Game of Thrones, episode 8.02: A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms

Hello again friends, and welcome to the Chris & Nikki Game of Thrones co-blog. Well, we’re now two episodes into the final six of the series, and, I have to say, this week’s episode was all about the emotional payoffs of seven seasons’ worth of incredible storytelling, acting, and directing. It also set the table for what promises to be one of the most epic fantasy battles ever filmed. And while on occasion the setup episode in such a series proves less than whelming, I would hazard to say this this one does not disappoint. Anyone who found this episode boring seriously needs to do some soul-searching—by which I mean, you need to make certain you have one.

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Christopher: If last week was all about placing the pieces on the board, this week was the (relative) calm before the storm. And if last week was about reunions, this week was about—what? Reconciliations? Not quite the word I want, but close enough: Jaime facing the daughter of the king he killed, Jaime’s apology to Bran, Theon returning to fight for Sansa and Winterfell, Jaime putting himself under Brienne’s command, Arya and the Hound, Jaime knighting Brienne, Daenerys being reminded of Tyrion’s value and acting accordingly, among various others. There was a sentimental quality to this week’s episode that every so often was a wee bit trite, but was (to my mind at least) rather welcome. In our last post I observed that “still alive” counts for rather a lot after seven seasons of one of the most murderous television series ever produced; we were treated to an hour of survivors commiserating and all of them assuming they’ll be dead by the time the sun rises.

But we begin with the trial (loosely speaking) of Jaime Lannister. Daenerys seems quite ready to feed him to her dragons with all dispatch, telling him about how her brother used to tell her the story of how Jaime murdered the Mad King, and the various revenges they imagined they would exercise. Now, I do understand how finally looking at the man who killed your father might excite certain vengeful tendencies, but as I watched this scene, at least two thoughts occurred to me: (1) you mean that sociopathic, creepy brother who sold you into something resembling slavery, and whom your ex-hubbie killed by pouring molten gold on his head? … and, (2) that father who you’ve acknowledged was a raving lunatic who has come to be the embodiment of everything you don’t want to be?

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But then, I suppose family is family. And it’s significant that Jaime doesn’t say anything in his defense with regards to his legendary king-slaying—probably a good read of his current audience. So it’s a poignant moment when Brienne stands to defend his honour: Brienne, who as far as we’ve seen is the only person Jaime has told the actual story of that fateful day when he spilled royal blood.

Brienne’s defense of Jaime is, I would argue, somewhat less significant than Sansa’s unhesitating acceptance of her word. Brienne is one of the handful of characters in this show afflicted with the curse of unwavering honour; Sansa, as we’ve been observing lo these last few seasons, has matured from someone who lives for fantasies to someone with a clear and unerring eye for reality. If Brienne is willing to stand for Jaime, Sansa will take her at her word, which in the moment is a stark (heh) contrast with Daenerys’ dismissal of Tyrion’s defense of his brother. “I know my brother,” he starts to say, only to be cut of when she says, “Like you knew your sister?” Moments later she will upbraid him for misreading Cersei, and his tenure as Hand of the Queen seems tenuous. “I suspect one of you will be wearing this,” he says to Jorah and Varys, indicating his badge of office, “before it’s all over.”

Jaime is such an interesting character, and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau has done an extraordinary job in the role. While he does not defend himself against Daenerys’ words, he is defiant when Sansa charges that he attacked Ned Stark in the streets and waged war against the Starks, saying that those were actions taken in a time of war, and he would do that all again. But when Bran says, sardonically, “The things we do for love,” a haunted look settles on Jaime’s face, the ghosts of the man he was coming to torment the man he’d become.

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“Are you OK, Jon?” “Yup. Yup yup yup. Just feeling a little auntsy. ANSTY! I meant antsy.”

And then we’re back in the forge, with Gendry doing the Gendry thing, which is to say looking fetchingly begrimed and muscular as he hammers on red-hot metal and dragonglass. The main product they seem to be churning out seems to be spearheads, which makes practical sense—if dragonglass is a reliable way of killing wights and white walkers, I know I’d prefer to have it at the end of a long stick when the time came. Of course, Arya shows up, presumably to ask about her weapon request, but spends a few long moments regarding Gendry as he does the Gendry thing, a tiny smile tugging at her lips as she watches him bang his hammer and sink the red-hot metal in water so he can be wreathed in steam. “You make my weapon yet?” she demands when he notices her standing there. “Just as soon as I’m done making a few thousand of these,” he retorts, handing her an obsidian axe. Arya is not impressed, suggesting that her weapon should be stronger. “It’s strong enough!” he declares, and to demonstrate his point slams it into a piece of wood.

And Arya’s expression on seeing him do that … OK, I won’t say exactly what I wrote in my notes at that moment, as it’s somewhat NSFW, but the anodyne version would be along the lines of “well, someone’s getting somethin’.”

But in the meantime, for all Arya’s admiration of Gendry’s Gendryness, she’s actually more interested in getting some intel on the Enemy. Because here’s something where his experience trumps hers: he’s actually fought the White Walkers and their army; Arya, keen to know what she can look forward to, asks him extremely pointed questions. “What do they look like? What do they smell like? How do they move? How hard are they to kill?” All of which (I assume) are the kind of questions a trained assassin asks upon getting a new assignment. But Gendry is at a loss: the Enemy, he tries to tell her, is a force of nature and an existential crisis: “This is Death. You want to know what they’re like? Death. That’s what they’re like.”

Which is something that might daunt your average bear, but Arya has endured her own crucible. “I know Death,” she says, flinging spearheads into a post, and presumably freaking out the dude who was working next to it. “He’s got many faces. I look forward to seeing this one.” (In my notes, apropos of the thrown spearheads, I wrote “nice grouping”).

All of which totally encourages Gendry to move Arya’s weapon up in the queue.

