The Mess of Skywalker: Too Many Sith on the Dance Floor

The Mess of Skywalker: Too Many Sith on the Dance Floor

I don’t give a man’s ass if you care about the spoilers I’m about to unload on you for Star Wars EP IX: The Rise of Skywalker because that movie is some hot dogshit.

First, let me make something clear. There are a lot of reasons why this movie doesn’t work but the performances were not one of them. Everyone did a pretty stellar job turning in performances for a bat-shit crazy script. Also, I’m not trying to attack the film the same way a rabid Star Wars fan would because the movie “messed up the lore.” Naw, I want to take a look at the script and talk about the problems of its narrative– and since this will be the last post of the decade, and since the problems I noticed are indicative of some troubling cinematic trends of the 2010s, this’ll also serve as a quaint little retrospective. SO. What went wrong with the Rise of Skywalker? 

Let’s start with the fact that it has four credited screenwriters, including the director JJ Abrams. I’ve talked before of how a showrunner requires a writer’s room in order to produce a quality show, else be cast the fate of True Detective: Season 2. But cinematic screenplays seem to suffer under the weight of too much influence. We saw this in 2015’s Jurassic World (totaling 5 credits for the screenplay). That final product we saw nearly five years ago was a patchwork of unrelated threads and tangents presented as if it should make any linear sense but was simply a sequence of vignettes loosely tied to the franchise’s conceit.

The Rise of Skywalker might be worse in this regard, the first two acts seemingly jumping around from five-second scene to the next five-second scene at such a dizzying rate that it felt as if I watch watching a music video than the world’s most successful movie this year. One suspects that one of the culprits was having spread the writing duties too thin across four people and then having to fold everything into something resembling a story. Writing is generally a solitary craft for this reason–or an extremely intimate one between a trusted collaborator– as it is hard to telegraph a singular vision of a story to even one other person before it’s finished. Imagine that problem multiplied three more times and the screenplay’s lack of communication within itself makes sense– even if the script doesn’t.

Some of these issues, however, could have been fixed with heavy revisions that would have required condensing smaller portions of the film into one. The afore-mentioned five-second scenes are largely in place to exposit where the team was heading in the next scene. There are just too many goddamn locations in this film. They go to Pasaana, they go to Kim Chi (I know that’s not the name, I’m not looking it up!), they go to Kef Bir, the rebel base is in a forest somewhere, Rey goes back to  Ahch-To and Tatooine at certain points, but the final act all happens around Exegol. That’s not even including the set pieces of the Star Destroyer(s). There’s no space to breathe when the story is always pushed to the next set. Abrams, perhaps, wanted to send off the trilogy with a tour of yet unexplored planets– or more likely, the four screenwriters fucked up and wrote in too many locations separately and merged all of these together. The obvious fix is to nix a planet, but the way the scenes seem to be arranged, and it barely made sense then, taking out any more of the story would fell this tensile house of cards.

Too many locations were behind another colossal disappointment of the decade, the should-have-been-great 007 feature Spectre which boasts a whopping 158 filming locations. Compared to the also-bloated-but-more-reasonable 51 of Skyfall and you can perhaps see where I’m going with this. When every scene is just a setup to get the next setup, there’s no basis to ground the audience. I can’t tell you what the hell happened in that movie because, as it was also a final installment of sorts, most of it was a marathon run of Bond doing “cool things” in “cool locations” and the value of any of those actions was entirely lost on me. Likewise, Rise falls into the same trap (although the filming was done almost entirely on green screens) taking place in too many locations to the point where it felt as if it didn’t take place anywhere. We got shown a weird alien version of Burning Man, only to get whisked away by Lando to get fed some exposition, leading to the next truncated action scene to find one of…

Too many MacGuffins. In other words, there are too many objectives. The dagger makes no logical fucking sense. The victory of finding the second wayfinder (for all of the dumb Star Wars bullshit names for stuff, an old nautical term for this magic GPS was a kick in the dick) was immediately nullified. Finn and whatshername crossing the waves to reach Rey, also rendered meaningless. Finn heading towards the control tower, also pointless. In this fuckin’ Star Wars movie, in addition to finding a 20-year old blade that belongs in the Goonies and enchanted map prisms, the gang has to hack into C3P0’s mainframe (the tears spent on his lost memory lasts about fifteen minutes before it’s restored), save Chewbacca from the bad guys (the pangs from his percieved death lasts 13 seconds), repair the Falcon, save Ben’s soul from the Dark Side and ON and ON and FUCK. It is the cinematic equivalent to watching a child play with action figures, endlessly explaining “and then…” but with million-dollar sets. How can you convincingly express a character’s motivation if they are narratively motivated to find 13 different things? Speaking of which.

The erratic character motivations are a symptom of too many fuckin’ characters. The character of Finn has to respond to Rey, New Han Solo, Rose, New Girl-Who-Used-to-be-a-Stormtrooper. A lot’s been made of the fact that Rose’s character has essentially been benched, and the explanation was one of cutting scenes to make the movie fit into two hours and 35 minutes (UGH), but really, when you decide to make a trilogy centering around four principal characters (Rey, Kylo, Finn, New-Han-Solo) and you give each of them five other characters to interact with, it’s going to be messy. What the hell does Finn want? We don’t know, other than he has something really important to tell Rey, which was apparently not “let’s bang” but instead “I”m force-sensitive” which is just… you fuckers… it’s just unnecessary (especially since it was only explained via a panel interview with Abrams).

We don’t really know what Rey wants, either. She just bounces from A to B. We know that she’s afraid of succumbing to the Dark Side, but there’s been nothing in the previous two films to indicate that she ever would. So. Who gives a shit? But probably the most egregious case of this is when homeboy Abrams introduces MORE GODDAMN characters and they behave like fuckin’ nonsense puppets. The bounty hunter chick that New Han So-Poe used to shuffle uglies with goes from “I can turn you in for a bounty” to “Just between you and me, I think you’re pretty OK,” in SECONDS. Then, she asks Poe to run away with her, lascivious eyes and all, and when he declines the offer, she gives him the thing that she was going to use to escape. Regardless of HOW she escaped without that medal (another macguffin? kinda? one that we didn’t know they needed?) homegirl shows back up with the weird monkey Gremlin to help save the day and in a closing scene (that I actually liked) rebuffs the suggested make-out session implied by Poe’s expression. That scene worked in that moment but not the larger context of any sense of consistency. It was funny, unexpected, and a light little bow to put on that charact– WASN’T SHE GOING TO RUN AWAY WITH THE DUDE EARLIER THAT SAME DAY?! What the fuck does Kylo want? To turn Rey into his goth girlfriend? Is that it? Fuckin’ APPARENTLY. Who the fuck is that weird yellow alien with dicks hanging from his face? Why is he there? What’s his fuckin’ deal? (After a google search of “yellow dick alien slug” I found that he is A MECHANIC WITH NO DISCERNABLE ARMS FUCK YOU) Aren’t the Knights of Ren trained Jedi under Luke Skywalker who followed Ren to the dark side? Wouldn’t that have been an interesting moment if they allowed a moment’s breath to reflect on the fact that RenBen had to kill his old friends to save his new one? No? The only motivation that was clear was General Hux’s double-cross, because it was set up previously that he despised the direction that Kylo-Ren was taking his Order but that subplot was treated so flippantly that I barely remembered it before looking at a plot summary. Yes, the side-lining of Rose is indicative of shitty Hollywood trend to appease the toxic opinions of redpill redditors, but the tragedy of narrative here is that every character was sidelined and their stories were diminished into oblivion.

That’s not to say the movie didn’t do some things right. The final third of the movie, at least the bits of RenBen and Rey-Bae, was genuinely interesting as the movie slowed down around them to face each other on the fallen death star. One setting, two characters, strong emotions. That was good. It was also almost good when they combined forces to face Palpatine. Almost. It didn’t bother me all that much that Darth Sidious had been resurrected by old sith magic (blah blah the force and forbidden sciences, cool). But that fucker is a font of unnecessary explication to justify the existence of this trilogy without ever actually explaining anything. He created Snoke? The fuck for? You want to kill Rey? Or Kylo? Why? Oh, ReyBae and RenBen are a diad in the force? Is that just a cool word you learned? Why? And more importantly… who gives a shit? Is it so Palpatine can restore his powers? He didn’t know about their diad. But then he does restore himself using their force power. Couldn’t he have done that… with… anybody? What the fuck is going on? Half that diad is thrown out of the battle immediately so… goddammit, why are you telling me all of this, you shitty fucking movie?!

