Redemption arcs. They are so popular, I would almost dare to call them a trope. As Billy Flynn would say, ‘there is one thing people cannot resist, and that is a reformed sinner.’ It makes redemption arcs one of the most compelling narratives in any kind of media, and also one of the most popular ones. Whenever there is barely a hint of a chance at redemption, or even a redeeming factor in play, fans start imagining redemption stories even if the original media is not cooperating. But what is it that we usually get when we get them?
The Love Of A Good Woman
This is probably the most cliché option, and one of the most problematic ones. It was what people were worried about happening in The Last Jedi, and we all breathed a collective sigh of relief when it didn’t come. It is, simply, a story of how patient and unconditional love of a wholly good person – usually a woman – can turn the other person – usually a man – from their path of villainy.
The reason this is problematic is relatively obvious. It puts unreasonable demands on the “redeemer” in the pair. Until the villain is redeemed, the “good woman” normally has to bear his terrible character for a long time with angelic patience and nothing but forgiveness. It sends the message that this is what women in general should do. Also that if you let people abuse you long enough it will turn them good in the end. If you’ll forgive me this foray into the classics, The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall is the best example I know of exploring what exactly is wrong with this dynamic.
There are ways to make this work, though. In particular, it is when the “redeemer” merely provides the initial impetus and then doesn’t have to stick around for all the painful process of turning oneself into a decent person and bear it with angelic patience. They may or may not be then faced with the (almost) finished product at the end.
Think Pride and Prejudice – Elizabeth puts up with nothing from Mr. Darcy, he does most of his character growth out of our sight, and when we meet him again he treats her decently. Even when the ex-villain stays in the picture, though, this can be done well, as long as the redeemer isn’t asked to bear the first awkward attempts at becoming a better person with perfect equanimity and a smiling face. Simply put, the redemption must always be the work of the person redeeming themselves. The burden of it must not be put on anyone else.
I Need A Friend
This is a vastly popular strategy. In many ways it’s similar to the trope above, only in a healthier form. The focus is not so much on building up the redeemer. Instead, it’s on the traumatic events in the villain’s past. The key to this arc is having a good guy with a similar kind of traumatic or complicated background the bad guy has – enough that they can relate, at any rate – and then talking to them and giving them enough understanding that the villain stops feeling like villainy is their only option. The Expanse plays with this approach a little with Errinwright, even though it ultimately goes in a different direction.
The problem with that is the whole messy issue of villains with traumatic pasts. Because on one hand, people don’t just do bad things for no reason, but on another hand, the fashion of crafting this sort of villain background often seems to imply that all people with trauma in their past turn into villains. Which is obviously bullshit. In this kind of redemption, we’re directly faced with this question. Two people with the same, or similar, trauma, one turns to villainy and the other doesn’t. So then, there must have been some additional reason why Errinwright turned to villainy. And unless we deal with that, no amount of talking about the trauma is going to solve the situation entirely.
Don’t get me wrong, friendship absolutely is magic. But still, pretending it’s enough in itself to turn people completely around is a little naive even for me. Besides, in the world of real life implications, it seems to send the message that friends of any mass shooter should have just tried a little bit harder, because if they had, he would have never gone bad. Hell no to that.
Face the Consequences
Another popular way to jump-start redemption is having the villain face the consequences of their bad deeds, and being unable to accept them. The most obvious case of this would be Tony Stark, who finally saw first hand how the killing of innocents with his weapons can look like and realized he bore guilt for it.
But another example would be Severus Snape. His redemption certainly had aspects of “the love of a good woman” in it, but Lily wasn’t actually personally involved in any of that. The immediate inspiration was the possible consequences of Snape’s action to her, so it falls closer to this category.
This is a good way to write a convincing redemption story, as long as it’s viable that the villain in question wouldn’t have known the full consequences until then. By that, I mean it’s not convincing to have a person who regularly murders people with a knife suddenly look into the eyes of their victim and feel regret. They must have seen people die many times before. It works, however, for Stark, who had likely never seen death in person before. And it works for Snape as well in a different way. He knew he would never hurt Lily in person, and it didn’t occur to him that his Death Eater work could endanger her indirectly. The assumption behind this is simply that people are prone to lying to themselves about the consequences of their actions, which is an undeniable truth.