And then we’re in the Godswood, where Jaime is about to have one of the more awkward conversations of his life. What did you think of their, um, reunion, Nikki?

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Nikki: I loooooved this episode, because it brought us back to what Game of Thrones has always been: about the people. The first episode debuted on April 17, 2011, meaning as of this week we’ve been obsessed with the television version of this world for eight years. And that’s a very long time in television terms. We’ve lost so many, we’ve gained so many new ones, and we’ve watched these characters evolve in ways we couldn’t have possibly imagined. The character development has been astounding as children were forced to grow up quickly, adults were forced to choose sides, people made sacrifices for their loved ones, or turned against the ones they should have been protecting. This episode was an extraordinary one where the preparations for the White Walkers continue in the background (more on that in a moment) but in the foreground we see these quiet tableaux of all the characters we love having one last moment with the ones who have been by their sides throughout the series. We know that in the next episode, Thanos is going to snap his fingers and we’re going to lose a ton of these characters in one go, but this beautiful episode reminded us of the many relationships along the way, what they once were and what they are now: Brienne and Jaime, Arya and Gendry, Jorah and Daenerys, Theon and Sansa, Bran and Jaime, Podrick and Brienne, Tyrion and Jaime, Sam and Gilly, Tormund and Brienne, who’s left of the Night’s Watch (of all those men, we’re down to Jon, Sam, and Tollett), Beric and the Hound, Lyanna and Jorah, Daenerys and Khal Drogo, Ser Davos and Shireen, Sansa/Theon and Ramsay, Missandei and Grey Worm, Jon and Tormund, Jon and Ghost (!! FINALLY!!), Arya and the Hound… the fact they packed all of this massive personal history into one single-hour episode is nothing short of astonishing.

But now to Jaime and his brief Reunion Tour of Winterfell. I first want to mention how gorgeous a setting the Godswood always is. The white, white ground surrounded by the snow-laden coniferous trees starkly (ha) contrasts the blood-red leaves that hang from the sad-faced weirwood trees and lie on the fallen snow. Since season 1, it’s been considered a place of quiet and contemplation, where people go to pray or meditate or think of their ancestors, but it’s also been a setting for escape and spying. And now, as of later in this episode, we know that its next use will be something far more sinister.

But for now, it’s where good ol’ Creepy Bran sits in his wheelchair, and Jaime, doing the honorable thing, approaches him to say he’s sorry. It sounds so… empty considering what he’s apologizing for. “Sorry I pushed a seven-year-old boy out of a window and crippled him for life. Oh and all that other stuff I’ve done to your family over the years.” But Bran—whom someone said last week looks like a perfect combination of every Beatle, and now I can’t unsee it—isn’t that seven-year-old boy anymore. And a girl can’t help but wonder, if he has everything that’s ever happened and everything that will happen up in his head all the time, does the memory of being pushed out of a window even feature in the Top 100 anymore? But clearly it still does, because it happened to him. And it was the incident that started everything else in his life.

And yet, while Bran clearly looks at Jaime and sees only that incident (remember: he hasn’t seen him since that moment), he’s far too stoic and zen and removed from himself to care much anymore. He forces Jaime to look at himself and who he is, as you mentioned, Chris, because he knows it will be important in the battle if Jaime goes in with eyes wide open. The strange thing about Bran is, he knows what will happen in this coming war, and he’s already seen who will live and who will die. If you want a perfect war strategy, maybe ask the guy in the chair who already knows how it ends? But… I think everyone is so creeped out by him they’re like, “Nah, I’m good.” And, as he’s explained, he can see possible futures—he doesn’t know which one will be the actual one. So instead, we get bits of his cryptic knowledge, and this scene ends with Jaime asking him why he didn’t tell the room what Jaime had done to him. Bran had been pragmatic, he explains, knowing if he’d have done so, Jon would have run Jaime through with a sword, if Sansa hadn’t gotten to him first, and it’s far more important that Jaime fight in this war. He’s one of the most formidable champions this show has ever seen, and even though he’s down to one hand, we know that hand can fight better than just about any other in this battle. But Jaime wonders about what happens beyond that pragmatism: what about in the aftermath? Will Bran tell his family the truth then? “How do you know there IS an aftermath?” creepy Miss Cleo asks. And… well, shit.

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Next we shift to Tyrion meeting his brother face-to-face, alone for the first time since Jaime’s arrival. I want to pause again for a moment to commend the extraordinary actions that have gone into constructing each of these scenes in the courtyard. Imagine how many actors have been wrangled here, how many props built, how much choreography has gone into every single moment as Tyrion walks across the courtyard to meet Jaime. All we care about is seeing the two brothers reunited, but I recommend readers go back just to look at this scene again and watch just how much activity is happening around them, and to know that every single beat was scripted. Every dragonglass sword, spear, and hatchet. Every grimy blacksmith or lord or soldier. Every wooden crate. Every catapult under construction. It’s absolutely mind-blowing to imagine how much planning and effort went into constructing this incredible image of all these Houses coming together to prepare to face their deaths.

But back to the Brothers Lannister. “Well, here we are,” says Tyrion, as he glances up to see some pretty pissed-off soldiers whose families were no doubt slaughtered by some aspect of the Lannister army, and one spits angrily into the courtyard while glaring at them. “And the masses rejoice.”

I couldn’t help but think, maybe a more private spot would have been better here, guys?

The brothers discuss their sister, who has been nothing but a thorn in the side of one of them, and who has been a lover to the other one. Yet now they stand as equals, both betrayed and threatened by this sister (neither one knows of the price on their heads yet, but that’s coming). Tyrion says he fell for Cersei’s bullshit once again, that he believed her when she said the pregnancy had changed her. Jaime reassures Tyrion that the pregnancy, at least, was true, but that news only seems to make Tyrion look even more pained. I mean, a nephew or a niece would be nice, but… you know… Joffrey. Jaime stupidly says that Cersei has tricked him just as often as she’s tricked Tyrion, and as Tyrion is walking up a flight of steps he turns, for once the same height as his brother, and looks Jaime right in the eye: “She never fooled you,” he says. “You always knew exactly what she was, and you loved her anyway.” And he continues up the stairs.

