…And you absolutely need to watch it.
Critical Role is a show streaming on twitch every Thursday. A bunch of nerdy-ass voice actors roll dice and play Dungeons & Dragons – in the words of Dungeon Master Matthew Mercer, at least. It also just happens to be my current obsession, as I am in the fourth rewatch of it while also getting up at 4 AM every week to watch the newest episode as it is streamed. And sometimes even twice a week to catch the after show Talks Machina on Tuesdays.
(Sidenote: That’s 4 AM German time. It’s 7 PM California time where they’re filming, and you just do your own math from there.)
All episodes are available on youtube and Geekandsundry.com, the entity behind this shindig, where they’re uploaded on Mondays after airing, but only accessible via the Geek and Sundry website for about two months or so. They’re immediately available after airing if you subscribe to the twitch channel (which you can do at no additional cost if you have an amazon prime account) or pay for access on Geek & Sundry’s own streaming service, alpha, which has additional overlays, snarky written commentary, and half an hour of extra content of Talks Machina.
And I mean, if that one sentence premise already sounds appealing to you, my job here is done and you can just follow up on the links and get started immediately. Just, be warned, the series is a bit like TV Tropes, it will take over your life for a while, and demand a whole damn lot of time.
In fact, as I am writing this, episode 88 is coming up next Thursday. That’d already be a hefty number for your average hour long television series; almost 4 full seasons worth, really. The problem is that the episodes aren’t an hour long. They average in at around 3, with some pushing five hours – such as 2016’s final episode, 79 did, which featured the finale to a 40 episode story arc and had me seriously worried about whether I’d make it to my dentist appointment at 9:30.
As of episode 78, without the breaks and Q&As and “Critmas” segments during which the cast opens presents sent to them by the viewer base, there was more than 300 hours of pure story content available.
So, yeah, catching up takes a while, and the show isn’t ending soon, either. It’s a bit of a commitment. The sheer amount of time needed is prone to scaring off people from even starting the series, so this piece right here will be my attempt to counteract that.
If you like your content in a neat TL;DR slide form, there’s also a presentation you could watch.
The Lay Of the Land
So, first things first, the show has almost no visuals beyond people sitting at tables, rolling dice, fumbling with paper, eating, drinking out of occasionally oversized mugs, and making faces at each other. And everything except for the faces is completely unrelated to what is going on in the story at any given moment, unless Matt Mercer goes into full monster mode.
Well, and in later episodes sometimes there’s really fancy battle maps.
And now while the cast interacting with each other is basically the best thing about this, they’re also all trained voice actors, and since everything lives and dies from Matt Mercer’s ability to tell a story and impersonate characters and monsters and whatever else you need, you can very comfortably listen to these episodes like you would to a very long podcast. I hear that’s very nice for a dedicated workout or something. Personally, I use them as audio books to go to sleep to a lot myself.
Sitting down and watching a 3+ hour episode in one sitting without being bored is also completely possible, of course. Even if you catch a slow episode and not much else is going on, the cast is very, very nice to look at.
Death is Cheap, Until it isn’t
One oddity out of the way immediately: This is a D&D campaign. In D&D, once you have access to a decently leveled cleric, death becomes a minor inconvenience so long as there’s a body left. Drag their cold, lifeless asses to the next temple, pay a fine for the spell maybe, bam, back to live they are. Those are the base game mechanics.
Matthew Mercer puts a homebrewed twist on that, in that there are dice rolls involved. There essentially need to be offerings to bring the soul back to the body, and you can fail these offerings. And even if you succeed, there’s a chance the ritual itself might fail, as it all ultimately depends on one last die roll made by the DM.
Now, mathematically speaking, this still makes resurrections easier than collecting all the dragonballs, but the characters don’t act like that at all.
Death has happened on the show, so much so that at the time of writing this, only 2 out of the 7 lead characters haven’t died, and several who have died more than once. But this apparent “cheapness” of death is never, ever felt, since every new instant of death reduces the actors to sobbing messes, sparks some of the most raw and intimate character moments, and deeply affects characters even after being resurrected.
And those are always some of the best moments and episodes – death may be cheap-ish, but it is never laughed off.
Where To Start?
Episode 1 is not very beginner-friendly. If you are familiar with tabletop RPGs at all, you are well aware that most adventures start with a group of characters who all kind of suck meeting at a tavern and going to kill monsters of little consequence. Or answering a post on a job board of sorts. Or meeting in a prison cell.
Critical Role, however, starts after the cast has already been playing together for two years or so. They’re around level 9, no one is introduced beyond
the character background videos (that you should watch once or twice no matter where in the story you’re going to start), and they’ve even already been given the quest they’re on (rescue a Halfling paladin called Kima who went missing during her vision quest in the Underdark).
I tried starting with the first episode once and was very annoyed and very bored with it all. It’s still an excellent episode, just not an excellent start. If you’re anything like me, you need to be invested in something to care about what’s going on. And while I wouldn’t recommend my particular route to catch up, there are several ways to go about it.
See, since the show has just SO. MUCH. CONTENT, it only make sense that is has various different things to offer. It’s all about what you want to see, really.
…Though no matter what that is, start with the character introduction videos, the write ups of the characters I will do next week, and also the backstory video they made, explaining what happened before the stream started.
And also this video to get you going.
I just want people sitting around and having fun playing a D&D campaign!
