When you enjoy analyzing and discussing fictional works as much as we do here around here, you often get this question: why do you care so much? It’s just fiction! While occasionally this is meant to derail discussions, I do think it’s a fair question. So today I wanna talk about why I think fiction – and how we choose to represent life in fiction – matters so much.
The answer to this question is very personal, because fiction carries a different weight for each of us, depending on how we connect to it and what we find in our experience. But even when we seek it just as entertainment, to spend our free time or relax after a long day at work or school, it still makes an impression. We see something we like in those stories, something that keeps us coming back.
Fiction allows possibilities that reality denies us: I know I’m never gonna be a Pokémon Master or fly on a broomstick, but just for a moment I can experience those things. From medieval courts to coffee shops, from time travels to pirates, from a dragonborn to a single man in possession of a good fortune, everything and everyone can be part of a fictional story.
Through fiction, we get to know other people. We experience their adventures and misfortunes, see the world from their perspective. We explore their feelings, conflicts, fears and motivations. We learn what it means to be them. And with that, we learn a little bit about ourselves as well. From “I should try that” to “I didn’t know this happened to others too”, we explore our own feelings and struggles and desires.
It’s worth noting this often doesn’t translate straight. To give a personal example, I’m incredibly anxious in real life, yet I love horror fiction. I don’t like to experience fear and tension on my daily routine, but when it comes to stories I delight in my own emotional reactions. So I’m uncomfortable with equating somebody’s tastes in fiction with their real life inclinations. To use a topic we already covered, when a person shames another for enjoying a problematic ship, they have no way to know what this means to them and how they approach this dynamic.
This is actually part of fiction’s role: it allows us to explore complicated feelings and conflicted emotions. Fictional worlds and societies offer commentary on our own culture and examine complex moral questions. Because we’re not really there or really talking about that, we can address the elephants in the room. We can look at stuff we otherwise wouldn’t be able to, just as we can look at the sun wearing sunglasses. As Neil Gaiman says:
I think that pretty much every form of fiction (I’d include fantasy, obviously) can actually be a real escape from places where you feel bad, and from bad places. It can be a safe place you go, like going on holiday, and it can be somewhere that, while you’ve escaped, actually teaches you things you need to know when you go back, that gives you knowledge and armour and tools to change the bad place you were in.
All this experiences affect us. Maybe a particular story or character won’t mean anything to you, but they’ll change somebody else’s life. When fiction teaches you something useful or inspires you, this has real-life consequences. Lt. Uhura from Star Trek inspired Mae Jemison to become the first African-American women in space. And Nichelle Nichols, the actor behind Uhura, inspired Whoopi Goldberg to become an actor herself. And Whoopi inspired younger actors like Lupita Nyong’o and Leslie Jones. Uhura was fictional, but the mark she left in those women wasn’t.
It doesn’t matter if the stories are not true, the effect they have in us is very much real. Neil Gaiman again, from the fantastic Anansi Boys:
“It’s just a folk story,” she said. “People made up the stories in first place”
“Does that change things?” asked the old man. “Maybe Anansi’s just some guy from a story, made up back in Africa in the dawn days of the world by some boy with blackfly on his leg, pushing his crutch in the dirt, making up some goofy story about a man made of tar. Does that change anything? People respond to the stories. They tell them themselves. The stories spread, and as people tell them, the stories change the tellers. Because now the folk who never had any thought in their head but how to run from lions and keep far enough away from the rivers that the crocodiles don’t get an easy meal, now they’re starting to dream about a whole new place to live. The world may be the same, but the wallpaper’s changed. Yes? People still have the same story, the one where they get born and do stuff and they die, but now the story means something different to what it meant before.”
Fiction doesn’t exist in a cultural vacuum. It’s a reflection of the society we live in, but reflects something back too. And we can learn a lot by looking at those reflections. If my musings are not enough for you, this subject is constantly studied by others – so we know identification with fictional characters can change real-life behavior, or exposure to violence in media can desensitize you to violence in real life and affect your brain, or watching TV can impact on children’s self-esteem. Keep this last one on your mind, we’ll get back to it in a moment.
If fiction is indeed so important, how we choose to represent life in fiction is equally important. A story can be our very first contact with an idea or a group of people we don’t belong to and how those elements are portrayed can have a lasting impact on our perception. Or it can be our very first contact with a group of people we do belong, with an identity we will later claim as our own, and that can be incredibly important too.
Yet not everybody has their stories told. Studies on movies, TV shows, books, video games, what have you, all come to the same conclusion: that fiction remains heavily white, male, cis, straight and able-bodied, in a proportion that doesn’t match real life demographics. The less you fit this standard, the less likely you are to see yourself represented in fictional works. And those are just the numbers, not the role in the story or how this representation takes place.
Behind the numbers are people who want to see themselves in stories too. They want to dismantle dystopian governments, to have romantic escapades, to become wizards or to save the world from aliens. And they deserve this. They deserve to see themselves and to live all possibilities that fiction allows. And as Junot Diaz says,
“There’s this idea that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. And what I’ve always thought isn’t that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. It’s that if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves. And growing up, I felt like a monster in some ways. I didn’t see myself reflected at all. I was like, ‘Yo, is something wrong with me? That the whole society seems to think that people like me don’t exist?’ And part of what inspired me, was this deep desire that before I died, I would make a couple of mirrors. That I would make some mirrors so that kids like me might seem themselves reflected back and might not feel so monstrous for it.”
Representation is more than just the presence of a character, it’s also their role in the narrative. Are they the lead, the ones that move the story forward? Or are they the friend, the sidekick, the character that dies to further protagonist’s story? When diversity is background, it sends the message that certain people are less important than others and their stories are not worth being told. Social media campaigns like #StarringJohnCho or #StarringConstanceWu highlight how easy would it be to see Asian-American actors in more diverse and prominent roles than they usually are.
Not only that, but as actor Yara Shahidi explains, there won’t be parity while some people are perceived as a tired stereotype or one-dimensional. There’s no such things as a “universal Latinx experience” or “universal trans experience” or “universal Muslim experience”. Each person is unique and has a unique approach to their identities. And the more identities you throw in the mix, the more you have to consider the intersectional aspects of this experience. For instance, the trope of the Strong and Independent Woman carries a very different weight for white and Black women.
