SPOILERS for all of Avengers: Infinity War
In the past week, it has been hard to avoid discussions about Avengers: Infinity War, and yes, it’s mostly the last ten minutes of the film that’s to thank for that. From what I can tell, it’s been a pretty polarizing Marvel movie in the sense that there’s not a whole lot of, “it was just…fine” takes. Jeremiah sort of fits in that category, I’d say, though overall his opinion felt favorable, even if a bit tepidly so.
Mine was not.
It’s not even so much the ending, though I’ll be the first to say I found that bit gratuitous, cowardly, and eye-roll-inducing at the same time. Rather, it was that I could never get engaged with Thanos as a villain. Which was especially a problem in a movie where he’s the closest thing to a central character. Why? Because I found his motivations to be completely trite, unsympathetic, and forced. Worse still, I found their presentation completely irresponsible.
I said as much on social media, and in response was asked, “do villains need relatable motives?” That’s a great point. After all, was anyone really arguing that Sauron had some good ideas, or that Fire Lord Ozai just needed a better marketing team? Well…it’s the internet; I’m sure somewhere, yes, that’s been said. But overall, of course not. Sometimes antagonists can just be intractably Bad™, and that’s okay. It may not be my personal ultimate narrative penchant, but it sets stakes, and the interest lies in how our heroes react to the situation, the inventive ways they may go about bringing down the forces of evil, what they may learn about the world or the human condition, and of course how they personally grow and develop along the way.
Then there’s the fact that some people are motivated by unjustifiable aims. People with many followers, even. I’d argue the baddies in the new Star Wars trilogy fit into this category. The First Order are space fascists, because they want domination and control. Kylo Ren’s motivations are personal in nature, and as the audience we’re given insight into them, but his means and ends are never meant to be sympathetic, or nuanced, or remotely balanced. The bad guys are quite obviously unstable and at this point, flailing (which has an ironic twinge to it since their foes have basically reduced to 20 hippies in a van).
Our media is a reflection on our culture. Speculative fiction is valuable since we can distance ourselves from our current societal conditions and really dig deep into these issues. That’s why there’s a very valid reading of Kylo Ren as a proxy for say…a radicalized white supremacist in our contemporary times. And the way he’s portrayed and people react to them provide commentary that’s relevant to us, even if we’re not living a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.
Going back to the Avatar: the Last Airbender example, Fire Lord Ozai is not really meant to be a proxy for anyone in our world. Sure, there are still people with imperialist aims, but it wasn’t a very direct commentary. However, the reflection on our culture comes in the forms of what the messaging is surrounding Aang’s journey. It’s about the importance of authenticity, finding your own inner strength, questioning the necessity of violence, and just in general, maturation. We may not have a lion turtle to whom we turn for a solution, but Aang’s struggle with capital punishment and his choice to end things in a way that didn’t violate his own morality is something aspirational for viewers.
So no, villains don’t need sympathetic or relatable motivations for a story to be good or meaningful. Sometimes they don’t even need understandable motivations. (Did anyone know Sauron’s 10-year strategic plan?) The problem with Thanos is that the writers didn’t seem to realize that his motivations were ridiculous, ungrounded in any logic, and completely lacking in any kind of sympathy.
A Genocidal Maniac with A Heart of Gold
Let’s just dive right into the specifics. For anyone non-spoiler-phobic who hasn’t seen the film, Thanos wanted to obtain all the infinity stones so that he could assemble the infinity gauntlet, control all of reality, and use that control to kill off half the population of every world within the universe. This is a very extreme measure, but don’t worry, he has a great reason: overpopulation.
You see, his home planet had an issue with resource scarcity, and the only thing that can create such a situation is when there’s too many people. So he’s been going to planets for awhile now with an army and indiscriminately murdering half of their citizens. It’s “not political” genocide, because he murders the rich and the poor. No judgement…just death! The infinity gauntlet would allow him to do this in one fell swoop, because he takes no pleasure in the genocide, and there’s oh so many planets he wants to save. It’s a burden and he cannot rest until it’s done.
And apparently there’s been great results so far! Gamora’s planet is “thriving” and there’s no more starvation ever since he took out half their population a couple of decades ago. Clearly this issue not only scales up to the entire universe, but the genocide itself is an effective means to reducing starvation. Equally clearly, there’s no other pathway to prevent resource scarcity, even with a gauntlet that controls reality and could easily create more abundant resources, or increase access to birth control, or terraform an uninhabitable planet for more space for overcrowded planets…
Again, I’m not the first person to point out how his entire motivation falls apart under the smallest amount of scrutiny. But it’s still necessary to call attention to this.
Now, it’s important to note that in the process of obtaining the infinity stones to control reality to murder half the population for humanitarian reasons, Thanos needed to sacrifice something he “loved.” Why? Because Red Skull told him that’s the only way to get the soul stone, and clearly that obstacle needed to exist in the first place.
So Thanos pushes Gamora off a cliff, we get a shot of her horrifically smashed corpse on the ground below, he sheds a Man Tear, and the soul stone is his. Then he later talks about all he’s had to sacrifice to be able to achieve his aims—presumably this is about Gamora, not to mention the “toll” indiscriminate genocide has on him since it’s his “burden.”
So our villain, and quasi-protagonist of the movie, is given a sympathetic backstory (yes, it is sympathetic that there was such horrible poverty on his planet that people were suffering and dying), a platform to share his philosophical motivations and rationalizations, and a moment where he has to sacrifice love—presented without irony—in order to achieve his chilling aims.