…That’s cool. That’ll be episode 1 for you, pal. Or literally every other episode ever. But the one thing you can say about the beginning is that it feels the most like the classic playing a game around someone’s kitchen table approach to these things. The story arc is very self-contained, on the shorter side with 13 episodes, the stakes are… The lowest they’re ever at until like where we are now (at episode 86, before the real new arc has really started), and it’s the closest to classic dungeon delving we ever get.
I want a quick start on the characters and then some light-hearted fun!
Well, who doesn’t? In this case, I’d recommend skipping the first 13 episodes, and catching the tail-end of things in episode 14.
That way, you meet all the characters in their natural habitat, whereas the Underdark has most of them out of their element in one way or the other.
Here, they’re all at their best and most natural, and the dynamics are easy to pick up on. You also get introduced to Kima, Allura, and GILMORE! Who are probably the most frequently reoccurring and most highly regarded NPCs in the entire series.
Another nice feature is that you first get to feel out how the party interacts with each other, and then see that challenged when they’re forced to split up for four episodes and play nice with different people. The entire Vasselheim arc (episodes 14-23) is just excellent for that, even though it’s mostly smaller adventures for 1 or 2 episodes at a time that are very much self-contained. Of course, that also means there’s not much continuity for you to keep up with, so you can basically dive right in.
I want intrigue, suspense, horror, and drama!
Shady characters from a party member’s past come a knocking, causing the party to try and play the political game for a bit to oust them on a public stage. When that plan goes tits up (like most plans do), they have to clear their names and find a city overtaken by undead and other dark shit, causing them to start a rebellion against forced darker and more evil than they could have anticipated.
Oh, also, not just the city is overtaken by dark shit, a party member’s mind is, too.
This arc, usually referred to as the Whitestone or Briarwoods arc, is where the show really came into its own, and where you really start to fear Matt Mercer because he is mean and brutal and probably some shade of chaotic evil. Well, neutral, because at least he sometimes feels sorry about torturing everyone.
Everything’s close and personal, the relationships between party members really start to pay off, and some of the most iconic moments happen during this time. It is also one of the most well-handled vengeance arcs I have ever seen, the effects of which are still being felt 30-40 episodes later.
Just get me to the big, exciting fights already!
Well, I mean, all of the fights are big and exciting to a degree, but okay, I hear you.
So, the biggest, baddest, and longest arc of the series starts in episode 39 (but starting at 37 helps for context). It’s the point where the series goes from some dungeon and almost no dragons to no dungeons and way too many dragons.
There’s a lot of build-up to the individual dragon fights, and a lot of character development happens in-between, and oftentimes, it’s not the actual dragon fights that hit the group the hardest, but the callbacks to their personal arcs.
Your road to all the important fights goes thusly:
64 – 71: Draconia/Vorugal, also Percy’s issues come back with guns for the most devastating fight to the group yet in 68.
79 – 83: Endgame. But I really don’t recommend starting there, because there’s a LOT of personal issues leading up to these episodes, and they just don’t pack the same punch without dealing with those.
How about some good, old fashioned fetch quests?
Oh, oh, absolutely! These intersect with the dragons, though, because why settle for one classic when you can have two in technically the same 40+ episode arc?
See, to properly fight way too many dragons, you need the appropriate swag. And the so-called Chroma Conclave arc is basically a steady back and forth between getting the swag and fighting the dragons. And of course, the required items are spread far and wide between fun locations on several planes of existence, which more often than not cause amazing shenanigans.
59 – 63: Feywild arc
65 – 67: Ank’Harel arc
74 – 76: Elemental Plane of Fire arc.
As you can see, it is pretty intimately intertwined with the dragon fights, so you can basically just start with 39 and keep going from there for the most context and best character moments, but, after all, this piece is trying to get you to start the series in a way tailored to your personal tastes, so if you find any of these things individually appealing, more power to you. Speaking of which…
…uhm, I actually would like some romance? If that’s okay?
Oh. Oh friend, there is nothing wrong with that. And unlike most tabletop RPG campaigns I have sort of witnessed at one point or another, this series actually has romance in it. Two. Three. Maybe four. Sort of. It’s complicated. Oh my god, technically five. Six. Aaah, I need to stop counting.
Okay. So, first of all, the romance angle is what got me actually invested enough to watch from start to finish. I mean, not that I don’t appreciate a good narrative without any romance in it, but in case it has been too subtle so far, apparently I am also the go-to person for shipping on this site now. Not that I don’t actively encourage that.
There’s a few ways to go about this. Thing is, the romance arcs between the actual player characters are very closely tied to their personal development, so it’s all interspersed with the crazy amount of episodes we have. This is why I’d argue that the couples that do end up being sort of canon at some point very organically developed out of the narrative, but as is always the nature of things, party of the fandom will violently disagree with that. Violent disagreements will be covered in another piece on this, though.
If you want the most bang for your buck, you kind of need to start with episode 14 and go along for the ride (which ironically was also the episode I recommended for the most character development, amazing how that works, isn’t it?), but I understand if that’s too early for you and you want to be caught up eventually.
Now, for some reason, when left completely to their own devices, the cast somehow managed to have their characters hook up in like a Pride and Prejudice/Much Ado About Nothing formula:
There’s one pairing that is established kind of early (if you call the early thirties kind of early), and then delayed for another thirty episodes because of drama, misunderstandings, and other stuff like the world ending. They take up some space in the narrative, and in-universe, are basically the main ship up to a point. It’s just that for that pairing you’d have to start at like episode 20 and wait 45 episodes for a resolution, so, uhm, as much as I love them, it’s not what I’m recommending here.