Stereotypes can reinforce harmful perceptions in real life. To give a concrete example, a study shows that many med students believe black people feel less pain than white people. Doesn’t this match the stereotype of Angry and Strong Black people we so often see in fiction? It doesn’t mean you can never have a character that matches a certain stereotype, but a writer should always ask themselves why they are associating certain characteristics with a certain identity. What Mysterious and Uncontrollable Reasons™ made you think the smart and nerdy kid was East Asian or the badass fighter was a lesbian? Is it so vital for your story to reproduce those patterns? Because, as always, the problem is the pattern.
This is what writer Chimamanda Adichie calls “the danger of a single story” (seriously, watch this video, it’s fantastic). Fiction has a great power to influence our perceptions, and if we’re constantly fed with the same narrative over and over, we start to believe it. We reproduce those single stories, perpetuating the harm they do. We have all sorts of expectations for people we never met. We make them carry the weight of their entire identities, how awful is that? And we often throw a bunch of different identities under the same label:
“When we talk about Latinx Representation we should ask ourselves, which Latinx? It’s interesting that, despite Jane the Virgin being about a Venezuelan family (played entirely by Puerto Rican actors) and the Salazars on Fear the Walking Dead being Salvadorian (played by a Panamanian and a Swedish actor respectively!), both stories are similar in that they are generically about “immigration.” But there’s nothing to make them specifically Venezuelan or specifically Salvadorian. Because to Hollywood, and to the average viewer, there’s no difference. Latinx are simply generic, interchangeable brownish people from that ever-nebulous part of the world that’s “South of the Border.” And don’t they all pretty much have the same story? Don’t they?” (x)
This happens not only with characters and stories, but creators as well. Even when they’re not majority, male and white writers tend to be more reviewed (x, x, x) and receive more literary awards (x, x). No wonder female writers often choose male pseudonyms or gender-neutral initials. Writers that belong to underrepresented and stereotyped groups are also caught in the duality of being required to subscribe to the stereotypes of their identities and, at the same time, being demanded “universal” stories:
“My white teachers and my white classmates told me over and over again they simply didn’t believe a Chinese person would ever talk the way my characters did when workshopping my stories, but heaped lavish praise anytime my white peers wrote stories set in countries they’ve never lived in, narrated by people whose experiences of racism they never personally experienced. I was told to stop writing about myself and write things with more a universal theme.” (x)
“This is a world where writers of color are damned if they do and damned if they don’t—we often find ourselves either being asked to “emphasize” (read: exoticize) our identities (“I love your writing about race,” one editor told me. “Do you have anything else like that?”) or pretend our difference doesn’t exist, to pretend our trauma doesn’t exist, to pretend that the audience we’re looking back at isn’t 90 percent made of white men. We’re pulled in so many directions, it’s a wonder we still have the energy to produce creative work.” (x)
“There’s no ‘white guy shelf.’ There’s no ‘Lads Who Write About Gentrified Brooklyn’ shelf. And every author needs the space to write about things other than their identity moniker ascribed and recognized by wider society. We need to actively expunge the premise that the only [identity] writer on the list can write about [identity] and nothing else. I think this is a fundamental right for the life of a writer.” (x)
There won’t be proper representation while certain audiences are still considered default and creators pander to their expectations. Especially because real audiences tend to be more diverse: when it comes to videogames, half the players are women, yet female characters are so often sidelined and sexualized (something that has real consequences, and not even boys like); Latinxs/Hispanic people are more inclined to buy games and African-Americans play video games more than average, yet your average protagonist is always white. There’s this illusion that fiction is the way it is because certain audiences don’t consume fictional works, but it’s not true. Why are we prioritizing some people over others?
Remember that study I mentioned on TV affecting children’s self-esteem? It says white boys experience an increase in self-esteem after being exposed to television, but all other children – in this study, Black boys and both Black and white girls – experience a decrease. Considering where we stand when it comes to representation, is anyone surprised? What if we measured other characteristics, other identities? What happens to the self-esteem of disabled children after watching TV? Or queer children? Neurodivergent children? Jewish children? Immigrant children? Are they seeing themselves? And if they are, are they seeing themselves in a way that makes them proud?
Just to be clear, I don’t think creators do this because they’re all part of some evil conspiracy plan to consolidate white male cishet supremacy over the world – I think they do it because they’re used to see things this way and not question it. But we are questioning. And not because we’re obsessed with “political correctness” or because we want to erase white people or men from narratives, but because we’re tired of not seeing ourselves or our friends and family on fiction. We’re tired of seeing only one kind of people being praised. We’re tired of being invisible, fetishized, otherized. We’re more than one-dimensional tropes. Representation is not meant to be a political movement, but it will carry political weight while certain groups don’t enjoy the same rights others do. To quote writer Emmi Mears:
“It’s a political book, even though at the same time it’s not. It’s about a woman saving the world in the face of hell, of navigating moral grey areas, of getting covered in demon slime and tearing through hordes of hellkin like her blades are part of her hands. But it is a political book because my identity is political. Until the lawmakers don’t seek to limit my rights solely based upon my identity, my body, and my loves, it will remain thus.”
So no, it’s not just fiction. If a narrative promotes the vulnerability of an already vulnerable group, if it excludes people from their own stories, if it perpetuates harmful stereotypes, if it prioritizes certain groups over others, than this story and its creators should answer for that. I can’t stress this enough, though: never harass real-life people over fictional stories. It doesn’t matter if they’re actors, creators, other fans. On that regard, it is just fiction. Criticize ideas and stories is one thing, attacking real people is another.
And sure there are other more urgent matters and more important social issues. But isn’t it marvelous how we can care about more than one problem at the same time? To dismiss the discussion of fictional works as something not valid, to deny the power of fiction – for good and for bad – is a position of privilege and unawareness. Privilege because you already have all the stories and don’t want other people to have them too; you don’t want to share your toys. And unawareness because those stories helped shape you and your perception of the world, whether you want it or not, and you didn’t even notice.
What have they shaped you into?
Featured image courtesy of Life of Pix.
Image Comics “DIE” is an Instant Dark Fantasy Masterpiece
There are so many factors that have come into play when I first heard about Image comics newest release, DIE, that it is hard to pinpoint the real reason it intrigued me so heavily. Who am I kidding, it was all the reasons. Most importantly the staff on it.
