Monday, April 1, 2019

A Game of Feels: The Radical Empathy of Game of Thrones

This is a reblog of an article I wrote for Tor.com which can be found here
One of the most compelling moments in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels (and the era-defining television show that bears the name of the first book) is not one of the author’s signature shocking deaths, displays of unrelenting cruelty, or visceral battles. Rather, it is a quiet moment of expanding empathy wherein the audience is forced to acknowledge the complexity of a character who had, up until that point, served only as a font of villainy.
The character in question is Jaime Lannister, handsome son of privilege, whose incestuous relationship with his twin sister, casual maiming of a ten-year-old, and general aura of arrogant self-satisfaction when it comes to his martial prowess paints him as something as close to the primary villain of the first two novels as Martin’s capacious and complicated series can muster. And yet, in book three, A Storm of Swords, Jaime Lannister, a surprise narrator after spending most of the previous book imprisoned, reveals to his traveling companion that the very act that earned him the nickname “Kingslayer” and gave him the reputation of being a man without honor is, in fact, the noblest thing he has done in his life. Martin reveals that Jaime Lannister saved hundreds of thousands of lives by slaying the king he was sworn to protect, murdering the Mad King in order to prevent him from giving the order to burn the capital city to the ground.
In many ways, that moment changed not only the arc of Jaime Lannister’s character, not only the course of the novel, but the entire thesis of Martin’s series.
Prior to that, Martin’s seeming priorities had been with exploring the lives of the abject, powerless, and underestimated. Jaime’s brother Tyrion, all but parroting the author, explains “I have a tender spot in my heart for cripples and bastards and broken things.” Up until A Storm of Swords, the overwhelming majority of Martin’s narrators are people who were, by turns, loathed, pitied, or ignored by the vast majority of Westerosi society: women, children, bastard children, people with physical and cognitive disabilities, ethnic minorities, people who were too ugly, or fat, or queer, or frightened to be taken seriously by the world. Essentially, ASoIaF was an exercise in telling a story about power from the perspective of the powerless. By introducing Jaime Lannister as a narrator and forcing us to see not only his bleak future (wherein he reckons with his self-worth after the amputation of his sword hand), but his storied past as worthy of our consideration, Martin embarks on a bold new project: telling a story about political intrigue, bloody dynastic struggle, and personal power plays where no character is irrevocably beyond the reach of his readers’ empathy.
Five books and seven seasons into Martin’s narrative and HBO’s re-envisioning of it, we are given a story where no conflict occurs in which the reader feels truly, wholeheartedly on board with the outcome and the costs involved. We cheer Tyrion’s clever defeat of Stannis Baratheon at the Battle of the Blackwater, for example, while simultaneously being horrified by the deaths of Davos Seaworth’s sons as a direct result of Tyrion’s plan. This raises a number of thorny questions that are worth exploring here: how does Martin manage to make a narrative known for its uncompromising cruelty one in which there are so many characters with whom we can empathize? How can a television series faithfully render that cruelty visually and viscerally without further alienating viewers? What, precisely, are the limits of Martin’s project? Are there places where we as viewers and readers are no longer able to follow beloved characters?
Martin is relentless in his desire to humanize some of his most spectacularly unpleasant characters. A prime example is Theon, the ward of the Stark family and a character who, in the first two novels, exists primarily to underscore the perils of divided loyalty. While Martin is more than willing to explore the many nuances of what it means to be a political captive amidst a very nice family of captors, he also, in making Theon a narrator in A Clash of Kings, does not give the character much room to gain the sympathies of the reader. He sleeps with women he treats cruelly and gleefully abandons, turns on his beloved adopted brother for the sake of his cruel biological father, murders a number of beloved Stark family retainers when he captures their undefended castle, and seemingly dies having made poor leadership choices and having managed to inspire no loyalty.
Martin leaves Theon to an uncertain fate for the next two novels before bringing him back in A Dance With Dragons as the mutilated, traumatized manservant/pet of the sadistic Ramsay Bolton. At no point does Martin offer much in the way of an explanation for Theon’s previous behavior. His emotional abuse of his sex partners, betrayal of his family and friends, narcissism, and cowardice are all left intact. And this leaves the viewer with a thorny question: what does it take to redeem a thoroughly terrible person?
The TV series, with its necessary edits and need for visual storytelling, largely paints Theon’s redemption as the result of outsized physical torment. While the Theon of Martin’s novel is far more disfigured than Alfie Allen’s portrayal, the vast majority of Theon’s physical suffering is presented as nightmarish, half-remembered glimpses of captivity, all the more upsetting for their lack of specificity. When the show does attempt to give Theon a redemptive arc, it lays the groundwork somewhat crudely, having him soliloquize, early on in his captivity, “My real father lost his head at King’s Landing. I made a choice, and I chose wrong. And now I’ve burned everything down.”  From there on out, the Theon of the show is given carte blanche to redeem himself by rescuing members of the Stark family, supporting his sister and, improbably, by beating up an Ironborn sailor who challenges his authority.
By contrast, A Dance With Dragons takes a much more roundabout and, in my opinion, more convincing route to building empathy toward the wayward Greyjoy scion; Martin puts Theon in the exact same position as the reader. Much of Theon’s plot in that novel involves a return to Winterfell, the Stark family castle which has been sitting abandoned and in ruins since the end of the second book. Theon is the only Stark-adjacent character present during these proceedings. As the ruined castle is filled with strange faces and new characters come to celebrate Ramsay’s wedding, Theon is the only character that can compare the Winterfell-that-was with his current surroundings. In Theon’s assessment, “Winterfell was full of ghosts.”  That is likely the reader’s assessment as well, and Theon is made into a surrogate for the reader, bearing witness to and unable to alter the troubling misuse of a once-beloved space. Even in cases where Martin makes no apologies or excuse for his characters’ past behavior, he manages to force his readers into feeling empathy. The most vengeful readers of ASoIaF might have been cheering for Theon’s mutilation, but it is much harder to justify once they see him, and see through him, as their surrogate.
While the TV show has been forced by necessity to take an axe to many parts of Martin’s epic, impossible-to-completely-faithfully-adapt yarn, it has also, by virtue of its ability to explore the private lives of non-narrator characters, demonstrated its dedication to the same ever-widening gyre of empathy—deepening and expanding upon the foundation that Martin laid. Nowhere is this clearer than in the case of Cersei Lannister. Martin did eventually give us access to Cersei’s thoughts in his fourth entry in the series, A Feast for Crows, but the show has been dedicated to making the case for her complexity from the very start. In season one, episode five, Cersei and her husband, Robert Baratheon, two of the show’s more stubborn and intense characters, break into a surprising, vulnerable fit of laughter when the latter asks what holds the realm together and the former replies, “our marriage.”
Just after that, Cersei reveals that she had feelings for her husband even after a series of miscarriages drove a political wedge between them and ends by asking, “Was it ever possible for us? Was there ever a time? Ever a moment [to be happy with one another]?” When Robert tells her that there wasn’t, she looks sadly into her wine glass and answers her husband’s query about whether the knowledge makes her feel better or worse by retreating back behind her icy glare and saying, “It doesn’t make me feel anything.”
In addition to being one of the most stunning, devastating scenes of the season, it confirms the truth of Cersei’s miscarriages, which she had previously brought up to Catelyn Stark (after having been complicit in making the rival matriarch’s son a paraplegic). It retroactively lends real complexity to that earlier scene: Cersei, even at her most ruthless, in covering up her brother’s attempted murder of a child is still able to empathize with that same child’s grief-stricken mother.