It’s that last bit that particularly stands out, since “sacrificing one personal love for the sake of utilitarian benefit” is a rather common thread throughout this movie. We see both Peter Quill and Wanda Maximoff make the same choice. Yeah, in their case the people they loved were on-board too (Gamora and Vision), whereas Gamora was clearly not okay with being murdered by Thanos for him to obtain the soul stone, but we still get our villain following the beats of our heroes.
Why am I harping on this? Because the issue is that the movie acts as though Thanos has a point. The movie acts as though Thanos’s philosophy is justifiable, but taken to an evil extreme. The movie acts as though Thanos legitimately did have to sacrifice something, and this is taking a personal toll on him, and it’s kind of tragic that these are the means and ends he thinks are necessary to resolve what’s clearly a real problem. And that’s the worst bit: the movie acts like overpopulation truly is the cause of great suffering thanks to resource scarcity.
There is only one person who even engages with Thanos’s motivations, and that’s Gamora. Everyone else just wants to stop Bad Thing™ from happening, because it’s bad. (It is, but I’m not even positive most of them know what Thanos wants, so their stakes in this are far more generic.) Gamora actually points out to him that killing people is shitty and not helpful. Thanos responds by telling Gamora his slaughtering of her people led to prosperity. She has no counter to this.
And that’s it! There is no argument raised against Thanos’s framing of the problem, nor his solution.
Worse still, Thanos’s portrayal is collected, measured, seemingly reasonable, and yes, burdened. Now, you can still have a villain with absolutely horrifying ends in mind and a calm demeanor. In fact, that’s often effective at showing how chillingly detached they are form humanity. But Thanos ain’t detached either. He emotes pretty strongly, he cries for Gamora, and we learn that his love had been real, or else he wouldn’t have gotten the soul stone. There was nothing on our screens within the movie that even hinted at hypocrisy, or personal delusion, or anything. He was just a dude solvin’ that universal overpopulation crisis with a means that most people deem unacceptable because the death toll is too high. What makes him a villain is that he doesn’t care that it was that high, I suppose.
(As a side-note, there’s also absolutely no explanation for his minions, their philosophical commitment, how he convinced them, or what they view as the aims. So we have to assume they’re on-board with this plan for humanitarian reasons as well, or something. ~Apolitical genocide~!)
The thing is, from what I can tell, this portrayal mostly worked. It sold Thanos. That’s why we have critics comparing him to Killmonger, a villain who took a very real problem to a chilling extreme, and an extreme that was tragically shaped by the toxic masculinity of the culture he was forced into.
Here’s the rub: Killmonger was fighting on behalf of the suffering of black populations around the world. He’s fighting for the marginalized, though it’s clear his views have fallen out of balance. That’s why Nakia, the philosophical counterpoint to Killmonger, is such a crucial character. She believes Wakanda should offer aid as well, because this suffering is not okay and they do have the power to help, but her approach does not engage with any imperialist strategies.
“The following distinction is crucial: Black Panther does not render a verdict that violence is an unacceptable tool of black liberation—to the contrary, that is precisely how Wakanda is liberated. It renders a verdict on imperialism as a tool of black liberation, to say that the master’s tools cannot dismantle the master’s house.” —Adam Serwer, The Atlantic
In Infinity War, Gamora is the closest thing we’ve got to Nakia in terms of offering a counterpoint, and hers just amounted to “genocide is bad.” It wasn’t even engaging with the subject of resource scarcity or starvation. Thanos said that’s what he wanted to solve, and she just kind of reacted like, “Yes, of course. But these means are bad.”
Here’s the thing though: unlike Killmonger, what Thanos is seeking to solve—overpopulation—is actually at the expense of marginalized populations when it’s viewed as something that needs solving in the first place. I mean yes, technically he is trying to get rid of starvation and suffering due to resource scarcity; but his diagnosis that this is the result of overpopulation is again, not challenged, and rather confirmed by the way Gamora’s planet apparently bounced back happily from the genocide. Which kind of implies that the writers believe overpopulation to be a credible threat as well.
That’s dangerous. It’s actually pretty racist at its historical core too, and certainly its contemporary application. I don’t want to shock anyone, but there has been poverty, starvation, and suffering long before the earth was in even remote danger of its biological capacity being reached. Even now, the countries with the highest rates of death due to malnutrition are the same countries that are using the fewest resources, consuming the least amount of fossil fuels, and contributing the least to global warming, generally speaking. Is world hunger a case of resource scarcity for us? No.
“The world produces enough food to feed everyone. For the world as a whole, per capita food availability has risen from about 2220 kcal/person/day in the early 1960s to 2790 kcal/person/day in 2006-08, while developing countries even recorded a leap from 1850 kcal/person/day to over 2640 kcal/person/day. …A principal problem is that many people in the world still do not have sufficient income to purchase (or land to grow) enough food or access to nutritious food.” —2016 World Hunger and Poverty Facts and Statistics (bolded emphasis mine)
At this moment, there is a bit of a global hysteria regarding immigration and refugees. As the effects of climate change worsen, the need for populations to move to new countries is only going to increase too. That’s kind of what happens when areas become uninhabitable. It is really, really important that people understand issues of poverty are not because there’s “too many people” in the world, but because resources are inadequately distributed.
This isn’t even touching the issue of safe access to both education about and means of birth control. Which yes, is very effective at curbing birth rates in areas that may be more resource-strapped and lacking in the capacity for its citizens to obtain proper nutrition.
What is keeping us from sustainably and equitably distributing resources and education? Power structures! Governments! Apathy! NIMBYism! The requirements for corporations to be completely profit-driven at all times! And look, I’m not here calling for a grand revolution because one movie had a bunch of logical fallacies in it. Our overlapping systems of government and economy on this planet are complicated and ending world hunger isn’t exactly something where there’s a clear path towards a solution.
