Welcome back to The Wars to Come, our weekly Game of Thrones rewatch going back through the watchable years. Last week, showrunners Benioff and Weiss (D&D) introduced us to the world of what will become Weisseroff. This week, it’s “The Kingsroad,” presented by Kylie, Julia, Jess (our illustrious Season 7 reviewer), and Dan.
For those who weren’t able to watch, Kylie’s prepared her usually summary of events.
It’s literally go-go-go (for once) in the second episode! Bran somehow survived his fall, but is in a coma, his mother Cat absolutely refusing to leave his bedside. Yet this tragedy doesn’t slow the King one bit, as he sets out with his party back to King’s Landing. That means it’s time for Ned, Sansa, and Arya to leave home, their direwolves in tow.
These are not the only people with Stark-blood leaving Winterfell, however; Jon Snow takes off as well to join the Night’s Watch! Before he departs, he gives Arya a present—a small sword she names “Needle.” He says goodbye to Ned too, getting a promise that he’ll learn all about his mother soon, before journeying north with his uncle Benjen Stark, and Tyrion Lannister, who’s merely curious to see The Wall. On the way, Jon meets two more men set to become his brothers in the Night’s Watch: rapers! Has the high esteem he’s held the order in been misplaced?
Despite everyone leaving, there’s not a dull moment in Winterfell to be had. A strange catspaw assassin sneaks into Bran’s room, intending to kill him. Thanks to Cat, and ultimately Summer, he is unsuccessful (and dead), but that anyone would want Bran murdered further arouses Cat’s suspicions. She is convinced the Lannisters are somehow behind it all, just like her sister had warned her about Jon Arryn’s death, and feels she must alert Ned. But how? His party is long-gone! Cat decides she will ride the Kingsroad herself, taking only Ser Rodrik Cassel as protection, and putting Robb in charge while she’s gone.
Further south on the Kingsroad, things heat up there as well! When the betrothed Joffrey and Sansa decide to go on a romantic stroll in the woods, they find Arya practicing sword-fighting (stick-hitting prime!) with her friend Mycah, the son of the butcher. Joffrey cruelly teases them and begins to hurt Mycah with his very real sword until Arya hits him. When Joffrey turns his rage on her, her direwolf Nymeria leaps to the rescue and mauls Joffrey’s arm.
Arya scares her wolf away in order to protect her, but when she’s brought before the King and Queen to face “justice,” Cersei demands that a direwolf get punished all the same. In this case that means the only one left: Sansa’s direwolf Lady. Ned, disgusted, insists on putting her down himself. As Lady dies, Bran awakes from his coma.
And finallllyyy, in the Dothraki Sea, the new Khaleesi Daenerys Targaryen is desperate to make her situation better. She determines the best thing she can do is win Khal Drogo’s affection, and thanks to some sex training from a sex
worker slave traveling with them, insists on intercourse in a manner of her choosing. It may be a small degree of agency, but it’s certainly a start.
Will she be able to “rule the Khal” from the bedroom as Doreah said? Does Bran remember what he saw in the tower? Will Jon commit himself to the Night’s Watch? Find out next time on the Game of Thrones rewatch: The Wars to Come!
Initial, quick reaction
Kylie: My reaction was mostly favorable again, and Sean Bean’s performance actually made me emotional. Emotions. I forgot that was a possibility. I feel like I have more nitpicks over all with this episode, but how much ground was covered made me not be overly annoyed by any one thing. Like…this spanned *months*, didn’t it? (Not in a bad way.)
Julia: Cersei did say it took them a month to travel up, I don’t see why they would been speedier down. And Cat said she’s been praying for more than a month.
I see your Sean Bean and raise you all the child actors. Where did they find all these kids? Even lil’ Tommen and Myrcella are so natural.
Jess: Agreed with everything said above! Those kids!!! Mostly positive about this episode save one or two things (namely the full on introduction of Carol), but wow! Colors, characterizing the setting, small meaningful character interactions even in the background! Other than the obvious benefit of majorly following the books in the early seasons working to their benefit, I really think the lower budget forced them to be more creative and focus on what mattered because they couldn’t blow it all on a dragon battle.
Dan: I’d forgotten how much I loved this show until I rewatched this. Everything that brought me in and kept me hooked is here. Dialogue from the books put directly on screen, artful worldbuilding, subtlety. All the characters are as they should be and D&D are just executing an adaptation, not making masturbatory fanfic.
Julia: I can’t think of a moment that made me cringe or embarrassed to be watching, which is how I would judge a lowlight these days, but I can’t say I enjoyed watching a lot of the Dorthraki stuff. There was something about the sex lesson especially that was a little eye rolling. But this episode doesn’t even register on my Game of Thrones (GoT) Cringe-O-Metre as currently calibrated.
My highlight has to be Harry Lloyd again. Kylie mentioned last week how his beaming at the thought of murderous Dothraki weddings characterized him so perfectly. Well, this week it was his “Under my reign you won’t be punished for such nonsense,” to Mormont. The “nonsense” he was talking about was, of course, fucking slavery. It characterized him as a king so perfectly. Just 100% entitlement, and no sense of duty whatever. The polar opposite of what Varys will say is Young Griff’s main strength way in the book!future. Lloyd just gets this across so wonderfully in an instant.
Jess: Nothing registers as detrimentally bad, especially within the episode, but my lowlight would probably have to be the rise of Carol with Cersei’s story about the baby she lost with Robert. It was a weird choice for her character on so many levels because at first you’re inclined to think she’s lying, especially with her wish that Bran should wake up. She definitely doesn’t want that to happen. However, we find out later she’s definitely not lying about the baby. It also is one of the early instances of them erasing a female character’s assertion of grappling for any agency they could get within the context of the patriarchal setting. While I’m not condoning incest, the act of preventing herself from having any kids with her rapist and only wanting the kids she had with the man she consensually loves is a powerful act from Cersei in a position that wants her to remain inactive. But sad, sympathetic mom is more interesting right?
Highlight would probably have to be Maisie Williams as Arya. Contrasting the horrific and emotionless performance she’s being directed to give in the current seasons, watching the pure and natural performance she gives here is really moving. She is Arya. Especially with her show siblings. It feels like a family. There’s a beautiful moment when Sansa is realizing that Cersei means for Illyn to kill Lady, where, in the background, Arya puts her hand on Sansa’s arm for support. And the goodbye scene with Jon always tugs on my heart a little.
Julia: Honourable Mention to that scene with Robert and Ned in the middle of the field. Mark Addy was being wonderful with lots of noise and fury, and Sean Bean was just as good mostly sitting in silence looking deeply uncomfortable.
Kylie: I feel like I should echo Jess’s lowlight as mine, since that was the only scene my brain was incapable of focusing for. But in general I think I’m more bothered by the Dany sex lessons, like Julia. There was something almost comedic about her final scene with Drogo? Again, I have no clue how to translate this relationship. If we start with it being made clear she has no agency or ability to consent in this marriage, which is not necessarily a bad change, we have to get something like this moment where she decides her best play is to utilize her sexuality as a sort of weapon. I think maybe it was the framing: this is her using the only tool in her belt. However, she was vocalizing it as “making the Khal happy” (which I know gets echoed later by Viserys in Tub Scene #1™). And yeah, you can write these things off as POV bias, but given what happens to that concept as time goes on…
Sorry guys, I’m picking Sean Bean as my highlight again. His “I promise” actually made me choke up. I don’t know, I had a long day and there was dust in my eye.
Though another potential lowlight for me is there too: Kit Harington’s Jon. He can’t really help being about five years too old for most of his lines, but boy does he have the range of a woodblock. At least a rewatch is proving that Emilia Clarke can move her face—him? Mouthbreathing confusing out of the gate.