The Cersei of Martin’s novels is often identified by her motherhood. She is, prior to being made a narrator, often paired and contrasted with Catelyn Stark, a dark reflection of Catelyn’s fierce, relentless love for her children. Where Catelyn (before her death and resurrection, the latter of which, tellingly, does not occur on the TV show) is most often defensively attempting to protect her children, organizing rescue missions for her daughters, trying to safeguard her sons with marriage-based alliances, Cersei is the aggressor, allowing Bran to be silenced lest his witnessing of her incestuous relationship with Jaime call her own children’s legitimacy into question. She also ruthlessly kills off her dead husband’s bastard children in order to grant legitimacy to her own; an act that the show rewrites to be the explicit order of her son, Joffrey—sparing her character any further dabbling in infanticide.
By contrast, the show expands Cersei’s role from “mother” to “woman.” She ends up speaking, not just for the impossibility of being a laudable mother in a patrilineal world, but for the impossibility of being a woman with any self-determination in a patriarchal rape culture. In another moment invented for the show, Oberyn Martell, one of Westeros’s few male, woke feminists, assures Cersei that “We don’t hurt little girls in [his kingdom of] Dorne.”
She responds with a line that’s produced endless memes and feverish hot takes across the internet: “Everywhere in the world they hurt little girls.” This line may as well serve as a mantra for many of the show’s detractors who, rightly, point out the series’ preoccupation with the objectifying male gaze in its focus and presentation of female nudity as well as its propensity to use graphic rape as a transformational plot point for its male characters. But, from another perspective, it could be argued that this is also the show undercutting the male power fantasy that a viewer might mistake for the central point. And the show gives this line to Cersei—a character who spends much of her narrative arc ordering acts of repellant cruelty and steadily alienating her allies.
The show even goes so far as to make a meta point about the power of expanding empathy in the show’s sixth season, where troubled teen Arya Stark—who nightly whispers a prayer that includes a call for Cersei’s death—is forced to reckon with her own capacity for empathy when she watches a play that dramatizes the death of Cersei’s eldest son. This mirrors a pre-released chapter from Martin’s as-yet-unpublished The Winds of Winter. The difference seems to be that, in Martin’s prose, the content of the play is never explicitly stated, and hinted at only as a winking reference to careful readers, whereas the show’s handling of the material clearly marks Arya’s viewing as a powerful moment of identification that triggers her own traumatic memories of watching helplessly as her father was killed.
It is a stunning achievement, both in terms of the show and in the novels, that so much empathy can be generated alongside events that regularly feature acts of murder, rape, torture, and cruelty. If we are to take the moral philosophy of Richard Rorty to heart, it is the last of these that presents the most difficult hurdle in Martin’s ongoing project. Rorty famously believed that the complexities of moral philosophy could be more or less predicated on the notion that to act morally was to act without intentional cruelty.  Clearly, the worlds of ASoIaF and GoT do not operate on this most basic of principles. So how do we assess Martin’s view of who we can and cannot have empathy for?
It is worth noting that Martin’s world contains a large number of what we laypeople might diagnose as sociopaths. From the mad kings Aerys II Targaryen and Joffrey Baratheon, who are given unfortunate influence because of their position, to those who have risen high because of their lack of empathy like Ser Gregor “The Mountain” Clegane and Vargo Hoat (called “Locke” in the TV series), to those who have been so systematically poorly educated, abused, or smothered by their upbringing that they never had the chance to develop a sense of empathy like Ramsay Bolton and Robert Arryn (Robin Arryn in the TV series), the list of characters who have tenuous to non-existent relationships with basic empathy abound. It is striking that, in the case of most of these characters, Martin and the showrunners have been clear in their commitment to providing us with reasons for their irredeemability. We may not empathize (or even sympathize) with Ramsay Bolton… but we are told that his overwhelming cruelty is the partial product of his father’s attempts to make him so by dangling the legitimization of his bastardy over his head, forcing us to consider him as a sort of Jon Snow gone horribly wrong. Similarly, if we can’t precisely muster any sorrow for the death of Joffrey, we do grieve for his mourning parents. The show especially offers us a moment of terrible internal conflict when he chokes, crying, in his mother’s arms in an intense close-up, daring viewers to not feel at least some quiet pang of pity. Martin’s sociopaths are almost always portrayed as forces of nature rather than personalities. They are storms of violence that descend upon hapless characters, and we are rarely given moments of moustache-twirling clarity where we both understand that they are monstrous and simultaneously understand that they have free agency and forethought in their actions.
If Martin has a cardinal rule about where our empathy cannot follow, it does not lie with those capable of cruelty. Rather it lies with those who, in a clear-thinking way, use the cruelty of others to achieve their ends. Roose Bolton, Ramsay’s father, is one of the few truly, uncomplicatedly irredeemable characters in the series, and his villainy stems entirely from his willingness to use his son as a weapon of terror against his enemies. Similarly, while Martin and, especially, the show’s portrayal by Charles Dance, are willing to extend some humanity to ruthless patriarch Tywin Lannister, his primary role as villain is often explicitly tied to his tactical decision to deploy his “mad dogs,” monstrous bannermen and mercenaries, to keep others in line.
Even in cases where the show and books diverge, the moral line remains the same. The show’s version of Littlefinger, played with finger-tenting, melodramatic glee by Aidan Gillen, is far less subtle and somewhat less sympathetic than his book counterpart. The show gives Littlefinger his bravura moment to revel in villainy in a season three episode where he proclaims, “Chaos isn’t a pit. Chaos is a ladder. […] Only the ladder is real. The climb is all there is.”  This speech is given over a montage of images that reveal, among other things, how he used Joffrey’s fetish for violence to dispose of sex-worker-turned-spy, Ros, foiling his rival’s attempts to gain influence in the court. The principle remains the same: the most unforgivable sin is the knowing and calculated exploitation of someone else’s cruelty.
The narrative even goes so far as to suggest (at least in the lore of the show) that the ultimate antagonist, the undead Night King, is a press-ganged living weapon created, in desperation, by the environmental stewardship-minded Children of the Forest. The big bad being nothing more than the tragically overclocked remnant of an extinct race’s last-ditch effort to save humanity from itself feels like the most George R.R. Martin-ish of plot points. The Night King must be destroyed, but he truly can’t help himself.
In looking at the almost comically long list of Martin’s characters, particularly those we are invited to connect with, it is almost more surprising that we do not question our empathy for some of the “heroic” figures more regularly, given the morally gray scenarios, compromises, and behaviors that Martin writes for them. I have gone this far speaking mostly about characters that generally play a more villainous role. We have not even touched on fan favorites like Tyrion Lannister, who murders his former lover in a fit of rage at her betrayal, or Jon Snow, whose loyalty to the Night’s Watch involves his complicity in luring his lover south of the Wall where she is killed by his compatriots, or Arya Stark, who—especially in the show—stares out from an expressionless mask, killing dozens without question, or Daenerys Targaryen, the ostensible, projected winner of the titular game, who regularly tortures her enemies then burns them alive all while deputizing violent strangers and avaricious mercenaries to oversee the cities she has liberated. The world of Game of Thrones offers so many characters, from so many different backgrounds, for readers to feel sympathy for, live vicariously through, and otherwise identify with that the list above is one comprised of characters we mostly don’t even argue over.
As we anticipate the final season later this month, it is worth understanding that the show is one that has carefully taken inspiration from its source material to create impossible situations where no resolution can feel uncomplicatedly triumphant. Every moment of satisfying revenge or conquest is also potentially a moment of complete devastation for a character we feel a great deal of empathy for. With the cast whittled down to a respectable number, almost none of whom can be written off as irredeemably bad, I find myself watching with a kind of dread for any possible outcome. Any ascension to Martin’s most uncomfortable of chairs necessitates the loss—likely the violent and cruel loss—of characters we have spent nine years (or, in some cases, twenty-three years) coming to love.