The gripe here isn’t necessarily about the lore here, but just that the lore doesn’t matter. It isn’t relevant beyond a single scene and the scenes themselves, even the kinda-good ones, we’ve seen before. Essentially, there are too many new ideas to explain too many rehashed plotlines. Force healing is now a thing. So is cloning, and necromancy. There are so many new concepts introduced in this final chapter that the characters themselves, in an eye-rolling fourth-wall-breaking piece of dialogue call it out (“They FLY now?!”) It might have been different if any of the new concepts were introduced in EP VII or VIII, but we’re being told everything in the same movie in which Lando Calrissian shoots a stormtrooper with a bow and arrow. It’s not that great art can’t be told with the seat-of-your-pants, let’s-make-shit-up-as-we-go-along approach (Star Wars Episodes 4-6 is guilty of the same bullshit), it’s that as the final episode of this trilogy, it culminates to nothing. If Episode VII was guilty of rehashing the plot of A New Hope, then Rise is a pale imitation of Return of the Jedi shrouded in a bunch of gimmicky space religion gibberish to make it feel different enough. Where this should have resonated with the previous final chapters (III: Anakin succumbs to the Dark Side; VI: Luke stays to the light, Anakin redeems himself) the closing chapter to the third trilogy gives us a dual-win for the light side– ReyBae stays to the light, BenBen sacrifices himself to renounce the dark. That’s nothing new, but sure, it might’ve been a fitting end. It just seems so unearned, despite RenBen’s death, as so much of this movie is up its own ass in telling us why the nonsensical rules of this movie are more important than the two before it to justify taking the big bad from the first six movies and posturing him as the ultimate retcon villain. (See Star Wars and the Art of Derivation for more on how deriving art from previous installments leads to an ouroboros of self-fellating bullshit)

He would have got away with it too, if it wasn’t for you lousy Skywalkers*.

Much like the disappointing truncated 8th season of Game of Thrones, this movie would have benefitted from either a split release or another year in pre-production script development with writers who understood that less is more and that 2.5 hours is more than enough to evince a complete story. My guess with Game of Thrones, was that the writers and producers wanted to move on to newer projects and the care that they had treated the series up until the final (two) seasons must have felt like a yoke around their necks and wished to tidy things up as quickly as possible. The story arcs that had been cultivated for years were suddenly dashed and resolved in perpendicular character turns, mystifying audiences for the sake of cheap double ironies. With Rise, my guess is that there was too much pressure to release it this decade. It is, after all, a story of resisting fascism and the last in the franchise to be released before the 2020 election at the end of a decade that has fallen from hope to dystopia in ten quick years.

With the Orig Trig (as all of the guys who get hella laid refer to it as), there was an emphasis in George Lucas’s interviews about the importance of adhering to Joseph Campbell’s monomyth. A lot of this is horseshit coming from Lucas’s mouth, as we owe his wife of the time a great debt in editing what was otherwise an unmanagable movie, and his mentor who infused Empire with genius storytelling techniques. Yet, the focus on making mythic storytelling accessible to wide audiences was part of what made those movies endure the tests of time. Rise of Skywalker is also a space-opera about Good v Evil and the battle within the soul between those two extremes, yet it isn’t accessible to anyone. To (again) use Dan Harmon’s simplification of the Hero’s Journey: A character wants something, they get it but at a cost, they return to the status quo, having now changed. Because so much of the screentime is dedicated to fan-service, disjointed scenes between a bloated cast of characters, and a directorial pissing contest, the journey the audience goes on is incomprehensible. Yes, the heroes go on a journey and achieve the ultimate goal of peace in the galaxy but the costs of that achievement were cheap. (Also who galvanized a fleet of your average pilot? They Field-of-Dreamsed that whole subplot, fuck’s sake). Yes, Leia sacrifices herself for the narrative convenience of writing herself out of the rest of the script and yes, RenBen sacrifices himself to bring Rey back to life (which was a pretty good moment, to be H) but when Rey rejoins Han So-Po and Finn, they share an awkward three-way hug and Chewie gets a medal. It seems more like a perfunctory obligation to see them all together again, instead of catharsis, or showing any changed chemistry of their relationships. The film doesn’t linger, almost thankfully, as it transitions to the imitation of a final ending as Rey buries the Skywalker sabers outside the Tatooine moisture farm. As an orphan who once collected rare items from sandy wastelands, I can see how this would have been a fitting seal to Rey’s character arc, as she is symbolically placing the past away and embracing her future. Then she tells a stranger that she’s a Skywalker. I get that it’s adopting an identity that’s not tied to blood, but even still this statement tells me that this movie just can’t let go and I walked away wondering exactly what this whole trilogy was trying to convey, to a startling internal question:.

If films have not learned that HOPE without a definite message collapses under its own weight in the last decade, what have we learned?

 

If you would like to read some horror fiction that is not garbage but is probably somewhat guilty of the above-mentioned sins of storytelling, please check out Castle of Shadow available here in paperback and KindleCoS_cover_small

Creative Identity with JoJo Rabbit

Creative Identity with JoJo Rabbit

Spoilers.

I recently watched Taika Waititi’s latest film compelled by its audacious premise. A Hitler Youth with an imaginary friend who happens to be Hitler? The conceit smacks of a demented Calvin and Hobbes but I left the theater with the movie reels spinning in my mind and spent much of the next day pondering over it and the more I thought about it, the more depth I found in the film’s message.

I think many people could not look past the Wes Anderson-esque aesthetic and the happy face placed over history’s most notorious monster. I had my own reservations that this would simply be a lazy return to late 90’s irony, subversive crudity without any substantial value, after all, does the world really need another Hitler comedy? See, a thousand years ago in the aftermath of the 2016 US elections, there seemed to be an endless conversation concerning how to represent fascists in entertainment. The argument’s two camps were split into those who believed in Mel Brook’s approach (a la The Producers’ “Springtime for Hitler” finale) of removing power from oppressive people by making them appear silly and those who believed that making something as insidious as white supremacy appear comedic rendered it harmless in the eyes of the audience thus making it easier to dismiss real-life iterations of toxic ideology (or worse, accidentally creating a friendly access point for the history-ignorant to latch onto). Jojo Rabbit somehow walks the line and does so all the way to a satisfying conclusion.

It happens about halfway through when the tone of the film takes a sudden turn from happy-go-lucky romp to a grey and anxious thriller. Waititi wants to remind you that yes, this is still a film about Nazi Germany and you will be upset several times over. There are still well-timed moments of levity, but they aren’t used as mere throwaway laughs to ease the tension so much as they are buttresses in the grand design of the film’s message.

The conflict that threads every character in this film together is one of personal identity struggling to survive a regime of oppression. The most obvious examples of this belong to Elsa, the Jewish girl living in the walls of JoJo’s house and JoJo himself, a ten-year-old fanatic of the Reich who, due to a pretty funny grenade accident, cannot become a soldier. It’s important to remember that the mechanisms of genocide work to erase not only a person, but a people and, further, a people’s culture and history. Wishing to aid the war effort, JoJo begins writing a book on how to identify a Jewish person by interviewing Elsa who gives fanciful answers to feed his imagination. They bond over this activity as well as the activity of letters JoJo writes in the voice of Elsa’s late boyfriend. It’s not unlike the plot of The Book Thief in a lot of ways but because of the lighter tone, the heaviness hits subtly here.

That’s the main story, a young girl who doesn’t fit in society because of a government-mandated Holocaust and a young boy who doesn’t fit in a murderous society because he has a gentle heart. But the more I thought about, the more I realized that the entire film is full of misfits, which scratches the core of its sentiment: that fascism dehumanizes everyone— both the perpetrators and the victims.

Rosie is not allowed to exist because she wants a legitimately free Germany– that it is not enough to be German, one must conform to the party’s ideals or perish. The disgraced (but ultimately benevolent) Captain K is not allowed to exist as an openly homosexual man, or even a proper soldier. JoJo’s friend Yoki is not allowed to exist as a young boy, displayed in a hilarious subplot of him ever getting promoted through the Wehrmacht despite his incompetence and age (Rosie tells JoJo directly that he shouldn’t be thinking about war at his age, but should be climbing trees and falling in love). Even Rebel Wilson’s Fraulein Rahm seems to quietly resent that she is not allowed a more valuable role in the war because of her sex, saying through perhaps a smile too tight, “It is a good year to be a girl.”

The method in which these characters are able to endure are through acts of creativity. As stated, Elsa and JoJo write and draw together. Rosie dances and jokes (and drinks). She also does some character acting as JoJo’s absent father with a beard made of soot to soothe the boy’s anger. Captain K is more preoccupied with designing his costume (the reveal of which is probably the most epically FABULOUS scene of drag since Hedwig) than he is planning for the American and Russian invasion. He also drinks heavily and becomes increasingly disheveled throughout the film (until he walks the catwalk battlefield with Alfie Allen’s Finkel in enthusiastic tow) and it doesn’t escape my notice that the only moral adult characters find the current climate unbearable sober.

