Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Waiting for Winter on “Game of Thrones”

The past few days have brought mixed news about HBO’s Game of Thrones. On one hand, the show was nominated for 23 Emmy Awards, more than any other on television! Then came the unhappy news . . .


First, the showrunners confirmed that next season will only have 7 episodes. This is consistent with rumors that the next two seasons will be shortened. Even worse, the show is waiting to begin filming Season 7 until winter literally arrives in many of their filming locations. This means that unlike years past, when we go from Black Sails and Vikings straight into a new season of Game of Thrones, next year we’ll have to wait a few more months to find out what happens to Cersei, Daenerys, and Jon Snow. 

But Outlander may be our savior. If Starz airs Season 3 in the spring, we’ll have at least one excellent show to carry us through until Season 7 of Game of Thrones.

One last interesting note: Because Season 7 will air after May 31, it won’t be eligible for next year’s Emmy nominations. If true, this means the show with the most nods this year won’t have any in 2017.

* Image courtesy of Rotten Tomatoes

Thursday, July 14, 2016

“Outlander” Is One of the Best Shows on Television

At the same time HBO was giving us the best season of Game of Thrones, Starz was airing the second season of Outlander, based on Diana Gabaldon's best-selling time travel novels set in 18th century Scotland. Both are fantastic shows, and it’s too bad they have to air around the same time, leaving us in a desolate TV wasteland now that both seasons have ended. 


I’ve always been meaning to write a post on Outlander, which is incredibly well acted and well done. But unlike Game of Thrones, with all of its mysteries and fan theories, I never found the right angle with Outlander, and I still haven’t. Fortunately, two great articles on the series were recently posted, so at least I can point you to them. 

The first article by Alison Herman at The Ringer is titled “‘Outlander’ is the Grossest Romance on TV.” And while the title may not be flattering, the article sure is. Here’s an excerpt, but you can read the whole thing here:
Created by Battlestar Galactica’s Ronald D. Moore, the show takes a historically trivialized genre — several, really — and maximizes it. But Outlander doesn’t pointedly avoid tropes รก la Game of Thrones, whose success can sometimes feel like a backhanded compliment to its fantasy origins. It leans into them: yearslong investment in a multilayered relationship, equally developed male and female leads, and yes, sex scenes grounded in a woman’s perspective.
Outlander does all these things better than any other drama on cable, and the internet has responded accordingly. But the stuff that sets Outlander apart from the rest of the pack doesn’t come at the expense of Serious Television values like realism and nuance. That’s because Outlander is also one of the most gory, raw, and violent shows on television, often more so than the gritty, fatalist dramas that typically serve as its foils. To say so doesn’t qualify its core romanticism — it augments it.

The second article, from Katherine Trendacosta at io9, is titled “How Outlander Made a Show Without Any Surprises So Damn Good.” You can read the whole article here, but here’s an excerpt:
In a time travel show, the obvious way of surprising audiences would be to have the characters actually change history, and it’s something our heroes have tried really, really hard to accomplish. But history seems to be locked in Outlander, and thus so is the plot—and no matter the superficial differences from the novels, Outlander still puts its characters exactly where we know they’ll end up.
So instead of relying on surprises, Outlander has placed a huge burden on its characters. The writers have to make sure they are rich and complicated and then the actors have to make us believe it. And they’ve done a superb job.
* * *
By focusing on its characters, Outlander has made a show where nothing in the plot surprises us—who really thought Jamie would be dead?—but the characters still keep us riveted. Which is why we’re all dying for season three.
There’s much more to both articles, which is why you should read them in full. And if you haven’t started watching Outlander, you really should. After all, what else is there to do in this TV wasteland?

PS, I’m trying to fill the void by binge watching all three seasons of The Borgias. Just finished season one, and enjoyed it. And you can’t beat all the scenes set in early Renaissance Rome!

** Images courtesy of Rotten Tomatoes

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Why Jon Snow Had to Die and Be Reborn

Yesterday, TV Guide published an article titled “Game of Thrones: What Was the Point of Jon Snow’s Death and Resurrection?” The article, however, never seriously answered the question. Instead, it concluded that “Jon was killed just for the show to have something to do during its saggy midpoint, and his death and resurrection won't really have a huge impact on the story.” Really?


First off, Jon dies in the books, okay. The show’s writers didn’t make this up. George R.R. Martin did. And for anyone who has read his novels, there is certainly a much larger purpose at play. 