No, what I’m recommending is starting at episode 57. Both because it is one of my absolute favorites ever, and because from there on up until… Uhm. It’ complicated. 72, 78, 87, ongoing? You get the most neatly condensed little romance arc the show has to offer so far. It’s not the main plot, ever, at all, but it’s the most condensed build up and payoff in that regard.
Technically, that particular ship canonically (as in, the actors said so) started way early, like episode 5, and you can also see it coming (if you’re paying attention, as a lot of viewers inevitably don’t) from the early 30s onwards, but yeah. This would be the secondary pairing that sneaks up on you, and yet ends up being the fan-preferred one. But unlike in the examples I listed, there’s not even a little initial dislike. For any of these.
Boy, don’t ever let me ramble about romances, I have a series to sell here, dammit.
I want adventure in the great wide somewhere!
Full speed ahead, not knowing what’s coming? Well do I have a suggestion for you!
See, that 40+ episode arc we had just wrapped up. The episode coming up the next Thursday from when this was written is 88. And right now, it’s actually kind of easy to just jump right in.
Like, I’ve seen people recommend starting with episode 86 and then catching up, but I’d actually say, for maximum catch-up in minimal time, watch the first half of 84, the second half of 85 (timestamped here for your convenience) and then just watch from there. Admittedly, the second half of 84 is a nice illustration of how shell-shocked and paranoid the party has become after years of adventuring and betrayals, but nothing really happens, so you can skip that. The first half of 85 is a really cool one on one fight though, so watching that is fun, and makes the second half hit harder even if you have no real idea what’s going on.
Your catching up can then also be finding out all the things Scanlan Shorthalt willfully misconstrued, which is a fun perspective to have.
But besides that, the stakes have never been lower, and the character literally embark on a side adventure far away that is related to one of them personally, but not in a way you necessarily need to have any more context for than this. It’s Aang going to the northern water tribe, in more ways than one. Strap in and have fun!
Though I mean, at the end of the day, you could probably tune into just about any episode of the show and get something out of it, no matter at what part of the story you jump into. Because…
It’s all about the Characters
Remember how someone did the math that there’s over 300 hours of content for this series? About two thirds of that is entirely devoted to character interaction and development.
Just think about that for a moment. That’s more character development than anything but the longest running procedurals or soap operas ever got in – and with the same cast, mostly. That means that literally everyone, even the side characters all played by Matt Mercer, gets in hefty amounts of development, even the ones that are more easily brushed off as gag characters. Like, my first reaction to the first episode was “Oh, great, everyone’s elves, why the fuck is there a guy with a gun in a fantasy setting, and oh, wow, they have a giant guy who hits people, and a tiny guy who hits on people. Really original, that.”
The latter two are archetypes of characters, especially in a fantasy setting, that I just loathe. The latter two are the only characters on the show to date who have made me bawl my eyes out. And I basically never cry about fictional stuff. I will yell about it, a lot, but not cry. So, kudos.
And I mean, proper investment in the characters can make any crap show of a narrative work. Ask me about my decade in the Naruto fandom some time, oh boy that’s going to be fun. But the thing is, the narrative Matt Mercer creates is just an almost perfect balance of external and internal threats; we basically alternate between taking down threats to the world and facing the characters personal demons. And the narrative is excellent in challenging the characters to grow as people and as a group.
In a quick aside, while there is bad and dark shit happening a lot, it seems to me that the narrative as a whole actively defies the grimdark. There is always brightness, always hope to be found, and that is something assured by both the DM and the characters themselves. There’s entire episodes devoted to them finding levity in the darkest moments, and encouraging each other to hold on hope and all that mushy stuff that never feels mushy but entirely earned.
But it’s also kind of about the actors
So there’s no real script. Matt Mercer has the external threats, the overarching narrative planned out to a degree, but if you have any experience with tabletop RPGs at all, you are fully aware that you can never account for what curveballs the players are going to throw your way.
Hence, every interaction and all that delicious development I mentioned, is improvised. It’s improv sessions with dice. It’s a group of predominantly voice actors (though most if not all of them have some experience with stage and screen acting as well) improvising what their characters would do or say in any given moment.
The thing is, they have been with these characters for almost five years now. And this is something I say both as praise and out of exasperation with the fandom – they know what they’re doing. They know their characters really, really well, and have been working on them constantly, every week, since the show started almost two years ago. They know their shit, and seeing how they have acted in all kinds of narratives before, they know what appeals to them, what doesn’t, and what they’d like to try out for their characters.
What I mean to say is, watching this show makes an excellent case for just trusting your actors with the material, even in a show that isn’t all improvised. I know many a scripted show that might have benefitted from that on occasion.
The other side of the coin is that these people have also been playing a game together for almost five years now, and they were friends even before that. This is weird, I know, but part of the charm of the show, and one of its biggest strengths in my experience is just how much these people love and respect each other, in-character and out.
At its core, this show is about a group of friends having fun together. Usually while playing D&D, or while on their own talk show. There’s copious amounts of footage of them just unwrapping presents from the audience together. Sometimes they play Just Dance. And sometimes they throw cream at each other’s faces for a good cause. They also basically constantly mock each other over twitter, so you know where the casts of most shows have falling outs over the years, these guys are still as tight as ever.