Footnotes

1: Martin, George. A Game of Thrones. Bantam paperback edition, 1997, p. 244.
2: “And Now His Watch Is Ended.” Game of Thrones, created by David Benioff and DB Weiss, performance by Alfie Allen, season 3, episode 4, Bighead Littlehead Productions and HBO, 2013.
3: Martin, George. A Dance With Dragons. Bantam mass market edition, 2013, p. 598.
4: “The Wolf and the Lion.” Game of Thrones, created by David Benioff and DB Weiss, performance by Lena Heady and Mark Addy, season 1, episode 5, Bighead Littlehead Productions and HBO, 2011.
5: “First of His Name.” Game of Thrones, created by David Benioff and DB Weiss, performance by Lena Heady and Pedro Pascal, season 4, episode 5, Bighead Littlehead Productions and HBO, 2014.
6: Rorty, Richard. Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.
7: “The Climb.” Game of Thrones, created by David Benioff and DB Weiss, performance by Alfie Allen, season 3, episode 6, Bighead Littlehead Productions and HBO, 2013.

Saturday, March 23, 2019

From the Archives: In the Game of Adaptation, You Win or You Die

The following is a repost of an article I wrote for Watchers on the Wall that was originally published on September 9, 2017:

Being a fan of both Game of Thrones and the A Song of Ice and Fire novels it’s based on can be a process of constant equivocation. On the one hand, the books are as close as I have to a sacred text (and the old adage that “the book is better than the movie” doesn’t particularly need more defending). On the other, the process of adaptation is incredibly difficult and no book really gives a road map for how it should translate to screen. I tend to be an apologist for the show—or at least, I want to figure out why a change was made, especially when it rankles me.
At the end of the penultimate season, it’s clear the show is making a dash for the endgame, tidying up storylines, collapsing its cast, and generally getting ready for a finale. The books have been largely left behind, both because the showrunners have ground through all the currently available plot and because the ripple effect of minor changes now places most characters on completely different tracks than their literary counterparts.
My main interest here is to look at the ways in which the process of adaptation the books has necessarily altered the story and trying to find places where those deviations both work brilliantly and fall short. Needless to say, my ideal Game of Thrones might have taken some different paths, but I’m every bit as interested in being pleasantly surprised by the showrunners’ choices as I am in being disappointed by their literary calumny.
What follows below is a look at four different issues that plague the process of going from page to screen, and some unexpected winners and losers of coping with the process. It is by no means a complete assessment of that process, but it includes some of what I consider to be the most illustrative examples, as well as some personal favorite talking points.
Aging Child Actors
Winner: Sansa Stark / Loser: Arya Stark
Winner: The Baratheons / Loser: The Martells
Winners: Davos Seaworth and Tormund Giantsbane / Loser: Jaime Lannister
Winner: Olenna Tyrell / Loser: Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish
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The show has benefited a lot from Nina Gold’s spectacular casting abilities and nowhere is that clearer than with her child actors, most of whom have been stand-outs even among the already luminary cast. One problem with casting child actors (aside from the inability to know whether or not they will grow into talented adults) is the constant aging process that runs faster than seasons can keep up.
The timeline of Game of Thrones is fairly vague and the books they are based on cover about two-and-a-half to three years from the equivalent start of Season 1 to the end of Season 5. The fact that Sophie Turner, originally twelve when the pilot was filmed, turned eighteen on the show by the time her book equivalent was barely thirteen might have presented a problem for the showrunners. Instead, Sansa Stark has become one of the most compelling characters in the series, largely by virtue of her character being allowed to have adult responsibilities, plotlines, and triumphs.
The Sansa of the novels is painted almost identically to the Sansa of the show, but, being thirteen, there is very little chance for her to have agency in a world that largely only allows sexually mature women to have any modicum of power. Having an older Sansa both wed Ramsay Bolton and then take power as the Lady of Winterfell only makes sense for a character who is reasonably within the age of majority (and would have caused even more of a furor among show-watchers, given the already uncomfortable depiction of violent rape in that plotline). Instead, her rise from perpetual political pawn to revenge-taking, justice-minded badass has been one of the show’s great triumphs at a time when book-readers still have only gotten to see Sansa as a character being groomed for political action later.
By the same token, Arya has suffered quite a bit in that transition. Maisie Williams does an excellent job, but, in aging her up to keep pace with the actor that portrays her, Arya has lost a lot of what makes her character compelling in the novels.
Arya goes from eight to ten in the novels thus far, and George R.R. Martin walks right up to the line of irredeemability with her. Always on the run or in the custody of some of the more terrible monsters in Westeros, Arya is both burgeoning, revenge-minded sociopath, and little girl who brings child logic to her quest. The novels’ version of her infamous hit list highlights her childish sensibilities as it includes both monstrous personages (like the Mountain and Meryn Trant) and trivial ones (like her petty boss at Harrenhal). Her plotline in Season 7 put this mismatch front and center as her arguments with Sansa increasingly relied on the stunted, overly simplistic braggadocio that would have sounded sad and broken coming from a ten-year-old, and incomprehensible in the mouth of a twenty-year-old. Arya seems unbelievably na├»ve in the world of a show, which is a strange thing to say about an adult, orphaned assassin with Tywin Lannister for a one-time tutor.
No Strict Point of View
Martin’s novels are told in tight third-person that rotates between set narrators. Up until the fourth book, these narrators have more-or-less an equal share of chapters dedicated to them and Martin is strict about leaving anything they wouldn’t witness off the page. This occasionally results in major events being rumored rather than on the page (example: the Battle of the Green Fork) and a very limited perspective when it comes to understanding the internal thoughts of the non-POV characters.