Dan: My highlight in this episode is and will always be Ned and Bobby B at camp, reminiscing about the war before news of Dany spoils everything. Not only are Mark Addy and Sean Bean able to deftly shift from comedy to tragedy in the blink of an eye, but they do so in a truly human way. The pain in Robert’s voice as he remembers the pain the Targaryans have caused, the subtle sadness behind Ned’s smile. This scene comes almost entirely from the books and is presented perfectly. Second place would be Jon saying goodbye to Bran, thanks entirely to Michelle Fairley’s acting. I especially love how she’s able to channel all of her emotions into her little doll as she tries, tries and ultimately fails, to play it cool around Ned’s bastard.
The only lowlights I really find in the first run of episodes are the Dothraki scenes. Between the uncomfortable Orientalism and the blatant fetishization of Dany’s sexual stockholm syndrome, I usually zone out or fast forward through these on normal rewatch. Thank god for Harry Lloyd, who only has a small appearance but is just so wonderfully slimy.
Kylie: Thank you for those succinct labels too, when I’m trying to express why those scenes are so bothersome. Though let’s be clear we’re saying “literary stockholm syndrome,” since the medical syndrome itself is…well, the dialogue is fraught.
Quality of writing
Julia: At this point, I could still believe that D&D are competent writers.
Kylie: What effusive praise, Julia. I’d venture to even say “good” based on this episode. Granted, as with the pilot, so much of that is thanks to Martin’s dialogue. It just sounds right for the setting, and most of the actors can really deliver on it. Though the added goodbye between Ned and Jon didn’t fall into their normal D&D Original Scene™ traps even a little bit. I guess it wasn’t long, and there’s an element of, “Well what else would you write there?”, but I’ll give credit where credit is due.
Julia: It didn’t even fall into the trap of, “Oh no, we can’t give them any actual clues or it might wreck the shock!” I loved Ned’s conversation with Jon, and Ned’s conversation with Robert. The latter is just a book scene that D&D get no credit for, but they need to get credit for that Jon scene. Like, how did these two bright kids go so terribly wrong?
But…then there’s that scene of Cersei monologuing about her dead baby. What the fuck was that?
Jess: Yeah this episode reminded me of several good show invented moments in the first season. I even liked that scene between Jaime and Jon. It’s a really great moment that shows an understanding of Jaime’s character that they seemed to lose once they decided to forego the Kingsguard arc…but I just can’t wrap my head around the Cersei monologue. What were they going for with this? Did they just skim her storyline for all future books?
Julia: I’m sorry, I’m still on the Robert/Ned scene. They so didn’t fall into their usual trap there, that they actually lead into that scene from the scene where Jon asks Ned if his mother is still alive/cares. And we get the “answer” that she’s some random chick. It’s like they’re inviting the audience to ask questions, like, “why would Ned hide that from Jon? Is there more to this story?” They would NEVER do that in the later seasons.
And was it just me or did Tyrion seem less insufferable this episode? He was a dick to Jon on the road, but the family breakfast scene was very sweet. Also, Joffery getting slapped. It’s rather complicated, since we’re talking about hitting a child, but you believe he could be the Good Guy Lannister.
Kylie: It might just help that you and I have recently reread Tyrion in the first two books, and we were treated to seven pages of him congratulating himself for sticking it to Benjen by taking a cloak he had been offered. However, Dinklage is wonderfully charismatic and can do well with material that has actual depth. He and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau sold that sibling dynamic perfectly, and it was actually nice to see some familial affection there, even if it’s reserved for only a few family members with the Lannisters.
I’m as flummoxed about the dead baby monologue as you are, Jess. This was too early for them to already be taken with Lena Headey, so I’m not sure where the motivation came from to script it, entirely. I’ll blame it on the hair color reveal.
Jess: Yeah, it’s probably a fall back on lazy writing without thinking about it affecting the future of these character arcs (something we know they fall into frequently in the later seasons). I guess when in doubt they went the cheap and easy route, just like the CSI Cat scene when she finds the one blonde strand of hair in the tower.
Julia: Omg, that was hilarious. I’m also not sure if the magic doll mandala Cat made is on the same level as the eye stones, either.
Dan: You may read me as honeypotting, but I always viewed that scene as Cersei telling Cat what she wants to hear. It’s Cersei trying to put up the face she feels is expected.
This whole episode just seems to work better in hindsight, as this was when the show actually built up its twists and revelations, instead of shitting out deaths and resurrections every week to get Twitter worked up. So, things like Robb’s line about the next time he and Jon will meet, The Hound’s interactions with Sansa, and yes, even Cersei’s little speech on her child. It all pays off in some way later in the season or the show as a whole. D&D are probably on their best behavior because their writing has to line up with the book/Martin’s writing; they can’t just let it go off into bullshit as it would stand out a country mile.
Kylie: It’s definitely a honeypot, Dan, but it’s not the worst I’ve heard for the scene. I’m just gonna stay here yelling, “it’s Doylism!”. Hair color seeding. I’m putting all the jellybeans on it.
Our 8th grade book report (on themes)
Julia: Um… power? Or, like, finding agency? Or a role? Cat thinks her role is to be the neurotic concerned mom, but then she discovers she supposed to be the Mama Bear? Dany finds agency through ruling in the bedroom? Ned finds a way to let Lady die by his own terms? Best I can do.
Jess: I feel like even in the better episodes they’ve never been great about thematically connecting all story points in a single episode. I guess we know why. I think Julia found the strongest line in finding agency within an oppressive, unjust system. Even though I think they also worked against it by steering in the complete opposite directions for Cersei and Cat’s character. It definitely works for Dany, Sansa in the trial scene, Arya’s resistance, Jon choosing the Wall, and Ned. The rest I don’t feel so strongly about.
Kylie: Well, Benioff’s famous “themes are for eighth-grade book reports” quote was specifically in the context of a critic asking about if there was intentionality that could be inferred from the season as a whole. It doesn’t shock me that there’d be even less concern about thematic cohesion for individual episodes. There’s a few exceptions, like in “Home” where you can go, “look these characters are talking about their homes or in their homes,” but even those are shallow. Critics have said, without irony, that “boxes” is a theme of an episode on this show.
I can live with “female agency” being the strongest thread, though most of me assumes it’s happenstance.
Jess: I would also argue that thematic threads within individual episodes that pop up, especially in the first two seasons, are probably an accidental result of grouping chapters from the book together, that Martin intentionally wrote with thematic connection, on screen.
Dan: Along similar lines, the “others” are the focus of this story and the way that the patriarchal structure robs them of the agency Julia touched on. Whether it is the women of the story or the men who rank lower in the social hierarchy due to their birth (Jon, Mycah) or appearance (Tyrion). Cat and Cersei represent opposing examples of the type of woman who might be able to survive in this sort of world. They’re paralleled multiple times in this episode, but by the end of the season we’ll find out just how successful Cersei is compared to Cat.
I’d argue that even Ned and Bobby’s scene works to play out that idea of agency and control, especially as it relates to female characters. Women are, to Robert, playthings at best. Even as he finds joy in sex with the barmaids of his past, he demonizes Dany for sex as well purely because her “breeding” plays a direct threat to his power where a barmaid “spreading her legs” poses no danger to him.
Even the title ties in here. All of the characters (Dany aside) are traveling to meet what they think are their destinies. But the only way they can get there is the Kingsroad, a direct line to the seat of power robbing them of all of their agency.
Most of this, like Jess said, is probably because they’re still sticking to Martin, so the sorts of things he was doing are still intact.