To its credit, the TV Guide article pointed out that after Jon was resurrected two episodes into Season 6, the resurrection didn’t seem to have any real purpose on the show:
“[T]he only question I have after watching the excellent Season 6 is: What was the point of Jon Snow dying and coming back to life? He died at the very end of Season 5. He was brought back to life in the second episode of Season 6. After that, things were remarkably normal regarding Jon and there was no discernible change in his behavior (aside from hanging a kid, he actually came back even more meek than before). He was the same old semi-bland fantasy hero he was in his first life, and when he was brought back he continued on the path he was already on before he died. So death was merely an inconvenience for Jon, like Cersei spilling a glass of wine on her new robe.”
The reason for this, I believe, is that Season 6 was limited to just 10 episodes. And while we didn’t get any overt explanation for his resurrection, we did learn something incredibly important about his parentage: Jon is the son of Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark. I’m fairly certain this means something, and Martin had it in mind all along.


Throughout his series, and on the show, there have been references to a prophesied savior called either Azhor Ahai (Melisandre’s favorite hero) or “the prince that was promised.” The gist of the prophecy is that this hero will be “reborn” to defeat the White Walkers led by the Night’s King (you know, the one who in “Hardhome” gave Jon that “You and me bro, mano y mano” kind of stare). There have been some really good articles written on who Azhor Ahai may be on Game of Thrones, whether it’s Jon or Daenerys. You can read them here and here, and decide for yourself.

But I like to go back to the books, and one of the most interesting pieces of book “prophecy” comes from A Clash Of Kings, when Daenerys is seeing visions in the House of the Undying. She sees a man whom she mistakes, at first, for her bother Viserys, though it’s strongly implied to be her older brother Rhaegar. He is with a woman holding his newborn child, when he tells her: “He is the prince that was promised, and his is the song of ice and fire.” 

Could this vision have alluded to Jon, who is literally a child of ice (the Starks) and fire (the Targaryens)? I think there’s a good chance that it did. And if Jon needed to be “reborn” to fulfill this prophecy, that would give his death and resurrection a significant purpose from a literary point-of-view.

Even if this is not the case, some commentators on the TV Guide piece make another good point. Jon lives by his vows and, like Ned, is wont to break them. The only way he could be truly released from his vow to the Night’s Watch was by way of his death. That’s now happened. He’s not a deserter of the Night’s Watch like the one Ned had to execute in the very first chapter of A Game of Thrones. Instead, having been released from his vows, he’s now the King in the North

In either case, his death and resurrection had a purpose. And it wasn’t to boost ratings on Game of Thrones. I’m pretty sure of that.

* Images courtesy of Rotten Tomatoes

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

“The Winds of Winter” Reset the Board on “Game of Thrones”

Last Sunday’s season finale of Game of Thrones may have been the show’s best episode so far. And for readers of the books, it probably contained the most surprises. Here are my thoughts on “The Winds of Winter.” Note, *SPOILERS* to follow.


In a number of ways, last Sunday’s episode reset the game board to where it stood at the end of George R.R. Martin’s first book, A Game of Thrones. You have a Lannister tenuously holding onto the Iron Throne, a king in the Iron Isles, and a King of the North. What you don’t have is House Baratheon, which looks pretty decimated right now. In their place, however, you have the Targaryens, with Daenerys’ massive army sailing to Westeros. But there are a few things that are different this time around. 


The King in the North


I must say, I wasn’t expecting this development at the end of Season 6, with Jon becoming the new King in the North. I did expect his Bran-found parentage (which has always been the subject of massive speculation, R + L = J, anyone?). Jon is a Stark, through Lyanna, and a Targaryen, though Rhaegar—which makes him a child of both ice and fire. Since Martin’s series is titled A Song of Ice and Fire, I wonder if Jon’s parentage confirms that he is the true hero of this tale. 

I loved the way the show’s writers mirrored the scene where Robb Stark was named King in the North. And I really loved little Lyanna Mormont—in fact, I hope she becomes a regular on the show! The last time there was a King in the North, it didn’t end so well. But unlike Robb, Jon isn’t focused on the Lannisters; he’s focused on the Night King beyond the Wall. That said, this is Game of Thrones, which means that something will go wrong, and I suspect Littlefinger, and maybe Sansa, will be the reason it does.


Queen Cersei, the First of Her Name


The first part of the finale, with its haunting score and long build up, may have been one of the best scenes ever filmed on Game of Thrones. While I thought the High Sparrow would meet his end, I never expected poor Tommen would kill himself, which would put Cersei on the Iron Throne. This is the ultimate reversal of fortune for a character who was brought low at the end of Season 5 and A Feast For Crows. I have to believe this is what Martin had in mind. Even though the show’s writers have run out of published source material, I still believe Martin gave them the key plot points through the end of the tale, and setting up Cersei as the final villain on the Iron Throne makes perfect sense from a storytelling point-of-view.