In the first season, the showrunners used their larger scope and ability to see things we couldn’t to great effect. Nearly all the TV critics I’ve read refer to the scene between Cersei and Robert as one of the best in the series, and it works because the writers can explore the previously opaque minds and motivations of those two characters, and lend them some pathos not seen in the novels.
Nowhere does this hit home better than with the exploration of the Baratheons. One need only look to all the “Stannis the Mannis” memes out there to see that a perennially hated character from the novels came to life on the show once we had the ability to see him on his own terms. The one true King of Westeros and his family are rather flat in the novels, coming off as inflexible (Stannis), fanatically religious (Selyse), and tragically sad (Shireen). By giving us many scenes the novels couldn’t, Stannis evolved into a complicated portrait of a tired grammar savant watching his world crumble while clinging to the doomed convictions that validated him.
Likewise, Shireen (who—seriously—is only ever described as sad and ugly in the books) briefly became the heart of the show, almost (but not quite) managing to soften her hard-edged father. Even Selyse (by far the least developed of the trio) was given a more three-dimensional treatment: pining over the corpses of her dead sons, navigating the jealousy she felt for her husband’s lover when it clashed with her faith, and, ultimately, being overwhelmed by her unthinking complicity in the needless death of her daughter.
This ability to go anywhere and see anything also destroyed House Martell in the HBO adaptation. David Benioff and D.B. Weiss severely altered the Martell plotline for the show, in large part because the novels treat it as a labyrinthine maze of misconceptions that would be difficult to play out on screen.
While we never get Arianne, the central character of the novel’s Dornish storyline on the show, we do get a little bit of her father, Doran. The High Lord of House Martell is presented (identically in the show and books) as a weak-willed, passive, disabled old man who cannot be bothered to exact any semblance of revenge on the family that murdered his brother, sister, niece and nephew. The difference between the two versions is the shocking twist that the novel version of Doran is actually a subtle schemer who has been playing at weakness for decades to fool his enemies into complacency. Nearly all of this plays out through Arianne’s closely-held point of view that prevents the reader from understanding the intricacies of Doran’s plot until it’s been set in motion.
This would read as a kind of cheat on screen. Movie and television audiences typically don’t go in for stunning reversals that play upon the position of the camera and unreliability of the narrator, and the showrunners turned away from it in favor of keeping Doran’s ambitions in line with his outward demeanor (an easy but boring choice) and transmuting Arianne’s quest for justice and recognition into Ellaria’s desire for revenge. Mostly, the Martells became a kind of punching bag for various Lannisters and, with the exception of Indira Varma’s talents (still somewhat wasted), relegated them to the dust heap of the show’s gigantic cast.
Characters Robbed of Purpose
The A Song of Ice and Fire novels are masterfully plotted with a great number of moving parts and a dozen or so narrators being moved into position to witness specific events. As discussed in the above point, the show took great advantage of television’s abhorrence of non-omniscient point-of-view, and several characters whose primary purpose in the novels is to be at a certain place at a certain time found themselves with considerably less to do.
This proved to be an unexpected boon to both Liam Cunningham’s Davos Seaworth and Kristofer Hivju’s Tormund Giantsbane. Davos is a narrator in the novels and plenty interesting, but he primarily exists to give the reader a window into Stannis Baratheon’s court. Freed from the need to bear witness to the false prophet of the Lord of Light, Davos has had very little to do from a mechanical standpoint for the last two seasons, but he remains the warm, plain-spoken heart of the show, all the more useful to the showrunners because he has nothing but free time plot-wise.
By a similar token, everyone’s favorite Ginger, Tormund Giantsbane, has had very little to do since Season 4 (other than remind people that wildlings exist). Nearly every plot point involving him also involved one or two other main characters and nearly all of his presence since Season 5 has been as comic relief. That said, he is one of the most entertaining characters on the show, especially in his role as unwelcome suitor to Brienne of Tarth. The Tormund of the novels, though similarly characterized, plays a small, specific role as one of the few wildlings who refuses to join Stannis’s army south of the Wall. The showrunners combined the roles several other wildling chieftains in order to keep Hivju front and center.
The butterfly effect of Benioff and Weiss’ slightly laxer plotting has, however, resulted in some characters whose presence feels tacked on as a result of their relative lack of plot. No one is a bigger victim of this than Jaime Lannister who, for the first three seasons of the show (and the whole of the third book) has one of the most fascinating redemption arcs of, frankly, any character on television. The fourth novel in the series gave Jaime a quieter, more introspective plot where he serves as a window onto the devastation in the Riverlands and ruminates about his agency now that he has been robbed of his sword hand. It’s compelling stuff, but that narrative also would have been extremely difficult to film since the vast majority of it either has Jaime acting as a passive cipher, or brooding silently while he reflects.
Without that narrative, Jaime has spent Seasons 4 through 7 bouncing around Westeros, losing and regaining faith in his sister and generally having his storyline reset with each new season. With this penultimate season finale, it is beginning to feel like Jaime is finally done with Cersei (thereby giving him the ability to continue his redemption story with Brienne) but it may be too late. Jaime’s arc could never advance past the point where a return to his narrative start point was more than a scene or two away and he has suffered immensely. He may have had one of the show’s most compelling narratives about wrestling with contradictory vows and attempting to pinpoint what makes a man honorable, but it is doubtful the show can land it, given those four years of equivocating that separate this latest iteration of Jaime from his last purposive moment.