For one, it features two of my favorite Image Comics alum. The first being Kieron Gillen, the mastermind that gave us the brilliant comic The Wicked And The Divine,which is one of the best ongoing comics at the moment. On the art work is the incredibly talented Stephanie Hans whose realistic and beautifully shaded and colored panels were also featured in The Wicked And The Divine‘s 1831 one shot as well across other comic distributors such as DC with Deadman: Dark Mansion of Forbidden Love. The two coming together again like in 1831 is a match that builds this comic up to be really something special.
Image, in the last few years has really been producing some special and important books in the past few years, among them being The Wicked and the Divine, some of the more acclaimed include Saga, Blackbird, Paper Girls,and Infidel, the company takes a proud departure from Superheroes that dominate the comic industry and opt for more fantasy or science fiction stories with adult and political themes.
Lastly, the plot was incredibly unique and original. When it was advertised as Jumanji meets It, I was instantly interested. While not being a player of table top games myself, I can certainly see the crowd this book is trying to reach while also showing the fun about these games with an added horror twist that is sure to be remembered after the first issue.
The story really does follow a similar timeline to the mentioned Stephen King novel since it follows a group of friends during two periods of their lives: as teenagers and as adults. As we are introduced to each member of the group, we notice nothing in particularly strange about their characters, other than a shared love for table top games and science fiction and fantasy themes. The group has gathered together to celebrate the birthday of their friend Dominic by playing an apparently hard to find game called Gormenghast.
We learn a little about each character based on their choice of created characters. Dominic himself creates a diplomat woman that’s apparently a cross between Cleopatra and Machiavelli, the Dictator. Matthew, a magical warrior of empathy, the Grief Knight. Angela, a cyber punk, Neo. Isabelle, an atheist with gods as pets, Godbinder. Chuck, a lazily created every-man. And Sol the dungeon master with D20 die.
As the game begins the comic cuts to two hours later as Sol’s mum comes to check on them and they have disappeared. Fast forward again and it’s two years later and the group suddenly appears on a random road nearly getting hit by a car. Angela is missing her arm and we can’t really make out what happened, they are now only known as the Stafford six a group of teenagers who went missing two years ago. Sol is the only one missing from the group.
The comic again goes in time to 25 years later where we get to see how this tragedy has affected the rest of their lives. Apparently they had all made a promise never to speak about what happened, not even to one another. Sol’s mother even after so many years pesters Dominic about the fate of her son, to which he avoids. Using brilliant dialogue we see just how dark this has made their lives. Dom seems not to keep in touch with all the others except his sister who has gone through a string of divorces. They have made the best of living with their memories but it is all destroyed when Dom receives a package at a bar, a bloodied D20 die.
It’s at this moment that he decides to reunite the group. After so much time, some have changed completely while others not at all…I’m looking at you Chuck. While some have new companions and some less. They decide as a group to finally discuss what happened that night and where they were for two years until the die calls out to them. The Grandmaster threatens the realm and a hero is needed it calls as they are all sucked into the die and land into a desert ruin. It’s apparent that they have all become their characters…why does Chuck look like Varric.
With the end of the issue the group bickers among themselves about being back in the game, something they’ve repressed for nearly half their lives until Sol appears as the new Grandmaster. What I took from his dialogue is that he was trapped by the previous one and during these long years he’s fought a war to survive or escape and eventually defeated him and became the Grandmaster himself. It’s not clear whether he’s sane or not at this point but it points to the latter as he tells his friends that they are not leaving until the game is over.
This first issue was great at establishing its main cast. While I kept most of those details out of this review, the book really fleshes them out individually and gives life to each of their personalities. Anyone who has read The Wicked and the Divine will know just how well Gillen handles diversity among characters as well as conflicting attitudes. They actually feel like a group of friends you might have been a part of in high school. I really loved this book and I can’t wait to see what adventures await us.
Images Courtesy of Image Comics
Conclusion to Stumbling Beginnings in Summer Knight
It had to happen sometime. I talked last book about how much Butcher had improved on his shaky start. Published in 2002, Summer Knight brings the shaky opening to a conclusion. It also opens up a new phase of storytelling for the series as a whole. In case you couldn’t tell, I really like this book. It brings so much to the series, and features one of the more iconic moments of the series for Murphy. Let’s get into it.
Spoilers for Summer Knight and all previous books in the series.
So, What Happened?
Summer Knight opens with Harry and Billy investigating a rain of toads. Harry grumps around and alienates all his friends because of his grief over Susan. Afterwards, he goes to a meeting Billy orchestrated, which turns out to be with Mab, Queen of the Winter Fae. She bought his debt from the Leanansidhe, and wants him to clear her name for a murder. Harry refuses and goes to the White Council meeting. We meet several other wizards, and a vampire offers peace between the White Council and Red Court if they turn over Harry. At the conclusion of the meeting, the wizards agree not to sacrifice Harry if he makes Mab cooperate with the Wizards.
Harry discovers that the murdered man, Ronald Reuel, was the Summer Knight, the human intermediary for the Summer Court. The power he wielded disappeared, destroying the balance. Which, eventually, leads to war between the Courts. Elaine, shows up as the Summer Emissary. Harry attends Reuels funeral, and runs into several teenage, changeling acquaintances of the knight who are concerned over the disappearance of Lily. He visits the Winter Lady, then contacts Murphy. They fight several monsters in a Wal-Mart. He goes to the Summer Lady after finding Elaine beaten by his car.
Harry visits the Summer and Winter Mothers in the Nevernever. The Winter Mother gives him an Unraveling. Aurora, the Summer Lady steals it from him and reveals she orchestrated everything to remake the seasons in her own image. She trapped the power inside Lily. Harry objects to this. Harry, the Alphas, and two of the teenage changelings go to the Stone Table. They interrupt the fight between seasons, steal back the Unraveling, and kill Aurora, saving Lily, the one holding the mantle. In the conclusion, Lily becomes the new Summer Lady.
Best Moment – The Wal-Mart Fight, Organization to Conclusion
There are so many good things about this scene. There’s finally communication, Murphy’s first moment of awesome, and plot hooks perfectly combined with character catharsis. Over the course of this unlikely placed scene, Butcher manages to bring several elements of the early series to a conclusion.