But what I am saying is that finger-pointing at the broad concept of overpopulation has a whole host of problems, and it completely ignores the power structures behind resource distributions. It’s kind of like blaming the victim, but in a way that’s couched as apolitical. Which is dangerous in its own right. Today, when people within our governments are the ones articulating this? It’s beyond irresponsible, especially as a takeaway from the biggest movie to date.
Thanos, Motives, Realism
I know it might be confusing that I started by saying Thanos’s plan falls apart under minimal scrutiny (what, is he snapping every 80 years or something?) and was horribly unrelatable, and then led to a point where I argued how the danger is that there are people today with Thanos’s worldview (universe-view?). So…doesn’t that mean it is relatable?
But the issue is that it shouldn’t be. This is not the worldview that should be validated in any way, or presented as even worth being given the time of day. Because it’s one that comes at a human cost. And in-verse, it’s even more absurd, since it’s a worldview that comes at the cost of 50% of everyone, just indiscriminately. There is no reason to ever take a character doing something like that and twist the narrative so that people can walk out shrugging, “you know, he had a point.”
If Thanos had been targeting governmental systems a la Zaheer in Legend of Korra, this might have played well. Not perfectly, but it’d at least be some kind of way of identifying a problem worth digging into. This? It makes the comparisons to Killmonger feel grossly inappropriate, to say the least.
And even if we can say, “But some people do think like this!”, there was no attempt to challenging anything but the means to the end. Even the end itself was tacitly endorsed. It can be argued that American History X’s imagery may have inadvertently framed white supremacy in an enticing way to some, and that’s something filmmakers need to consider when penning their antagonists. But the narrative was abundantly clear about the dangers of this worldview, the chilling way people can become radicalized and buy into it, and the horrific ends it leads to. It was a clear condemnation.
For Infinity War? The writers seemed unaware that anything needed to be condemned. Overpopulation…it’s obviously a problem! And a universal one at that, in the most literal definition of the word “universal.” Otherwise, why would Thanos, this rather mild-speaking individual who experienced horror thanks to an overcrowded planet, be willing to sacrifice the daughter who he
abused loved and take on the mantle of this burden? Sure his solution was too much, but there was suffering, and the test-results of randomly wiping out half the people worked great! Why wouldn’t he continue pursuing it? Why wouldn’t there be anything but great results? Fewer people means everyone gets more things and that’s good! There would have been no recovery period with mass panic and devastation or anything.
Sorry, I can keep going with this.
The thing is, I get why the writers did this. The comic event upon which this movie was loosely based had a Thanos who wiped out half the universe’s population in an attempt to…win over a girl. Death, to be precise. He thought she was awesome, and my guess is she probably thought the half-extinction of the universe was awesome. No, I didn’t read it, but it’s not exactly foolish that the writers would want to make the motivation more…reasonable. Or less weird? More serious, maybe? On the surface, it does sound utterly ridiculous, and with media that’s slanted more towards realism lately, it seems like an uphill battle to translate it to the screen.
Then again, there was something a little more than ridiculous about the end sequence already, especially with the woolly powers of the infinity stones and the inherently jarring deploy of the time stone. So I’m not sure “realism” was much of a goal here.
What’s funny is that in the writers’ desire to make Thanos more motivated, they kind of missed that his original motivation—impressing a lady—is very relevant to today’s world, and ripe for potential social commentary. You know, maybe it’d be something like a guy not accepting rejection from a woman, and going to chilling ends to get her attention, possibly because of misguided sense of entitlement? Kind of like the stuff we’re reconciling now, as a culture!
On this vein, if it’s Death he’s after, why not have kept Hela from Thor: Ragnarok around to be the female personification that he’s trying to woo? That way, Cate Blanchett isn’t blown on just one movie, and it would have helped justify the tonal dissonance of Ragnarok as it would have been more of a bridge movie within the universe, rather than a disjointed attempt at a Thor standalone.
I hate branching into “I wish the movie had been about this” territory, but it’s mind-blowing to me that of the many, many options the writers had for this event, which included a closer adaptation of the source, they picked the “apolitical genocide” route. Because apparently overpopulation is a credible threat to fall back on, Thanos is just an extremist, and it’s possible to be egalitarian in murdering of half the population.
There’s a chance that Thanos’s laughable excuse for philosophy will be taken to task in Avengers 4, and I don’t want to dismiss that possibility. But there’s nothing in the framing of his plan that makes me think the writers even realize it’s necessary to do so. Not to mention, this was the movie with the biggest opening in history. All MCU films until Avengers 4 are going to have taken place before the snap. So we have this standing for a solid year. That is a long, long time for that viewpoint to go unchallenged.
No, villains don’t need relatable or sympathetic motives for compelling stories. But if you’re going to present it like they do, then it at least needs to be thought through.
Images courtesy of Disney
Game of Thrones 2×04 Rewatch: Garden of Groans
Good fortune and tidings as we return to The Wars to Come! We can’t wait to dive into yet another chapter of our Game of Thrones rewatch series, seeking to explore the path that took the show from engaging and competent to…wormholing ravens and confusing trials. This week we’re in for a special treat: the only woman to ever grace this show’s writers’ room, Vanessa Taylor, is credited as penning “Garden of Bones.”
Things are grim and grotesque in the riverlands! Robb earns himself a victory on the field against the Lannister forces, yet after the battle we see many injured. He helps a field-nurse from Volantis name Talisa amputate a man’s foot, and she points out to him that the smallfolk are the ones paying the price for his war.