Casting Amazing Actors
As stated above, Nina Gold has an amazing talent for bringing venerated actors into the show. One might think that this can only be an advantage when adapting a series of beloved books, but there are problems with it when it requires a character to be unduly prominent in order to be worthy of the person playing them.
Olenna Tyrell is a memorable but minor character in Martin’s novels. She comes for the wedding, poisons Joffrey and leaves for Highgarden once her granddaughter Margaery’s marriage to Tommen is secure. The show had the great fortune of casting iconic British actor, former Bond Girl, and The Great Muppet Caper alumna Diana Rigg in the role.
The show engaged in some of its trademark travel time magic to bring Rigg back to the fore in Seasons 5, 6 and 7, oftentimes for only a few scenes. Game of Thrones was richer for her presence and deviated significantly from the books in order to put Rigg’s acid charms on display as much as possible. Her final speech has been so thoroughly memed and re-memed that it has earned a place as one of the great moments of Game of Thrones, a place that is normally reserved for moments devised by George R. R. Martin.
Another casualty of season 7, Littlefinger was an early fan favorite and the casting of The Wire alum, Aiden Gillen, both exalted and, ultimately, defanged the character. Gillen was touted in early seasons as a bravura actor and scenes were written for him to be able to chew the scenery with malicious glee.
This also presented a crisis for the character. In the novels, though his plot arc remains essentially unchanged, Littlefinger is a presented as a character whose chief advantage is his obsequiousness. He is a friendly, glad-handing, bearer of good news who escapes notice by virtue of his avowed lack of ambition.
Compare this to the show’s Littlefinger who, a Season 1 Catelyn Stark is quick to point out, “nobody likes.” Gillen’s iconic Season 1 scene where he lays out his diabolical plot to overturn Westeros’ culture of toxic masculinity (and replace it with a different kind of toxic masculinity) while Ros and Armeca touch one another on his command was the kind of bravura moment that would be tempting to a wide variety of actors. The show doubled-down on this in season three with his oft-quoted “chaos is a ladder” speech. Both are examples of scenes written to highlight the considerable talents of an actor at the cost of a believable character.
Later seasons saw Littlefinger continuing to crow his lack of trustworthiness to anyone who would listen, raising the ever-important question: why does anyone listen to him? His final plot, to drive a wedge between the Stark sisters, mostly baffled viewers who could not fathom that a man so nakedly ambitious and false would ever get the better of either Arya or Sansa. The showrunners continually gave Gillen showcases for his moustache twirling, but it undermined the idea that anyone would take his advice seriously. Ultimately, the Littlefinger of the novels would have to be played by someone who registered as the most minor and banal of recurring characters—a tough sell for a casting director trying to fill a pivotal, if slow-moving role.
These feel like some of the most pertinent examples of how Game of Thrones managed to both bungle and elevate its source material. I think there’s a lot to be said for the complexity of the process especially given the hundreds of characters, dozens of locations, and still unplotted nature of the last two novels.
(Don’t get me started on Lady Stoneheart, though.)
The original post can be found here