The first, of course, is that Harry finally tells Murphy everything about the supernatural. She even gets in one last one-liner about being kept out, a start to their banter for the rest of the series. “‘I know I’ve kept things from you.’ … ‘Yeah’, she said, ‘I know. It’s annoying as hell.’”(299). He tells her everything. About the Red Court, the White Council, the Fae, and Chicago Supernatural Politics. Now, we won’t have the cheap conflict from Storm Front where they work at cross-purposes again.
Immediately afterwards, we have the fight with the chlorofiend, the Tigress, and the mind fog. At the conclusion of that fight, we also have Murphy’s first major impact since the Loup-Garou. “Murphy tore through them with the chain saw, … then drove the blade directly between the chlorofiend’s glowing green eyes.” (345). Chainsaw with cold iron, vs Fae Creature. Murphy wins.
The way that the plot interacts shows improvement from the previous book. There, Butcher attempted to tie together the antagonists with the chain spells. Here, we see the ghoul, the summoned monster, and the mind fog from two different people. The Tigress also capitalizes on Murphy’s trauma from the previous book. But everything makes sense, and the conclusion of the fight ties together various plot threads, since Ace sent the Tigress, Aurora the fog and fiend, and Murphy starts to recover from Kravos’s attack.
Most Improved – Harry’s Attitude
While some of the previous books focused more on the change to other people, here we have Harry change. He has a character arc that comes to a satisfying conclusion by the end. Harry starts the book depressed over Susan, and he alienates everyone. Billy points it out. “I don’t need to be a wizard to see when someone’s in a downward spiral. You’re hurting. You need help.” (25). Given that Billy previously espoused the theme of the series, his reintroduction here is significant. Eventually, Harry accepts the help Billy offers, both in scheduling meetings, and with the fight at the end. After the fight, Harry even goes over to hang out with the Alphas, and plays a barbarian in a Dungeons & Dragons spin-off game. He quotes William Shakespeare jokingly, and says, “Meep, Meep” to a deranged Faerie Queen. (489).
It is not only the Alphas that help change Harry’s mood. His reunion with Eileen, his teenage flame, who he thought he killed alongside Justin also helps. Finding out he didn’t kill her brings him closure. But through the book, when she nominally serves as an opponent, the Summer Emissary to his Winter, her presence reassures him. Even when she ‘betrays’ him to Aurora, and binds him, she still helps him. “I’d been right. It was the same binding she’d used when we were kids.” (433). Her meddling enables him to escape Aurora’s death trap, by using their childhood bond.
At the conclusion of the book, she gives him advice regarding Susan that builds to the catharsis detailed above. “Stop thinking about how bad you feel—because if she cares about you at all, it would tear her up to see you like I saw you a few days ago.” (510). That help sends him in a new direction.
Best Worldbuilding – The Fae Courts
While the information on the White Council is delightful, the Fae Court proves more valuable to the main plot. And we learn a lot about the Courts here. Lea makes an appearance, where she ‘helps’ Harry by distracting him and a Fae from fighting and guiding him to the Stone Table. She mentions again how she believes her actions last book only helped him as well. It gives insight to the alien nature of Fae morals.
We also can draw conclusions about the structure of the Courts given all the information on how they organize themselves. Through the book, we learn about the Winter and Summer Courts, each with three Queens. The Mothers, the retired queens. The Queens, the current ruler. And the Ladies, the heir for the future. Their Knights that do their will in the mortal world, and the Emissaries chosen on special occasions.
Also informative is the phrase, “If Winter came here, Summer had to come too, didn’t it?” (219). It implies certain checks and balances on each other’s behavior. That only highlights how serious a problem it is that the Summer Knight is dead, and the mantle gone. Lea’s information about the Stone Table reinforces that. Beyond being a reference to Narnia, it also guarantees great power to whoever holds the table, and whoever sheds blood on it. So, the peaceful transfer of the table from Summer to Winter and back with the seasons preserves their equality. Aurora’s plan only serves to show how important it is to keep that balance, less there be another Ice Age, or worse.
In showing us all this, Butcher expands his universe so much further, and sets the ‘table’ for future stories. Ones that will lead to the eventual conclusion of the series, yet to come.
Worst Worldbuilding – The Conclusion of Meryl’s Story
Given all that we know now about the Fae, it comes as no surprise that the worst worldbuilding also comes from that section of the story. Butcher’s take on Changelings is innovative, being half-human, half-Fae rather than the traditional version. The problems arise from how the narrative treats her, and the results of her half-Fae heritage.
The problem with Meryl is that Meryl dies at the end of the story. She is the first person explicitly allied with Harry to die. The only previous person that was not an antagonist that died was MacFinn, and he attempted to murder them all because of an uncontrollable curse. Meryl dying in and of itself is not the entire problem. Butcher directs the series in a darker direction, so deaths will come eventually. The issue that I have with the conclusion of Meryl’s story is that Butcher could have done so many things with her. As a Changeling aligned with Winter, dearest friend of the new Summer Lady and Knight, the possibility of an inter-Fae alliance or Court would develop.
She even said, “[Winter] Calls,’ Meryl said. ‘ But I’m not answering.’” (459). The Changelings provide a glimpse of the Fae outside of the manipulation, outside of Court politics. Meryl could have been symbolic of that. But no. Meryl Chooses to save Lily. She Chooses and she dies and all that hope with her. It’s a story brought too soon to a conclusion, one that broke off threads that could have continued.
Moment of Regression – Ye Old Wandering Eyes
I will admit, this is a sticking point for me. I talked about my dislike of Harry’s voyeurism in Storm Front. I brought it up again in Fool Moon. Thankfully, it didn’t appear too often in the following books, but here we see this again with a vengeance. And it doesn’t even make sense in character this time.
After a Susan-vampire nightmare, Harry thinks.
“But I had been used to a certain amount of friendly tension relieving with Susan. Her absence had killed that for me, completely—except for rare moments during the damned dreams when my hormones came raging back up to the front of my thoughts again as though making up for lost time.” (176).