Cracks in the plaster (the bullshit to come)
Julia: There might be a bit of a crack in the way Doreah and her sex lesson was framed and filmed. Ya know, two women having sexy-times in a very heterosexual context.
Jess: Oh yes the sex lesson! The overall framing of it in the story was better handled than most of their similar content, but it still felt incredibly male-gazey in terms of how it was filmed. A lot of focus on the bodies.
Kylie: It was Dany’s college experiment!
May I just add, CAROL!!! She makes her shy debut here, though I’d say she doesn’t fully form until Season 3. I’m not sure if this is a crack in a plaster officially? It’s definitely indicative of what’s to come with Cersei (she’s just a sad, put-upon mom, guys), but their penning of her was more a choice to write someone entirely new than like, “we’re erasing Cat’s political ambitions.” Which was also a thing this episode again.
Julia: The very first Put Upon Carol Monologue cannot be ignored.
Jess: Most definitely the Carol Monologue! I kind of forgot how both bad and strange of a choice it was. What a fundamental misunderstanding of her character and that’s right off the bat. If they were in love with this monologue so much I wish they would have at least intended it as disingenuous. The Cat stuff is pretty bad too. Motherhood has to be the only defining trait for these female characters.
Dan: It’s 100% the sex stuff. It’s where they get their sexposition in, which was the single biggest recurring red flag this season. Plus, we’re already getting hints of Deadpan, as Emilia is having to spend some time outside of “scared and confused foreigner,” and she just can’t really do it. Some say she’s still trying to emote to this day.
Kylie: She wants to, she really wants to. Her face moved in the Solo trailer, didn’t it?
Kylie: CAROL!!! No really, was there any reason you can think that they gave her a dead brown-haired baby with Robert other than to awkwardly seed the parentage reveal? Had they just forgotten A Feast For Crows (or assumed they’d never adapt the prophecy)? Is there a reason this is the change I’m fixated on? (Yes.)
Julia: It’s a very odd choice.
Jess: Yeah…that’s my answer for a lot of these questions. It was certainly the point of the episode that stood out like a sore thumb. In the “Inside the Episode” Benioff says he thinks she’s manipulative, but he “believes her” devastation over the loss of her son. What is she trying to manipulate here or gain? I can understand her needing to feign sympathy to avert any suspicion and do her queenly duty, but they make it out like this moment is supposed to mean something more and certainly give it the time to do so. Also, we are well into the beginning of the staring off into space monologues with emotional music.
Julia: Good point. You kind of touched in this earlier Jess, when you asked if they just skimmed Cersei’s later material. I feel like FeastDance made me know Cersei and the way she thinks quite well, but I can’t imagine how that character would have convinced herself that what she needed to do was randomly tell Cat Tully about the greatest trauma in her life. In fact, Cersei never confides in anyone ever, I don’t think. The closest I can think of is when she tell Sansa about how Robert would always fuck off when she went into labor. So they never understood this character at all, or they never thought she was worthy of their show.
Jess: Yeah, Cersei very rarely reveals truth or trauma about herself. She never wants to be vulnerable. The few times she does you can tell it’s because she feels so in power in the situation, and is considering the other person such a nonviable threat, that she can let down some of her defensive guard without repercussions (i.e. with Sansa). Cat is an adult and the Lady of Winterfell. For Cersei to ever choose to be emotionally vulnerable here, especially given the wider situation with Jon Arryn and Bran, really just doesn’t make sense from a character perspective. And, you can tell from how D&D talk about it that they have no idea what her motivations in this scene are.
Dan: The most glaring change to me is the way they’re handling Khal Drogo and Dany. In the book, the two have affection for each other from the get-go, and Drogo is not some wild beast man for the pretty white girl to “tame.” But D&D decided to go with that, along with a dash of a weird empowerment narrative and just a pinch of over-sexualization. It really lessens the impact of Drogo and helps him seem more villainous than he was in the books.
Kylie: Though of course…in the books given the inherent exploitative nature of that situation, he’s not exactly my nomination for a Nobel Peace Prize. Definitely a different tone, no question.
There was a lot of movement and time passing in this episode. Did this work, or was it hedging into Jon and Sansa on a bullet train territory?
Julia: I think it did work. They actually put effort into reconciling it too. Like, the Dany stuff and the King’s party travelling was clearly happening over a longer period of time, but the stuff in Winterfell could conceivably be in one day. So they went out of their way to say that Cat’s been praying for Bran for more than a month. Nice.
Kylie: Yeah, I agree with you here. Sure, tuned out audiences may not be able to really grasp distance, but there was obviously still a thought to it. Like, “hey if this is all that happens in Winterfell, won’t that seem weird to viewers?” Game of Thrones today doesn’t give the slightest shit, where we get Arya clearly not experiencing more than 24 hours, while Jon and Sansa are on a journey that should be taking months.
Jess: Yeah exactly! It was so strange to also see them consider travel time and location. The title sequence with the map really worked to help establish Dany’s distance from the rest of Westeros and track her journey for viewers. It also helps the viewer feel the separation between the Starks as they all part ways. It just seemed like they cared about establishing it for viewers, but also only sped up time when it made sense for the characters. Everyone is in a state of flux (Cat grieving, Dany’s suffering, Ned and the girls finding their ground in the King’s party, Jon leaving) until the story catches up with them at that moment of change.
Dan: God bless Littlefinger and his jetpack. Can you imagine if they’d stuck with the speed of this episode for the whole show? They wouldn’t have been able to get away with near as much bullshit. They’re using the movement the way it’s supposed to be used, as a time to develop the world and the characters that inhabit it. Not having episodes like this really create a lot of problems later on in the series.
Related to the Carol Monologue: Do you see any Good Guys and Bad Guys emerging here? Or is this all a giant Grey mass?
Julia: Well, the Starks are definitely Good Guys. The whole murder plot set up would imply that the Lannisters are the bad guys, but then there’s that stupid Carol Monologue…ugh. I think the only person who seems a total Bad Guy might be Viserys? But even then, Robert isn’t coming across great, so it’s not like we’re rooting for him to stay king or anything.
Kylie: Even with the Carol monologue, I’d argue Cersei is still fairly villainous. Like, her advocating for Lady’s death was quite clearly driven by pettiness that Robert wouldn’t cut off Arya’s hand, or whatever it is she had been hoping for. The tragic backstory undercut it, sure, but let’s just call her “Thanos.” Because who doesn’t like an open cans of worms?
I guess Drogo is now out of the “bad guy” category since he liked looking at Dany during sex, though I’m not sure how entirely comfortable I am with that framing to begin with. Viserys certainly is “bad guy.” I’m not sure what to make of their framing of Jaime, since he’s been an asshole to everyone but his family and flung Bran from a tower. That’s “bad,” isn’t it?
Jess: I would say in this episode, as per Jack Gleeson’s insane performance, Joffrey is pretty bad. Especially when he takes a blade to Mycah and Arya. The Lannisters overall seem to be the closest we get to “bad,” but they counteract that pretty quickly with Tyrion and Cersei’s sad monologue. Jaime is still being framed as pretty bad, especially with him belittling Jon, but then we get that breakfast scene where we’re shown the bond he shares with Tyrion. It’s that level of greyness where we are still able to root for some over others (the Starks) but have the waters muddied enough that it’s not a hard line. They’re people. Which is nice compared to the villains we get later on in the series. There was less focus on it, but the Hound riding down Mycah also seems quite villainous, and we haven’t gotten any moral ambiguity from him yet. “He ran” is quite the ‘bad guy’ line. Especially when framed against Ned’s righteousness and morality.