But it’s Captain K’s final scene that puts the whole film into perspective. He gives JoJo three gifts. He reminds him that his mother was a legitimately good person. He encourages JoJo’s creativity with the book he, along with a terrifying gang of Gestapo, laughed at previously. He sacrifices himself in an act of feigned belligerence so that JoJo can go be with Elsa.

There are many themes tied up before David Bowie cinches up the credits, but Captain K’s performance probably nails most of them. Respectively: you mustn’t forget the value of a person’s individuality; art is what sustains us and brings us together, and the pursuit of art is a noble one; heroism isn’t defined by the battlefield; family is what is important, biological or not.

And it’s the final scene when Elsa finally opens the front door and experiences freedom for the first time in a long while. JoJo does too, although he is slower to realize it, as he had only just come to terms with the fact that he too was a prisoner of the Nazis. The two primary characters, who found and kept each other after the regime had taken everyone else away from them, begin to dance to Bowie’s Heroes sung in German, we end on an optimistic note.

The reason why JoJo Rabbit works now is that it shows you the daily life of Nazi Germany which ranges from boring to beautiful to horrifying and all over again. We rarely see the less dramatic depictions of wartime Germany and might find it shocking to find that it might not be all that different from life in America currently. Perhaps then, to survive with any real dignity, we must embrace each other, value art, dance when we can and take life as it comes.

I’ve got a horror novella coming out shortly and it is available to pre-order here

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The Orphan Principle

The Orphan Principle

My mom is pretty candid with her opinions about my books. After she read The Fish Fox Boys she was really supportive. And then in that special way that mothers do, she hemmed a little bit and hawed the following: “… NOT A WHOLE LOT OF MOTHERS IN THE BOOK.”

And I shrugged and said, “Well, obviously.”

But it’s partially untrue as there are matronly characters present in my quaint little novelette– Franny, who takes her name from my IRL Grandmother to whom the piece is dedicated (OH STOP IT, ME! TOO CUTE! SHUCKS!) and of course the Mother Bearoon (the nuclear mutated conglomeration of a bear and a raccoon and aptly named to boot).

But there’s a trope in fiction, primarily in YA oriented genres, that the primary children in most stories are orphans. Harry Potter is the first example that leaps to mind. In thrillers, you have Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places. Because this isn’t relegated to literature alone, Zelda: Ocarina of Time follows suit. Batman AND Superman. And Spiderman, now that I think about it. Fuck me, most super heroes, actually. Each character from the addictive goddamn shonen anime series One Piece? Orphans. Little orphan Annie, the Chronicles of Narnia, hell, even Game of Thrones by the end of the Red Wedding (too soon?). Oh yeah, and Luke fuckin’ Skywalker.

It’s an ongoing trope that seemingly verges on self-parody and there’s been discussion as to why the hell this storytelling format exists and why it’s so pervasive in children’s entertainment. There’s a Lithub article by Liz Moore called “Why Do We Write About Orphans So Much” that I found poking around this concept. Moore’s got some pretty good insight on why it matters in a character-driven sense:

…the pain of the orphan occupies a place of precedence among all other types of pain, feels instinctively true, and makes writing about orphans tempting for a novelist.

It’s hard to argue with that logic. After all, Harry “Big Slytherin” Potter (and you thought there wouldn’t be any dick jokes in a post that started with a charming story about my mother, shame on you) has to confront his parent’s death various times through his journey and his acceptance into a famial structure at Hogwarts and at the Weasleys completes his character’s needs. Skywalker’s shit gets all fucked up when he finds out that his dad’s the biggest bastard of all time, Batman flashes back to a fuckin’ rose or some pearls or whatever every time he pours a bowl of cereal in the morning and… you get it.

But I think there’s a more practical explanation (and I might even go as far as to say that all of that Freudian family psychology might have been found in writing exploration after the fact). In the recent episode of The Self Publishing Show, James Blatch offers that it might be a children’s power fantasy of being able to handle adult responsibilities, which is probably true, but Hutchinson lays down the neccessary pragmatism of the trope:

Get rid of the parents in chapter one. Find a way to get the parents out of it so the children can’t just get mum and dad to sort everything out. And then put them in a difficult situation. It’s the same thing writing any genre or any age group, you put your character in a difficult situation and you remove any kind of support for them. It’s exactly the same for children’s books, your characters just happen to be children, so you need to get the parents out of the way so they don’t fix everything.

To make these kind of stories work structurally, they need to start out from a place where traditional family consequences and safety nets are absent. I call it the Orphan Principle. Ron Weasely has a family and you know what? His magic power is that he’s NICE. Without the cursed orphan Godhead as his best friend and main character, the books would be called Ron Weasley: A Bumbling Academic of Little Consequence Who’s Good at Wizard’s Chess Which is Actually Just Kind of Chess, Fuck’s Sake. Batman would be called A Rich and Entitled Twerp Who Should Stop Doing Ninja Shit Outside and Do His Homework, Fuck’s Sake. If Superman came down with his whole family intact, his dad would be Superman who would take care of all the bullshit and he would be like that egg-sucking Superboy who wore a leather jacket despite obviously not being punk (Obviously the Invincibles is great and works in the subversion of the trope). 

Does this mean in order to write a story that you need to kill off the parents every time? Of course not. You just need to get them out of the way. Steven Spielberg accomplishes this in his latchkey kids classic, The Goonies, by having working-class parents simply go to work. Or they’re moving or something. It doesn’t matter, the movie’s not about them, it’s about the kids and they are fo-sho out of the way the entire film.

A better example might be how Stranger Things handles things. The writers cleverly split the Adults and Children protagonists into two parties (three, including the teens) with their own interesting plotlines. The adults are alive and kicking and holding down the B Plot, while the dork children helm the A Plot. The teenagers carry the C Plot, which is mostly about kissing or something gross like that (I wanna say that girl, uh, B…Bart… Banana went missing?). All plotlines intertwine by the season’s end and it never feels forced or hokey. The children characters get all of the adventurous independence that comes from their absent parents and the adults characters carry the emotional weight to a satisfying conclusion. And I guess the teenagers, also with absent parents who are involved with the scary shit, are like, “Hey, you ever hear about this sex thing? Ha! Wouldn’t it be crazy if sex was like, I don’t know, like just a funny thing we– huh? Barbara who?”

Point being it’s not always necessary to orphan your kids to establish a starting point of conflict– but it is damned convenient. What is necessary, parents or no, is that those characters are free from support so that they may overcome the conflicts they encounter.

 

If you’d like to read a YA book featuring orphans that ISN’T a bummer, The Fish Boys: Part One is a great place to start. It’s a post-nuclear fairytale following the adventures ore_cover_smallf three idiot-savant inventors as they traverse the wasteland and it is available to purchase in paperback and Kindle here.

 

Saving Humanity – Game of Thrones Speculation

Saving Humanity – Game of Thrones Speculation

Let’s do something fun. You like Game of Thrones, I like Game of Thrones. I wanna get some thoughts down on what I think the overall theme of the series is– and get some projections on how the whole thing’s gonna shake out for certain characters. But be warned: I’m gonna spoil shit. It’s gonna spoil up in here worse than a sack of rotten eggs. I’m gonna spoil harder than your fuckwit nephew whose videogame collection’s resale value is equivalent to a mortgage downpayment on a house in the Sylvan area of Portland metro.

The first two episodes of the eighth season have been light on advancing the plot, choosing instead to focus on the relationships between the thus surviving characters. It’s a good choice, I feel, to have them all be together before the shit storm hits the fan. In the “bottle episode” of A Knight of Seven Kingdoms, everyone gets on the same page as to what’s at stake: Humanity.

But on a more subtextual level, that’s been the overarching theme of each individual character, hasn’t it? Whether it’s the HBO series or A Song of Ice and Fire, the personal journeys of our favorite Westerossi stick to a format of losing/having lost humanity followed by the struggle to reclaim it. It pairs well with the macro narrative of fighting a legion of the undead.

Let’s focus on one undead guy first.

Beric Dondarrion gets slept on as a tragic hero. He’s been revived by Thoros 19 times by the Hound’s count and he’s said (more explicatively in Storm of Swords) that he’s lost more of who he once was every time he’s been revived. If memory, as Brann and Sam see it, is the defining feature of what it means to be human, Dondarrion has been long dead, despite his Lazarussian return to form. He’s lost himself and he’s lost the friend who could bring him back. The only thing he seems to regret is that he wasn’t able to dole out justice for Arya when they last met. Beric Dondarrion is the ace up the show’s sleeve, as his book counterpart fell dead one last time as he gave the kiss of life to Cathryn Stark’s corpse, giving rise to Lady Stoneheart. Since that’s been nixed from the show, Beric serves as the proverbial extra life to one very lucky player in the game. A lot of people are going to die in the next episode, including Beric. But he’s going to die by bestowing the kiss of life to someone who justly deserves it. The question is who?