Meanwhile, Arya, Gendry, Hot Pie, and their fellow travelers arrive at Harrenhal as prisoners, only to discover that the guards have been selecting one a day to die. They witness the torture of an unlucky man, who has a barrel containing a hungry rat strapped to his chest. He is asked questions about “the brotherhood,” but cannot answer any. The Lannister guards hold a torch to one end of the barrel, giving the rat only one place to go… Gendry is selected the next day for this grisly fate, but is saved just in the nick of time by Tywin Lannister’s arrival. He immediately chastises his guards for wasting good men, and once recognizing Arya as a girl, selects her to be his next cupbearer.
Down in King’s Landing, Joffrey is not behaving a whole lot better. First, he reacts to Robb’s military victory by ordering Sansa to be beaten by his kingsguard. Tyrion intervenes and put a stop to it, even giving Sansa a chance to ask out of her situation. However, she tells him she is loyal to her “love.” Bronn and Tyrion discuss Joffrey’s disgusting behavior, and Bronn suggests getting him some sex workers to work frustration out on. Tyrion does that, but Joffrey instead commands one of the sex workers—Ros—to brutalize the other as a message to Tyrion.
Tyrion receives another message from Lancel, who asks him to release Pycelle on Cersei’s behalf. However, Tyrion quickly turns the tables when he corners Lancel about being in a sexual relationship with Cersei. He promises not to tell anyone so long as Lancel reports to him on the queen’s comings and goings.
Other royalty is busy over in the Reach. Littlefinger arrives in Renly’s camp, but the self-fashioned king holds no love for him. Yet if the time should come when Renly reaches King’s Landing, Littlefinger makes it clear he’s willing to flip sides. He then meets Margaery Tyrell, who he attempts to grill on the details of her marriage to Renly. This queen doesn’t reveal much. Littlefinger finally gets to speak with Cat, who is furious with him. He does manage to present her with Ned’s bones, and slips in a lie about the Lannisters holding both Sansa and Arya.
Renly and Stannis treat with each other, and despite Cat trying to encourage them to get along as brothers, neither will step aside to acknowledge the other as king. Stannis tells Renly that he has one night to reconsider. Later, Stannis asks Davos to smuggle Melisandre for him. Turns out it’s so she can give birth to a shadow in the caves below Renly’s camp.
Finally in Essos, one of Dany’s bloodriders returns with a gift from the Elders of Qarth, called “The Thirteen.” Her party turns to head there, understanding that outside the walls are referred to as the “garden of bones” thanks to all the skeletons from those who had been turned away. She meets the Thirteen, and when she refuses to show them her dragons, nearly gets refused from the city herself. However one of the Thirteen, Xaro Xhoan Daxos, invokes “soumai,” vouching for her and taking legal responsibility for her party. The uncertain group head into the city.
What will greet them in Qarth? What is the shadow that Melisandre gave birth to? And is there gold hidden in the village? We’ll find out next week, but first…a discussion of what we saw.
Initial, quick reaction
Kylie: I had to triple check that this was written by Vanessa Taylor and not D&D. And yes, I know that it’s a writers’ room, and individual credit only goes so far, though I’d argue that with GoT, we can usually tell notable differences and the process comes across as more siloed than it does for other shows.
Still. The first half hour of this was easily as bad as Season 5, with a small exception that the words spoken in between the gay/fart jokes, the torture, the abuse of sex workers, and the gore were mostly shaped by George R.R. Martin’s prose. The best I can say is that the second half of the episode became moderately passable, albeit still lacking in the tension as discussed last week.
Julia: Yeah, this episode felt like it had all the worst aspects of GoT all shoved together, especially in the first half hour, and I came away with the feeling that I was just watching trash. A few ‘fros and bell bottoms and it could have been a 70s exploitation movie.
Even this rewatch write-up is so painful because I feel like I had nothing to say beyond, “god that sucked.” And explaining in detail why things are bad is kinda my thing!
Danzie: Lordy, what a pile of crap that was. I had blocked everything but the Stormland’s scenes from my memory. You really get the full GoT dumpster fire potpourri here, though. Juvenile humour, sexual violence, torture porn, disappearing and reappearing medieval patriarchy, hammy acting… the list goes on. It’s a handy little episode to use as evidence to back up the claim “Yes, this show really is that bad. No, I’m not overreacting, Shannon!”
I am going to use this gem to win so many arguments.
Griffin: All of this. It was gratuitous. Gratuitous and bad. I kept waiting for it all to end. I don’t even know what I’m supposed to say, or what was supposed to be appealing about this show after this.
Julia: Oh boy, oh boy. A highlight. The first thing that springs to mind is a little weird because it’s not usually me, but… I think I really liked Renly this episode? I’m a sucker for any time someone tells Littlefinger what a slimeball he is, and that ham line was genuinely clever and even a little funny. It’s painfully obvious how much more the writers like him compared to Stannis, but hey, maybe he’s not so bad?
As for a lowlight, um, everything else?
Griffin: I’d honestly have to go with the one singular moment that had me cracking up: cutting straight to the throne room with Joffrey aiming a crossbow down at Sansa. The framing of it was just so ridiculous and weird that it honestly looked like self-parody. The more they took it seriously in the scene, the funnier it got. What the hell was he going to do? Just start shooting people with a very slow to reload weapon and not expect to get gutted by, like, the third Kingsguard he cuts down?
As for lowlights, again, the crossbow. Really should have cut away from that “let’s mutilate some sex workers aren’t we trendy???” scene when he started screaming “harder”…and before he got the garden weasel looking thing out.
Kylie: My highlight was the burrito dress. I screamed and clapped. I wish I had a non-ironic highlight, but this is truly what warmed the cockles of my heart the most.