Up on the parapet—note they’ve somehow embedded dragonglass spikes into the sides of the walls, which is a brilliant little touch here—Tyrion talks about his impending death, that he always assumed it would be at age 80 with a bellyful of a wine and a woman’s mouth around his cock… a sentiment that makes Jaime not only smirk, but finish the sentence word for word. This moment not only is a quiet nod that the brothers know each other better than they think, but also shows just how far Tyrion has come. He says he always assumed that would be his death, but that hasn’t been a scenario for Tyrion for several years now; that’s the Tyrion of old. And that’s also the Tyrion Jaime knows best, unfortunately. But Tyrion then adds that at least Cersei won’t get to murder him. Could this be foreshadowing? Will he survive the White Walkers only to find his death at Cersei’s hand in King’s Landing?

And for Jaime Reunion #3, he meets up with Brienne, who is admiring Podrick as he fights with aplomb. Amazing to think this is the same Pod who could barely wield a dagger in the early days. Jaime and Brienne exchange some soldier small talk for a short while before she loses it on him, wondering what game he’s playing by talking to her without insulting her. If he’s not smack-talking her, she doesn’t know how to handle him. But Jaime becomes contrite, and tells her he’s no longer the fighter he once was, but he’d be honoured to fight under her command. This is the first of two amazing moments for Brienne in this episode; in this one, a lifetime of being an outcast culminates in the admiration and acceptance of the greatest swordsman Westeros has ever known. I wanted to stand up and cheer, because Brienne is one of the greatest of GRRM’s creations, and I’ve always wanted her to have this recognition. All Brienne manages in this moment is a brief nod, before she excuses herself quickly and leaves him standing there. So we’ll all do the cheering for her.

And next, Daenerys meets up with her former Hand of the Queen …

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Christopher: …who has some wise advice for her. To wit: “Your Grace, we’ve been emphasizing Tyrion’s mistakes an awful lot over the last few episodes, which means that, according to the laws of narrative, he’s due for a massive eureka moment that will probably save us all.” Jorah’s defense of Tyrion is consonant with the tone of both this episode and the last one, which is to say, unlikely people stepping up to have the backs of former rivals—Arya telling Jon that Sansa is the smartest person she knows, Brienne vouching for Jaime, and in the scene that follows, Sansa also defending Tyrion. Much of this episode is like a long, nervous inhalation, and the survivors of seven seasons of blood and grief find camaraderie with people that, once upon a time, they were trying to kill.

Case in point: the lovely scene that follows in which Daenerys attempts a rapprochement with Sansa. The tension simmering between the Northerners and Daenerys’ people finds politely subtle expression in the look Bronze Yohn Royce gives Daenerys as he exits, but the conversation between Daenerys and Sansa seems to promise that the two women might just be able to find common ground—if nothing else than their shared loathing of Cersei Lannister, but Daenerys also points out that “We both know what it’s like to lead people who aren’t inclined to accept a woman’s rule.” This, and her observation that they’re both damned good at it makes some headway with Sansa—at any rate, a smile ghosts across her otherwise imperturbable face (SO MUCH good face acting in this episode, but Sophie Turner takes them all to school).

Daenerys is smart enough to intuit that at least part of Sansa’s worry is about Jon; Sansa points out that men can do impulsive and irrational things for love, which if she were talking about anyone else might seem uncharitable; but Sansa knows all too well Jon’s impulsivity and willful blindness is a fundamental element of his character. Blinded by his hatred of Ramsay Bolton, he ignored her advice before the Battle of the Bastards; she then watched him as he broke ranks and charged the enemy alone (without a helmet on, no less), precipitating precisely what their outmanned forces could not afford, which was to charge the enemy’s greater numbers. Were it not for the deus ex machina of the Knights of the Vale, Jon’s reign as King in the North would have ended almost as soon as it started.

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Sansa knows this all too well, and thus is not wrong to worry that her brother might be acting according to the directives of something other than his brain. But Daenerys makes a good point: she has put her lifelong quest for the Iron Throne on hold for the time being, brought her armies to the North while the hated Cersei sits unmolested (except perhaps by Euron) in King’s Landing, and indeed lost one of her dragons because she was convinced of the virtue and necessity of fighting Jon’s war. And yes, she loves him, but she makes clear that the reasons are more than merely hormonal. “I trust him. And I know he’s true to his word. He’s only the second man in my life I can say that about.”

And a moment of levity: “Who was the first?” Sansa asks. “Someone taller,” Daenerys replies. I kind of wish she had continued: “And broader. You know, through the shoulders. And chest. Just, you know, generally bigger. Really, you could fit two Jon Snows in one Drogo thigh.” “What happened to him?” “Oh, king of the oceans now, or something. I didn’t really follow. More of a Marvel person, myself.” At which Sansa nods. “Damn straight.”

Of course, it always comes back around to the question of Daenerys’ intentions. Assuming everything goes well for our heroes—a big assumption—Sansa wants to know whether the North will have its freedom. “What about the North?” she demands, and the nice moment they’d been having is broken as Daenerys snatches away the sisterly hand she’d been resting on Sansa’s. It seems that bending the knee remains her deal breaker.

Fortunately, she doesn’t have to answer, as they’re interrupted with the news of a new arrival: Theon, whose presence surprises Daenerys and delights Sansa. He delivers the news that his sister will be retaking the Iron Islands for the Queen, but as far as he is concerned, “I want to fight for Winterfell, Lady Sansa. If you’ll have me.” Which, well, of course she will. More great face-acting from Sophie Turner here—more emotion that she’s shown, really, since the last time Theon pledged his loyalty to her. In an episode with many emotional moments, this was a big one.