Julia: I forgot about Joffery. But it’s hard to see a kid that way. Same for Sandor. Like, it’s clear he’s a henchman more than anything.
Dan: Overall, though, everyone is still occupying actual grey areas. Jaime is pompous but a good brother and seems a little respectful of Jon. Cersei is positioned as a victim of the system like Cat or even Sansa, and even Joffrey is still a petulant idiot and not the complete monster that he’d become. He’s Draco, still, not full Voldemort. Robert would come off a lot worse if Mark Addy weren’t so good. Plus, Lena Headey plays Cersei so villainous that you almost pity Robert even as we see him as a violent, sexist boor. This episode really makes Sansa come across as more of a villain, as the show clearly wants us to empathize with Arya more. Which kind of just starts the trend of the show not knowing how to handle Sansa.
Kylie: It’s also indicative of the “what even is morality” to come. Good guys and bad guys end up doing the same shit, just to different musical cues. At least for now this is a useful question.
Though on the Sansa and Arya point, Dan, Ned is given a line next episode to explain Sansa’s actions in a decently adequate way. It’s not perfect, but people point to the early books as having Arya-favoritism, too.
How was the pacing?
Kylie: I thought the pacing last episode worked. Then this episode came along and I was thinking, “Wow this is much more engaging somehow.” I don’t know…it wasn’t less “dead air” or anything like that, but I think I forgot how much time passed (and still felt like it was passing) and how much ground was covered. My brain was never zoning out or thinking about what lunch I wanted to pack for the following day.
So in a word: good.
Jess: Agreed. The pacing really sped up in this episode without skimming over character moments. It was engaging from start to finish and I think showcases how much you benefit from basically only including what’s necessary and not spending most of your page count trying to fit the run time.
Julia: It was a little overwhelming when thinking of my highlights and lowlights, how many things happened in this episode. But it didn’t feel rushed in the slightest. And it certainly didn’t feel like character was being sacrificed for the plot or anything.
Dan: Agree with all of the above, not much to add. It’s fast paced in some ways as it covers multiple plot threads, but its still relatively slow as episodes go. It leaves plenty of room for character and worldbuilding.
Let’s talk about sex, baby (if applicable)
Julia: Were there even any sex workers in this episode?
Kylie: There was a sex slave, does that count? I don’t think we get Ros flashing Theon until next episode though.
But no, all we’ve really got is Dany’s sexual education, which we touched on already. So a very chaste episode of this show, when you get down to it.
Jess: Surprising lack of sex, especially considering the reputation this show has. However questionable it is, at least the Dany stuff was tied directly to character.
Dan: I don’t care for how they messed with Drogo to make this episode’s stuff work for Dany, but I think there was most likely a conscious effort to limit the sex stuff to as it was written. Vague “feminist” points.
Is it holding up?
Jess: I would say it is for sure and I feel most of the first season will. It feels like intelligent storytelling and looks like it’s made by people who care about the material. I’m sure some of that comes from a lower budget on such a high production value show, making it a passion project by default, as well as sticking closely with the successful source material. This episode was so enjoyable and I definitely miss feeling that way about the show. Still, the little cracks stand out like craters now knowing how big they grow and where they end up.
Julia: Yes, for sure. There was a lot of world building in this episode and most of it felt very natural. I like the bits about dragons especially.
Kylie: And that was without anyone in a tub! (No really, I’m excited for that scene.) But yes, this is again, a decent adaptation, and a decent show. I’m finding Dany’s storyline far less convincing than I did the first time around, but contextualized by everything else, I would think it keeps the show in the “let’s wait and see how this plays out” category for most first-time viewers.
Dan: This is one of my favorite episodes of the show, and I don’t know if I can really say why. It just has so many good moments. I mean, think of just how many memes this episode birthed (whether they were in the book at first or not): The Tyrion Slap, “wear it like armor, “a mind needs books,” Tyrion’s eyebrows, and most of what Bobby B said. Might be a bad omen considering how obsessed with being memetic the show became, but it really was a great episode then and holds up now.
In memoriam: Lady, Mycah, and “You’re Not Supposed to Be Here” Catspaw
Kylie: It doesn’t matter that I knew it was coming and I knew exactly how it was staged, Lady’s death hit me like a truck. I had to keep telling myself, “It’s okay, Sophie Turner adopted her in real life,” after the episode cut to black. Ugh. I feel bad that this overshadowed Mycah, but damn it’s effective.
Jess: Lady’s death will never not be sad. Sophie Turner acts her face off in this scene and Sean Bean’s stoic solemness, trying to hold in all the anger, sadness, and guilt really hits hard. I also wish Mycah’s death had its time for the audience to process but Sean Bean is so good here that he kind of does it for us, building up to this suffocating feeling of danger and grief.
Julia: I’m a horrible person, but the Catspaw was more funny than anything. Why would you draw attention to yourself like that? What did he think would happen?
Dan: The catspaw just looks like a Frey, which kind of makes his fucking up understandable. Mycah was whatever, because we’ve no real attachment to him. Lady, yeah, that was rough. But I’ve always loved what Lady’s death meant for Sansa and what it represented for of the direwolves. So it’s a sad death, but it’s one of the most important in the first season.
Kylie: I’m team #ThrowRocksAtDirewolves. Come on Ned, join that club.
Thus concludes another chapter in The Wars to Come. Please let us know your impressions [re]watching it below. Do you think it’s holding up as a solid episode? Are we over-blowing the cracks in the plaster? We have such questions, and as we’re on this journey, an eagerness to continue. We’ll see you next Tuesday.
Images courtesy of HBO
Crazy Ex Girlfriend through a Sondheim Lens
Full spoilers for all 3 seasons of Crazy Ex Girlfriend.
I don’t make my love for Crazy Ex Girlfriend a secret. It’s essentially media wish-fulfillment for me: a musical dramedy with an loudly jewish female protagonist that seeks to deconstruct tropes and storytelling conventions about how women are typically written, served alongside mental health positivity and an optimistic take on humanity. It’s clever, it’s meaningful, it’s unapologetic, and I cannot express how relieved I am that it’s renewed for a 4th and final season—the season that was always planned as its end-point.
So it’s with great chagrin that I’ve got a bit of a “but” to add here. Because while all this is true, I struggled a little with Season 3. It’s not that I found it any less pointed or intelligent, but I did feel that structurally there were issues. Something seemed like it was missing…just some kind of absent je ne sais quoi that the first two seasons possessed. Then there were also some story beats that suddenly appeared, rather than the usual meticulous seeding and build-up to which I grew accustomed.
This isn’t to say I disliked Season 3, because I found a ton of value in it. But I did feel that there was a little bit of prioritization of themes at the cost of a cohesive story. Paula suddenly being the “office bitch”, Heather impulsively agreeing to be Darryl’s surrogate after criticizing Rebecca for the exact same thing… The best example is probably in the finale, where Rebecca pleads “guilty.” In all these cases it’s clear what the writers are going for; Rebecca is being very literally haunted by her past, since you can’t just skate with no repercussions, even you personally take a step towards healing. She wants to atone for all the messed up stuff she’s done, hence her pleading “responsible” initially.
Except she’s an amazing lawyer who surely understands that she isn’t actually guilty of attempted second-degree murder, which is what the charge was. Sure, it’s important to not plead “insanity,” but “innocent” was a perfectly viable option! Pleading guilty, while thematically satisfying and good in a character arc, pushes the scene out of the realm of believability. Even Paula, who was obviously moved by that, probably would have known that there’s a way to repair their relationship that doesn’t involve admitting to a literal murder charge. And yes, the writers seem to know this wasn’t a rational decision on Rebecca part, but it still stretches characterization further than seems advisable.