So, theoretically at least Harry’s libido takes a break. I understand that part of this nightmare and Harry’s symptoms comes from the dangerous way he’s punishing himself for Susan’s condition. But, still. Even before this dream we have moments where he stares at Mab’s ass. He knows she’s the Winter Queen, and he still ogles her when she leaves. At Maeve’s court, Butcher spends a good deal of time describing Jenny Greenteeth, a Fae seductress. He could have emphasized the alien way she moves, the details that make her decidedly not human, and dropped a one-liner about her being naked at the end. It would have been in character for Harry’s blasé kind of humor. Instead, Butcher flips that script, focusing on the nakedness, with the inhumanity coming as an aside.
Call it my own personal soapbox, if you will, but that doesn’t sit well with me, especially when the last book did so much better with Harry’s gaze. (Not perfect, of course, but better. It doesn’t have to be perfect, it just needs to keep improving.)
Overall, Summer Knight showcases the best of Butcher’s work so far. While the choices were somewhat limited compared to last book, the plot hangs together much better. That cohesive plot lent its voice to each category, and the worst moments were nitpicks and could-have-beens.
The way that Butcher brought this story arc, and Harry’s character arc to a conclusion proved satisfying. His mastery of plot improved, with the motivations of the antagonists and the number being reasonable, instead of overwhelming. The knowledge about the Fae, about the Council, and about Elaine all help set up this next phase of the series. I’m looking forward to the next book.
Am I being too nit-picky in the ‘bad’ categories, or is it just proof of concept that the problems can be reduced to nitpicks? Was the White Council more fascinating than the Fae, or was Harry’s arc disjointed? Let me know if I’m being too harsh on the series, if you had a different idea for a category, or if you have any comments about the arc of the series as a whole. I look forward to hearing from you.
Game of Thrones 3×10 Rewatch: Mediocre
We’ve done it! We’ve made it through three seasons of Game of Thrones here with our rewatch project The Wars to Come. And with that, we’ve also made it through the most bearable parts of this series by showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss (D&D). While last week brought some mixed reviews, it seems that this week, Kylie, Julia, and Katie are leaning more towards jeers and boos in “Myhsa.”
Picking up from last week’s morbid end, it’s a slaughter outside the Twins as the Frey troops finish off Robb’s forces. Arya, escaping with Sandor, oversees her brother’s body being paraded about—now with Grey Wind’s head on his shoulders. The next morning, Walder Frey chats with Roose Bolton about their improved stations, now that Roose has become the Warden of the North. Roose reveals that his bastard Ramsay was the one who got the Ironborn to surrender Winterfell, and the one keeping Theon hostage now. Arya and the Hound, meanwhile, pass a group of Frey soldiers who brag about aiding in sewing Grey Wind’s head onto Robb’s body. Arya slips off Sandor’s horse and kills one of them, with Sandor killing the other two to protect her.
We check in with Theon and Ramsay, the latter of whom is still torturing the former. Theon asks to be killed, but Ramsay points out he’s not useful to him that way. He decides that Theon’s new name is ‘Reek’.
At some point, Ramsay had sent a box containing Theon’s castrated penis to the Iron Islands, with a letter telling the Ironborn to withdraw from the North. Balon and Yara receive it, and though Balon seems completely indifferent to Theon’s suffering, Yara decides that she will take her best fighters and rescue her brother.
Despite the massacre at The Twins, things seem rather peaceful in King’s Landing for a moment as Sansa jokes around with Tyrion about ways they can prank those who speak poorly of him. However, that is soon dashed when he attends a Small Council meeting where it’s revealed what happened to the Stark forces. Joffrey is gleeful and says he wants to show the corpse of Robb to Sansa, but Tyrion tells him he can’t torment her any more. This leads to an unpleasant confrontation, which Tywin puts an end to by sending Joffrey to bed. As everyone else clears out, he reminds Tyrion that he must impregnate Sansa now that she’s officially the heir to Winterfell. That might prove difficult, since when Tyrion sees her next, it’s clear she heard about her family and is incredibly sad.
Later, Varys tries to bribe Shae to leave Westeros, since he believes Tyrion can help the land and Shae is a distraction to that end. She refuses. Tyrion, for his own part, passes his time by drinking with Pod, until Cersei comes in and tells him that he really should impregnate Sansa, so that she can have some joy in her life, just like Cersei’s children brought her. Much later, Jaime arrives back in the city, and meets a stunned Cersei.
Up at The Wall, Bran and the Reeds take shelter in one of the abandoned Night’s Watch castles. Bran tells them it’s haunted because of the ‘rat cook,’ a man who killed his guests under his own roof and was cursed into the form of a rat. Gilly and Sam turn up at the same castle, and Sam recognizes Bran as Jon’s brother. He gives Bran and the Reeds his dragonglass to help protect them as they set out north of the Wall.
Sam and Gilly make their way back to Castle Black, where Sam makes the case to Maester Aemon that Gilly is worthy of their protection given their vows extend to the “realms of men.” Gilly names her baby after Sam, and Aemon, after learning what they had seen, commands Sam to send out all the ravens with this news.
They’re not the only ones to make it back to Castle Black; Ygritte finds Jon washing his wounds. He tells her he loves her, but he has to go home, and says he knows she won’t hurt him. That bit turns out to be wrong since she shoots him with arrows three times, though Jon still manages to ride back to the castle where he is greeted by Sam and Pyp.
Down at Dragonstone, Davos struggles with Gendry as a prisoner. The two talk, and Davos reveals that he too was lowborn and from Flea Bottom. Later, Davos reads through Stannis’s mail having made great strides in his literacy. He comes across Maester Aemon’s letter and is shocked. However, the news arrives that Robb has died, which means Stannis wants to sacrifice Gendry, since they now have a sign that the leech magic worked. Davos tries to argue against it, but it’s hopeless.
Davos instead breaks Gendry out and sneaks him into a rowboat, giving him guidance on how to get back to King’s Landing. When it’s discovered that Gendry is missing, Davos is correctly accused by Stannis and Melisandre. He’s sentenced to die, but Davos quickly pulls out Aemon’s letter and tells Stannis the real fight is to the north. Melisandre agrees with him, and tells Stannis that Davos has a part to play still.