So, yeah. Critical Role is my favorite thing right now, I adore almost everything about the story and the people involved, so much so that I can’t shut up about it and next week, will deliver a lengthy introduction on all of the characters and actors, because as described above, it’s a bit of a package deal.
Images courtesy of geekandsundry.com
Shameless Draws the Line Between Healthy and Unhealthy Emotion
When it comes to the ongoing continuity of any sort of story, cause and effect are extremely important. What characters say and do should not be taken lightly, whether it is positive or negative, since completely ignoring a situation where something significant happened only serves to break the kind of immersion a series should be going for. This was never really a problem for Shameless in the past, but recently something has come up to make me wonder, but wait last episode they were literally…? Granted it’s not the biggest of plot points—or holes rather—but still if it happens one time what stops it from happening a second time. Maybe it’s just me nitpicking at this point because I know it wasn’t a central part of the plot (actually it was mostly filler), but the fact it made me question what was going is something that really made me wonder about the rest of the series.
On a different and more significant point, another thing that is important in a series is to divide the line between right and wrong, whether it comes from the for of good and evil or healthy and unhealthy. Granted this is Shameless we’re talking about, and a lot of the morality of the series is pretty gray. But one thing we can count on being thrown onto sides are feelings and emotion. One thing that certainly sets Shameless apart from the rest is it’s realism in context to our relation to its characters. Keeping that in mind, something so central to the show’s success should be able to give us a clear line between what we can expect could be positive characteristics in the form of development and learning while on the negative side being constant poor decision making and remaining the same person of the course of the shows length. This episode reminded me why the line exists and why it is so important.
The episode opens to Ian continuing his plans involving movements against religious homophobia while Frank tries to plan his retirement, which hilariously is nonexistent due to his whole six weeks worth of work in his entire life. Debbie also finds some off the books welding gigs that take place at night which is about as strange as it sounds. Celia appears to take Franny for a few days, begging the question as to what is going on with Derek? Meanwhile, Kassadi continues to be an insufferably happy fiance by buying presents for the family; I forgot she was rich. Yet scarily enough, she give Carl a necklace with a pendant sized bottle filled with her blood…crazy.
Fiona continues to work on the apartment and learns that Nessa lost one of her Ford babies but hasn’t told her wife yet. Speaking of Ford, he does text her asking her to look at some furniture for her apartment as she tells Nessa about their situation. It’s cute to see Fiona and Ford look at furniture and see another language he knows. At least it gets her a huge discount on a pretty expensive Danish chair.
Kev and V continue to try and find Svetlana a rich old man to marry to help her one up her old fellow sex worker from the previous episode. Lip goes to make a visit in prison to see Youens and we shockingly find out that he has passed away, all the office will tell him that there was an incident and he didn’t survive and that the body was claimed by the next of kin. What follows is a quite depressing montage of Lips ride home.
Once Fiona returns home, she sees the family of the man who fell off her roof arguing with his coworker, who is refusing to give her money for the work already done until he’s out of the hospital. It looks like they’re homeless at the moment and Fiona does what she can to help. She realizes they might be homeless, when what starts as his daughters wanting to use Fiona’s bathroom turns into a bath for them. Ian starts to see more supporters come out to see him after the viral video of him saving the priest and he’s approached by a minister to help more of the Gay community. Lip goes back to Youens’s home and walks in on his daughter, Tabitha, going through his affairs. It turns out the withdrawal from booze caused him to have a bad seizure, he tries to seem significant to her but she comes off as offended and asks him to leave and to leave his key.
Svetlana finally has her date with old rich man only to be treated like a cheap sex worker and she ends up punching him in the face when he asks her for a good time for very little money. Ian has a lot of the kids in his home to spread the message of love but it only serves to gain him more followers in which he’ll need a bigger place to speak. Though he’s not sure if he’s up to the task which is as much as he expresses this fear to Fiona. Though now he’s dubbed as Gay Jesus.
Debbie’s night welding job actually ends up working for a bunch of scabs trying to one up production for cheaper against a welding union. They do get caught but most of them get away, including Debbs. Kassidi gets more and more possessive and obsessive when she realizes Carl is still going back to military school. She has a clear freak out about it while Lip tries to write a speech for Youens’s wake. The family finds out he’s engaged, but of course Ian and Fiona try to convince him not to marry him. Frank does what he does best and acts like Frank.
Just as Fiona begins to enjoy life on her own, the man who fell off her roof is brought by ambulance to his family who are still living in a car right outside her apartment. Once Ford comes back, Fiona tells them she’ll try and find them family housing until they can back on their feet. Pun not intended. Meanwhile Kev and V work a scheme with mic and two way radio to help Svetlana act more like a submissive woman to help her find a rich old man. Debbs realizes even though there is danger with working with scabs, the pay was too good for her not to take the risk again. Carl comes back home to all his military uniforms ripped apart and this leads to yet another fight as she begins to describe that she’ll die if he leaves. The two compromise on getting married that day, oddly enough it’s not the weirdest marriage that the Gallagher family has produced.
Fiona talks to Trevor about the housing for the family, and Trevor mentions that Ian hasn’t been around much even though he was supposed to speaking to some kids for him that night. Trevor expresses that he misses him. Frank, now pretty much back to his old ways, is using Ian’s message for shameless advertising; of course Ian tells him that 95% of the sales must go to help Trevor’s kids.