My first impulse was to think that, given how Sandor Clegane and Beric have become something close to war buddies that he might revive the Hound. There’s some poeticism to that choice in giving the gift of living fire to the man who despises fire most. And there’s something in the way that he’s proud of telling Arya “I fought for you, didn’t I?” Because Sandor’s character arc was about letting the murderous dog in himself die so that he could become human. No longer the pet of a sociopath, Sandor has certainly proved himself worthy of resuscitation. But that theory fucks up the path that I think the showrunners have in mind for him, so I’ll just say that Sandor “The badass formerly known as the Hound” Clegane survives the White Walkers.

Jorah Mormont lost his humanity when he got involved in the slave trade– one of the “strange things men do for the women they love.” He lost his honor when he refused to take the black. This cost him a further penalty– his sword, Longclaw, which he had the decency to return to his father before absconding to Essos. Longclaw is given to Jon Snow, instead, by Jeor Mormont. More on that in a minute. In Essos, Jorah earned some of himself back (and his citizenship) by spying on/ aiding noted abolitionist Daenerys Stormborn. He once again lost his humanity when infected by greyscale and was brought back from the brink of death by Sam Tarly. Sam gifts his family’s Valerian steel sword to Jorah as a familial payment to Jeor– a moment that had your guy on the brink of tears, folks. You’ll remember Sam held Jeor Mormont in his hands as he died, “Tell Jorah. Forgive him. My son. Please.” (Storm of Swords, pg. a billion). The moment encapsulates Jorah’s full forgiveness– he’s been forgiven by the state of Westeros, by Daenerys, by medicine, and finally by his own house, receiving the steel that was his birthright. Jorah has finally regained all that he lost. Jeor Mormont also told Sam something in the HBO series: “Sam Tarly, I forbid you to die.” Which leads me to believe that Jorah is going to sacrifice himself for the sake of Sam Tarly, the unsung best friend to the house of bears.

Theon lost his humanity after he betrayed the Starks and was then captured by Ramsey Bolton. He lost his dick, too. Torture and psychological manipulation burned his identity down to Reek. But after being reduced to nothing, Theon climbed out of the well of depersonalisation and grasped for his humanity when he and Sansa suicide dove from the walls of the Flayed Man’s Winterfell. When he ultimately chooses fighting for the Starks over staying safe with Yara on the Iron Islands, Sansa’s tears are very well earned as they embrace. It’s also kind of nice that the two get to have a quasi-romantic dinner together and it’s kinda cool how scissoring exists in Westeros, just saying. But he’s probably going to die in Winterfell, which makes the most narrative sense, protecting the crippled boy he took advantage over to feel big. Theon’ll die in Winterfell, his true home, but he’ll die Theon, not Reek, and full of valor. This will break Yara’s heart.

Tormund’s great. He’s the fuckin’ best. He’s horny as shit, a strident feminist, and an ardent believer in giant titty milk. My bet’s that he’ll live through the White Walkers, for no other reason than there hasn’t been a Wildling in King’s Landing yet. And he’d make a great impression.

There’s a huge preoccupation with hands amongst the Lannister boys. Twyin served as the hand twice. So has Tyrion. Jaime, of course, lost his right hand. While Tyrion has always been seen as “half” a person, Jaime learns wisdom by losing his natural talent through an act of valor. The brothers exchange places, Tyrion, whose intellect is only matched by a few, is thrown on the battlefield where he actually kind of kicks ass. Jaime, on the other… hand (oh, the slapping upon my knee), learns to think and behave more and more rationally, instead of impulsively (although, one of those impulses saved Kings Landing from a horrible death by Wild Fire). Jaime, of course, ended the first episode with an impulsive shove of a child out a window to protect his sister’s virtue and social standing. Where one brother errs, another corrects– it was Tyrion who devised a way for Brann to ride a horse, the designs of which were put to use in making his wheelchair. Now that they’ve both leveled out, so to speak, it’s hard to say who’ll die in the next episode. I imagine it’s Tyrion, as Jaime always knew that he’d die with his sister. But not before Tyrion rides a dragon.

Speaking of hands, the irony that Davos, who’s right hand had been shortened to the mid-knuckle by Stannis (for justice) was given the honor of Hand to the King also rings ironic. He’s incapable of fighting, but always has a brusque sense of honor. He’s the most human and honorable character in the entire series and I hope, though he never lost his way, he survives. Fuck shit piss don’t kill Davos. He’ll be fine. In the show, he’s become the Drowned God and he’ll likely team up with Yara to fight Euron. ONION KNIGHT vs THE KRAKEN.

Brienne beat Loras Tyrell. Brienne beat a bound Kingslayer. Brienne beat the Hound. She killed Stannis. She’s been King’s Guard to Renly Baratheon and personal security detail to Cathryn and Sansa Stark. She had the shining moment of becoming the titular Knight of Seven Kingdoms when she was officially knighted by Jaime. In the world of Thrones, women are seen as subhuman. The Wildlings know better (even if their marriage proposals are iffy), but here comes a woman warrior, stronger than anyone this side of the Mountain, and has always either suffered humiliation by faux-suitors or disrespect by the patriarchal institutions of valor. To achieve the same level of “humanity” as her male counterparts, she has to kick the fucking Hound off a fucking mountain. It’s a great moment when she finally receives the knighthood and well celebrated. My take is that she’ll survive the White Walkers and make it back to King’s Landing. Further take: She kills Cersei after Cersei kills Jaime (via Bronn?). Cersei’s teenage frog woman fortune did say that she’ll be replaced by someone more beautiful than her. Cersei’s paranoia led her to believe that she’d be replaced as queen, hence her jealousy of Sansa, hence her domestic terrorism to wipe out Margery Tyrell and the hold she had on her remaining, only wholesome son… Whereas I think Cersei’s been replaced in Jaime’s heart by “the Beauty of Tarth.” Cersei’s only allowed to die when she sees Jaime choose the comfort of Brienne over hers.

Podrick’s fuckin’ chowder.

Varys is known as the spider. With his dongle ripped off and burned, it’s hard to see him fight for the Lord of Light. But that being said, Varys knows too much, probably including that Jon Snow was a Targaryan. This will be his undoing. Spiders get squished.

Gendry’s a dead man. He’s the last Baratheon. It was never that he lacked humanity, quite the opposite. He’s fun, he’s sexy, he’s a devout acolyte of the Smith–he’s a hell of a blacksmith. But narratively speaking, he’s already been back to King’s Landing. And he and Arya have already consummated their pre-adolescent feelings towards each other in what has to be, somehow, the most uncomfortable sex scene in Game of Thrones’s 8 season run. Which, unfortunately for him, no longer makes him the last Baratheon. Remember that the friendship between the Starks and the Baratheons kept Westeros together? That promise lives on within Arya now, as squicky as it feels. And Gendry will go out, hammer in hand, no doubt.

There’s also no doubt that the character most unfairly accosted with the concept of death is Arya Stark. After the Hound kills the baker boy, she witnesses her father’s death, kills a boy her age, then she’s carted off with criminals, only to witness the murder of her friends, atrocities from the hands of the Tickler and the Mountain. The Men without Banners (‘sup, Beric. Thoros.) find her, from which she’s taken and reluctantly fathered by the Hound. After notching a few more kills, she denies the Hound the gift of mercy and flees on a ship to Braavos and becomes an acolyte for the Faceless Men. She learns to worship death, the many faced god, and in the process loses her own sense of humanity and identity. She clings to it by measures of extreme compartmentalization, vowing to return to herself when the time is right. Still, by the time Arya rejoins her family in Winterfell, she’s afraid to show who she’s become to her siblings, fearing that they’d be horrified at what she’s become. It’s not so much the killing; it’s that she shirked off the Stark name to become anyone. (Sidenote: that the word stark is used to describe contrast and Arya might be the greyest, despite her time in the House of Black and White… oooh). Arya has become the accustomed to death. In Knight of The Seven Kingdoms, Gendry tells her that the White Walkers are simply death. She’s lowkey giddy to see this face of death. And she will. My take: Arya will be killed in the next episode. Beric Donndarrion, who not only owes an oath of service to Ned Stark, will succumb to Sandor Clegane’s pleas to give her the kiss of life. He’ll do it. And once Arya is revived, she’ll know the true face of The Stranger and what death really means and her allegiances thenceforth will probably align with that of the living for goodsies. Especially when she understands what Beric Dondarrion, the Coolest of His Name, did for her.