It’s so hard not to pick the Joffrey & sex workers scene as a lowlight, especially knowing what that “sets up” in Season 3. But there’s plenty to go around. The general levels of gore were really distressing for me, since I’m already not great with that. The Talisa cutting off a leg scene was one that I didn’t look at, but thank the gods her feminist candor was spoken clearly.
I don’t know—the protracted torture scene at Harrenhal? So glad we had a full five minutes of the guy we never met before getting eaten by a weasel. Do we think these Lannister folks are bad news, or something?
Julia: It was a rat, Kylie. God. Clearly all your criticisms are invalid now.
Danzie: One of my favorite chapters in the entire book series was (lucky for me) the only truly decent scene of the episode. Renly is at his best in the entire run of the show here. I’ve always said that I could watch Renly troll Stannis for hours and not get bored. It’s his social intelligence that I love about him. He understands exactly what it is that the masses love about him and hate about Stannis. I’d like to have seen the inclusion of the peach, and for him to have been unarmed, but other than that, yeah, this is peak Book!Renly.
However, my other Baratheon darling didn’t shine here like he does in the books, and that’s a shame. Loads of good personality things they lost out on here, like Stannis showing up to the parlay exactly on time and having to wait around for his self-centered little brother to finally feel like showing up. Also missing is Stannis promising Catelyn to try and reunite her with her daughters as soon as he is able. But most importantly what’s missing is Stannis’ guilt over killing his brother, an act that near mentally destroys him in the books. It’s minor stuff now, sure, but it’s things like this that go on to utterly destroy any chance at Stannis’ likability.
Lowlight: The shadow baby. Okay, I know there was loads of stuff that was worse in this episode, but I really feel like I need to point this out.
Davos rowing Mel ashore makes no goddamn sense under these circumstances.
The reason he does it in the books is because she is trying to kill Cortnay Penrose. However, because he’s inside Storm’s End (which has magical wards within its walls), Davos has to bring her in underneath the castle via his old smuggling run. It’s then that he puts two and two together about Renly’s death and she admits that Renly was much easier to kill because he was totally unprotected (from magic anyway) at his camp.
So why does she have to do this from shore? Why do we need to be in this tunnel? Where is this random tunnel? In fact, where even are we right now? The Reach? The Stormlands? Renly certainly isn’t in Storm’s End.
Julia: My random quibble: who were those 4 women following Sansa around and why do we never see them again?
Quality of writing
Kylie: I’m sorry, Vanessa, but the extended gay joke with a fart punchline is about as bad as it gets. Maybe I shouldn’t hyperfocus on it, but there was something about this episode that was so unrefined, that it comes across as utterly amateur.
Julia: Like I said in my initial reaction: it was just trashy this week. The “humor” was on par with the worst of seasons 5-7 and it revels in all the abuse and torture that’s going on.
Griffin: It kind of felt like an entirely different show to me. I mean, with the exception of that one episode Martin wrote, and to a lesser extent 2×01 (which was helped considerably by the fact that very little needed to be established, and they could just go) this show has never been written that well from my point of view. But still, this was a new level.
Danzie: There’s just not much that is salvagable here, and (all jokes aside) I’m someone that really tries to liberally give snaps to the stuff I like. In so many ways I think this was the first major warning sign of what was to come. I still prefer this to seasons 5-7, because at least at this point they still sort of care about telling a story, but damn. This is the first episode of this rewatch where I actually felt ashamed for liking this show once. It’s made me question my entire relationship with this show.
(This picture belongs in a museum, though.)
Our 8th grade book report (on themes)
Julia: Pass. Unless you count “everything sucks and aren’t we edgy.”
Griffin: How about, “Everything sucks and aren’t we edgy and also surprise feudal feminism!!!!”
Kylie: I love how those concepts seem like they shouldn’t go together at all, but they sort of represent the building blocks of this show.
Okay, I’m going to make an earnest attempt: everything comes with a cost. Talisa kind of delivers it to Robb in a neatly packaged thesis statement. Granted, this theme doesn’t really mean anything. The cost of Robb’s war was Sansa being brutalized, the cost of Tyrion sending sex workers to Joffrey were the sex workers being brutalized, the cost of the war in the riverlands were the brutalization of the prisoners…
Um. Typing that out, the theme was maybe just brutalization. And also the titular “garden of bones” didn’t really tie into this, because Dany didn’t get any sort of negative repercussions for violently threatening The Thirteen of ”Kwarth.” I guess the more central point of this episode is that…violence is a necessary part of this world? Which is more a feature, but damnit, Vanessa Taylor isn’t giving me much to work with.
Then we have the inserted ~feminism~ of Talisa, and I’m starting to suspect Ms. Taylor is not the world’s best sensitivity reader.
Julia: I think maybe the theme is “Damnit, Vanessa Taylor!”
Danzie: I want to somehow tie Renly’s line of “a man without friends is a man without power” to something. Robb makes a new friend in Talisa. Dany has trouble getting in to Qwarth (sic) because she doesn’t have a friend to vouch for her. Stannis’ power comes from his gal pal, Mel. Tyrion thinks Joffrey having some “adult friends” will help him chill out. LF wants to be friends with the cool kids, but they all tell him to fuck off.
The Garden of Bones is also a metaphor for friendship.
…okay, not really, but this episode broke me in a way I wasn’t expecting and quite honestly I’m just tired of trying.
Kylie: We are all bones in the garden now. The title fits!
Cracks in the plaster (the bullshit to come)
Julia: The cracks are just the plaster coming off the wall in sheets in this episode. The scene with Joff and the two sex workers is as bad as anything in season 5, and that rat torture scene is as bad as Theon in season 3 so… congrats, you’ve reached peak GoT.