Finally, in Yunkai, the now freed slaves come outside their gates to meet Danaerys. Her Unsullied guards are wary, but when the freedmen begin calling out “Mhysa” to her (meaning “Mother”), she realizes that no one will hurt her. She leaves the protection of her Unsullied to walk among the Yunkish.
Initial, quick reaction
Kylie: I’m really not able to type well, because I am still cringing from the crowd surfing scene. And especially knowing the script fully intended for Dany’s whiteness to be the focal point…ugh.
Trying to think about this episode as a whole, there was so much that just straight up annoyed me, but then the numerous Davos and Bran scenes somehow were well-placed enough that I’d calm down. It’s not that they were even that amazingly done (seriously, how would any show-only like Stannis at this point?), but the rest was just…very clearly not the show we began with in Season 1.
Katie: I was happy to get to jump on this rewatch because I always am interested in tenth episodes of Game of Thrones’s seasons. The big climax has just occurred and then there’s so much wrapping up and scene-setting to establish what comes next. They’re so often good barometers of how the show is doing. This one was a roller coaster for me. It reminded me of a lot of the things I genuinely enjoyed about the earlier seasons of the show, but then Sansa would be sidelined, Ramsey would monologue, or oof, that whole last scene.
Julia: All of this episode was mostly a need to set things up for the coming seasons. Sometimes this makes perfect sense, like setting up Stannis going north, but sometimes I was just scratching my head going, “Why are they digging this whole even deeper?”
Okay, that was mostly the scene where Shae rejected those diamonds. Like, did they have a different plan for her at that point? Why?
Kylie: I actually think my highlight was Walder and Roose talking, since you can clearly see just how odious they are, and also how that chip on Walder’s shoulder came to define a war. Roose was a bit hypocritical with his, “Robb didn’t listen to me ever” and also, “here’s how the situation with my bastard unfolded that Robb sanctioned,” but that’s not exactly an issue since we’re not meant to be convinced by these two. At least I don’t think so.
My lowlight is a very personal annoyance, I know, but Sansa laughing and joking with Tyrion and not knowing the word “shit” was pure sheep shit in and of itself. Also how many times did Arya possibly stick poo in the mattress that Sansa was no doubt sharing with like, Jeyne Poole?
It’s just, come on. I get that the sun rises and sets out of Tyrion’s ass on this show, but can’t his prisoner wife at least be a bit distant to him? You know, her whole thing in the books with her armor of courtesy. The way the show makes it seem, she was well on her way to liking this marriage, and then the death of her family made her sad for a few days (during which will be her escape, since that’s coming in two episodes). So frustrated.
Katie: That’s a good highlight, it’s always nice to see David Bradley cackle his way through his lines. And you know, I actually really considered Sansa laughing and joking with Tyrion as a lowlight too? Not because the scene itself is particularly bad (I’d forgotten how nice it is to see Sansa look happy about something, anything!). But because her emotions in all her scenes this episode are 110% about Tyrion. First to make him look like a great guy, which is par for the course. But it gets even worse later when it turns out that Sansa heard the news of the Red Wedding off screen, and her sadness is not her own, instead is simply given the narrative function of bumming out Tyrion a bit more. It’s a good pick for highlighting all of the generally… bad writings tendencies of the later seasons.
That said, I have to pick the closing Mhysa scene. It’s probably the point when I turned hardest on this show when I originally watched it? It’s such a thematic, narrative, and directorial failure, bad for the story and gross in all its racial implications. There were a lot of bad scenes in this episode, but this was the one that made me most actively angry.
Kylie: Yeah, it’s completely tasteless and the last taste you get of the show for the season. It may actually have been the worst closing shot of any season, now that I think about it.
Katie: My highlight is probably the Small Council scene, before it’s whittled down to Tyrion and Tywin? I’ve always liked the dynamic of more competent people having to deal with Joffrey’s kingship and deciding whether to be deferential or confrontational. It’s also a scene that’s not overly talky, and lets the (good) acting speak for itself. Honestly, though, I probably just enjoy seeing Charles Dance belittle Jack Gleeson. Honorable mention to Davos and Shireen hanging out and reading together, because it was very sweet.
Julia: Jack Gleeson is such an easy highlight to pick. He was just so happy and bouncy. And it helped that it was more or less just a book scene acted excellently. But I’m going to take your honorable mention and turn it into my highlight. Remember when Davos actually did stuff? Remember Shireen’s School for Conveniently Placed Illiterates? I used to love both these characters so much, and they have such great chemistry together. So even though this scene triggered a spiral where I was thinking what the Westerosi equivalent of Dutch speaking printers that would result in there being a “g” in “night” would be, or if they even have standardized orthography in Westeros, and what a trick that would be without printing, and if the maesters as an institution would be enough of a centralizing force to have standard orthography make sense…. I still really liked it.
I honestly think the “pork sausage” scene is not only a lowlight of the episode, it might be a lowlight for the whole series, even given all the stuff they’re going to do later. It was just so long and so… Am I going insane, or did they play it for laughs? Maybe they were going for some kind of Deadpool-esque black humor, but whatever Ramsay dangling a sausage was supposed to be, it wasn’t funny.
Katie: It’s so bad! I think they are playing it for laughs, at least kind of? Ramsay’s whole shtick seems to be “he’s so evil and so wacky! Isn’t it crazy?!” The cavernous abyss between the obvious delight D&D have in writing Ramsay and the terrible way it plays out on the screen and drags down the story is a… not great sign of things to come.
Kylie: Also speaking of what’s to come, Ramsay and eating becomes like, a thing, sort of similar to Brad Pitt’s character in Ocean’s 11. I guess it’s because they found this sausage scene suitably off-putting or something? But it leads to a full-on dramatic moment of Roose telling him to stop eating in Season 5.
Quality of writing
Katie: It is the lowest of low-hanging fruit, but can we talk about the Ramsay-Theon scene for a sec? The first shot of Theon in this episode is just a lingering shot on his crotch. We have an endless Ramsey monologue as he eats a pork sausage (get it?), and then Theon gets punched in the face a lot and cries. This show, guys. “Do eunuchs have a phantom cock?”
Julia: Yeah, the dialogue is cringy, but in terms of writing, the bigger question is why this scene, or this plotline even exists. GRRM puts a lot of disturbing stuff on the page (far too much according to many people) and even he chose to leave most of this stuff as implication. Perhaps they should have asked themselves why that was.