Cut from there to Davos ladling out soup … which seems a bit odd. I know Davos is a salt-of-the-earth person, a commoner elevated for his service, but he’s one of Jon Snow’s principal advisors. Doesn’t he have more important things to do than play lunch-lady? Perhaps this is just the sort of thing he does to take his mind of affairs of state? One way or another, it gives him a chance to also ladle out encouragement to nervous men and to reassure a little girl—with an assist from Gilly—that she can be just as brave protecting the people hiding out in the crypts.

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OK … so you know that old saying about how a gun on the wall in act one must be fired by the end of the play? I’ve already mentioned that Tyrion will probably use his big brain to do something brilliant sooner rather than later, which is a good bet because so much was made about his mistakes. Now I’m starting to get a little worried about the crypts. In every other scene, it seems, we’re told, promised, and reassured that the crypts are the safest place in Winterfell. Have anyone else’s alarm bells been ringing? Because it occurs to me that when your enemy’s big party trick is RAISING THE DEAD, possibly the best place to seek refuge is not somewhere FILLED WITH DEAD BODIES.

“All right,” says the brave little moppet, “I’ll defend the crypt, then.” I have a really bad feeling that kid’s eyes are going to be a somewhat brighter shade of blue before all this is over.

Davos and Gilly however, blind to the alarm bells, exchange smiles, and then are distracted by the sound of a horn. New arrivals!

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Just look out for a dude named Fagin, kid.

Nikki: Speaking of face acting, I think Liam Cunningham is absolutely superb in this scene. Like you, I thought, why is he managing the soup kitchen?? Though, in an episode of reminders of each character’s fealty to their families, perhaps he’s paying homage to the Seaworths in this moment. I have no doubt there are onions in that soup.

But that little girl. What a punch in the gut to have a little girl walk up who has half her face scarred by a trauma from her past. The way he looks at her, his eyes speaking volumes but his face betraying nothing to her… it was nothing short of a tour de force performance in this moment. A lesser show would immediately flash to Shireen sitting by him in her dark room at Dragonstone, teaching Ser Davos how to read. Back to the little Oliver Twist girl holding out her bowl of soup, “Please sir, may I have some more?” Another flash to Shireen burning at the stake, screaming for mercy as her father looks on, a scene that Ser Davos could only imagine these past few years, seeing as he was off with Jon Snow at the time. But this isn’t a lesser show, and they don’t need these flashbacks, because they have actors like Liam Cunningham who show us the flashbacks just through their eyes. This little girl, the mirror image of Shireen—whose scars are on the right side of her face to Shireen’s left—gutted me.

But then we get to the return of the wildlings and the Night’s Watch (which consists of Tollett as the [funk] sole remaining brother), and Tormund tackling Jon with all the gusto Tormund usually has. They update him on the state of the Umber house, mercifully leaving out the gory Wheel of Limbs details (though I’m sure those will come later) and explain that “whoever’s not here is now with them.” Meaning a TON of people have joined the Army of the Dead.

And then, to the delight of every fan, Tormund says quickly, “The big woman still here?”

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We then cut to Jon giving his Churchill “we will fight them on the battlefields” speech, standing before a map that’s curiously like the opening credits, right down to the little blue rectangles that represent the icy demons of the dead that are descending upon them from the North, and I couldn’t help but think, “Who had time to put this together?! Like, shouldn’t that person have been fashioning dragonglass spears or something??”

They know they have until sun-up to prepare for the impending doom: in other words, for most of them, this will be their last night. As Jon outlines their advantages and disadvantages, from out of nowhere Bran begins talking. “When I get to the bottom I go back to the top of the slide then I stop and I turn and I go for a ride, then I get to the bottom and I see you again.” :::crickets::: “Pinky ponky pogo.” :::confused looks::: “Where I come from, the birds sing a pretty song and there’s always music in the air.” :::jazz music begins playing, Tyrion fights the urge to dance:::

“He’ll come for me,” he says, silencing the room as Bran is wont to do. “He’s tried before, many times with many three-eyed ravens.” Cut to “da fuck?!” faces throughout the room. Quick reminder: Bran has had visions of the Three-Eyed Raven, an old man, many times since his fall. We had that whole bit where Bran discovered the children of the forest, who were involved in a war thousands of years ago with the First Men, who were slaughtering them. The children created the White Walkers to vanquish the men. When Bran wargs to a scene involving the Night King, Blue Eyes can actually see Bran and grabs him, forcing Bran to wake up and remove himself from the vision. This is very different from the other moments where he would watch a scene involving his father, for example, and Ned couldn’t see him. The White Walkers kill the Three-Eyed Raven while Hodor protects Bran by holding the door (waaaahhhhh), and Benjen Stark appears, taking Bran out of there and saying the Three-Eyed Raven lives again, presumably through Bran.

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Interestingly, in one vision quest with the Three-Eyed Raven, Bran asks if he’ll ever walk again. No, says TER, but you’ll fly. Could we see the result of that prediction next week? Will Bran be on a dragon? Will he fly on his own? Was it just meant to refer to the flights in his visions?

But back to the scene at hand: Bran basically tells them to use him as bait, putting him in the Godswood to draw the Night King to him. “He wants to erase this world, and I am its memory.” Sam is the only one who truly understands in a beautifully epic speech that sums up so much of the purpose of this episode: “That’s what Death is, isn’t it? Forgetting. Being forgotten. If we forget where we’ve been and what we’ve done, we’re not men anymore, just animals.” He looks at Bran. “Your memories don’t come from books, your stories aren’t just stories. If I wanted to erase the world of men I’d start with you.”