Kylie: Then there’s also the worldbuilding. We discussed the magically disappearing patriarchy (in so many terms) with the sexually liberated Margaery last week as a crack. Well, Talisa is the fucking Kool-Aid man busting through. Julia and I have joked so many times about the “unchaperoned field nurse sass-talking a king” that the phrase almost means nothing to me, but…yeah, it’s a fucking high-born (I think?) woman walking around alone on a battlefield, sass-talking a king. The patriarchy is truly destroyed here.
Of course, it will magically reappear when there needs to be a justification for violence against women, or random bullshit like making Lyanna Mormont’s stand against socks seem very Progressive™. In my mind, this hole in the wall is everything that becomes wrong with Game of Thrones, because it certainly connects to the brutalization Julia just mentioned too.
Julia: Just, like… let’s think about this character for half a second.
She’s from Volantis. (Show-only peeps have no idea what that is, but it’s a giant city in Essos that has slavery and thinks highly of itself.) For reasons of being so sassy and feminist and ahead of her time, she decides that slavery is bad and that healing people is good. Okay. So then she thinks her best plan is to go to this fairly barbaric and benighted part of the world and be a field nurse. Like, was she already a traveling healer type around the riverlands and just thought this war was an excellent opportunity for more service? Did she hear about the war and come running from Essos? Her mastery of the Common Tongue suggests she’s been chilling there a while. Where did she get her supplies of opium and silk bandages? Is that family money she’s using to buy them, or does she have a local benefactor? Where did she gain this medical expertise?
Why do I suspect this is more thought put into this character than the writers had?
Danzie: I like to think that it was all a mailing error. Talisa was supposed to be the sassy new resident doctor on a medical drama but the character pitches got mixed up and now Grey’s Anatomy has a mild-mannered girl from the westerlands.
Kylie: Another crack in the plaster is the torture porn, which only gets more and more drawn out as the series goes on. Edginess is a distant horizon they’re constantly chasing, I guess.
Griffin: I remember Davos being a much, much more sympathetic and likeable character. Now he’s…just sort of there? I dunno, but he seems pretty one-note and flat to me so far. I’m pretty sure that Melisandre was supposed to be that in the books, so it works here (I guess?) but…that birthing scene. With the shadow.
I’ve seen some stupid things in my time, but I’ll admit that there was just no good way to shoot that. Seriously, I feel like that’s something that just was never going to translate well to the screen no matter what they did, since you can’t cut away from it or it doesn’t work. Maybe if they’d done the sequence more like a monster movie? That might work.
Kylie: The best I’ve ever seen a shadow of death translated was in the Charlton Heston movie The Ten Commandments. I think it was watching the literal squeezing out of the shadow that made it so odd. And it kinda gets a face next week…
Alright, I have to bring up Tough but Fair Grandpappy Tywin. Because he’s apparently so awesomely awesome and Fair that he will reward a random peasant girl for disguising herself as a boy. Yes, Tywin of the books wouldn’t have wasted working bodies on senseless torture. But the idea that he’d give a shit about any one of them, let alone enough to call Arya “smart” and select her as a personal cupbearer, is ridiculous.
Julia: I mean, it was really dumb of them to kill blacksmiths. Tough but Fair Grandpappy needs to be frugal; I would say why, but that would spoil the cleverest twist D&D ever pulled off.
It’s almost weird saying this, but so far they’ve done alright with Renly. And Stannis is still perfectly salvageable. Obviously the gay punchline stuff was horrible and out of place, but PLOT wise, it’s all pretty here? Like, Stannis has the best claim, legally speaking, but no one likes him. Renly’s claim is bull, but he’s popular. That’s minimally sufficient at least, which is more than we get in later seasons.
What do we think of the direction they’re going with Qwarth so far? It’s a change from the parade they threw her in the books.
Danzie: I dunno, but I thoroughly enjoyed the performance of whoever played the Spice King. He seemed to be the only actor who knew the ridiculousness of the show he was in. He was just having so much fun!
Julia: It’s a sense of awareness we won’t see on the screen until Ian McShane’s Ray in season 6.
Kylie: If I can seriously try to answer Julia’s question (though agreed about the Spice King), I think it’s part of D&D’s general misunderstanding that struggle is necessary in every facet of a journey to make any end triumph meaningful. Maybe this is thinking it through too much, but I’m just remembering the way the summarized Jon’s arc in Season 6 as, “well he began the season dead and now he’s king, so he’s doing well!” Keeping in mind they bend over backwards to aid Ramsay at every turn. It turns into “no one is nice to anyone anywhere,” and I honestly do think these are the beginning signs of it.
Or maybe they just didn’t want to spend money on a parade.
Carol Watch: who is Cersei this week?
Kylie: Poor Cersei/Carol, she was only mentioned this week. Sending Lancel to Tyrion could have been a move by either of them. So, I say we skip this section for this week.
Julia: Joffery’s actions do suggest Cersei’s parenting, though.
Kylie: Sure, even if the more Carol comes out, the less that much tracks.
Danzie: Another question is was it Carol or Cersei who commanded the Lancel sexytime? I wanna say Cersei, because Carol, as we know, wouldn’t dare sleep around on Larry.
Julia: Yeah, but Larry’s in jail and she’s SAD.
Exposition Imposition: good or clunky?
Kylie: Jorah got to explain Qwarth and the Garden of Bones! He must have been so happy!
Griffin: Yeah, that was like, literally all he did in the episode. I remember saying something along the lines that his description of the Garden of Bones isn’t really different from any other city with walls and gates. If they only had graveyards surrounding a massive city, with no suburbs, okay, that would be pretty freaky and one hell of an image, but…nope. Just a desert. Why not make it a point to mention sandstorms? Maybe they kick out prisoners or beggars or something into the sandstorm when it goes so they can die in the desert.