From the Archives: The Trump Within: Mental Illness, Activism, and Self-Care

The following is a repost from an article I put out on Medium on August 12, 2017:
It started sometime during the first presidential debate. I stopped merely being horrified by the content of Trump’s speeches, responses and general bloviating, and started being horrified by their form. I was proctoring an exam that evening, so I could only see the delayed, phonetic transcription of Trump and Clinton’s inability to share the same reality, but the faux-mogul’s debate style, which many news sources accurately described as “unhinged,” still came through.
In the second debate, far from the uplifting schadenfreude I had come to expect from seeing intelligent, nuanced politicians tear down frothing monsters, I was treated to the stomach churning sight of an ambulatory Trump doing his best impression of an intractable ghoul: lurking just behind the former Secretary of State and threatening, with TV-serial killer glee, to have her investigated and imprisoned.
In the third debate, I had a moment of empathy with him that was far more distressing than the previous revulsion.
This requires some explanation. I suffer from some moderate mental illnesses. I have been diagnosed with both OCD and Rejection-Sensitive Dysphoria (a disorder that sounds more relatable than it is). This has had a myriad of deleterious effects on my life but the most notable — my psyche’s wretched key to all mythologies — has been a pronounced inability to comfortably inhabit my own opinions and feelings.
I have opinions and feelings, of course. They are numerous and powerful and often feel overwhelming. But, more often than not, I find myself unable to let them exist unmolested. For each moment of thoughtful clarity are three of uneasy doubt.
If I say to a friend, for example, that I love the Lord of the Rings movies more than anything in the world and they reply that they think they’re overrated, a voice that I cannot remember not having clears its throat informs me that, just maybe, my opinion is invalidated by my friend’s. It tells me that this difference between us means that one of us is wrong and, because I am a terrible human being who has never experienced a valid feeling or opinion, the wrong one is probably me.
I then have two options. I can either suppress my own feelings and admit that my friend is correct and that my love for those films is childish and stupid or I can double down on my opinion and argue, mercilessly, that my friend is incorrect and my feelings are the valid ones. I can kowtow to that pernicious voice’s whispers, or I can attack it head on by lambasting its unwitting surrogate.
Thirty four years into this cycle (or however long since the combination of brain chemistry and ill-timed trauma created the inciting incident for this pattern), I have become a person with an elemental fear of conflict. I avoid people whose opinions differ greatly from mine. I rarely contradict people when they voice criticism for statements I have made. I have (mostly) private meltdowns when, say, a Facebook status of mine becomes a flashpoint for controversy among my friends.
None of this is healthy. I should clarify that, when I am letting a subject go or admitting that someone else may have a point, I am rarely “agreeing to disagree.” I am privately falling apart, getting filled with resentment, and generally trying to justify my anger, whether it’s aimed at the person I’m debating or at myself, for not holding a more valid opinion. When I try to build consensus, it is almost never motivated by a belief in the fundamental value of empathy; rather, it is the result of a gut-churning terror of and bedrock conviction that I will be on the wrong side of everything and therefore be left out in the cold, a pariah who couldn’t figure out how to just think and feel like everyone else.
Needless to say, this has played havoc with my activism. In this age of overt bigotry, vindictive delight in oppression, and a culture war where intolerance becomes a political virtue, I find myself mostly unable to directly engage with self-identified conservatives or right-leaning folk, in general. In place of this, I find that much of my deepest anger is reserved for fellow progressives whose righteous rage, black and white thinking, and ultimatums always end up feeling (mostly unjustly) like a personal attack.
I understand and condemn the fundamentally thin-skinned chauvinism of men who who cry “not all men” or whites who scream that “all lives matter.” But I also understand the inclination to do so. When your sense of self is fragile, it becomes easy to conflate your personal privilege with immorality. You start believing that, so long as you benefit from the color of your skin, the shape of your genitals, or the security of your bank account, you can never truly be a good person and the beleaguered, self-abused, auto-gaslit tatters of your dignity and self-preservation start wanting to scream out that you too are worthy of love, even though no one ever said you weren’t.
And that brings me back to Trump on the night of the third debate. When Clinton said that Putin “would rather have a puppet as President,” Trump — ever the schoolyard bully, ever the (I suspect) rejection-sensitive dysphoric — replied “no puppet. No puppet. You’re the puppet!” It was funny. Almost. It was shocking and petty and vain and inarticulate and unworthy of any serious political discourse. I laughed. My partner laughed. I posted about it on Facebook. Everyone I knew agreed it was the height of ridiculousness.
And yet, some part of me felt harrowed by that response. Trump engenders disgust and loathing and incredulity in me, but I wanted to offer him kindness in that moment. It was not because he was correct in his assertion but because I saw him recognize just how fragile he was and try, ineptly and painfully, to prove his worth not to Clinton or to Chris Wallace or to America but to himself.
Now, I recognize that my struggles with mental illness have not had the nation-threatening effect that Trump’s have. I did not build a psychic wall around the glass and paper totem of my sense of self, and let my insecurity curdle into poisonous narcissism. But I am also not convinced that I chose not to do these things. I find myself ruminating on my life and wondering: if, by an accident of circumstance, fear hadn’t ruled my childhood would I be one of those MRA trolls demanding sex from women in exchange for basic decency? Had I been raised by affluent white parents in a less diverse community, might I be one of those bastards who today in Charlottesville are chanting “you will not replace us” in a desperate bid to shut up the voices in their heads that claim they are worthy of replacement? Is my mental illness, for all it has done to make my life miserable, the source of my progressivism and empathy?
That line of thought gets difficult fast. It simultaneously lacks a clear answer and threatens to become an ontological tautology that gets increasingly abstract, meaningless, and privileged, the longer it turns over in my head. Nevertheless, I find it useful, in short, deliberate bursts, for reminding myself that the miasma of my self-doubt can help me connect with others as well as keep me from them. Empathizing with Trump and his supporters need not be a sign of sympathizing with them. Recognizing fragility in others can help ground the idea that your own is something that exists primarily within yourself.
On days like today, when the suffering of others is at its most stark and obvious, it is painfully easy to go down the rabbit hole of punishing oneself for practicing self-care. The same voice that demands one do more than buy a bumper sticker or like a friend’s Facebook status can, with alarming facility, be just as sated by hating oneself for inaction as by loving oneself for the inverse.
On days like today, I can more easily remind myself that the internal monologue that delights in calling attention to my fragility and ineptitude has not metastasized into the credo that says “the only true happiness comes from eliminating disagreement.” I can look at the inner Trump — the broken bully that demands the world accommodate him so he does not have to accommodate himself — and feel the smallest measure of relief in my own discomfort.
The original post can be found here