At the wake for Youens, Lip realizes that he was not the only life touched by his professor, in fact he was actually the least successful of all of them. They all come up talking about how he helped them become masters in their field, or was there for them when they needed him most, and even more emotionally exclusive situations. Lip crumbles his speech and leaves in anger only to go back to the bike shop to destroy things. Fiona tells the family outside that she found them a place that will take them in two days but offers to let them stay at her apartment until then. Carl and Kassadi’s marriage falls through when they’re told they have to wait for the next day for their marriage license to take effect.
Fiona and Ford spend more time together as she finally confronts him about his lack of interest in her life, only to realize he already knows everything bout her by asking around. She’s surprisingly not creeped out by his extensive knowledge of her because of how he words it that she’s completely out matched by his charm. Svetlana’s second attempt at wooing an older suitor has her take off her mic in frustration and go straight for grabbing the mans crotch. Another successful meeting gets Ian a larger group for support, he waivers only at the idea of saying the same things over and over but quickly picks back up once he’s told that sometimes that’s all one needs to hear.
Carl finally admits to Kassidi that he’s having doubts about their marriage the next day and that he was relieved that they had to wait. He wants to wait a little longer and she seems to accept based on his honesty. Probably the best thing she’s done until she ruins it back trying to fake hanging herself so that she’ll be saved by Carl, using that as a sign that he really does love her. This leads to them getting married that day after all.
After Fiona and Ford finally pop the cherry she’s rushed back to her apartment because more people are now squatting with the family to make money off of them. Trevor finally confronts Ian about missing his promise to him and the two fight, Trevor brings up some valid points. Lip finds Tabitha on his porch, she brought him the draft of a recommendation letter written for Lip and she expresses how he was a great dad to strangers but not to her. She says that he never saw her father right more about a student than he did for Lip. She begins to cry and Lip does his best to console her.
The episode ends with Fiona attending Ian’s big night while calling it a cult under hush hush, though I’m not sure if she’s serious or not. Ian gives a great speech, charismatic and relatable. Debb’s gets injured at her scab gig when a heavy metal pipe falls at work, her expression gives away that it’s a serious injury. Fiona finds out that the man whose family she’s been letting stay at her place is now suing her for falling off the roof and wants 6 million dollars.
The first thing I really want to talk about is Youens’s death. For Lip this had a profound effect and swirled emotions around like crazy. Up until now Youens had been a sort of crutch for Lip; sure he was grateful for the man helping get his life straight and paying for his rehab, but at the same time Lip centered his true rehabilitation by trying to help Youens from succumbing to the same fate. Clearly the man did not want to be helped after he showed up to court drunk. Emotionally the thought of the old professor going to jail weighed heavy on Lip and with his passing Lip was given a forced release from that pain. I’m not saying I wish death on anyone holding someone back emotionally, far from it, but in this case it might have helped Lip in the long run.
The second part of this is Lips handling of the wake. We’ve seen Youens not only help Lip to sobriety but a long time ago he saw a future in him, a promising career. This slowly fell apart as the drink became most of what Lip cared for. Upon witnessing all that former students and the like had to say about Youens at his wake we realize that they were all a lot more successful in life than Lip. We could understand if this made him feel like a failure in some respect but the real emotional turmoil is the feeling of not being exclusive or not being someones, “one”. While on the surface it seems like a selfish thought on his part but surely he knew he couldn’t be the only one whose life he touched. Of course this feeling is remedied by Tabitha who most likely feels the same exact way, especially when students had a better child to father relationship than she did with her own father and like that we are given a proper division between healthy emotional grief and selfish possession.
On the opposite side of that spectrum, we have Carl and Kassadi’s relationship which is pretty much dominated by her over bearing possessiveness and emotionally abusive attitude towards Carl. She literally pressures him into seeing things her way by threatening, screaming, and just all around acting quite frankly insane. Carl really needs to find a way out of this before it continues to get worse.
Ian’s plot has gotten a lot of traction of the course of the season with a major pro and con. The pro of course is not only sending this message of love while at the same time facing the realities of being looked to as a hero by so many. The show brilliantly weighs in the issues that are faced by people of importance into their personal lives. But the major con is that earlier this season we saw Ian at an all time low saying something was going to be done. It was solemn, thought provoking and then never mentioned again. It seemed pretty significant at the time so why was it completely forgotten?
I had the same issue with the new plot for getting Svetlana a new old, rich husband. Kev and V just spent almost an entire episode working to shame and humiliate her and once she has a moment of true weakness they run back to her side? Granted they are good people and would do something like that for a friend in need but they literally just spent almost a whole season hating her and suddenly they don’t? Sorry, but I don’t buy it.
Images courtesy of Showtime
Helsreach Shows Us a Universe of Constant War
Greetings, readers of the Fandomentals, and welcome to my first article of 2018. I’d say I hope it’s better than the last year, but who are we kidding? With that in mind, let me introduce you to a book from a universe that is much, much worse than our own. The book in question is Helsreach, by Aaron Dembski-Bowden. It’s a part of a larger series of novels taking place in the Warhammer 40000 universe, about the battles of the Space Marines – the grim, bald men in very large pauldrons who are perhaps the most recognizable face of the setting… for better or worse.