Sansa’s whole arc begins with an earnest trust that the songs of knighthood and virtue are true. She is cruelly denied that reality, over, and over again. It’s less that she’s robbed of humanity– although she’s passed around as a political chip more than once– and more that her faith in humanity has been rendered bankrupt. Everyone that she looked to for help eventually burned her. Which is why it’s satisfying to see her as the hard-eyed Lady of Winterfell that she’s become. A few things. First, the adage “there must always be a Stark in Winterfell” falls on her shoulders. Jon’s officially a Targaryen (and officially a Stark, but hey) and Arya contains multitudes. Second, she will believe in those songs once again. Whereas she once naively trusted that knights are always righteous, she’s since learned that war is a grisly, horrific affair… which is why it’s right to honor those who’ve acted virtuously despite their brutal nature. Again, if memory is mankind’s only tie to humanity, then how you wish to remember the dead becomes all the more valuable. Theon, I imagine, will get a verse, but the one she’ll sing for is the Hound.

Sandor Clegane, before he kidnapped Arya for his charge, rescued Sansa from Joffrey’s brutality, killed her would-be-rapists, and offered sympathy from humiliation when she was stripped in court. He was a wretch, a broken-man, and under the thumb of a sociopath, but even then he acted in virtue, despite his murderous tendencies and grotesque world-view, and hatred for knights. Jumping into the endgame, my take is that Sandor Clegane will become the quintessential knight that the songs spoke of. During the “Trial By Seven” Cersei will feint the Mountain in battle only to turn towards Sansa. Sandor Clegane will save her, suffering mortal wounds. Sansa will finally sing him the song that Sandor bragged about during the Battle of Blackwater and Arya will finally make good on the gift of mercy. “You remember where the heart is.”

Daenerys entered the ring as a token to the Dothraki and currently sits as Queen. Jon Snow was born a bastard, and rose through the ranks of the Night’s Watch to Commander, then King of the North(!!!), and then lover to his sexy aunt. While both have slogged through inhumane existences, they now are aware that they both have claim to the Iron Throne. Who gets it? My answer? Neither. They both bite it. In a plume of blue flame. Snow’s sworn to the Night’s Watch and it’s ultimate goal– to fend off the Night King. Daenerys’s values lean towards freeing people from oppressive regime. She might indulge some fascism before she gets there (prolly kill Varys) but should they make it through the next two episodes, I’m certain that neither Targaryan will sit on the throne. I imagine that Daenerys will lose Drogon and die mid embrace with Jon “Aegon-Whatever-TheFuck” Snow, leaving Rhaegal untamed, and Viserion, a puppet of the Knight King and the Targaryan line finally put to incestuous rest.

Brann’s lost more humanity than maybe anyone else, having accepted the charge the old gods. He doesn’t hate anyone, as he tells Jaime, the man responsible for crippling him. His powers of green sight allow him to replay history like a DVD with commentary– his commentary has been known to fuck with his dad, Hodor, and perhaps the Mad King Aegon himself. But he’s also a talented warg— someone who can control beasts. And Hodor. The Knight King is going to kill Brann, while Brann has warged into Rhaegal, encapsulating his soul into the dragon. Brann’s humanity is long gone– his story is about attaining something greater.

Which brings us to the Night King. I misspoke when I said than Brann had lost the most humanity– the Night King was once a man who was changed by the Children of the Forest with an obsidian dagger and some of that sweet blood magic that keeps the Weirwoods crying. While he commands an undead army of Wights, the Night King and his turned White Walkers remember where they come from and want to make it theirs. Their play is no different from any family dispute we’ve seen in Westeros– they’ve just been planning it longer. But short of creating the Endless Night, what the Night King really craves is a return to his human form, so that he can die. I expect Mellisandre, now that Thoros is gone, will do the honors there.

I expect that it’ll be a long night– not an endless one. Any many characters dead by the end of it. And I can’t judge how the events at King’s Landing will go down specifically. But how I see the whole thing wrapping up is a member from each house in the great hall before the Iron Throne: Sansa Stark, Arya (carrying the last Baratheon), Lyanna Mormont, Brienne of Tarth, Tormund, Jaime Lannister, and Brann the Targaryran dragon, Rhaegal,to burn the throne to the fucking ground– it took dragon fire to forge the throne, it’ll take dragon fire to melt it down.

And wouldn’t it be cute if Hot Pie married Arya or whatever? HOT PIE IS OFF LIMITS FOR KILLING, HEAR ME?

I just released my Fantasy-Dystopian trilogy of the Fish Fox Boys as a complete volume. Get the paperback or Kindle version here.

The Process of Empathy

The Process of Empathy

Steve Morris from the Cine-Files podcast made a really great observation during their discussion of the movie Psycho: for a while, you’re on Norman Bates’s side. It’s after the scene when he discovers Marion, dead, in the shower (“Mother! Oh God, Mother! Blood! Blood!“) and before the scene of the car sinking into the bog (while Bates chews candies, nervously, before expressing a smug satisfaction when the car’s fully swallowed). Both of those scenes show Bates’s arrested development (the candy, the way he cries “mother” over and again…) but what happens in between (and I couldn’t find a clip for this to my shame. DAMMIT PIERRE!) is the meticulous cleaning Norman Bates performs on the murder scene. Without knowing the ending (as I somehow didn’t on my first watch all those years ago, through some miracle), we assume Bates feels compelled to protect his mother. But it’s being alongside him as he washes away the blood and carries the body to the car that we actually root for the villain, ending reveal notwithstanding. As Morris puts it, “Whenever we watch somebody in a process, we end up on their side.”

I think there’s a lot to that.

Watching somebody work gives you a different, occasionally more insightful, look into their personality than simply talking to them. You ever hire somebody? Or be involved in the hiring process? You can talk to a person and get a performance highlighting all of their best attributes but the day they show up to work, they’re a shitshow. Watching someone wash their hands before handling food is ultimately more important than them saying “I’m a good cook.”

Which throws us back to the old writing adage, “show don’t tell.” With which, I’ll refry this down into two questions: why is it effective to show a process in narrative and why does that gain audience sympathy?

The immediate answer is that work is common. On the grand scale, few people have actually cleaned blood in any real sense (side note: I interviewed some folks who worked in some bath houses and found that cum, piss and vomit were no issue. Blood, however…) but they have had to deal with mess. Few people have actually carried a body and shoved it into a car but, most people have carried an awkward TV, couch, or bed frame and have tried to make it work spatially in a van. Not everyone cleans, but everyone works. That alone makes you empathize, on a dark level, with Norman Bates.

There’s an oft mentioned study about how reading fiction makes people more empathetic. The casual explanation is that by reading with someone else’s brain for 300 pages, one tends to carry that perspective along with them back into the real world– or at least, the learned ability to entertain notions that are not their own. I’d agree with that assessment, but I also think there’s something to be said about any and all media that challenges the audience to ask themselves, “what would I do in this situation?” or perhaps, “what would I ideally to do in this situation?”

See, if I was Lewellyn Moss in No Country for Old Men, I would probably spend the entire book not hunting and eating chips on the couch as a seedy world of intrigue and carnage obliviously passes me by. Luckily, for art’s sake, I’m not Lewellyn. Cormac McCarthy (and the Coen’s faithful film adaptation) does something simple and brilliant: we’re shown characters of few words and inner reflection simply work through solving problems step by step without us being told what the problem is.

Moss is carrying a bag filled with two million dollars. He rents a motel room and stashes the money in a vent. He suspects (correctly) that the cartel is waiting to murder him and reclaim the money. So he rents another motel room behind his current one. Then he buys tent poles, leaving the audience going “buh-why?” It’s only when he tapes a bunch of coat hangers to the end of it that we realize that he intends to snake the bag of money through the vent and reclaim it in the new, parallel room. Similarly, we see Anton Chigurh use a bag of gas station sundries to blow up a car, only to find that that it’s a ruse to steal anesthetic drugs so he can perform self-surgery.

Scenes like these build tension because you have to wonder “the hell does he need a lid to a box of cotton swabs for?” Once you’ve been shown the reason, or the problem solved, you like it for a different reason: the characters’ intelligence is fully illustrated. Whether it’s Moss blowing water out of the chamber of a gun so it’ll ignite a bullet when he shoots a dog in the face or Chigurh turning off the light in the hallway so his feet won’t shadow under the door, we see something being worked out during the action of the story and we double-down on our admiration/respect for these characters because we’re either thinking, “I wish I had thought of that,” or “Yes. That is what I would ideally have done in the same scenario.”

The reason why heist movies like Oceans 11 (or Hereditary, a heist movie) are so engaging is because it’s 90% process. We like seeing a plan come together even if we don’t know what the plan is. Ocean’s 11 is primarily about a bunch of criminals, doing crimes. Or, rather, a bunch of criminals executing a convoluted strategy to pull off one crime. The actors are charming, which helps, but robbery usually isn’t that sexy of a crime (see: Raising Arizona, Reservoir Dogs). But if you add a sequential series of fancy pranks, some glib banter shared between 13 Hollywood stars, and a grand revealing of a few red-herrings, you get a competent, satisfying story– but only because you watched the characters earn it step by step.