The rest of the Stark siblings will have none of it. Jon wants him in the crypts, Sansa and Arya say no way Jose, but Bran insists he must stay in the Godswood. And that’s when Theon pipes up, saying he’ll stand with Bran and defend him. Theon. THEON. The guy I’ve pretty much despised from the beginning, played delightfully despicably by Alfie Allen for all these seasons, so sneering and entitled in the beginning, so dark and evil when he kills two innocent farmer’s boys to hang them from Winterfell and make everyone think he’s killed the two youngest Starks. So inept as he’s tricked by Ramsay Bolton. So victimized by Ramsay that the Theon of old dies a horrible, torturous death to be replaced by the servile and pathetic Reek, and like a phoenix, out of the ashes of Reek rises Theon, a man missing the symbol of masculinity, but a man who is more of a man than many of the others in that room, who is still weak, but saves Yara, saves Sansa, and tries to redeem himself over and over. I fear this will be the final redemption for Theon, but it’s the one the truly counts: it’s the one where he finally stops being Ned’s ward and becomes a member of the Stark family.

Next is Tyrion and Ser Davos talking about how they will signal the arrival of the dead, and Daenerys begins to parrot what Ser Jorah tells her, explaining she needs Tyrion for his mind and that he must stay down in the crypts. Of course, now that you’ve espoused your theory, Chris, I’m TERRIFIED about Tyrion being down there. But perhaps that might be the moment you mentioned, where he comes up with a strategy that saves the innocents who have been sent there? Gods willing.

After discussing the dragon placement, Jon Snow awkwardly leaves the room rather than confront his auntie, and everyone else follows suit, leaving Tyrion and Bran in a room together. As night descends, everyone begins to pair up with others as they wait out their final hours, and Tyrion decides the story of Bran might be an interesting one. Methinks he’s going to learn something through this conversation that he’ll use later in the crypts.

And then #WinterfellSoWhite (your awesome hashtag from last week) reacts to Grey Worm and Missandei, while Sam wonders why Jon hasn’t told his auntie the truth yet.

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Christopher: There’s recently posted YouTube video of George R.R. Martin in conversation with Marlon James, the Jamaican novelist who won the Man-Booker prize in 2015 for A Brief History of Seven Killings, which is about (in part) the attempted assassination of Bob Marley in 1976. James recently published Black Leopard, Red Wolf, the first novel in a fantasy trilogy that eschews the standard neo-medieval European setting and mythos to which the genre has traditionally hewn; James’ novel (which I only recently started reading—it is, so far, amazing) is instead African and Afro-Caribbean in its sensibilities, themes, and tropes. He wrote it, as he says in his discussion with GRRM and countless other interviews, because he has always loved fantasy, but never saw people like himself as characters.

I bring this up in part because even in the eight years Game of Thrones has been aired and taken the television world by storm, we’ve also seen significant—not huge, but significant—changes in SF/F in terms of an increasing number of female, queer, and PoC voices finding prominence. Case in point: African-American fantasist N.K. Jemisin winning the Hugo award for best novel three years in a row, each win by a novel in her Broken Earth trilogy, the first time in the history of the Hugos that has happened. (I honestly cannot recommend her work enough).

I bring this up because I want to both laud GRRM’s innovations in the genre and acknowledge the series’ limitations. I won’t get into it here, because these posts already run somewhat long, but the TL;DR is that GRRM has had a seismic effect on fantasy comparable to Tolkien, which, I would argue, has facilitated a much greater diversification of voices. At the same time … well, #WinterfellSoWhite, and the same can be said for Westeros more generally. GRRM has changed the rules of the game, but without changing the generic tendencies of his own storytelling—which is why what racial politics we have in the show are reduced to Missandei being dissed by a pair of ignorant kids, whose behaviour we can deplore without being required to interrogate it in any depth.

(Again, not getting into the weeds on this, but I’m happy to discuss it if you want to hit me up in the comments).

All that being said, that moment of provincial racism sets up a touching and poignant moment between Missandei and Grey Worm that also functions as a recognition that this is not our home. Missandei wants to return to her home on the island of Naath; Grey Worm wants to take her there, and says that once Daenerys has taken her rightful throne, he feels no more compunction to stay with her.

It’s a small scene and a touching one—honestly, if anyone deserves a tropical vacation, it’s these two—but I found it nagging at me a little on rewatching. Daenerys has the power she does because of the Unsullied and the Dothraki, both of which pledged loyalty and crossed the Narrow Sea with her. It is obvious they inspire fear and suspicion among the Westerosians, ameliorated in the present moment because of the more dangerous enemy on their doorstep. But what happens when/if Daenerys takes the throne? Do her subjects from Essos stay and take up residence in the Seven Kingdoms? Do they go home, as Missandei and Grey Worm plan? Or do they remain a standing army to threaten dissidents?

Or perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself. I should ask these questions again after the big battle, I suppose. Who knows whether anyone’s going to survive.

We then shift to Sam and Jon on the battlements, staring into the dark, with Sam—as you say, Nikki—asking Jon whether he’s given Daenerys the news yet. When Jon says no, Sam nods, saying “Biding your time. Being careful. Waiting for the perfect—” at which point he’s cut off by a look from Jon. Because, really Sam? What precisely would be the perfect moment to tell your lover that she’s actually your aunt and, oh, yeah, you have the better claim to the throne she’s been through hell to claim?

Sam at least has the good grace to look abashed.

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The best part of this scene is the return of Ghost, who stands behind them quite cheerfully, looking at Jon as if to say, “OMG, there’s my hooman! I missed him so much!” No explanation for his absence … he’s just there. And you know what? I’ll take it. I just hope the writers give him some badass moments in the battle to make up for neglecting him.

Then we get the appearance of Dolorous Edd Tollett, and a callback to when he and Jon and Sam—and Grenn and Pyp—bonded in their early days of the Night Watch. “And now our watch begins,” Edd says, which for some reason makes Jon inquire about Gilly and Little Sam. “They’ll be safe,” he says, “down in the crypt.” FUCK. Stop saying that, people!