This approach also has the distinct advantage of working even on villains that are pretty far gone, if they are still redeemable at all. Except, you know, those knife-killers.
Changing Places/Losing Privilege
Another shock frequently capable of making villains change their ways is a radical change of their situation. Usually this is when when they find themselves in a position of vulnerability, frequently even in the position of those people they’d abused until then. This would be the case of Thor in the first film. Partly, it is also the case of Zuko in Avatar: The Last Airbender, since his long journey with his uncle outside of his royal privilege is a crucial part of his redemption arc. And much more convincing than Thor’s, by the way.
This is one of the more questionable options, psychology-vise. Because while it is certainly imaginable this might happen, it’s also very likely that losing privilege would only lead to more anger and vengefulness on the villain’s part. It works well enough, I suppose, with bad guys who aren’t truly malicious, like Thor. If arrogance rather than anger or inferiority complexes are the main driving point behind the “villainy”, it makes this story a bit more convincing. But then again, damaged pride can lead to anger just as well. Thor, when he couldn’t lift his hammer, decided to take it as a lesson. Many others would have lashed out in anger as a result of being denied what they see as their due.
In other words, this, too, has some implications for how the “villainous mind” is supposed to work. Generally, it presupposes a lack of self-reflection or lack of a very strong motivation. The character is chiefly going through the motions of what is expected of them or what they are used to or what their culture/situation shaped them into.
It also presupposes a fundamentally very sweet disposition and strong personality underneath, to be able to turn their life around in such a way when their circumstances change completely. Even leaving aside lashing out with anger, I think most of us would spend a long time dealing with their own issues after they had their rug pulled from under them in such a way. After a long period of time it can lead to change, perhaps, but unless enough of that is given, it just makes it look like people can immediately bounce back from anything. The real life implications here aren’t so bad, but still. We might laugh at the distress of the privileged, but it’s a real thing. It would be nice if the media we consume taught us to expect it. Perhaps we would be less surprised, then.
My Life Is Suddenly Pointless
This is a case of a villain suddenly finding themselves without the thing that has been driving them their whole life. The best case that comes to mind is Jaime in A Song of Ice and Fire. His redemption arc is a combination of many of the aforementioned ones. The love of a good woman as well as substantial loss of privilege play a crucial part. But none of this would have probably helped anything if his relationship with Cersei wasn’t falling apart at the same time. The final push he receives is finding out that Cersei has been unfaithful to him. Whatever we might think about a motivation like this, it has a profound effect on him.
This scenario resembles the previous one in how it presupposes that the villain is mostly influenced by external factors in their choice to do bad things. Remove the external factor, the bad behaviour disappears. As it stands in Jaime’s story, combined with other factors, it works.
On its own though, this, too, is a bit of a dubious path to redemption, because it tends to neglect that people act in patterns. Merely with the external motivation disappearing, but no positive one appearing, one would have no impetus to turn their life around. Not only would they not turn into an actual hero, but even achieving a kind of moral greyness would be difficult, because why not simply continue as they always did? I suppose the greyness could be achieved if the loss of their life’s motivation was so substantial that it threw then into the kind of depression and lethargy that prevented them from doing much of anything, but that’s about it.
Oh, and the other case where this would work, naturally, would be people who are doing bad things under duress. But I will never call those villains in my life, so there’s no space to discuss them here.
Wait, Why Am I Doing This Again?
This is closely related to the previously discussed point. Only in this case, the motivation is not a particular thing or person, but simply motivation in general. The villain spends years in their villainy, and slowly but surely, they stop seeing the point. Either they just get tired of the endless cycle of violence they are trapped in, or they take a good look at the sad and lonely life it led them to and decide that is not what they want to spend the rest of their days doing. This usually ends with some kind of moral greyness. Cardinal Richelieu has little moments like this in The Musketeers, though the narrative inevitably returns him to the villain he was doomed to be.