Ocean’s 11 is an oddly apt example because, just as you don’t know what the plan really looks like, you also don’t know what Danny Ocean’s true motivation is as it could be revenge against the man who’s dating his wife, an attempt to get back with his wife, or pure greed. Surprise! It’s all three! But that only comes together in the very end when the audience is led to believe that he would betray one motivation for another. It’s not high-cerebral storytelling here, but it does work, and it is clever in its own right (for a movie I watched with my mom while my brother was at a youth group superbowl party 18 years ago that I wasn’t invited to).

The obfuscation of motivation is important when showing a process. In Psycho, no matter what we’re led to believe, we want Bates to succeed in hiding that body. In No Country, we want Chigurh to heal his leg because we suffered through watching him tweeze buckshot from the meat of his thigh. What a character wants is an integral part of writing but it’s something that drives a character throughout an entire arc and is only understood in retrospect. In fiction and cinema, we’re only exposed to these characters scene by scene and those characters have very immediate needs despite their longterm desires. Hey, kinda like life, ya know?

Showing a process of action is not unlike showing a thought process, brought to you by this new-fangled technology of first person narrative, where the reader is up against the grain of a character’s decision making. It’s a more intimate relationship, to be sure, as the reader might stop thinking “that’s what I would do,” and instead entertain, “this is what I did,” but the story itself shouldn’t be too different. And the reason, with, you know, good fiction, is a certain with-holding of motivation.

It’s noir time.

Phillip Marlowe is a pretty damn good chess player. He strategizes, he thinks, he mulls, he makes decisions. Even still, he bumbles into situations making him a hapless sap that often leaves him bloody and bruised with yet another body laying in the next room. Homeboy once smoked a laced cigarette and spent three hours on a floor. Sometimes he has a theory about how everything shakes out only to find that all of his instincts were wrong. Then he makes some plays against the antagonist and the truth finally outs. There’s a disconnect there, yeah? Even though he’s telegraphing his story to you, he isn’t going to tell you how he brought everything together until the very end, because it’s very likely that Marlowe is flying without a map until all the pieces are aligned and even then you’re still taken aback that the bastard fit it all together. It’s a bit of a motherfucker to know the narrator’s opinion about a secretary’s dress and not know the plan. That’s part of how story works, sure, but it’s also an example of how the narration itself is a strategic process– the narrator decides what to tell you and when, despite the narrator living in your brain.

It’s the whole principle behind Dashiell Hammet’s Red Harvest, wherein our Continental Op is dropped into a corrupt town, expected to pick sides between the corrupt cops and the criminals. The Op plays off of ALL of those expectations and nets so, so many bodies. Only it turns out, The Op’s motivation was to simply stir chaos on both sides, not necessarily knowing that they would murder each other– he had no plan, he’s just a drunk fucking psychopath. Still, he tells us every decision he makes as he systematically destroys the institutions and crooks, but he never tells us why, likely because he doesn’t know or doesn’t remember. He’s driven, in his own words, “blood simple.”

And we’re in their corner, despite them being monsters or virtuous, if occasionally inept, troublemakers. What people respond to are decisions, whether that’s shown through cleaning blood from a bathroom or scheduling a massacre of the police force with a phone call.

Still.

With the advent of reality television and video games, I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising that we find routine processes humanizing. We watch entire blocks of entertainment dedicated to showing us the machines that make taffy, step by step. We follow Alaskan fishermen into the waves, cops into the streets, chefs into the kitchens. We come home from work to watch someone else do their job. We’ve attached so much personality to an Italian plumber because of the personal satisfaction of bringing him from the left side of a screen to the right (and we’ve apparently made so much goddamn pornography from a blue hedgehog, simply because he had to go fast).

It’s not surprising, but it’s something that I consider often when writing. I utilize “showing the process” of a character regularly, for the reasons I’ve explained: it illustrates intelligence, it creates tension, and it can exist outside of the over-arching motivation and focus on the immediate’s scene’s needs. There’s a delicate balance at stake here, as a reader’s attention-span is only so thick, and I sometimes worry that I’m tugging the boat a little too far. Truth be told, sometimes I think tugging the boat is pretty funny. Sometimes you need to “yada-yada” the reader along. But in writing The Fish Fox Boys Part Three: Ballad of the Badger Knights (which is free for Kindle until 3/15), I found that exploring the process in how someone builds or grows things provides several opportunities to further explore setting (In FFBIII, we get a better sense of the geographical landscape when Anne puts her mind to mutating corn. We get inside the old dilapidated schools, twice, when Fred and Adam go scavenging for parts, once in a rural school and again in an inner city one and there should be a difference felt between the two). I found that there’s an opportunity for characterization when the process frustrates the hero and we get to see how they handle that frustration. And while I tried to keep the flow of information economical, hints of motivation are indeed present, although mostly through subtext. Anne’s obsession with winning the Corn Festival had less to do with her justification of philanthropy and more to do with vain ambition just as Adam’s willingness to scavenge has more to say about his need to please a new friend, instead of serving his old friend’s needs.

And then there’s the logic itself: the simple satisfaction one receives from solving a problem, even if the character was responsible for the problem in the first place. It doesn’t matter if the reader themselves never invented a Zamboodlator, they’ll still listen to how you made it. I know this, because every time I pop the hood of my 1984 Volvo, there’s suddenly six dudes from no-where, peering over my shoulder, examining something that they do not understand yet have advice anyway.

Makes me think if I ever discover a body in my shower, the same audience will appear and one would say, “Clean the bathroom.” Another, “Put it in the trunk of a car.”

And another would agree, saying, “That’s what I would do.”

I just officially released The Fish Fox Boys Part Three yesterday. If you catch this blog before 3/15/2019, you can get a free copy of the book here. If paperback’s your game, as is mine, get that shit here. It’s a fairy-tale about the end of the world, what’s not to like?

True Detective Season 3 – A Return to Form amidst the Formless Void

True Detective Season 3 – A Return to Form amidst the Formless Void

Yeah, yeah. You’re all, “Hey, Pierre, are you shilling for HBO? Because this is the fourth consecutive post about HBO and the second about True Detective.”

Which I understand. But then you had to go too far, asking, “Are there spoilers?”

Shouldn’t you be somewhere not vaccinating your kids, you calamity? Of course there are spoilers. Jesus. 

Last Sunday aired the season finale of the third season of True Detective. It defied a lot of expectations– in a rewarding, thoughtful way– and for my money’s worth, was a touching capstone to a season full of loss and tenuous relationships. The finale challenges the viewer to clear away the bullshit distractions in life and, like Wayne Hays eventually does (in triplicate in his dementia-riddled brain), focus on what really matters.

The centerpiece of the series’ third entry is a family torn apart by tragedy. While I’m referring to the Purcells in particular, this could apply to just about every family represented in the season. Isabelle Hoyt’s obsession and then kidnapping of Julie Purcell is borne from the accident that robbed her of her own children, essentially filling a void by causing another. Despite bringing them together, the tragic case is what keeps Amelia and Wayne from trusting each other until they both decide to choose an actual life together, separate from the Purcell case. One could even say that the tragedy Wayne’s dementia is what strains his son to a near-breaking point and is potentially what has kept his daughter away for so long.

But this season spends a significant amount of time with the bereaved family central to the case. We see Tom Purcell destroyed, first seeking oblivion in a bottle, before filling it again with God. Roland West takes him on as an adopted brother of sorts– but we come to learn that he’s filling a void, too, one left from Hays choosing a transfer instead of besmirching his soon-to-be-wife’s journalistic integrity. Lucy Purcell also continues to self-destruct, but now armed with the information that she willingly sold Julie into a “better life,” her cratering lifestyle is a self-flagellation of sorts for silently condoning the accidental murder of her son, Will. The need for her to keep quiet leads to some outbursts and while, in retrospect, Lucy’s “fuck all” attitude might speak to a mother’s guilt alongside grieving agony, she makes a point when she calls out Amelia for being a tourist of her pain. Lucy and Tom are subject to scrutiny, cops and writers looking through their windows during the single-most devastating part of their lives. Lucy can’t cope, eventually dying from a hotshot delivered by Harris when it was apparent that she might come clean. Tom stops punishing himself and seeks to punish others– namely Dan O’brien (no, not one of the funniest persons of internet comedy) — before finally receiving the oblivion that he, in some ways, was seeking the entire time via rigged suicide.

That aspect of voyeurism is played directly back at the viewer, as it is towards Hays. The TV show within the TV show, True Criminal, scrutinizes Wayne Hays hoping to validate their theory of what happened– or otherwise hoping that he’ll contradict himself. The stakes are pretty high once you realize that Hays and West killed a man with the added tension that Hays doesn’t know where he is half the time. But True Criminal also serves up a scathing condemnation of our true-crime infused society. It’s as not heavy-handed as it could’ve been, as True Detective understands that its audience is into grim shit, but it’s also not a wrong assessment, given that Netflix recently released a docuseries about Ted Bundy, seemingly glorifying that misogynistic piece of shit. As much as this story is about the core characters letting go of their obsession with a case that doesn’t need to involve them, this is Pizzolatto telling you to give the family of a murder victim peace by, say, not redditing out theories or saying that a school shooting was staged or poking at the grave decades later.