Again, a good chunk of this episode seems to be about people sharing their bona fides, stripping their sleeves, as it were, to show their scars (which Bran literally does). When Jon suggests to Sam he might want to join Gilly and Little Sam in the crypt—because, y’know, it’s so damned safe down there—Sam takes that moment to remind his friends that he is not without feats of his own to brag about … and I kind of love the fact that, in Sam’s mind, being the first to kill a White Walker is more or less on par with stealing books from the Citadel. That’s a frood who knows where his librarian’s at.

Then we’re in the Great Hall, empty but for a roaring fire and the Lannister brothers having some wine and reminiscing about the days when they weren’t quite so fucked by fate. Jaime the Lion, Tyrion the whoremonger … neither role either of them can ever return to. As they sit there, they’re joined by more and more people seeking out the warmth of the fire, and it turns into something of an old home week celebration. It’s appropriate that the first arrivals are Brienne and Pod—Jaime’s former antagonist, and Tyrion’s former lackey, who have, through the coincidence of their former associations, become one of the more endearing character pairings in the series.

What did you think of this episode’s fireside chat, Nikki?

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Nikki: You’re right, the people who end up at the fireside chat have been enemies and outcasts, and here they all are, together in the final hours of humanity. Brienne has taken on a mentor/mother role with Podrick, at first telling him he can’t drink at all and then relenting that he can have half a cup (which Tyrion then pours until it overflows, hiding it from Brienne as they both smirk like naughty boys). They’re immediately joined by Ser Davos, who’s come for the warmth of the fire and rejects the offer of a drink, and Tormund, whose reunion with Brienne we’ve been waiting for this whole time—and Gwendolyn Christie’s facial expressions do NOT disappoint.

Tormund wastes no time reminding Brienne that this could be their last night in this world, while Jaime looks on partly confused, partly amused. Brienne stammers that she’s happy he’s alive, and Tyrion offers him a drink, whereupon Tormund holds up his giant wildling horn and says, “Brought my own.” And then he asks if anyone wants to hear why he’s called Giantsbane.

Everybody:
Tormund: Let me sit right down and tell you.

And then he proceeds to tell one of the funniest stories ever recounted on the series, where he’d killed a giant when he was 10, then crawled into bed with the giant’s wife, who suckled him at her teat for three months thinking he was a baby. The story is outrageous and makes zero sense, but the way he tells it—followed by the looks everyone gives each other, and then Tormund chugging back some sort of milky beer substance and letting it slop down his front as if giving a demonstration of what it was like in that woman’s bed for three months—raises it to the level of absolute comic beauty. But it’s Ser Davos who gets the punchline: “Maybe I will have that drink.”

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Arya and the Hound were together for a long time, and when he last saw her she was a little girl who talked tough and could fight, but wasn’t the warrior she is now. Now she’s an adult, and he has this grudging respect—almost affection—for her. “When’s the last time you fought for anyone but yourself?” she asks, and he answers, “I fought for you, didn’t I?” And you realize what a special place she actually holds for him.

When Beric shows up with his velvety smoker’s voice, he begins talking about the Lord of Light. He doesn’t get far when the Hound cuts him off mid-sentence. “Thoros isn’t here anymore so I hope you’re not about to give a sermon. ’Cause if you are, the Lord of Light is going to wonder why he brought you back 19 times just to watch you die when I chuck you over this fucking wall.” Beric holds out his hand for a drink, and Arya sees that as her moment to leave. “I’m not spending my final hours with you two miserable old shits,” she says.

Arya has other plans. Gendry has made her the spear she wanted (which looks amazing) and he’s looking at her in a different light now—he’d just seen her display with the dragonglass daggers, and he knows she’s not the little kid pretending to be a boy that he met back in season 2. He quickly admits that he’s Robert Baratheon’s bastard, stopping her in her tracks, and things escalate quickly from there. I’ll admit it; I was a little creeped out at first. She’s still little Arya to me, as she is to so many people, the young girl who watched her father Ned die what feels like a lifetime ago, but also feels like it was last week. And yet here we are, with Maisie Williams all grown up and in a nude scene. And frankly, we should rejoice, because as much as we’re looking at this like it’s our daughter or a niece or a kid who seems too young to be doing this (she’s not), it also has to be one of the healthiest sex scenes we’ve seen on the show yet: Arya instigates it, she undresses herself. She’s not taken by force, nor is he. These are two people who’ve known each other a long time, whose fathers were best friends. They’re reuniting and trying to relearn things about each other, but Arya is in as much control of the situation as Gendry, and it’s a rather beautiful moment. Sex really can be a healthy, beautiful thing in Westeros.

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And speaking of women in control, we now move back to the ongoing fireside chat with our lovely band of misfits. After Tyrion talks about how they might all live through this battle (meaning they most definitely will NOT), Tormund says he can’t believe Brienne isn’t a knight. She’s pretty blasé about it, shaking her head and saying women can’t be knights, and she’s never wanted to be one anyway (her face says the exact opposite). Tormund says he’d make her a knight many times over if he’d been a king. And that’s when Jaime suddenly announces any knight can make another knight. Tormund has a look on his face like it’s Christmas morning, and Brienne just scoffs. Earlier in this episode she said she was uncomfortable with Jaime being so nice to her for so long, and watch her body language in this scene, the way she continues to scoff and pretend she doesn’t care about this because she knows she’s about to be the butt of an enormous prank. Jaime’s going to get her to swing her leg back and then he’s going to pull that football out of the way.