The title of the novel refers to a hive-city on the world of Armageddon. “Hive”, in this context, means simply a massive city on a planet full of such. Armageddon is an industrial world, producing machines and weapons for the Imperium of Man, and it saw a great deal of warfare, even by the standards of Warhammer 40K. Helsreach takes place during the third war for Armageddon, a titanic conflict depicted in codices, novels and other material. The major dramatis personae of it are Commissar Yarick and the Ork warboss Ghazghkull Mag Uruk Thraka.
…Neither of whom plays any sort of role in this book. Yarrick appears briefly, but Ghazghkull is nowhere to be seen. That’s because Helsreach is only one city on the planet, and not a very important one, even. The sheer scale and brutality of the fighting it sees despite that is a testament to how mind-bogglingly brutal the war at large is. But its relative insignificance provides much of the actual conflict of the novel, due to what it means for its main protagonist.
Said protagonist would be Chaplain Grimaldus, of the Black Templars chapter. Black Templars are fanatical and devoted to the Emperor even compared to other Space Marines. Grimaldus’ role as a Chaplain means that he serves as a priest, leading them in prayer, stoking their faith and encouraging them to ever greater ferocity and brutality in the name of humanity and its God-Emperor.
If that sounds boring and one-note to you, well, I used to think so too. But Dembski-Bowden showed me that it doesn’t necessarily need to be the case. Space Marines stand apart from humanity, yes. Their physical and psychological traits both result from heavy genetic modification.
And yet… Grimaldus is relatable. He hasn’t been a Chaplain for long, having replaced his mentor in the role. He doesn’t think he’s up to the task. His battle-brothers, whom he leads into the battle for Helsreach, agree – but as they will not question the chain of command, it just leads to quiet resentment. Grimaldus is also less than happy to have been sent to fight for an insignificant city with a handful of Marines, rather than join the Chapter in the massive battles in the planet’s orbit or other cities. The fact that he’ll die doesn’t bother him – dying for the Emperor is his goal in life. But dying without glory and honor do.
As relatable as Grimaldus is to us, the narration emphasizes the differences between the Space Marines and humans. That’s how it refers to normal people, at least in the Polish translation. The Adeptus Astartes are defenders of humanity, but whether or not they’re still human themselves after so many modifications is arguable. The soldiers of the Imperial Guard around them certainly feel the gap. Their towering size, unflinching focus and zealotry, the constant sounds of their power armor… not to mention their inhuman strength and fortitude in battle.
Grimaldus’ journey in this novel involves coming to terms with his position, realizing the worth of the struggle for Helsreach and empathizing with the “mortal” men and women around him. Compared to Warhammer 40000 as a whole, the inclusion of women is what I’d call decent. The Space Marines are a boys-only club as ever, but the Imperial Guard is clearly full of both genders. There’s some romance stories among the Guard that kind of come out of the left field. I think their main purpose is to confuse Grimaldus – who, like all Space Marines, has neither the capacity nor drive for such relationships.
One of Grimaldus’ more interesting relationship is with the princep of an Imperial Knight. For some quick context, a Knight is a building-sized bipedal war machine, basically a mecha. The princep is an extremely old woman who’s the thing’s main pilot, submerged in a tank of liquid and integrating with it through her mind. Her relationship with Grimaldus is that of grudging respect mixed with hostility, as their goals and ideologies clash.
Despite working towards the same goal and against the same enemy, they represent different factions within the Imperium of Man, which do not see eye to eye. The details of it might somewhat confuse a reader who isn’t very familiar with the setting, as they concern the religious and superstitious reverence that humanity has towards technology.
The princep belongs to Adeptus Mechanicus, also called the Machine-Cult, for a reason. They supposedly worship the Emperor in his aspects as the Omnissiah, the Machine-God… which is a thin veneer covering their radically different beliefs. Of course, the talk about machine spirits and machine-gods isn’t entirely superstition, as Titans have a tendency to struggle with their pilots for control once their mental strength wavers…
What about the enemy that they all face? Well… not much to say about them, really. Wahrammer 40000 Orks are very much like fantasy orcs, with all their ugly implications… except cranked up to eleven in most ways. Their every trait, and every aspect of their biology, has been designed for one purpose – waging war. After their creators disappeared, and so did the threat they designed Orks to face… the greenskins simply began to fight anyone and anything they could.
Needless to say, they’re pretty monothematic. There are ways to make them more than just a wave of enemies to cut down, but Dembski-Bowden does not do that. Orks simply are an endless horde of brutal, bloodthirsty fighters. They die in droves, but they keep coming, are far smarter than they look and possess war machines to match those of the Imperium.
Here’s also where the differing perspectives of Space Marines and humans come into play again. A Space Marine, a superhuman wearing power armor and wielding powerful weapons, can swat Orks aside easily. To a regular human, a Ork is a huge, vicious, durable monster.
One way or the other, the Orks simply provide a background against which all the conflicts among the protagonists are forged – Grimaldus’ inner doubts, tensions among leadership or his decision to unearth a massive, ancient war engine that the Adeptus Mechanicus would rather stayed buried.
The constant, unrelenting war the Orks provide as antagonists can become overwhelming. There are brief moments of respite and planning, but other than that, the book really gets across the atmosphere of a battle that just doesn’t end. I consider it a success on Dembski-Bowden’s part, but not everyone might see it this way. It depends on how much you like war stories, probably.