Amelia characterizes the crime voyeur pretty perfectly. She’s plumbing her husband for details, plumbing other officers for details over promises of dinner, can’t let it go when she and Wayne meet Roland and his then-girlfriend for dinner, and puts it upon herself to interview Lucy, once and again. She’s called out, of course. By Lucy, by the black man with a white eye at her reading, by Lucy’s best friend. The difference between her and True Criminal, however, is that Amelia’s not out to condemn anyone. She humanizes the story of a tragedy the same way she humanizes Wayne– by establishing context and following up on that context, even if she “knows better by now.” It takes a true detective to marry a true detective, I suppose.

True Criminal also serves a pretty ingenious narrative function in that it drives the viewer’s expectations to believe that the Purcell case is tangentially related to Season One’s Yellow King and Season Two’s hippie-occult orgy. Personally, all of my theories centered around the possibility that it’s all connected, man. But it’s pretty satisfying to have Rust and Hart pop up on a computer monitor only to have all of that shit cleared away to discover that the mystery had been so much simpler than bureaucracy and the personal obsession of detectives, crime writers, and viewers thought.

Which all comes down to a reveal with Junious in 2015. Old men Hays and West put their unsteady guns upon him, himself an unsteady old man. While gardening. The moment’s tense but it also doesn’t let you forget that these are septuagenarians, even when they sit down to get the full story from him, Hays’s gun is on the table. And Junious spills.

It’s a classic noir trope set by Raymond Chandler– the end of the mystery culminates in the culprit spilling beans. By the end of the confession, Junious demands justice to kill him but our detectives give him the high hat, choosing instead to leave the man in groaning agony. It’s a complete juxtaposition to Woodard– the Native American Vietnam vet who cracked, not under police scrutiny, but under the system that fucked him with local racists attempting to lynch him  for no other crime than talking to children. He seeks retribution, and he gets it, only after making the decision Hays’s. Makes you think he was atoning for sins he wrought before he started shooting rednecks. He had the munitions. He had a plan. Yet, he made Hays pull the trigger.

We see a lot of “self-flagellation” in this season. After they torture and kill Harris, Roland West goes the Tom Purcell route of drinkin’ and causin’ ruckus. But this time, West wants to get the shit kicked out of him. And he provides a pseudo-comedic reason why. The motherfucker Wolverines out and gives more than he takes until a crowd overwhelms him. We see him weeping later in a gravel parking lot, without Tom, without Hays, without the girlfriend that Hays half-forgot. West seeks judgement, as Tom Purcell did. In that low point, a dog adopts him despite his fucked-up flaws, signifying why he prefers his family in a kennel while “passing time” in the country. Hays’s self-flagellation comes in the form of re-entering the Purcell case, via his late wife’s words. He puts himself on the rack of public opinion, agreeing to do the interview with True Criminal, and justifies it by saying that it’s helping him remember his life. Objectively, he’s only making more trouble.

But. There’s the annoying fact that the tracker Wayne “Purple” Hays is always right.  On the personal level, he’s right that Amelia is fucking with shit beyond her responsibility as a journalist, although the way in which he informs her of his opinion is pretty shitty. He’s right to defy the brass. He’s right to get an aged West on his side to complete the puzzle of the Purcell case, despite that he was wrong to force West to murder Harris. Mahershala Ali embodies Wayne Harris with a strident confidence and a reserved manner of speech– you get the sense that Hays always knows what he’s doing, even if he forgets why he’s doing it, and doesn’t feel the need to explain it.

Which brings us to what I think the core theme of season three to be. It’s summed up by “Amelia’s ghost” when she tells Hays to “know himself.” He might not remember where he is, but by God, he knows he’s there for a reason– hence waking up on Shoepick Lane and hence following up on Amelia’s ghost tip to determine whether or not Julie Purcell still lives. I like the AV Club’s take on that scene where it seems that Hays has a flickering notion of why he’s there and who this woman is before it disappears again– for the better. For all the tragedy wrapped up in the complications of dementia, the ability to forget is also Hays’s strength. Slowly, as the case is left to the past, Hays’s family finally comes together, including West, who has also let go of years of resentment and bitter loneliness to become a brother again to Hays. Since Hays is a tracker, a seeker of truth, forgetting the ending is the only way his story continues– or as Amelia ghost puts it, “the story goes on, healing itself.”

That last shot of Purple Hays in the jungle, his truest self, is going back into the tangle of his own mind. There, he’ll get lost in the Purcell case again, but he’ll also be with his wife, and make the same mistakes and loving commitments to her over and over again. But before he gets lost in the thicket, Hays looks directly at us, confident and wild, as if to say, “I know who I am. Who are you?”

If you are interested in reading some of my own noir fiction,  please check out Muddy MS_cover_smallSunset, available hereThe book follows PI Roy Delon as he untangles a web of corporate deceit in St. Louis, 1955. 

Game Theory (of Throne-Building)

Game Theory (of Throne-Building)

Now, you might be saying, “Buddy, two Thrones posts back to back? Wouldn’t it make more SEO sense to wait until the final season starts, instead of blowing your wad all up front?”

To which I reply, “Listen, buttnards, why don’t you keep your beak in your own pot of yogurt, you fuckin’ dumb door-holding fuckin’ oaf.”

…Because last time we talked about why Game of Thrones was so popular. We had a good time (we did. that is non-negotiable), although I didn’t talk about the actual series itself with any real depth. So what makes A Song of Ice and Fire so fuckin’ good when there are a bajillion similar fantasy novels shoveled out on the daily?

Make way for this post, everybody, get your your weird-ass-eerily-accurate-cosplaying persona on and let’s DIG… into our pockets and bring out our dodecal-sided die. That’s right, nerds, we’re gonna go into table-top RPGs and how they’ve shaped your favorite pervert-murder-dragon show on television.

There have been several unsung table-tops prior to Dungeons and Dragons but D&D is the one that stuck after its release in 1974– and much like its philosophical cousin, The Ouija Board, it ran a chill through the hardcore Christian, anti-satanist set. You know what D&D is. You’re hip.

As a goddamn king of nerds, it should come as no surprise that George RR Martin was (and apparently still is) an enthusiast. Apparently, several authors felt that Dungeons and Dragons served as a smelly basement boot camp for writing fiction. In the article previously linked, Ball University Assistant Professor Jennifer Grouling explains:

“D&D is completely in the imagination and the rules are flexible — you don’t have the same limitations” of fiction, or even of a programmed video game, she said. A novel is ultimately a finished thing, written, edited and published, its story set in stone. In D&D, the plot is always fluid; anything can happen.

I want you to pin that notion of story-fluidity behind your ear for a minute or two while we go into the fact that Martin himself ran a long, long campaign of a table-top RPG called Super World in the 80s. Beginning to realize that playing games was not a financially sustainable means of existing, Martin and his gang of hooligan-author friends did what anyone would do– they rewrote the rules of the game in such a way that their campaigns could be transcribed into novels and thereby published. It’s called Wild Cards and the whole story behind its origin is summed up pretty neatly here. Apparently, there’s a TV show in the works, offering hope to all us schlubby punks making art for our friends’ sake.

During this time, Martin went back and forth between trying to jumpstart a serious fiction career and writing for TV.  Suddenly, and forgive me if I’m wrong, he writes a scene he remembered from a dream he had. That’d be the Starks finding the Direwolves, the seed that’d become Ice and Fire. 

I say seed intentionally, because Martin sees himself as a gardener of stories. In his words:

I think there are two types of writers, the architects and the gardeners. The architects plan everything ahead of time, like an architect building a house. They know how many rooms are going to be in the house, what kind of roof they’re going to have, where the wires are going to run, what kind of plumbing there’s going to be. They have the whole thing designed and blueprinted out before they even nail the first board up. The gardeners dig a hole, drop in a seed and water it. They kind of know what seed it is, they know if planted a fantasy seed or mystery seed or whatever. But as the plant comes up and they water it, they don’t know how many branches it’s going to have, they find out as it grows. And I’m much more a gardener than an architect.

I’ll tell ya, architect and gardner are way better names than what the writing community at large has claimed to distinguish themselves as: plotters (which is self-explanatory) and pantsers (ugh, because one writes at the seat of their pants). It’s essentially the difference between folk who chart out every scene ahead of time and those who explore the words they’re writing while writing. Most authors are a mix of both. And I think it’s important to demystify Martin as some evil curmudgeon whose hiding the blueprints to your favorite dragon-murder-porno and instead see him as a person and an author who’s working on a project that means a lot to him.