But he doesn’t. As her face begins to register that oh my god, maybe he’s not joking, and she slowly kneels before him, the others stand in awe, watching the Kingslayer knight a woman who might be the greatest fighter of the realm, and they have the honour of bearing witness to such an event. Brienne’s face shines as her eyes well up, and I don’t know about you, but I couldn’t watch this with a dry eye. In this moment, Jaime realizes they live in a new world, where “tradition” doesn’t mean that’s the way it has to be. One of the most dangerous sentences in our modern language is, “Because that’s how we’ve always done it.” And Jaime says fuck that, we’re doing it another way now.

This moment might be my favourite one in the entire series. Ser Brienne of Tarth, a champion from the moment we laid eyes on her, gets one of the best episodes of the series named for her. God, I hope this doesn’t mean she won’t make it past the next episode.

Were you blubbering through this scene like I was, Chris?

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Christopher: Pretty much. Even just reading your description of the scene is making me a little verklempt. What makes the scene particularly powerful, once again, is some fantastic face-acting … Gwendolyn Christie here gives Sophie Turner a run for her money. It is completely understated: her lip just quivers, her eyes go moist but don’t actually well up. The payoff is the incredulous little grin she gives at the end, which is basically when the waterworks started for me.

It is also a hugely powerful scene simply because of these two characters’ history. As you point out, Nikki, Brienne is obviously inclined to see this as a likely prank. When it proves otherwise, it is as much a statement on Jaime’s redemption as on Brienne’s virtues. My read is that, in knighting Brienne, Jaime is expressing gratitude: his redemption began with his association with her, first as her prisoner, then as her rescuer, and now it culminates with him as her comrade-in-arms. The story he might have told Daenerys about how he came to kill the Mad King he’d told Brienne back at Harrenhal in season three, and it was our first glimpse into the greater complexity of Jaime Lannister—the necessary act that saved King’s Landing, for which everyone was secretly grateful but did not hesitate to label him the morally bankrupt “Kingslayer.” The louche, amoral Jaime we met at the beginning of the series was a mask, scar tissue built up over years of feigned indifference to people’s contempt. Given that it was Brienne that was a major factor in him sloughing off that persona, it is eminently appropriate that Jaime should be the one to validate her own long saga of being a figure of ridicule and contempt (and the fact that it is Tormund who makes the suggestion to start with—and the most enthusiastic applauder—is the icing).

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So, yeah. As you say, hopefully this doesn’t mean she’s now marked for death.

From there, we finally get a moment addressing an irksome point I raised in our last post, i.e. the seeming indifference of the northerners to the presence of Jorah Mormont. Sam makes his way down into the courtyard to where Jorah is having words with Lyanna (who, I should correct my previous error, is his cousin and not his niece). His avuncular concern for her and suggestion that she should hole up in the crypts where she’ll be “safe” (stop saying that!) has, not unpredictably, gone over like a lead balloon. Kitted out in full armour, she declares that she will not hide, and that she will fight for her people. Which surprises precisely no one. Still, she seems to accord Jorah a certain respect, so one assumes the past crime for which he went into exile has been, if not forgiven, then at least forgotten.

As she leaves, Sam approaches, his family sword in hand. “You still have a family,” Jorah says gently, referring to Gilly and Little Sam; and yes, Sam would love to use the sword to defend them, but “I can’t hold it upright.” More importantly though, Sam feels keenly the debt he owes to Jorah’s late father Jeor, formerly Lord Commander of the Night Watch. “Your father,” says Sam, “taught me how to be a man. How to do what’s right. This is right.” And he hands Jorah the sword. “I’ll wield it in his memory,” says Jorah, obviously somewhat overwhelmed. “To guard the realms of men.”

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I love the symmetry of this moment. The first time I watched this scene, I thought whoa … isn’t that a little excessive? Valyrian steel is one of the most precious commodities in, well, the world, making a sword like Heartsbane literally priceless. In one of the novels (A Storm of Swords, I think) it is revealed that in spite of being the wealthiest of the major houses, the Lannisters never possessed a Valyrian steel sword, and Tywin went to great lengths to try and acquire one—but so precious are they that even impoverished houses preferred to hold onto their heirlooms rather than sell them. Then after the execution of Ned Stark with the Stark sword Ice, Tywin had Ice melted down and forged into two new swords, one for Joffrey as a wedding gift, and one for Jaime. Jaime gave his to Brienne and charged her to fulfill her promise to Catelyn Stark. Jon Snow’s Valyrian sword Longclaw was originally House Mormont’s, but since Jorah’s ignominy and exile left Bear Island without a male heir, Jeor gave the sword to Jon (though I think Lyanna might be annoyed with that now).

And now, something resembling full circle: Sam, expressing his gratitude to Jeor Mormont, giving his own family sword to the redeemed and deserving Jorah. It’s not Hand of the Queen, but it’s a pretty decent compensation.

“I’ll see you when it’s through,” says Sam with an optimism belied by his next words, “I hope we win.”

And then we’re back to the fireside, with Tyrion determined to keep the party going. “No, let’s stay a bit longer!” he protests when Jaime suggests getting some rest. (Which is easy for Tyrion to say, as he’ll be holed up in the crypts—you know, where it’s safe). “We’re out of wine,” says Davos, as sure an indication that the party is about to break up as any. Unless … “How about a song?” suggests Tyrion, and goes around the circle, meeting with many shaken heads, until we learn that Podrick has been hiding his star under a bushel. Singing in a mellifluous tenor, he shows us that Westeros has more music on offer than just “The Rains of Castemere” and “The Bear and the Maiden Fair.” The song he sings is “Jenny’s Song,” and while this is the first we’ve heard of it in the show, it has rather a deeper significance in the novels. Pod sings:

High in the halls of the kings who are gone
Jenny would dance with her ghosts.
The ones she had lost and the ones she had found
And the ones who had loved her the most.

The ones who’d been gone for so very long
She couldn’t remember their names
They spun her around on the damp cold stone
Spun away all her sorrow and pain

And she never wanted to leave
Never wanted to leave.
Never wanted to leave.
Never wanted to leave.
Never wanted to leave.
Never wanted to leave.

