s wounds, and pointing out where each conspirator stabbed him), and then to the crowd’s own material self-interests (revealing that Caesar had left every Roman seventy-five drachmas in his will), and then finally riling them up to rage (“there were an Antony / Would ruffle up your spirits, and put a tongue / in every wound of Caesar, that should move / The stones of Rome to rise and mutiny!”).

Also telling is Welles’ stage direction: when Antony reaches the climax of his speech, there is no mad yell from the throng as they charge off to wreak havoc. Rather, the script says “Silence. The lights dim as the mob turns slowly upstage and moves to exit with an increasing tempo and crescendo of footsteps.” Such an exit is not about collective rage but chilling unity of purpose—the suggestion being that this is not a fire that will burn itself out, but a movement. This cold implacability—so different from the more typical raging mobs of Caesar productions—surfaces again immediately in the notorious Cinna the Poet scene. Typically, the hapless Cinna, who has the misfortune of sharing a name with one of Caesar’s murderers, is set upon by the mob and torn apart. Welles’ thugs, however, emerge quietly from the darkness and behave in a specifically Gestapo manner.

In some ways, it is clear that Welles’ Caesar was a pre-war production—it allows for a differentiation amongst the rank and file that would become unthinkable in years after the war when Nazis became synonymous with unthinking evil. But it is for this reason that this production is such a valuable document today, as it offers an unusually nuanced depiction of populism. If the masses, as Raymond Williams says, are always other people, it is always worthwhile to remind ourselves of how we become part of the masses.

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Filed under Shakespeare, Trump

A Blog Post In Lieu of Other Blog Posts That Should Have Been

Revenge of the Genres

junot_wao_coverThe past two weeks have been an unforgivable lapse on my part, particularly so because I neglected to post on the text that was the original inspiration for this course: Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. That I didn’t manage to get anything up on this beautiful novel—which I count as one of the best of the past twenty years—is rather embarrassing. It wasn’t for lack of anything to say: I have copious notes on magical realism, the way in which the novel uses genre(s) to allegorize intersectional identities, and finally I had planned a post about allusion, in which I would have talked about Oscar Wao and Stranger Things.

Alas. A stultifying combination of busyness and post-election rage has made writing anything more than angry notes in my journal rather difficult. It’s that time of the term, when finishing one stack of grading only clears the desk to provide a clear view of the next stack of grading. It doesn’t help that I have a cat for whom stacks of paper are apparently a more attractive bed than, y’know, her bed:

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When I set myself the task of regularly blogging about this course’s texts, I knew there was a fair-to-likely chance I’d fall down on the job at some point, or that this experiment would simply peter out well before the end of the term. I’m actually halfway impressed that I’ve posted as regularly as I have.

I do want to continue with this, however, even after the class ends in two weeks time. I’ve enjoyed this process too much, and have too much in the hopper that hasn’t made it to the page to simply end these posts with the course. The class itself has been a great experience: my students are amazing, and have been quite tolerant of my lengthy digressions and extemporaneous musings. As sometimes happens with this kind of class, I feel as though I’m only now getting a handle on the scope of the topic … so I will definitely be continuing to use this blog as a space in which to think out loud, and hopefully produce some raw material for some scholarly articles.

It helps than next term I’ll be teaching our second-year course on SF/F. Twelve weeks to do science fiction AND fantasy? Yeah, the reading list is pushing the envelope a little:

H.P. Lovecraft, selected stories
China Miéville, selected stories
Robert A. Heinlein, Starship Troopers
John Scalzi, Old Man’s War
Ursula K. Le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea
J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
John Wyndham, Day of the Triffids
Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven
N.K. Jemisin, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

I’m thinking I will continue this blog experiment with this class—there will be, after all, more than a little overlap in subject matter.

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So … apologies for the missing Oscar Wao posts, which I still intend to write; a little bit like closing the barn door as far as my class is concerned, but I’d hate for the stuff in my head to go to waste. In the meantime, look for some posts on Hamilton to go up soon.

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Filed under Revenge of the Genres, teaching