I think the rest of it was mostly fine; nothing really stands out to me as particularly egregious, though everything with Littlefinger was kinda “HEY LOOK AT ME I’M DOING THINGS!!!!”. I don’t know if that’s just who he is in the show, or silly. Is it both?
Kylie: He overstates the case a ton on the show, and is also the official expositor, so it’s kind of hard to tell where the character ends and contrived writing begins. I think it read fairly organically considering some of his other scenes, and it helped that both Renly and Cat were not about to give him the time of day.
Julia: Speaking of overstating the case, Dany. God she likes to yell about all the people she’s going to kill. I wouldn’t blame anyone who wrote off this character as an annoying, entitled asshole.
Danzie: Yeah, she really does just yell and stomp her feet… which I guess Xaro found charming? Because it’s only after this that he decides to let her in.
Julia: Ah, arbitrary laws and oaths based on cutting your hand with a sword. I was wondering when the blatant Orientalism would show up.
How was the pacing?
Julia: I think it’s pretty safe to say there were a few scenes that dragged on too long.
Kylie: Griffin is understating his reaction to this, I might want to point out. He was next to me yelling, “Why is this still going on?” in at least three different spots.
To say something vaguely nice (?) the second half of the episode moved a lot better. Or at least, I wasn’t viscerally uncomfortable and mentally begging the scenes to end in my mind.
Danzie: The actual script on paper was way shorter than other episodes. A big chunk of what made up the screen time was just people being beaten or tortured.
Let’s talk about sex, baby
Kylie: The sexworker scene was so horrible that I feel as if we’re not even willing to talk about it. Yes, Bronn suggesting Joffrey needs sex workers was in the books. Actually making us watch a scene of him ordering Ros to beat up her coworker while he sits and grins for as long as we did was just plain gross. We get it. We would have gotten it had the scene ended three minutes beforehand, too. We don’t need this insight for Joffrey, and it pushed into gratuitous somewhere around the belt smacking.
Danzie: The scene just flat out wasn’t needed. Joffrey is a monster, and as you said, we get it. We have tons of examples of it already. We don’t need a scene of Cruella de Vil drowning a cat to know she’s evil when literally all she does is try to kill puppies all movie long.
The only thing I can think of is that now we are supposed to feel even more terrified for Sansa? “Be worried that Joffrey will brutally rape Sansa, audience!” Good thing she eventually gets out of King’s Landing so she is safe from that sort of thing.
Kylie: Thank you, I’m mad all over again. Great analogy though.
The other sex was the off-screen Lancel and Cersei sex that Tyrion calls out. Lancel is like, clearly being coerced, right?
Griffin: Yeah, that sexworker scene, as I mentioned above—what even was that garden weasel thing? Half of a candle stick? Very disturbing and way, way, way too long
I’m pretty sure Lancel is supposed to be…are we supposed to sympathize with him for being coerced? I’m not totally sure that we are since Tyrion makes a point to explicate that Lancel clearly didn’t hate shtupping his sister. Doesn’t make it better, but it’s kind of hard to see the merit of that sequence aside from Tyrion being by far the most entertaining character on the show. Maybe it was just a showcase…?
Julia: I’m mean, it’s not rape if you enjoy it. Especially if you’re a teenager and she’s a hot 30-something.
What is there to say? I think the last time we saw sex between two people who liked each other and both wanted to be there was Ned and Cat cuddling in episode 1. Renly and Loras too, I suppose.
Kylie: Hey now, the ship captain’s daughter seemed to be fine fucking Theon. And his view on it was clearly free of issues…
In memoriam: 2 homophobic Lannister guards, 5 Lannister Men for Every 1 of Ours, random prisoner, and Stafford Lannister
Julia: Does Stafford Lannister count? He died off screen and we never even met him. I’m still not done mourning for those 2 homophobic guards, though. What a loss to the art of comedy.
Kylie: The site that has this list put him down, so he counts! But in terms of who we saw die, I guess the tortured prisoner eaten by a weasel was the most…effective? Which again, we did not need to see all of. We knew they were dying from the first scene with that old lady.
Talisa has sassy words to say about 5 Lannister Men for Every 1 of Ours. Death is bad! The smallfolk are the ones paying! I mean, she’s not wrong, but I’m kind of remembering when Weiss tried to get all deep after Shireen’s death, saying audiences were hypocritical for caring so much about that moment, but being okay with Stannis killing people in “Blackwater.” There’s a dang narrative, Talisa!
Honestly though, most of my annoyance there is that they’ll float the plight of the smallfolk as an edgy, messed up feature of the world, but then not bother to give their point of view any consideration.
Danzie: Silly Kylie. Sex workers and smallfolk are only there to get tortured and killed. Getting their perspective wouldn’t be dramatically satisfying.
Julia: That random old lady earned her SAG scale, though.
Wow, this is shorter than usual. We really hated this episode.
Kylie: No argument from me. But what about everyone in the comments? Was it really, truly this horrible? And what the hell, Vanessa Taylor? Let us know your thoughts, and next week we’ll get the good ol’ boys back as the writers, continuing The Wars to Come.
Images courtesy of HBO
Tragedy in Lady Knight
The dedication to Lady Knight reads “To the people of New York City, I always knew the great sacrifice and kindness my neighbors are capable of, but now the rest of the country knows, too.” It’s a somber beginning to a book about the tragedy of war. Obviously, it talks about the events of 9/11, and the book was published in 2002, barely a year afterwards. It’s the grimmest of Pierce’s books so far, but like the dedication, it also shows the most kindness.