Word of the Day #1

From a post I made on Facebook on March 19th 2019


My word of the day is definitely “glister.” Derived from the Middle English “glistren”—also the probable root for “glitter”—it means more or less the same thing as its cognate: to sparkle or give off light. It’s most famous use is probably in Merchant of Venice where, Smashmouth lyrics notwithstanding, the famous line is “all that glisters is not gold.”
I think I like it because it sounds so much like a portmanteau of “glitter” and “blister.” It has always implied a malign sort of festering to me. Pebbles in a stream may glitter. The overgrown gilded encrustation of Rococo interior design definitely glisters. Perhaps it is also the association with Shakespeare, but I cannot imagine using it for anything other than a warm, yellow-orange sort of luminescence—gold glisters but silver cannot. Those colors feel sordid to me. They are not the clean, sparkling whites of moonlight or bone. They are not deeply mysterious jewel tones of an emerald or a ruby. They are the the sparkle of human folly, of corrupt light, of grimy avarice—the firelight glow that tells you a house may not be as empty as you originally thought. Gold glisters with a sparkling, luminous version of yellowing parchment, or tea-stained teeth, or jaundiced flesh. To glister is to stand out in all the wrong ways.

Friday, July 11, 2014

The Somnambulist's Diary VII

In my dream, there is a prologue. In it I am back in high school. I have my PhD, but I am back there all the same, in a classroom full of seniors, being taught by an English instructor I had who I never got along with. I am in his office, asking if the presentation I am supposed to give is powerpoint. I am terrible at powerpoint and afraid that, despite having good information, I will be graded down for being unfamiliar with the tech. He says that I will be fine but yes, powerpoint is necessary. The day of th presentation, I begin to narrate my project: a comparison of Jane Eyre to other Bronte sisters' novels, proving that Charlotte's is not, in fact, Gothic. As the presentation begins I am swept into a Gothic story, ostensibly Jane Eyre, though it bears no resemblance to the novel.

That was the prologue. My dream takes place within this Gothic world. I am simultaneously viewing it as a novel I am writing about, a film adaptation of the novel, and a lived experience, as I am also inside the world described.

It is a swampy valley whose high hills border the sea: a rocky coastline covered in shattered bridges and old causeways. I can't tell what time period it is, part of it feels like early Renaissance Italy, another like Victorian England, and yet another seems like something out of a hitchcock film: the late 50's or early 60's.

I am arriving with a small party of friends for a vacation at the manor of the man who owns the valley. He is perhaps an analogue for Rochester, though the part of me observing this as a film thinks he's been cast far too old and weaselly. The master of the house reminds me of no one so much as Roddy McDowall. As he approaches, I see that he is strapped into something halfway between ornate armor and a palanquin, elaborately enameled wings on his shoulders. The faceplate of his helmet depicts a cherub, though it only covers him down to the lips, so that I can see them move, and the gray whiskers on his chin. It looks as though the cherub is speaking through a hole in his neck.

As he reaches us, the servant unstrap him from the palanquin, more cage-like than anything, and he greets us. I see him linger on one woman in our party. She is dark haired and shy and I can tell he intends to marry her, perhaps against her will. We enter the manor, he slinking behind us, dressed in the black, ascetic coat and collar of an Anglican priest beneath his armor.

We spend the next few days exploring the grounds, and find ourselves on a shattered bit of railroad tracks, extending over a rocky gorge, that sunders the coastline. One of our party, a woman who looks as though she stepped out of a Hitchcock movie--frosty and blonde and unreadable--says that she can make the jump to the other side. She attempts and misses and falls onto a spongy patch of sand below. I watch her fall, disinterested. She is splayed out as though dead, a fact we confirm when we reach the shore. A doctor in our party says it is unlikely the fall killed her. We find a bite mark on her neck, something bit her, something poisonous.

On the return to the manor--now a suburban home where nothing feels quite finished: furniture un-varnished, carpet not yet cut properly--we see our host, leering at the brunette. Clearly we have interrupted him in his seduction. He tells us that what bit our friend was one of the eels that lives near the manor. He says they are quite dangerous and we should stay away from them. We ask if they live in any particular pool and he gestures around. Everywhere is a pool, the whole manor sits in a swamp. The eels are already in charge.

From there the dream becomes more of a horror show. I drop the levels of distance as an observer and presenter. The eels begin to worm their way in through all the windows, up through the pipes. They are huge, as long as a man, and nearly as wide. They have great, billowing mouths, like basking sharks, and spiked pedipalps on the sides of their mouths, like spiders. We begin to see them, over the net few days, swallowing guests whole, using their pedipalps to ease them down their gullets. People burst into rooms carrying struggling eels as big as they are and tossing them out windows. It would be comical if it weren't so grotesque.

The last stand is up in the attic of the manor. Those of us left are fending off eels at all turns and tossing them down below, onto a suburban street with a portable basketball hoop. Others beat them with baseball bats once they've hit. It's a scene of utter carnage, but I am too caught up in my fear and hatred of the eels to notice.

I wake up.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Somnambulist's Diary #7

This was my dream a week ago.