I guess I’m lucky that all this was only a mild disappointment, but it’s for that reason that I haven’t really written anything on Season 3 as a whole yet. I think my solution was to wait and see the 4th season, because I do still have incredible faith in showrunners Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna to close out this narrative in a satisfying and meaningful way. I simply contented myself to let a vaguely outlined piece on the structural issues of Season 3 sit in a Google Doc, where I never touched it. The one time I tried, I ended up writing about how Crazy Ex Girlfriend’s command of diegesis is the model modern musicals should take, because it marries our gritty media realism trend to the dreamlike qualities of musical theater.
And now I realize that was my mistake all along: I shouldn’t have been analyzing Crazy Ex Girlfriend through the lens I use for most TV and movies…I need a musical lens. Specifically, I needed to view Season 3 through the eyes of Stephen Sondheim musicals.
Entering the world of the hat
Before you accuse me of it, yes, picking Sondheim specifically is mostly self-serving. But I have also spent a fair amount of time tracking down interviews and podcasts with Rachel Bloom (she never gives the same exact answer twice—it’s kind of incredible), and can confirm her love of the man too. She’s said her ideal Broadway role would be Dot from Sunday in the Park with George or Squeaky Fromme from Assassins, the latter of which happens to be her favorite musical, too. So I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Crazy Ex Girlfriend as an art form may have been influenced to some degree by the works of Stephen Sondheim.
Let’s talk about those works briefly, though. Sondheim’s musicals are diverse in subject matter, takeaways, and central themes. However, that’s not to say there aren’t commonalities, or that his style is malleable. While what he’s ‘known for’ often gets boiled down to lyrical cleverness by critics, a stronger feature of his music is that he writes with actors in mind. Emotional queues are almost embedded into his songs. It doesn’t matter what poor sap is singing “Franklin Shephard, Inc.”…the strength of the phrasing and flow lends itself to the breakdown in a way that is always going to be convincing.
Then, I can’t state this any better than Elaine Stritch and Bernadette Peters, but Sondheim consistently has lyrical depth. His songs are gut-punches usually, but layered gut-punches at that.
His melodies are a bit unconventional, in that you’re unlikely to be able to sing his songs the first go-around. Contrast that to Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber, who can generally write tunes you’re able to pick up by the final verse. Of course there’s exceptions, but if you want an at-home experiment, see how well you follow the melody of this versus this.
You can tell just from interviews that Sondheim is a perfectionist, a horrible overthinker, and permanently never fully satisfied with the end result. If you’ve had the pleasure of reading Finishing the Hat and Look, I Made a Hat, he spells it out on the page in a way that bridges aspirational and concerning.
His neuroses are not incredibly dissimilar to Rebecca Bunch as a protagonist. It’s perhaps for that reason that the themes he tends to like exploring are shockingly relevant to the show. I don’t think it’s constructive to give you a laundry list of all of them, but typical features of Sondheim musicals include family strife, ambivalent views on love and relationships, obsession (of self, others, or ways obsessive behavior unfolds), and disillusionment.
Otherwise known as Crazy Ex Girlfriend Season 3.
Reaching through the world of the hat like a window
When I first began thinking about the last season through a Sondheimian lens, it was thanks to a song added to Merrily We Roll Along after its unsuccessful first broadway outing:
“So, old friends, now it’s time to start growing up. Taking charge, seeing things as they are. Facing facts, not escaping them; still with dreams, just reshaping them. Growing up.”
It often annoys me when stories are described as “coming-of-age” tales for adult characters. For instance, the dialogue surrounding Kylo Ren complete with The Last Jedi writer/director Rian Johnson saying he was transitioning from “adolescence to adulthood” was particularly grating, since it felt a little like robbing him of his agency as a fully grown man who is also a fascist and makes these messed up choices on his own accord.
At the same time, Crazy Ex Girlfriend is very much about Rebecca Bunch coming into her own as an adult—coming to understand her identity specifically by shedding her childish idealization of romance and fairy tales. Hell, she takes responsibility for herself for really the first time at the end of Season 3. But the thing is, as Sondheim eloquently puts it, “Growing up, understanding that growing never ends.”
This is something hammered again and again by the show. We need look no further than Darryl or Paula to see that they’ve more than delivered on definitive adults who still are pushed towards betterment and maturity. Darryl is impulsive and too lead by his feelings, and he learns not to go to the extreme with his ideas while still acting on his wants. Paula meets Rebecca when she’s in a complete rut, discovers the absence in her life due to her lack of risk taking, and pursues her law degree. Rebecca herself is never treated like an adolescent free of agency; any infantilization that occurs is of her own doing (see: the introductory song in Season 2), and ultimately to her detriment.
It’s for this reason I thought about how Crazy Ex Girlfriend perfectly meshes with Merrily We Roll Along, at least in its second act (which happens first chronologically). Rebecca is the Joe, with her idealized dreams that come crashing down. However “Growing Up” reaches a drastically conclusion for her; where Joe allows himself to be swayed/seduced by Gussie that leads him towards an empty path—one where he shirks responsibility and commitment to his friends—Rebecca rejects Nathaniel and prioritizes absolution from Paula instead. The choice offered was nearly the same, yet the choosing leads to wildly different, and more uplifting outcomes (ironically as she’s facing years in prison).
Where this analogy falls apart is that the tragedy of Merrily We Roll Along is in the backwards timeline of the play; we see our main cast get happier, and freer, and full of hope knowing that things end up with the bitter end of their friendship. Crazy Ex Girlfriend is the would-be the opposite experience, where we see our central character in a healthier place, even if it may be a bit more of a serious and adult place. Rebecca was never *happy* to begin with, so much as she’d delude herself. In fact, part of the reason she’s so drawn to Josh is that he’s happy to get to that level with her.
Disillusionment itself, along with the theme of taking responsibility, is something straight out of Assassins. The entire musical serves as a deconstruction and break-down of the American dream through the eyes of history’s presidential assassins (would-be and successful). However in each of their cases, there’s a reason they did it…something blame. They did it to make their friends listen, or because they were told they’d be ambassador to France. Obviously Rebecca is a far more stable person than a murderer, but we do see a similar determination to rationalize her behavior, particularly in Season 1. If she does bad things (like literal stalking) in the name of love, it’s okay, right?
Of course, she’s a good guy whereas the assassins are, you know…assassins, which is why she rejects the mutual conclusion that they come to in “Another National Anthem.” She wasn’t just screwed by the system, or romantic rivals, or even her mental illness. She is fully responsible for what she does, and those actions have influence on others.
It’s actually a collective responsibility, as she’s been aided over the years, mostly by Paula. Rebecca taking the out Nathaniel offered would have impacted Paula most of all, sending the strong message that there’s no need to ever own up to your shit if you can justify it well enough. Nothing is ever anyone’s fault, right? I mean, she was given those beans; they persuaded her to trade away her cow for beans. And without those beans there’d have been no stalk to get up to the giants in the first place!
Except like in Into the Woods, placing the blame and passing the buck gets rejected. No one is alone in the sense that responsibility is never individualistic. Rebecca owning up to her past is the first step in healing the circle around her. “Fight for their mistakes, everybody makes…one another’s terrible mistakes.”
In some ways, that’s the note I expected Crazy Ex Girlfriend to end on. Yet there’s a Season 4, and more story to be told. If Into the Woods is the direction, then I suppose it ends with a group number to the same effect. Yet we have other Sondheim options into which we can delve.