It’s not that he doesn’t outline either, but it’s more accurate to say that he strategizes. Apparently an early outline married Tyrion and Arya together and Jaime became king after simply murdering everyone else (kind of like a evil run in a Bethesda game). But that would’ve robbed the story of Tyrion’s integrity of his sudden chastity with Sansa and Jaime’s turn from selfish, impetuous murder machine to self-reflective, all-around good amputee guy (*cough* excludingtheweirdrapeofhissisteronhisson’scorpse *cough*). That’s where the fluidity of viewing an epic fantasy from a bird’s eye view becomes advantageous–  you can see missteps before you make them and then correct course.

It’s why I think Martin views his own work as a table-top RPG that he’s playing with himself (and his audience). It’s documented that he’s a creative type who enjoys transferring table-top antics to words. It’s also documented that he writes an average of 350 words a day. But he has a lot, I’m speculating, a lot of notes and spends a lot, I’m speculating again, a lot of time strategizing.

Several authors I’ve come into contact with, fantasy or otherwise, have a bible of character and world information. It’s full of details. It’ll tell you that x character has brown eyes and z forest is deciduous and Lady HatchetVagina got her moniker ironically. And no doubt Martin has one as well– in fact he writes that shit into his books. Fuckin’ Ned Detective runs through the Baratheon Genealogy to find the golden-haired discrepancy that gets his goddamn clock ticked. There’s a whole chapter (maybe more? Clash of Kings is so big) where Jaime just pages through the White Book, describing all of the feats the White Cloak knights accomplished (some of which is narratively-super important, some not). Martin has definitely put the work in here. But understand, the work built upon itself while it was being written. World building expands. The fog of war dissipates as one moves in a direction. Things change as we look at them. 

The way it still strikes relevant is the fact that the dude spent his fantasy life in the company of other human-beings. If you’ll permit me a stark (heh) deviation to Roberto Bolaño and his (arguably) worst book,  Third Reich. It’s still, ugh, the best fiction out there. At least philosophically. The best I can try to explain what the book is about: a man goes on vacation to a Spanish beach, stays after his vacation (long after his girlfriend leaves), plays a table-top game of WWII, becomes obsessed with a local vagabond, the vagabond beats him at the game, dude fears that the guy is going to kill him and then the vagabond doesn’t kill him. While I’m fairly sure it’s a coded message to express Bolańo’s bisexuality, the novel maintains a descriptive handle on the game’s movements throughout (tediously so), while the main character wraps himself in isolation and paranoia with the exception of his homeless friend. It’s essentially a story about strategizing alone which is ultimately futile. War– like books, games, and art– requires engagement. In isolation the narrator, a German, forgets his own values and plays the Axis. The homeless guy, who is crazy but ultimately virtuous, plays the Allies and, despite being an amateur at the game, wins. This decimates and ultimately liberates the narrator.

From that deviation, I’ll take away two things. The first, as suggested above, is that Martin strategizes in response to other people. He understands the expectations and he knows how to subvert them almost perfectly (read: the definition of irony) which is what makes him such a bastard sometimes. The game he’s playing is against us and to quote Grouling again, “anything can happen,” in a game where “the rules are flexible.”

The second thing I’ll take away is the notion of values. One of my first posts on this site was about how you could use D&D to determine a character for your novel and it would be 10 times more believable than jotting down notes on a profile. Values override details every single time. Because details should serve to express value.

The character of the Hound (the best character! Fuck you! HooooyooooUUUUND!) maintains a certain value set throughout the books and show even though our first introduction to him is his ironic and cynical slaughtering of a young boy (the Han shot first of GoT). But his values become clear, slowly, as Martin is keen to show and not tell us. Lil Clegane’s main value is that he, in nearly every other happenstance, protects children (which makes his boy-slaughtering that much more of a sin). Later we find out why. Still, he protects the Child King Joffrey, then saves Sansa, before becoming Arya’s drunk and chicken-filled father-replacement. He’s a murderer who hates knights, doesn’t go out of his way to hurt women (equivalent to Westeros feminism, I guess?), and keeps the kiddies safe (save the one).

That’s why for three quarters of A Feast For Crows you’re heartbroken to learn that The Hound is raping and killing women and looting towns in the salt pans. Your expectations combat your understanding of the man you’ve begrudgingly come to respect and admire. The “oh-shit” moment happens in a turn of dialogue between Brienne and some old religious fucker who explains that it was Rorge, the noseless douche that kept harassing Arya “with a stick”, that had donned the Hound helm and used that brand recognition to pillage with his brigands. The godly man explains that the Hound died while a man who 100% resembles Sandor Clegane digs graves in the background. In the show, Sandor assists the building of a temple. In both cases it’s assumed that the death of The Hound is a symbolic path to reach forgiveness and atone for his sins through labor (the dorkier among you will nod and solemnly agree that this is the work of the Smith). Through the humiliation of physical work, The Hound transforms into Sandor Clegane, culminating in the scene in the televised series where Sandor attempts to properly bury the farmers that he himself had doomed to death by robbing them a few seasons earlier. He doesn’t seem unquieted by his past, but he continues to make a good effort to support those around him who are trying to make things better.

Just. Like. A dog.

That might be one of the most satisfying character arcs ever written and it works because the characters values remained the same but it required a few hundred pages and six seasons to finally realize them.

I don’t think I’m blowing any minds by saying that Ice and Fire is one big table-top experience. The intro to GoT literally resembles a game-map, complete with ticky-tacky toy-like renderings of the regions involved (wiiiiiith a game-chip circling the construction of Old Town). But it works effectively once transcribed to a literary experience because games have rules and players have values. 

That sentence alone explains the bulk of conflict in the series. Each house has a motto which serves as a rule. They also have repeated sayings which express values.

The Lannister motto is “Hear Me Roar,” while their repeated saying is “A Lannister always pay their debts.” Martin throws us another saying said about the Lannisters: “Lannisters lie.” Tyrion and Tywin play the game by the value of paying off debts to obtain loyalty and assure their own safety/regard. Cersei and Jaime (initially) play the game by the second value of deceit. But they all show their ferocity when push comes to shove and we see what happens when one value clashes against another. [insert “twang” foley]

The Boltons’ motto/rule is “Our Knives Are Sharp,” while their saying/value is “A naked man has few secrets; a flayed man none.” Roose plays by the rule, which is more in line with shady treaties and backstabbing, while Ramsey plays by the value of demonstrating cruelty. Playing by the rule changes the political landscape, while the value ultimately sinks the Bolton house into the grave.

And yes, you have the ever-memed Stark motto of “Winter is Coming,” and the saying “A Stark must always be in Winterfell.” Eddard died because he violated both. By heading south to deal with the politics of King’s Landing, he (albeit reluctantly) forsook his charge as steward of the northern defense against the wights/wildlings and brought Arya and Sansa along with him, leaving Robb alone to the Bolton’s manipulations and Bran, still comatose and crippled, to be strong-armed out of control of the municipality by Theon. The saying and value “There must always be a Stark in Winterfell” is a regional one, essentially saying that without a sense of nobility present, the north will fall to the cruelty of the likes of those fuckface Boltons or taken advantage of by the likes of those goddamn pirate Greyjoys. Currently, HBO-wise, it’s Jon Snow and Sansa upholding the motto and verse of the Starks, hence their survival.

I could go on, but I’m getting interrupted by this sound in the air… Do you hear that? That’s the sound of my virginity re-crystalizing. I learned what fuckin’ GURPS was for a free article on the internet. And I even held myself back from applying stats to characters (Tyrion: INT-8, STR-3; Jaime: INT-3, STR-9 then 2; Robb: INT-5, Str-8; Arya: INT-6, STLTH-9; Sam: INT-7, STR-1, STLTH-0, MGC-0, VIT-0; Melisdandre: MGC-9, TT-10; The Mountain: 10 everything except PSN RSTNC) because there’s a goddamn table top for Game of Thrones now. Cracked.com (before they sold to Scripps and Facebook leveraged the value of video content, essentially fucking up earning projections for every website you used to enjoy) made a video satirizing the likelihood of GoT making the tabletop circuit, leading to madness, betrayal and insanity.

I’m not mad about the RGP (I’LL GET DOWN OFF THIS LEDGE WHEN I GODDAMN FEEL LIKE IT), if it means ushering in another generation of innovative storytellers, but it strikes me as redundant. Martin’s JOB right now is to tell you how the game goes. You can pull a Third Reich and test your own values to try to make it go differently, but what’s the point when you could change the rules and write your own  damn thing?

Again, I’ll quote Grouling: “the plot is always fluid; anything can happen.”

The closest thing Manchot has to a fantasy epic at this time is a genre-bending comedy between Science Fiction and Fantasy featuring a trio of siblings bumbling through a happy-go-lucky nuclear wasteland. It’s called The Fish Fox Boys and you can start reading it here. ffb2_small