I am with a friend of mine and a girl I went on a couple of dates with a couple of years ago at the latter's family cabin in the pacific Northwest. It is more than a cabin--rather a two story home in the middle of a clearing in the pine forest, strangely dry for this part of the country.

We are tasked with making it to the coast where they have another cabin and her family is making dinner. So we pack up some supplies in a backpack that I wear and begin hiking into the forest. There is mist here, especially along the highway. We try hitch-hiking a few times but the only cars are dilapidated pick-up trucks. They pass us after leering at the two women.

Eventually it becomes clear that there is a bear following us. It is a huge grizzle bear which starts by shimmying down a pine tree, moving with such lithe and quiet motions that we do not notice it at first. We try to not betray our fear, moving calmly and quickly forward, trying not to glance behind at the bear stalking us through the mist and the trees.

We are just about to break into a run, thereby alerting the bear to our presence when we see a school up ahead. We make a break for it, flying into the front doors as we hear the bear's roar. And I am separated from my companions. I am running as fast as I can. There are  small children, 6 or 7 in the halls and in my mad scramble I am pushing them out of the way. I can hear the bear just behind me, his claws scratching the the child.

I smash through some doors into the gym. There is some kind of parent teacher conference going on. One woman at a podium is talking about the need for better security at the school. No one notices me as I climb into the bleachers. The backs of my thighs have been raked by the bears claws. My backpack has been torn open and there is candy inside: our supplies.

It's a melange of over-sized lollipops, halloween candy, pocky. I realize the horrible truth. The bear was following me. He was following the candy in my backpack and I led him into this school where children will be mauled. I begin to stuff the candy into my mouth, trying to destroy the evidence of my mistake. I am sobbing as I do so, knowing it will be ineffective.

At that moment a child comes into the gymnasium. He is bloody from head to toe, holding in his organs with one hand at his midsection. Bits of his skull are visible underneath huge raking wounds from the bear's claws. He shouts, almost like a soliloquy that his friend was killed and eaten, that he has seen horrors. That it's his tenth birthday and that none of this should have happened today.

I wake up.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Somnambulist's Diary #6

In my dream I am with a woman I intend to seduce away from her boyfriend. Or else she intends to seduce me in spite of her boyfriend. The intentionality is somewhat blurred. She lives in Glendale, which, in my dream is across some great expanse of sparsely populated outskirts and greenery. It is this peculiar shade of green I associate with the Pacific Northwest rather than with Los Angeles. It is certainly no version of Glendale I have ever been to.

We are walking back to my place which is actually my apartment in East Hollywood. I can see it in the distance, just across the river, the Los Feliz bridge small but visible as it abuts Griffith Park. As we make our way closer and closer, however, the distance keeps getting father and farther. Soon we are going through the back rooms of restaurants: shiny stainless steel cabinets gleam with menace. We are creeping over low wooden fences, or hugging the backs of abandoned buildings, overgrown by ivy.

We reach her place, which is not the destination. Her boyfriend could be there after all. And I realize that, no matter whose idea this was, it has soured in my mind. I wait at the bottom of the stairs in their townhouse, the floorplan feeling more familiar than I would like. It's quite a bit like some of the old apartments at UC Irvine graduate housing. I worry that it might in fact be one in particular and I step out onto the patio. I say we should go to my place, but what I really mean is I should leave. I need to leave.

She follows me, even though I am now walking briskly. We seem to be walking up some sort of highland meadow. A great fissure in the earth runs through it, making for a craggy drop into a deep crevasse. At the top of the headlands, there is a forest--perhaps merely a copse of trees. It is thin, mostly bare pines and aspens. She follows me into them and I can see her boyfriend walking near us. He has been following us since the townhouse and we are both aware that the other knows. She, however, doesn't show her cards, or maybe she is oblivious to the scene that is about to commence. As we walk deeper into the trees, the noonday light becomes oppressive through the dappling.

We see that there are burnt trees up ahead and she asks me what caused it. I begin to tell her a story. As I tell it I know it to be an old urban legend. There was an old race of people in these woods. Like faerie folk or elves and they made their home in the forest. As I narrate I can see the events unfolding. The fair folk lived in relative safety in the woods. Only these woods were high up in snow-capped mountains. It doesn't look anything like the Glendale/Santa Cruz/Pacific Northwest that I am currently moving through.

They found some primal power of fire. It is contained in a vaguely bluish chunk of stone and the flames burn dark, nearly black, rimmed with purple and crimson. It helped them light their torches and cook their game. But power fell into the hands of their King, a tyrant who wanted it for himself.

Back in the real world, she and I have reached a log cabin in the middle of the woods. Where the headlands of the chasm went, I have no idea. But I am sure I am not getting to my place anytime soon. The interior is a single room, devoid of furniture save a sink and a wooden table. Some pots and pans hang by a window.

As I think back on the story I am telling we get to a dark chapter. The faerie folk rose up against their king and blinded him for good measure. I can see the king, a sallow, broken, portly creature, blind now with no irises or pupils in his eyes, crouching down to the grass while the other elves debate what was to be done with him. The victory came too late, however. I can see beyond the summit where the council is taking place the rest of the forest is on fire, black smoke pouring into the blue skies.

The fair folk make the decision to leave their world and enter ours. A great purple light envelops the spit of land on which they are debating and it appears in the real world, causing the headland to split, and the burnt grove to appear.

Suddenly, as I realize that we are in the dwelling of one of these elusive creatures, the door bursts open. Standing in the glare from the noon light is the shade of the tyrant king. He is not the broken creature I saw in my vision. He is a smoking shadow in the shape of one of the creatures. His eyes are pits of purple and crimson fire and his mouth is lined with sharp, shadowy teeth. He rushes at us and we bolt from the house. It bursts into flames behind us. The fire is spreading from the forest. And I lose track of the woman I am with. Maybe she is with her boyfriend. I am running from the shadow, moving in daylight, trying to get back to my apartment but the path keeps extending out before me, elongating no matter how quickly I traverse it.

I wake up.