I should quickly point out that while A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is parodic in a way Crazy Ex Girlfriend is, the comparison for that particular musical ends there. And Rebecca had her Sweeney Todd revenge story as a Scary Scary Sexy Lady, so we can probably rule those out. And unless she becomes the Mayor of West Covina or spends the entirety of Season 4 bemoaning the loss of spoken Yiddish among jewish populations in the US, I’m quite certain we can rule out Anyone Can Whistle and Pacific Overtures too.
What does that leave us with? Well, there’s Follies, where Sondheim holds neurotic self-indulgence under a lens. There’s also a love trapezoid of doom, which was carefully picked apart in Season 2. Oh and the musical numbers within the show are pastiches. The influence this had on Crazy Ex Girlfriend almost slams you over the head, particularly when it boils down to two couples discovering unpleasant truths about their pasts and presents. The collapse of innocence isn’t something that’s going to be hand-waved by this show, though I have to imagine the ending may be slightly more uplifting. There is a self-consciousness to the show that mirrors the attitude of Sunday in the Park with George, but given how wildly different the demons are that Sondheim was working out to the type of bubbly, expressive character Rebecca is, it’s hard to draw many parallels. And I have to assume time-travel is off the table.
Which leaves us with the two incredibly relationship-focused musicals: A Little Night Music and Company. Where the former is concerned, the ending isn’t incredibly. In fact, the musical itself isn’t incredibly deep, though the score certainly is. Sondheim originally didn’t even want to write it after reading Hugh Wheeler’s book he was to use (a friend talked him into it since he was given free rein on the music). Basically, a bunch of people realize who they’re actually in love with and commit to each other in the end.
This…could happen. But I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t find it odd. It’s not that I don’t understand shipping Rebecca and Josh or Nathaniel, but it would just seem so uncharacteristically cliched if the end spot was “ho hum we’re all happy now because love.” Rebecca is certainly deserving of love, and her very visceral fear of intimacy is distressing; I’m hoping she comes to a healthy place with that. And that could necessitate her ending up with someone. But the tone of that would, I’m guessing, be worlds different from say, the tone of Henrik and Anne running off.
However, it’s Company that I believe offers the best solution. This is a concept musical of Sondheim’s that loosely follows a commitment-phobic man in his 30s struggling to understand relationships. Bobby learns a lot from his married friends, and ultimately comes to a place where he realizes he’s open to love and all the messiness it entails…as much of a pain as it is. He goes from bemoaning convincing a woman to stay longer than just a night, to being okay with a very safe and deluded idea of marriage, to being willing to have emotionally vulnerability in a relationship.
Rebecca Bunch is almost the exact opposite of Bobby. She comes in willing to crowd someone with love (and wanting to be crowded herself) to the point where she romanticizes her not-so-bright former crush and West Covina, California. It’s her obsession in the way it’s Bobby’s phobia. Yet I think there’s a way for those two character arcs to converge. In fact, Bobby’s “Marry Me a Little” ambivalent fantasy is not dissimilar to the idealized outcomes Rebecca imagined in a marriage with Josh.
“And then, in a wonderful way Everything in the past will just fall away My daddy will love me And my mommy will love me And Josh will love me and then I’ll never have problems again.”
In both cases, neither of them had the concept of a sustainable relationship really understood…just what they’d get out of it. Then they both kept growing.
Rebecca obviously doesn’t need a “Being Alive” moment in that she’s never needed convincing to open herself to love. But she does need to open herself to vulnerability. If she finds someone, it’s someone she has to recognize is as frightened as she is of being alive, and that’s okay. Because it’s not about love curing everything, but about healthy relationships that allow you to grow individually.
“Somebody make me come through, I’ll always be there.”
This is the spot that Rebecca seems destined to reach. She’s a good person, right? Well there’s nothing more to that point than taking healthy approaches towards relationships, romantic and platonic alike. She deserves both and shouldn’t fear either, but instead must learn to trust in herself to be okay getting there.
Which is exactly what Season 3 set up.
Images courtesy of The CW
The Antagonists Are Back in Sorceress of Darshiva
In my last article I said that there weren’t concrete antagonists in Demon Lord of Karanda. Well, this book solves that problem, providing antagonists in spades. Sorceress of Darshiva, published in 1989, is the penultimate book of the Mallorean. It also brings a sense of danger and threat from our actual antagonists rather than secondary ones. Yes, Zandramas actually shows up in this novel. And as more than just a shadow at that, and it’s everything the series needed. Eddings also does some fascinating stuff with un-rooting the Angarak people from the systems introduced by Torak. Overall, Sorceress of Darshiva is one of my favorite novels in the whole series, and for good reason.
Spoilers for all of Sorceress of Darshiva, and all of David Eddings’s previous books.
Sorceress of Darshiva starts with our protagonists following Zandramas to Melcene. Melcene is a series of islands that house the commercial trading center of the east, and Silk is very at home there. Belgarath, Garion, and Beldin meet Senji, a clubfoot alchemist. He accidentally discovered sorcery in an attempt to turn lead to gold. Senji has one of the three original copies of the Ashabine Oracles. It’s a McGuffin that they’ve been chasing for two books now, and the payoff is excellent, and will be discussed in depth below. Senji also tells them that Cthrag Sardius was kept at the University for a number of decades.
After the meeting with Senji, the company finds out that Zandramas brought Baron Otrath with her when she left Melcena. He’s a cousin of Zakath’s, and Zandramas plans to use him as the Angarak king for the prophecy. We also see several POV changes in this period. Queen Porenn calls a meeting of the Alorn council upon receiving news of what happened in Mallorea. The Council decides to fake an alliance with Urgit to bring some of Zakath’s attention off of Darshiva and his attempt to location Garion and company.
Eventually, Zakath recaptures Garion and company traveling through Darshiva, on their way to Kell. Cyradis persuades him to join them, and they continue on their way to Kell. Zandramas fights with the ghost of Poledra, Belgarath’s wife. Durnik smashes two demon lords and is officially a disciple of Aldur. At the very end of the book, Garion picks up she-wolf and her cub. Belgarath and Beldin remember that Grolim’s can’t enter Kell and that the location of the Place Which Is No More is in Kell. They deduce that they are finally ahead of Zandramas, and the book ends.
Torak, the Dragon God of Angarak
The novel begins with a prologue from a Melcene history book. It details the foundation of the Melcene nation and how it fused with the Mallorean Empire. Considering that it provides a summary of those nations since the beginning of the world, it obviously mentions the now dead god. It’s been discussed before about how it’s the systems that Torak set up that are evil, not the people in those systems. This prologue shows that in effect. The historians describe Mallorea and Melcena as almost a utopia before Torak shows up before Vo Mimbre.
“A reign of terror descended upon Mallorea. … In one stroke, Torak’s disciples overturned millennia of military and bureaucratic rule and returned absolute dominion to the Grolims.” (p. 6).
This moment shows most clearly how it’s the systems that Torak set up that Garion and company despise. The forced conversion, which parallels a Western view of the totalitarian communism of the USSR. Generational indoctrination is a powerful thing, and it happened at Torak’s behest. The god who wears a mask made of iron and cracked the world.
But Torak also shows up outside ancient history. When Garion finally finds a copy of the Ashabine Oracles, he discovers that Torak directly addresses him. Belgarath calls it Torak’s one moment of sanity. It tells Garion that “what is foretold in these pages is an abomination. Do not let it come to pass.” (p. 95). Torak admits that his side winning is an abomination and tells his would-be killer to stop it. Then, later, he destroys it. It’s the willful self delusion that forms the central critique of the Soviet Union. That it broadcast the idea of the communist ideal while being otherwise.
Zandramas, the Child of Dark
In addition to the dead Child of Dark, we see the current Child of Dark as well. They’re both antagonists, and they both have the same place in the prophecy, but this book makes them distinct. It does this by exploring Zandramas’s history and by actually giving us two glimpses into her point of view.