Very quickly: the song appears in the novels when a wood witch called the Ghost of High Heart demands it be sung in payment for a prophecy. The suggestion is that it is about a friend of hers from her youth, Jenny Oldstones, who had an ill-fated affair with Prince Duncan Targaryen, who abdicated his throne for her—which is how Aerys II, aka the Mad King, ended up being crowned.

There is also a fan theory that the song itself was written by none other than Rhaegar Targaryen, and that he sang it to Lyanna Stark. Certainly we get a hint at that when Daenerys comes up to Jon in the crypts (you know, the safe place) and mentions that her brother Rhaegar was known for his love of singing.

But as Pod sings the mournful song, we get a montage of people waiting for the inevitable—notably, pairs of people with powerful connections: Sam and Gilly, Arya and Gendry, Sansa and Theon, and, perhaps most poignantly, Missandei and Grey Worm. The only person pictured alone in this sequence is Jorah, astride his horse and staring into the darkness … his solitude, juxtaposed with the companionship just depicted, is heartbreaking and reflects on the solitude he has carried throughout the series.

And the song ends with Daenerys entering the crypts to find Jon. And … well, you tell it, Nikki.

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Nikki: First of all, thank you for the sword recap. When Sam handed the sword to Jorah I was so thrilled to have this moment, but simultaneously thought, “I’m really losing track of which sword is which.” And if I’d been Brienne in that Podrick scene I’d have been like, “ALL THOSE DAYS we were on horseback together, riding silently through boring countrysides, and you never once let me know you could sing like this?!” Loved that scene.

But yes, earlier in this episode Sam asked Jon Snow if he was waiting for the perfect time to tell Dany the truth, and only upon hearing his own words he realized how ridiculous they sounded. So, instead, Jon chooses the worst possible time ever to tell this woman about to go into battle that, oh, by the way, he actually has a claim to the Iron Throne, too, but don’t worry, hon, we can discuss all this when we both make it through this battle alive.

GULP. Just a sec, there, Jon, I need to touch up the paint here on this target you’ve just drawn on your back…

This is a beautifully shot scene in what I’m now convinced is the ill-fated crypt (that is, mysteriously, completely empty, like wouldn’t they have begun ushering all those people down here by now?!) When Daenerys approaches Jon, he’s staring at the statue of Lyanna. He gives her the weakest smile ever, like one your kid would do on picture day when they remember you saying they need to smile in this one. She asks who the statue is, and he tells her. And to her credit, she shows nothing but sympathy to this woman, even though by doing so she’s betraying the memory of her brother Rhaegar. She says that everyone told him he was so decent and kind, that he was charitable and brought happiness to people, and yet he raped this woman. Even though we all know Jon’s about the deliver the ultimate, “So about that…” it’s still worth pausing to note that she’s grown up with this contradiction about her brother her whole life, and how difficult that must have been to grapple with. She’s told that he was kind and good, and yet he raped a woman. She believes this because as horrible as Viserys could be, he had moments of caring for her as a child, but then could turn hostile, as we’ve seen.

But Jon begins telling a different story—about the secret marriage, her son, Ned taking the baby… that that baby, Aegon Targaryen, is standing before her right now. Daenerys’s face is the perfect picture of bafflement. In one minute he has changed her entire world view. Since her brother Viserys died, she has been the last living heir of the House Targaryen. She’s travelled the countryside, building up loyalty and trust wherever she goes in a bid to be queen, and here comes this upstart at the last minute going, “Oh hey, my dad’s CEO, so…”

She immediately states the obvious, how convenient it is that the only people with this information were Jon’s brother and best friend, but he insists it’s true. He doesn’t absolve her worry—“You have a claim to the Iron Throne”—because the horn is blown that the White Walkers have arrived. Noticeably, Jon turns to the sound of the horn, but Dany doesn’t take her stricken eyes off his face. Maybe it’s in that moment she realized “oh my god you’re also my nephew.”

Outside on the wall, Tyrion stands at the parapet while Jon and Dany join him. Jon nods to Daenerys, who simply walks away. Well this is GREAT.

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And then the music swells and we cut to the massive, massive army of White Walkers standing about a mile from the castle before we cut to the end credits, and Florence + the Machine singing “Jenny’s Song.” I couldn’t help but think when we have that quick cut of the dead, though, that the two men with long white hair on horses could easily be the Mad King and Viserys. Of course, they all have white hair, so… there goes that theory.
And that’s it until next week, where the showrunners have announced next week’s battle episode will be the longest battle sequence in television history, and will be the longest episode of Game of Thrones ever, at 82 minutes. It took EIGHT WEEKS to film this over 55 nights. So, first of all, how lucky are we to be here to experience such an extraordinary thing (most movies don’t take that long to film, I would think) but secondly, let’s take our last remaining days to think about this episode some more and be thankful that, for these final days at least, everyone alive in this episode is still alive.

Until next week’s slaughter, thank you, as always, for reading this far. We’ll see you next week!

 

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Game of Thrones, Episode 8.01: Winterfell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What did you think, Nikki?

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

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

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

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

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

 

missandei&GreyWorm

#WinterfellSoWhite

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

sir terry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

death&cat

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Of zombies and rabbits

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

Watership Down

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

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

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

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

watership down 1979watership down 1979 - 2

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

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

watership down 2018

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

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

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

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

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

TWD-Terminus

Ewwww.

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

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

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

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

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World War One and the Lessons of Pernicious Nationalism

canadian ww1 soldiers

Canadian soldiers on the Western Front.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

supremes - robert picardo

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

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

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

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

BUT.

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

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

supremes - close & fichtner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

weat wing - olmos and sheen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued.

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Thoughts on the Kavanaugh Thing (part one)

BK LOSING IT

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

Hopefully it’s helpful venting.

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

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

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

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

I wish I had an answer to that.

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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