I won’t lie, this is one of my favourite ways to do redemption, because it is the only one that is entirely self-contained. It doesn’t necessitate an outside influence to pass. It trusts the ability of the villainous character to realize the error of their ways on their own, without being overbearingly self-flagellating.
This, however, also means it’s one of the hardest ways to write convincingly. Especially in shorter media like films, where there is usually not that much space. In fact, for this reason it can hardly ever be found in films. To be done properly and believably, it requires a longer time period for us to watch the progress of the villain, to see them motivated and full of anger at the beginning, and just going through the motions towards the end, and then reaching the point when they just cannot be bothered.
That point, too, needs to be well-crafted to be convincing. Perhaps there is a hitch in the evil plan that would require the villain to go to some extra effort, and suddenly they just cannot find it in themselves to do so, and leave the scheme unfinished instead. Perhaps it’s their birthday and they realize they have no one to celebrate it with and take a long, hard look at their life. All right, the latter would probably look rather ridiculous with a supervillain in a comics or a fantasy novel, but still, there are many scenarios like this than can be made workable.
The inherent danger, of course, is in rushing it and just making the villain look like an impatient toddler who couldn’t even see a single plan to its end. Not that there’s no fun in villains like that, but it’s hardly a redemption story.
Hold Up A Mirror
This, once more, can similar to the previous case, only this time with an external interference. There is someone else showing the villain the pointlessness of what they are doing, showing them what they have become. The most famous case of this would probably be Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, whose mirror is held up by Elisabeth, and what he sees in it shocks him. Anther, more recent case, would be Thor speaking to Loki in Thor: Ragnarok, showing him how stupidly predictable he became.
The problem with this approach is most succinctly summed up at the end of Witches Abroad. In short: it presupposes the villains don’t know, and they care. It’s of course possible in some cases, but we’re either working with a degree of innate goodness here that is repulsed by the fall, or – perhaps more frequently – with a degree of vanity that doesn’t like the image it’s presented with. And, well, is vanity really the best basis for redemption?
Sure, it can get the villain to change tack, but without being paired with something else, too, it can hardly lead to a true change of heart and behaviour.
My Life Has Meaning
This is something of an opposite to the “my life is pointless” option, because this is the villains finding their motivation. In particular, finding their motivation to do good.
In truth, the word “villain” is not quite accurate here, since this is usually used more for the morally grey types, and can in fact serve as a second step on the path from pure villainy. The most notorious example for this would probably be Han Solo, who found something he actually cared about in the Rebellion, and so he stayed and devoted his life to something more worthwhile than smuggling.
The issue here, of course, is when this is used for actual villains. Doing bad things – as in, actual, serious bad things – is not just a result of nothing better catching your interest, and it needs to be reflected somehow.
Another case applied more to the morally grey characters, or to characters where moral greyness is the goal, instead of actual goodness. This is a situation where a character is exposed to people with better morality than they themselves have, and by a sort of osmosis, they internalize this better behaviour, at least in part. Who comes to mind is Natasha Romanoff. SHIELD is hardly the paragon of virtue, but still, given her upset over the red in her ledger, there is some moral core in her that seems to have grown while part of that origination.
This, again, presupposes a rather significant underlying goodness, or a very long exposure. Having a character change by osmosis after a fortnight of time spent in the company of good guys is offensive both to the media consumers, and to real life people who ever spent time next to someone rather reprehensible for years without it having any effect.
Unexpected About Turn
The cases I have mentioned here are all ones that make sense, to a smaller or bigger degree. But of course, there is always the last option. The case where a character suddenly does an about-turn towards good behaviour, without any reason whatsoever. There are more cases than can be counted in the media, so as one for all, I’m going to name Theo from Teen Wolf, whose “redemption story” was one of the worst ones I’ve ever come across.
Every time I see a redemption story like this, I have to ask myself: why? There are so many ways to craft a good one. The best ones, in fact, usually combine several of these factors. Jaime, Zuko, even Snape. We might not consider them wholly redeemed, but at the very least we can clearly observe the change they go through. There is something exhilarating about it, and it makes one understand why redemption arcs are so popular. And why writing one badly is such a terrible waste.
Images courtesy of HBO, Marvel, Lucasfilm and SyFy
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.