In Zandramas’s point of view, we see constellations rise beneath her skin. Zandramas attributes this to the Dark Prophecy exerting more of it’s power over her. We can see that she’s terrified. These moments also allow us to see Geran, the emotional center of this, for the first time since the first book. We see that Zandramas makes sure he’s taken care of, but doesn’t want him inconveniencing her. She leaves his care to Naradas and another priestess.
Zandramas’s terror and her overall plan, as discovered by her history, make her distinct from Torak. She began life as a priestess of Torak, working under Naradas. Then, after Torak died, the Dark Spirit took control of her, and she ran wild for years. When she returned to the temple, she charmed everyone into working for her. She preached that a New God would come and she would be his bride.
Torak always wanted to be the center of everything. Kal Torak literally means king and god. He dominated Angarak and demanded human sacrifice, but he wasn’t ever loved. Garion won because of that. Zandramas learned from the Dark Prophecy’s mistakes. She doesn’t want to be a god, she just wants to be the power behind the throne, both secular and spiritual. This corresponds to the transitional period of communism, where the USSR traded with capitalist countries before it collapsed.
Cthrag Sardius, the Sardion
Juxtaposed against the human motivations of our other antagonists, we see the Sardion. This book solidifies what the Sardion is. In essence, it’s the evil counterpart of the Orb of Aldur. The two stones were originally one stone, but they were divided and now they war against each other.
But, unlike the Orb of Aldur, a band of ‘savages’ found the Sardion and their generations polished it, like Aldur polished the Orb. Eventually the Melcene Empire collected it for their library, and it stayed there for millennia. Then, when the Battle of Vo Mimbre happened on the other side of the world, a historian stole it. His ship sank, and the Sardion with it. Cyradis told everyone that the Sardion is in the Place Which Is No More, where the final meeting will take place.
But the real horror of Cthrag Sardius lies in what it will do to Geran. One of the requirements for the final meeting is a sacrifice. In this case, it’s a person who will hold both the Orb of Aldur and the Sardion in their hands. With the both of them they’ll have unlimited power to reshape the world. The new god of Angarak will either heal the world, or destroy it utterly. Zandramas wants Geran to destroy the world and make it in the image of the Dark Prophecy.
It is that image, Geran with both stones in his hands, that so terrified Torak. That is why Garion might have to kill his only son. The idea of the world falling to communism routinely terrified people during the Cold War. They taught their children to glorify America, as the anti-communist utopia instead. Geran’s eventual fate takes that and twists it in a way that horrifies the characters and the readers.
The Final Un-Rooting of Systemic Evil
One of the subplots in Sorceress of Darshiva is how Urgit manages to finally reject and exile Agachak. He lays down the law, and Cthol Murgos transitions to one where the church’s, and Torak’s, lingering influence diminishes. Previously, Urgit’s advisors, including Agachak and his father’s generals, ruled his behavior. Now, after some advice from Garion, he’s managed to root them out. Agachak goes to the absolutely stupid Gethel of Thull, and convinces him to join him in Mallorea. But it’s still a victory for Urgit and for the light. It’s the proactive nature of someone who won’t be controlled again, and who won’t allow his country to be controlled either.
Urgit also has a victory in his pseudo-alliance with the Alorns. While on the Alorn side, it is purely a diversion for Zakath, on Urgit’s side it’s something more genuine. He wants peace with his ancestral enemies, and he’s taking steps to secure it and to step further away from the dark.
Zakath’s transition to the light also takes place in this book as well. Once he recaptures Garion and the rest, Zakath originally wants to send them to Mal Zeth. With Cyradis’s command, that changes. Cyradis reveals that Zakath is the Empty One, another figure of prophecy on the side of the light. After a few moments of internal conflict, Zakath agrees to go with them. Immediately afterwards, it’s like a personality transplant. Zakath, Emperor of Mallorea, had been grim and shied away from doing violence himself. Zakath, friend of Garion, can only be described as Arendish. Laughing at everything, getting into every possible fight, and with some other indefinable Arendish quality to him. He’s acting like someone from the ‘civilized West’ rather than someone from Angarak, and that speaks to this unrooting.
The un-rooting of Torak’s influence also plays out on sacred grounds as well. While Garion and company travel through Peldane and Darshiva, they see many different temples. All the masks above the temples, that once showed Torak’s face, are now blank. Urvon and Zandramas fight all through Peldane and Darshiva over who the new god will be, but this change says more than that. It’s a preparation for a new god, either Urvon, Geran, or whoever Garion chooses.
It’s not only the people preparing for a new god, the possibility of the new gods are also preparing. Before their capture by Zakath, the company winds up in an abandoned farmhouse for shelter. An old Grolim comes to them, and offers them food and hospitality. He talks about how he heard the voice of the new god, and now he decorates the altar with flowers and repents everything he did for Torak. He believes that the Light god prepared him to be its first disciple. A Grolim, someone inside the power structure determined as evil, repenting and being a driving force for good is new, and excellent for the philosophy of the work.
The current existing Prophecy makes an appearance shortly after the Grolim disappears and says all of this. He then goes on to say, “when Destiny is reunited, there should be a new voice. … Millions of years of enmity between us have warped our perceptions a bit … I’m not suited to deal with a united universe. I’ve got too many old grudges. The new voice can start out fresh without any preconceptions.” (p. 146). Those grudges and preconceptions are exactly why Eddings is being so careful to change the perception of the Angaraks by characters and readers alike. To accept the fictional and actual antagonists as people.
In 1989, Eddings published Sorceress of Darshiva and the Berlin Wall fell. That symbolic fall prophesied the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. There’s no mistake in the fact that he combines the final moments of un-rooting with preparations for a future afterwards. This book focuses heavily on the antagonists, yes, but it also finalizes that change in the people previously stigmatized by their association with them. That Torak’s moment of sanity, Zandramas’s fear, Zakath’s acceptance, and Agachak’s banishment all occur in the same book is important.
It signals all of that preparation for the future. By showing the quasi-human nature of our antagonists, except the Sardion, it makes the readers more likely to accept their followers as people with hearts and souls. By un-rooting the enemies turned allies from the systems that made them enemies, it does the same thing. That this all happens the year the Berlin Wall fell is hyper significant. It’s a symbolic gesture, yes, but symbols and stories mean things. Who better to know that than an English teacher with a predisposition for archetypes? Eddings may not have realized that he was writing a metaphor for the Cold War, but it’s there in his symbols and his philosophy nonetheless, especially here, and especially now.
Image Courtesy of Del Rey Books
Dr. Strange May Be A Truly Cult Movie
Watching Dr Strange was a truly strange experience for me. I sat before the screen expecting two hours of mindless fun as I watch a self-absorbed jerk become something like a decent guy. You know, this ever-present and ever-satisfying “break the haughty” narrative. A safe bet, not too harsh on the haughty (it’s MCU, after all), but harsh enough we cheer him getting his comeuppance. What it turned into, was two hours of flashbacks as I watched a haughty jerk being broken and brainwashed into a cult.
Probably I wouldn’t react that badly if this experience was not something from my personal past. Things I saw at the screen were excruciatingly familiar. I couldn’t help rooting for the jerk, because I knew all too well what it is, feeling that you are nobody, that the world is crumbling around you—and then being handed something like a power over it.
And while I am sure that it was nowhere near authorial intent, I couldn’t help wondering how many people—impressionable, vulnerable people—would buy into the narrative and turn to some secret knowledge to cope with their illnesses or insecurities. After all, Kamar Taj, both in appearance and in teaching, is very far from fantasyland. You can find dozens of wannabe Ancient Ones just around the corner, waiting for easy prey.