I’ve talked about characters and their perspectives on things, which brings me to an important part. The novel uses third-person narration, but certainly not an omniscient one. We see things from above the shoulders of characters, whether it’s Grimaldus or others. But our view is very much colored by how they see things. This is especially visible when we see the Astartes from the point of view of regular humans, but that’s not all there is to it.
Indeed, I have heard that Dembski-Bowden outright advised everyone to remember that the books are written from the characters’ perspective and express their views, no one else’s. This is particularly apparent in Helsreach when Space Marines of the Salamanders Chapter appear. This Chapter’s traditions and tactics focus strongly on protecting the common folk of the Imperium, setting them apart from the often aloof and arrogant Astartes.
To us, it may seem like a positive trait. But the narration portrays them through Grimaldus’ eyes, and he sees their care for the civilians as weakness and foolishness. Grimaldus would rather take out an Ork warboss than escort defenseless people. Is it bloodthirsty fanaticism or pragmatism?
Having said all that, is Helsreach good reading for someone who isn’t very familiar with the Warhammer 40K universe? Although I learned about it a long time before picking it up, I would say it might be. There are many elements that might confuse a casual reader, mostly the names of different groups within the Imperium. Most of it is easily understood in context or directly explained, however. At the end of the day, the setting uses some very typical elements, putting them in a grimdark space fantasy atmosphere.
So, if you like grim stories about endless war, inner and interpersonal conflicts and don’t get tired easily of fight scenes… Helsreach might be for you. Either as a not too deep, casual read, or a jumping point into a larger universe.
Images courtesy of Games Workshop
Shameless Tackles Hate and Intolerance with Love and Schemes
With the holidays over and Showtime giving us a week off to really sit in and think about how the first half of this season of Shameless, it’s pretty easy to get lost in what we still want to see from a series that has been on the air for nearly a decade. While I’ve expressed my doubts about what this season could accomplish, and where it may be lead astray, especially considering the lack of unity in the central characters of the show, I’ve also begun to wonder if the magic of the Gallaghers is gone. Like I’ve said oh so many times over, I want the whole family or not at all.
With the week-long break, I really thought about that statement and came to the conclusion that in a way I am entitled to my opinion, but at the same time the very same entitlement may make me look like a spoiled fan. Even so, while I can live with the eventuality of a grown family branching out on their collective own, I believe I’m still right in the fact that the purpose of the story, the series itself, is that it is actually themed around the family. What they do on their own is entertaining enough but again lacks any real consequences to a singular plot as a whole.
While some episodes in this season were still enjoyable without that sense of singularity I find myself on the ropes in the opinion of whether it is time for the series to end or not. While I am enjoying this season for what it is I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels it is lacking that traditional Shameless charm that has carried it so far. With that said I leave it up to the remainder of the series to sway me in one direction or the other, whatever the outcome may be.
The episode opens to quite the loud Gallagher household with incessant doorbell ringing, a baby Franny who will not stop crying and a whole group trying to use the bathroom which Debbie refuses to vacate due to constant use of pregnancy tests. All showing negative of course, did I mention that Fiona’s new pup is adorable? Lip decides to ease Debbie’s tension by offering to take her to Planned Parenthood to get a real test and Brad gets a morning surprise of naked Fiona as he’s sleeping in the tub. Fiona decides to just go to Nessa’s apartment to shower. We get to see more of Kassadi who is now Carl’s girlfriend a little too close to him for comfort, especially as she sits on the head of the toilet watching him pee…and underwear that says “all Carl’s”.
Frank begins his refugee relocation to Canada scheme in the hopes of helping those victimized by Trump’s America xenophobia while of course making a quick buck from them and smuggling cheaper drugs (mostly the medicinal kind) back to the US. At least he’s doing some sort of good even if it is tainted by classic Frank mentality. Watching him try to teach his new clients the Canadian anthem is especially giggle worthy.
Ian, Trevor, and at-risk kids begin to clean up the building they leased from Margot and soon discover that some of their queer kids have gone back home because their parents have forced them to a church where a priest will help them “pray the gay away”. Offensive, but sadly an all too real situation that unfortunately exists in the world. It mostly went unnoticed until one of theirs tried to kill themselves. Kev and V provide some filler from their last scenes as Kev continues to act in his dominant streak. When Lip and Debbs arrive at Planned Parenthood he notices that Sierra’s boyfriend is there with another woman who is pretty much almost in labor. The two exchange looks in uncomfortable silence. Fiona gets Nessa’s apartment all to herself.
Frank begins his journey to the great white north as he tries to make the best out of a long trip by playing confusing word games with his clients…and a goat. I may have also made a weird noise of excitement when I realized Sameer was played by the same actor as Salim from American Gods…but I digress. Lip has a quick word with Charlie about his pregnant companion and Lip gives him ultimatum to tell Sierra or he will himself. Ian and Trevor visit their friend who is bed ridden and find out more about this priest and his church. Fiona enjoys the freedom of living alone for a few hours only to be caught in mid naked dance by Ford in hilarious embarrassment. The two sort of flirt as he invites her to look at some famous architecture of south-side Chicago. He’s really into it and Fiona just kind of goes along with it. Carl and Kassadi’s sort of relationship moves to the uncomfortable and depraved as she begins to give him hand jobs in the middle of driving for Uber.