Kylie: I guess just so we could see the “transformation” into Reek more clearly? Like, they wanted him to be called ‘Reek’, but didn’t think that would track. Why they left the nickname in is beyond me, since they cut out Ramsay posing as Reek, and all that rather confusing backstory that came with it.
Even if they felt like we couldn’t have understood how broken Theon was without showing at least some torture, we certainly could have gotten by with half as many scenes, and none needed to be quite so explicit or drawn out. This one in particular was endless.
While we’re talking about the sausage though, I actually liked the dialogue given to Balon when he reacts to all of this. It was very on-point for the Iron Islands attitudes.
Katie: It was also undercut a bit by the fact that it makes the adoption of Reek seem kind of arbitrary rather than an eventual outcome of Theon’s torture. Theon’s obviously not in a great place at the start of this scene, but there’s not much of an indication that he’s really lost his sense of self. He seems eager to hold onto his name when he first gets hit in the face. Because of that, the fact that he takes up the name at the end seems less like a culmination of a character arc than an admission that he’ll do what Ramsey says if he gets punched sufficiently.
Agreed about the Balon dialogue. I also didn’t mind Cersei’s mom monologue (momologue! oh, gross, I’m sorry).
Julia: Like Walder Frey’s obnoxious misogyny last week, Balon’s horribleness felt like it was actual there to serve the world and the characters. I’m not sure why Ramsay’s antics feel so different, especially from Frey’s stuff. Maybe it’s just the absurdity of the sausage wagging.
Kylie: They just feel very out of place. The dialogue doesn’t sound like anything that’d be in ASOIAF, and I don’t just mean because of some strange anachronisms, like talking about “phantom limbs.” No way Westerosi would have coined that term.
Our 8th grade book report (on themes)
Katie: Tough to pick a theme in an episode that had roughly 36,000 plot lines happening at the same time. The closest I could come to was the emphasis on tension between valuing the Family Name and valuing family members themselves. The clearest example is Tywin’s long speech to Tyrion about how he wanted to kill him as a baby but HE WAS A LANNISTER so he kept him around, but it’s also evident in Balon’s indifference to Theon once he’s a family liability (and Yara’s pushback). I suppose it works with Stannis and Gendry as well, with Davos playing the Yara figure. If we want to be kind and stretch this theme to its breaking point, we could also include the Davos/Gendry scene about Flea Bottom, and the Shae/Varys scene, both of which demonstrate how those without a family name often have to play by different rules. That still leaves out most of the episode?
Julia: That’s an excellent effort. There’s something there maybe about obligations. Like, Jon has one to the Night’s Watch, and Tywin had an obligation to not kill his own child, (the cross he bears is heavy) and Guest Right is an obligation, but that just seems like a less insightful version of what Katie said.
Title? Dany is a mother to all the freedmen, and motherhood is also what Carol’s content is about. And the Rat Cook is a parent too…it’s totes a theme.
Kylie: Gilly is a mother to the baby she just named Sam! Honestly, the title is feeling pretty peripheral to me.
Katie gets full marks though, for sure. The three Stark kids kinda have a mutual loss of innocence (not than any of them are fully innocent at this point, of course). Sansa learns about her family’s fate, Arya kills her first man, and Bran heads north of The Wall. That one is kinda weaker, but given this is a season that ends in the middle of a book, it’s more of a parallel with them than I’d have expected.
The Butterfly Effect (cracks in the plaster)
Kylie: I don’t want to keep harping on the Sansa/Tyrion scene, but I think this is one of the clearest butterfly effects at play. Tyrion is made a really, really, really nice guy who the audience loves, so any character we are meant to like must love him too. In this case, Sansa. So take the whitewashing of his character that’s been there from the start, and two seasons later his prisoner child-bride is joking around with him, and Varys tries to set Shae up for life across the Narrow Sea, because Tyrion is apparently the only man who can save Westeros and he needs to be less distracted.
Katie: Agreed. I was shocked at how openly Sansa was used as an emotional prop in this episode.
Julia: Ugh, I feel like I can rant about Saint Tyrion for hours. In fact, I’m quite sure I have. I would argue that the changes to Tyrion’s character have the most butterfly effect of any decision in the show, maybe more than the decision to age up the kids, or the one to take out most of the supernatural elements. Tyrion’s characters flaws in the book drive the plot quite a bit, after all. And make his actions make any kind of sense.
At this point, I think many intelligent show-only watchers would be surprised to learn that Sansa is a POV character in her own right. And that Shae isn’t.
Katie: Also, this is a very small detail, and nit-picky, but I think it illustrated well the problems the show increasingly ran into down the line. I am not at all a fan of the choice to open the episode with… the mass slaughter of Northern extras. It’s supposed to serve as a carry-over from the climax of last episode, I suppose. But the reason The Red Wedding works as an emotional gut-punch is because it’s so intimate. It’s a shockingly and terribly personal moment.
As y’all noted last week, it’s a climax the show keeps trying to recapture, and it keeps trying… badly. In large part because it keeps aiming for grand scale over the emotional horror of individual moments. Michelle Fairley did such a good job of selling those last few seconds of emotion in The Red Wedding. Opening this episode with anonymous extras screaming and dying is literal overkill: it takes what should be the center of the scene—Arya seeing Wolf-Headed-Robb—and confuses and muddles it. Rather than a clear, stark (sorry), emotional moment, we get a frenetic, busy, overly-complicated scene. Clean it up! Bombast isn’t always best. It’s not a big deal, really, but it’s a wasted opportunity, and so indicative of what the show is going to prioritize as it goes along.
Julia: At least it gives the aforementioned hypothetical intelligent show-only watcher the tools to call bull on Tywin’s later line about all he did was kill a few dozen men at dinner, and what’s so wrong about that?
Kylie: True, though I’ll agree it was very visually busy. There’s that shot of Roose that opens it, and the way he walked to look out reminds me exactly of this one shot in Return of the King with an orc charging into battle. It was a wonky way to open things (also it was pretty damn dark), and given the effectiveness of the Walder and Roose scene later, I don’t think it’s a very necessary one.