Yeah, sounds very purple, but let me show you why am I so agitated.
What Is a Cult?
A cult—also a totalitarian cult, toxic cult or destructive cult—is a religious or posing as a religious organisation which teachings and practice are designed to achieve and execute total control over its members’ life and death. Not quite a lucid definition, and that’s why the thin line between a cult and a new religious movement is so thin. The subject is controversial, the “cult” word is thrown around as a slur and generally only time we can safely use the definition is, while talking fiction or the cults that 100% exposed themselves as such via some drastic action. Mass suicide or terrorist attack, usually, and sometimes both.
But still there is a list (several lists, but they mostly talk the same things in different wording) of traits that may alarm you that the group is most probably toxic. Let me show how astonishingly well Kamar Taj fits the criteria. Then I’ll try to demonstrate how typical dr Strange’s situation actually is and what usual manipulative tactics were employed to guarantee his loyalty. I’ll use the list provided by M. Kuzmin in his thesis.
1. A Teaching that Rationalises and Encourages Control and Manipulation
They don’t just brainwash—they do it for the greater good and to prevent lesser ones from slipping on the path to salvation. Or something like that. It is prime trait of a toxic cult; a pity it is not easy to see it through, as the real teaching is not revealed until a person is considered “ready” (read: is totally broken).
Through the movie we hear Mordu describing his own path into Kamar Taj. He tells how he went there to get weapons and training sufficient to fight his foes and was promised to get those. Then he was made to go through usual training routine until he understood that his past—name included—was nothing and Kamar Taj was everything and he is destined to be its adherent. Though he recognises manipulation, he not only completely justifies it, but also expresses hope such would be dr Strange’s fate, too.
And indeed, no one in the Kamar Taj is anywhere near ashamed of stringing along a desperate disabled person with promises of healing all the while basically training him as a cannon fodder for future battles.
2. The Leader, Regarded as an Absolute Unquestionable Authority
While there are some cults that have group leadership, this figure is almost inevitable when we talk about the cult, as they are built around them. The guru may proclaim themselves a literal god (or God), as Shoko Asahara or Maria Devi Christ did, or a prophet, as Jim Jones. They can even settle for indefinite “possessor of the knowledge”, as Marshall Applewhite. No matter what they chose, entire existence of the cult depends on their very person and something only they know or can do.
Does Kamar Taj have such a person? Oh, certainly. The Ancient One is just that; an absolute, infallible guru who is right even when she is actually wrong, and whose actions are not for the lesser minds to judge. She wields absolute authority over her acolytes and can make them fight using real weapons or even leave for dead on a whim. All the while the very idea that she may be wrong is a heresy for the loyal Kamar Taj members, and a sign something is “unwell” with the person in question.
3. The Teaching Changes When Situation Changes, But It Is Never Acknowledged
They promised us the world’s end and it didn’t come? Oh, you see, it was not the real end. It was never about something like that. Or better: yesterday they taught absolute monogamy, but now the guru is caught cheating. So, as the guru is never wrong…
Well, we have an entire plot point, no less, dedicated to this exact rule of cult. So, the entire Kamar Taj had existed for ages on a premise that Dark Energy is bad and corrupting and everything Dark Dimension is vile. But lo! The guru used dark energy to sustain her all those innumerable years! She must be a crank, then? A liar, who forbid her loyal acolytes the thing she had been doing all along?
Nah. No way, You see, the rules exist to break them and cheat, and if you think the rules that you were manipulated to accept as a final truth matter, you are our next bad guy.
Or was it an instance of the next cult rule?
4. Each Subsequent Hierarchical Level Is Granted a Different Version of “Truth”
Basically this is the most glaring distinction between a religion, whatever new, and a cult. You join a religion, and you know what does it teach and what do you subscribe to. If it was one god, three goddesses and a ritual cup of tea every three hours when not asleep, that’s it all along. With a cult, you join for a god, three goddesses and a cup of tea, but then learn that it’s not tea but actually vodka, and when you progress in the ranks you may learn that there is one goddess and no god at all, and then – that gods are nothing, only guru matters. And then something.
The teaching of Kamar Taj does change from rank to rank, too. You come to them because they are healers and martial artists. If you are fit for them, you learn about astral and the source code of the Universe. Next level, and you learn the purpose of Kamar Taj is to protect Earth from a certain other dimension and you have to obey strict rules unless you would harm our world. Even next level, and the rules matter nothing and result is all. And then something.
To save time and space let me not delve into other very fitting criteria—like having a teaching that combines syncretic religion with pseudo-science, that justifies and even encourages violence towards critics and ex-members of the cult, that encourages active service in “do whatever you are told” way… Kamar Taj is already cult-like enough.
But nothing proves it as well as main character’s story. Just look for yourself.
Cult Brainwashing 101
So, we have a man in his late thirties/mid-forties, the age of crisis. This man suffers an accident and is now disabled. As his only profession requires the very ability he’s lost, he searches for rehabilitation and encounters a rumour of miraculous healer. Desperate, he goes for it and gradually becomes an active member of a group that presents itself as Earth’s only hope and secret guardians. He never heals and is never able to go back to work. Also, he leaves the world forever, going on to live on the group’s premises.
Huh, sounds familiar, doesn’t it? But it can get worse.
Our hero roams the world in search of the healer, until he encounters a group of thugs. Those thugs beat him violently and destroy the last memento of his previous life: his wristwatch. Only then a member of the group intervenes and quickly saves the day. He waits, because he was told to wait. Because apparently our hero needs…something. Do you know what? He needs to lose everything and to be on his utmost vulnerable when presented with the cult teaching—and to be thankful for help. While not too common, the tactic is widely employed irl. It ensures bigger susceptibility of the adherent-to-be through combination of humiliation and gratitude.
Also, the very exhaustion he suffers because Kamar Taj remains hidden from him is quite helpful, too. Exhausted people are not quite able to think critically, as analysis and logic require much energy and all energy they have goes to sustaining them alive and upright.
And Then Some
Moving on, our hero is presented with some mumbo-jumbo and then graced with a very, VERY acid vision. While here it’s magical in nature, it would be literal acid irl. Secretly feeding newcomers with hallucinogens is a very, very common tactic of those cults that emphasise and promise secret knowledge and spiritual experience. Bright, wild hallucinations make people believe that they were granted visions and have some supernatural power in them.
So, our hero’s weakened mind is bombarded with mumbo-jumbo, followed by acid visions “proving” the mumbo-jumbo is actually true. Nice. But not perfect. To add a final touch, our hero is cast away and left on the street with nothing but his clothes, broken watch and a promise of miraculous healing. He has nowhere to go but to the c… Kamar Taj. But the Ancient One knows her manipulation 101 and makes him yell, beg, despair. He has to wish for acceptance with all his heart, to see no other way. He must beg, because nothing is as effective as humiliation.
Except for a death threat, of course. Being humiliated AND left in a mortal peril is much better. Do I need to remind our hero is subjected to it?
Conclusion (Or Lack Thereof)
My goal was not to imply the authors of the movie did all that on purpose. Never would I even dream of such a thing.
What I actually think is, that the authors used the same tropes the real-life cults use in recruiting new members and promoting their teaching. Those tropes are widely popular in popular culture—which is actually the very reason the cults use them. Familiarity is quite important when encountering something new. Things already at least seemingly familiar attract much more trust and attention than completely new ones.
Combined with several instances of what I consider authorial tone-deafness, this lead to a load of unfortunate implications. As with Thanos, the end result is horrifying idea no author would’ve supported as it is, but accidentally promoted.