Spoilers for Pierces previous work. Warnings for mentions of abuse and the murder of children.
Friendship in a Time of Blood and Ice Cream
Edgar Wright’s Blood and Ice Cream trilogy, also known as the Cornetto trilogy, is a trio of movies that stand in a league of their own. Each movie is its own story and any of the three could stand on its own without the others. Yet they’re all linked by their craftsmanship, themes and, of course, Cornetto. They’re all top class comedies, while also being well-executed character-driven action movies. Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and The World’s End each focus on the friendship between their protagonist and deuteragonist (each time portrayed by Simon Pegg and Nick Frost respectively). They delve into the deeps of friendship and the aspects, both negative and positive, that can exists in relationships.
It’s not you, it’s the Zombies
Before the zombie apocalypse, Shaun was living aimlessly, while Ed, his best friend, loafed around on his couch playing video games all day. Shaun had a serviceable job, a stable relationship with a girl he loves, good friends, and pub to go at the end of the day. He was hardly living a full life, but he was living. Sure, he had plans for the future—get a better job, commit more to his relationship, and get Ed off his couch—but he never acted on them. He made promises to his girlfriend that he’d do better, but had no follow through. When anyone pointed out that Ed was a hindrance to him, Shaun would always defend his friend.
Ed’s antipathy to development is even worse than Shaun’s. He doesn’t have many expectations for himself. Instead, he’s content to let Shaun defend him while he plays games and does a whole lot of nothing. Ed only helped keep Shaun stagnate.
Everything changed when they found zombies in their backyard. It takes the z-word to get Shaun to act on his plans. With the undead knocking at the doors, he firmly decides what’s important to him and sets out to protect it. He finds not only is he good with the follow through, he naturally assumes the leadership role, adjusting quickly on the fly to keep his friends and family safe when their lives are on the line. When disaster strikes, he makes decisions no one should ever have to make, zombie apocalypse or not.
And Ed, well, actually, Ed doesn’t change all that much. He’s more interested in getting to drive the cool car than he is about the zombies in the street. In the few minutes, Shaun takes to get his mom and stepdad he manages to crash the car. When they’re surrounded by a horde he nonchalantly takes a call (from a guy he occasionally sells drugs too).
Shaun’s willing to forgive and ignore Ed’s apathy until this moment. It takes the world ending and their lives at stake to Shaun to finally confront his friend. The apocalypse becomes the catalyst that pushes Shaun to making decisions. One of those decisions is letting go of a friendship that had been holding him back.
But it’s not all sad; Shaun gets the girl and still finds time to play games with Ed occasionally.
They’re not Bad Boys
Nicolas Angel is kind of cop who’s good at his job. Every part of his job, including the paperwork, but everything else in his life suffers. He breaks up with his girlfriend. The other officers are all too happy to get rid of him because he makes them look bad by comparison. The only constant in his life before moving to Sandford is his Japanese Peace Lily.
Danny, on the other hand, is the kind of cop who never had to be good at his job. He lived his whole life in a small village where the most work the cops had to do was deal with ‘accidents.’ His father is the inspector. Everything he learnt about his job was from action cop movies.
Friendship in Hot Fuzz goes in a different direction. Nicolas and Danny aren’t the lifelong friends Shaun and Ed were. In fact, a drunk Danny almost runs overs Nicolas when they first meet. Danny actually learns what it means to be a cop from Nicolas. Nicolas learns there’s more to life than the service and there’s more to service than enforcing every law. For Nicolas, Danny becomes the person he cares about more than the job.
By learning more about Sandford from Danny, Nicolas becomes more willing to let smaller infractions go when working to keep the greater peace. By the climax, he even enlists the help of some vandals he’d been suspicious of on his first night in the village. Danny, on the other hand, learns that being a cop isn’t about the big action shootouts, and even when the big action shootout happens, he and Nicolas fight their way out while only using non-lethal takedowns. In this view of friendship, each one makes each other a better cop and a better person.
The Crowning Glory of the End of the World
Gary King is the king in his mind and every king needs a court. For Gary, his court is made up of his friends or, to be more accurate, his enablers. Like so many, Gary found his adulthood paling in comparison to the glory of his youth and has been trying to regain that feeling. The height of his youth had been trying to conquer the Golden Mile, a twelve pub crawl with four of his best friends. They never finished the Mile, but that night still left a mark on Gary. For him, it never got better and that’s where the problems start.
He keeps searching for that same high in the substance he linked with the first: alcohol. Never finding it, he makes one last ditch attempt to regain his crown by reclaiming the Golden Mile and finishing what they’d started all those years ago. He rounds up his old friends, who have all grown up and progressed in their own ways. Among them is Andy Knightley, who used to be Gary’s right hand but has been sober since the very night Gary is trying to reclaim.
Amidst the discovery that their hometown has become a hub of alien activity, Andy learns just how deep Gary’s addiction goes. Of the Blood and Ice Cream trilogy, Gary King is the most tragic protagonist. His addiction sends him on a dark spiral. Even as he tries to regain his youth with his friends, he keeps them at distance emotionally. He thinks he needs drinking buddies more than he needs true friends who will help him.
Gary’s inability to say no to a drink inevitably leads to the World’s End, both the name of a bar and the actual end of the world. But when he hits rock bottom and realizes Andy was willing to follow him there for his sake, that’s when he finds the strength to stop living in the past.
Be it the heartbreak of losing good friends, the surprise of finding friendship in the unlikeliest of persons or wanting to help a friend who’s not ready to help themselves, the Blood and Ice Cream trilogy portrays the complexities of platonic relationships. Best of all, it shows how they evolve as we grow and change.
Images courtesy of Universal Pictures.
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