Lip finally starts to meet with sponsors only to realize that Brad was actually pretty tame compared to the ones that are out there. The best being his first who is basically taking no shit about him being too involved in others lives, while the others end up being way too old or way too weird. Frank takes his refugees into the wild to cross the border while telling hilarious stories about Canada playing on their light-hearted stereotypes. Kev finally starts to employ his newly found dominant mentality on Svetlana while at work and it helps to remove V’s sexual attraction to her and way more towards him. Fiona and Ford share a sweet moment as Ford tells her the beauty of certain buildings she only knows for what ghetto events happened there. It’s sweet to see Fiona have an exchange with a man who isn’t romantically interested in her, which is really cemented when she makes the first move and he tells her he’s not interested. Though not because she’s not good looking but rather because he thinks she’s too complicated. We can’t really tell if she took it as an insult or not at this point.
Ian and Trevor finally attend a meeting for the conversion church and it is very sickening to say the least. At this point they’re just gathering some intel for an eventual strike back until Ian can’t stomach the hatred anymore. One of Frank’s followers faints and he cuts open her Burka and carries her on his back for the remainder of the journey. Debbie has Liam take some sultry photos of her to put on craigslist for employment, “sexy welder girl looking for work”. Lip almost spills the beans about Charlies other woman to Sierra because of her obvious distress, but is quickly saved by Sierra correcting him and telling him her father had murdered her mother years ago and his parole is coming up in a few days. Lip reminds Charlie of his ultimatum especially with the long drive they’re going to take.
Debbs decides to get her weekly groceries from emergency food banks and acts slightly entitled for an unemployed mother seeking out assistance. The dinner she prepares for the family is pretty unappetizing though. Frank finally gets his flock to Canada and the goodbye is bittersweet for Frank has actually done a good thing for some very good people. Kassadi’s crazy begins to come out more and more as the episode goes on and Ian prepares a bible study of his own. Also the whole family bashes Fiona on why she is complicated. Again can’t tell if the intent was malicious or not, seems like no though.
Ian finally goes back to the church and has a bible quoting contest with the priest, a back and forth of sections in the bible that either condemn gay love or Ian’s pro love quotes focusing on loving your fellow human no matter what. The scene is absolutely fearless and astounding that not only does it resonate on the viewers of the show but even in show as it’s hits thousands of views on YouTube. Carl and Kassidi finally reach a weird impasse as he finally gets mad at her and she pulls out the extra crazy acting both completely dependent on him and just overwhelm him with really weird emotions. Yeah, I don’t like her. Kev’s dominance continues to reign as he pushes Svetlana farther and farther away from almost total control of The Alibi and it double serves him with V’s new found love for his new machoness.
The episode concludes with Fiona attending a party with Nessa and her wife to find that they are both pregnant. Funny enough Nessa’s wife is pregnant through artificial insemination thanks to Fords sperm…and Nessa is pregnant also thanks to Ford but she actually decided to have sex with him, being drunk and laughing the whole about it anyway. Fiona approaches Ford about it but not really seriously and as more of a “oh I’m the complicated one?” type of way. He’s also got a total of five kids already. Lip decides to see the first sponsor as she’s pretty much the most normal, if not a little unflinchingly honest. Debbs also finally gets her period assuring that she is not pregnant and Frank prepares for another refugee relocation job.
Like the previous episode this one was probably one of the best this season. Even though we’re still dealing with mostly smaller stories, the ones that stuck with us really did for good reason. The most talked about of course being the whole conversion church situation with Ian and Trevor. As I mentioned in the recap it is a really sad reality that these types of places exist and even worse is that they use not only fear mongering in the form of eternal damnation but also treat queerness as an affliction or disorder. Beyond this incredibly ignorant mentality it was great to see Ian not only confront and conquer but to also do so using the same exact texts these intolerant zealots do. It’s a wonderful thing to see fear and hate brought down by love and respect.
In the most nuanced plot line of the episode, Frank’s journey to Canada with middle eastern refugees is an especially delightful segment to watch. Not only is the scene a critique on the xenophobia plaguing our country ever but also a general lack of humanity on some of our peers parts. What I loved most about this segment was that it had literally nothing to do with their religion or country of origin. Other than the fact that we know why they’re going to cross the border illegally Frank nor the writers put in anything associating them with a religion or country and choose to let us see just our fellow Man and Woman. Even for Frank this something completely different but carries a message we should all accept by now. Granted he does throw in a little quip here and there like calling them his “little brown bunnies” it’s hardly something to take as condescending or insulting and is mostly just Frank being Frank.
On of the weaker moments of the episode was Carl’s current involvement with Kassadi. I mean I liked his story earlier on in the series in trying to find a way to afford to get back into military school. Then suddenly she appeared and made things super weird for everyone and his return to the academy completely went out the window. I mean, I’m sure he is going to go back, he already has the money for the next semester but where will that leave her. At this point she is already very manipulative and uses negative emotion to get what she wants from him. I have a feeling this will lead to conflict when he decides it is time to go back to school and whether she’ll let him or not. Time will tell.
On a final note, this episode did seem to ignore the last few minutes of the previous episode where Ian seemed to be under some heavy emotional distress. He talked about something that may need to be done but was pretty vague about it and didn’t respond to Fiona when asked him what it meant. While his mind was no doubt preoccupied with what was going on this episode I would really hope they follow up on this as it could lead to an increasingly emotional and authentic experience in story telling.
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