Worth noting something that’s about to turn into a butterfly effect: the Night’s Watch vows. Sam found the “loophole” to make a case for Gilly staying (a compelling one at that). Next season we get the sex loophole, and I feel like we had one more at that too. Maybe the implicit loophole that allowed Jon to quit? It’s also symptomatic of D&D chasing a good thing, or something that lands. This is still pre-chicken joke GoT, remember.
Julia: Well, this section is getting harder and harder.
Um. Gendry fits rather seamlessly into Edric Storm’s role in this episode. Minus the way he bonded with Davos, I guess. They bonded in both cases, but not in the same way.
The small council scene about the Red Wedding was pretty good, at least until it became about how awesome Tyrion is for not raping a 14-year-old, but other than that the stuff from KL was not super faithful.
Kylie: Not at all. Though let’s chat about the adaptational decision with Yara. Is it that D&D just don’t plan more than one year at a time? Because I don’t think it’s about them feeling like we needed to check in with her and trying to come up with a great Season 4 plot for her specifically; we didn’t check in on the Iron Islands at all this year, and there’s nothing that necessitates putting the theater in next year either.
Even if they did plan, does that mean they purposely set up Yara for a completely futile, one-off failed mission? Because god knows they wanted Theon to be in his ADWD plotline, no matter what woman gets shoved into Jeyne’s role… I guess I’m just not getting what they were even trying for with this. False hope of Theon’s rescue?
Katie: Such big chunks of these finales focus on laying the groundwork for future plots. But in practice I think that sometimes bleeds over into just… setting up potential drama or tension? It wouldn’t surprise me if they just wanted another rousing (“rousing”) speech or set up for potential action next year, regardless of whether it would matter at all in the long run. The more generous part of me wants to say that there was some level of awareness that the Theon/Ramsey scenes were floundering and needed the (false) promise of some kind of narrative development before the end of the season.
Julia: In retrospect, though, it does seem cruel of them to set Yara up like that. As cruel as setting Shae up like that was. I think being even more generous is presuming that they had different plans for both these characters—they wanted Shae in particular to do something different during the trial and for Yara to maybe do something like her book plot with Stannis maybe–but audience reaction, or budget, or lack of writing skills made it impossible?
Carol Watch: who is Cersei this week?
Kylie: This is the most Carol Carol who Carol’d all the way to Carolville in her Carolmobile.
Katie: She reminded me of a mom who has been to so many grinding, exhausting parent-teacher conferences about her terrible kid. She knows the teacher is right, but she has to keep her game-face on? She’s just trying her best.
Julia: Imagine another hypothetical intelligent person, who only ever sees this episode of GoT, being told that Carol is supposed to be the villain.
Also, what on earth was that sleeveless number she was wearing in the last scene? And why was she looking at a seashell of some kind and smiling sadly?
Kylie: She was smiling sadly at seashells. She and Jaime used to sell seashells down by the seashore, or something. I feel like I remember that context being explained to us (was that something they talked about in the pilot?) but damn if I remember.
Julia: They talked about jumping off a cliff once.
Why was her scene with Tyrion even there? Like I say, it’s an odd thing to do with someone who’s supposed to be a villain. Was it all just so Tyrion can seem like a nice guy for not wanting to impregnate Sansa?
Kylie: Or to make it clear that once Cersei’s kids are gone, there goes the only good piece of her. Yay! Either way, there’s no debate this week:
Exposition Imposition: good or clunky?
Kylie: Tywin’s exposition seemed good, albeit horrifying. I guess Bran is technically expositing with the rat cook, too, though that’s really just telling a fairy tale. I don’t know, the things that jumped out to me as clunky in this episode were not exposition in nature.
Julia: What, talking about phantom cocks was not exposition? Maybe Ramsay should have asked a cock merchant, I’m sure they would know all about that.
Feel free to be annoyed at me, but the way Tywin said, “I raised you as my son, because you are a Lannister,” to Tyrion probably gave a lot of fuel to the Tyrion the Secret Targ folks.
Kylie: That was also following him saying “since I cannot prove you’re not my son” in another episode this season too, I think. Maybe Charles Dance is a Tyrion truther.
How was the pacing?
Julia: D&D seem to have more trouble with pacing within scenes even than the pacing of episodes.
Kylie: I’d agree with that. The entire episode stops dead at the sausage waving, and frankly Davos and Gendry’s conversation didn’t exactly get to a point.
Overall the episode just struggled from that spottiness we’ve been seeing all season. I can’t tell if it’s better or worse that they were trying to give so many characters a stopping point. Often jumping around helps break things up, but it sure didn’t feel like that this time.
Another week of no sex, baby
Katie: You know, given the number of scenes where people tell Tyrion to have sex with Sansa, maybe “no sex, (no) baby” is the theme.
Kylie: And now his watch begins, after all. He hasn’t seemed to be getting it with Shae either, now that I think about it. I guess she’s struggling with her maybe!jealousy still over Sansa?
Julia: No, no Kylie, she’s outraged that people would dare treat Sansa this way, since she loves that girl so much and would kill for her.
Kylie: Until she decides that whatever, let’s just implicate Sansa in a bunch of crimes. I can’t believe we have another season of Shae…
In memoriam…those Frey soldiers
Katie: In memoriam of the last time Arya’s character arc was interesting! Sorry.
Kylie: Ain’t it the truth. We’re about to get a full season of her and Sandor doing nothing, and talking about how nothing is nothing, and frankly that’s a highlight compared to Braavos and her arc quite literally iterating. Though…Arya in Season 7 was not boring. Many other things, but that’s one charge she gets away from.
Is this where we should talk about her kills in the book getting thrown in at random times and in random contexts?
Julia: I remember there being a chart.
This season’s been fun. I think I get people still having patience with this show after this, but in retrospect, it’s so totally off the rails already.
And I just remembered, the Pornish are coming soon!
Kylie: OH MY GOD.
Well, for us at least, the Pornish won’t be coming until 2019. We will have the Season 3 rewatch podcast out to you in the next couple of weeks, and then Season 4’s rewatch will start January 8th.
Thank you all for following along this season. We’re curious to know what you thought of this episode specifically, though. Did D&D leave a tantalizing endpoint, or are things just sloppy to the point of distraction? Let’s discuss that below, and we wish you both a happy new year and good fortune in The Wars to Come.