That said, I think Cersei is totally screwed. She’s out of allies, is probably hated by everyone in King’s Landing who lost a loved one when she blew up the Great Sept of Baelor, and has a nearly unstoppable army heading her way with three fire-breathing dragons. Even more, with Tommen’s death, it looks like all of Maggy the Frog’s prophecy to Cersei is coming true. The last part of that prophecy doesn’t end well:
“Gold shall be their crowns and gold their shrouds,” she said. “And when your tears have drowned you, the valonqar shall wrap his hands about your pale throat and choke the life out of you.”
Apparently, “valonqar” means “little brother” in High Valyrian. I suppose this could mean that Tyrion will be Cersei’s end, since he is heading back to Westeros and hates his older sister. But maybe the valonqar could point to Jaime, who was born holding Cersei’s foot and did kill the Mad King for attempting to blow up King’s Landing with wildfire, much like Cersei just did. Also, her actions resulted in Tommen’s death, so maybe Jaime is none too happy with his sister right now. In any event, I predict that Cersei is toast. But every time I think she’s toast, she finds a way to survive. So who knows?


The Targaryen Horde


The scene with Daenerys’ ships and dragons finally heading to Westeros was the perfect end to the show’s best season. Her army looks absolutely unstoppable, especially when you consider it will join that of Dorne and Highgarden. But since this is Game of Thrones, nothing is ever as easy as it looks, so expect a setback for Dany in the near future. If I had to guess, that setback will come in the form of Euron Greyjoy, who needs revenge on Yara and Theon. Also, in A Feast For Crows, Euron has a horn that can magically control dragons. We haven’t seen that horn on the show, but there’s plenty of time for its revelation next season. 


RIP Lady Stoneheart


It’s okay to use her name now because I don’t think we will ever see her on the show. If she was going to appear, it would have been last episode. All the pieces were set with the Brotherhood Without Banners and Brienne and Pod all in the Riverlands. But, as I suspected, the appearance of Beric Dondarrion signaled that she would have no place on Game of Thrones. Instead, it appears the writers have given her role as the avenger of the Red Wedding to the face-changing Arya Stark. That’s fine, so long as Walder Frey got what he deserved!

What’s Left?


Earlier this week, the show’s writers confirmed that there will be only 13 to 15 more episodes left on Game of Thrones, which means the next two seasons are going to be shortened. As much as I hate the show ending, at least this suggests the writers have a plan to wrap it up without adding a bunch of filler of the kind that helped kill LOST

The person I feel most sorry for is George R.R. Martin. Last week’s episode undoubtedly spoiled some major surprises from Martin’s upcoming novel, which is unfortunate. That said, so much is different in the novels, I still think we’ll have plenty of new material to devour when the book comes out. You can read some good articles about this here, here, and here.

Now for the hard part. Winter has indeed come at the beginning of summer 2016, and now we’ll need to wait until next spring to learn what happens. Yet maybe HBO’s upcoming Westworld will help us get through the freeze. It’s produced by JJ Abrams, and the story on which it’s based was written by Michael Crichton. Last time I checked, they were both pretty good.

* Images courtesy of Rotten Tomatoes

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Will “The Battle of the Bastards” Actually Happen in George R.R. Martin’s “The Winds Of Winter”?

Last week’s episode of Game of Thrones, titled “The Battle of the Bastards,” was everything I hoped it would be, and more: epic and thrilling, with an unexpected stopover in Meereen that was quite awesome to behold. And for once in a very long while, the episode ended better than many would have expected for Game of Thrones. But I truly wonder if any of this will play out similarly in George R.R. Martin’s The Winds of Winter, whenever it debuts.


Daenerys’ Tale


Last week, we finally saw something we’ve anticipated forever: Dany controlling her three dragons and using them to kick some serious ass! I have little doubt that Martin’s books will get to this point because nearly every sign since those dragons were but wee lizards has suggested this will happen. Although when it does, I doubt the circumstances will be the same as Dany found them when she arrived at Meereen’s pyramid courtesy of Drogon.

By the end of A Dance With Dragons, Tyrion has not even entered Meereen. Instead, he has just escaped the slavers camped outside Meereen’s walls, while Ser Barristan Selmy remains alive and well as the very competent Hand of the Queen. Also, while there is an Ironborn fleet approaching Meereen, it’s led by Victarion Greyjoy, who is Euron’s brother, coming to take Daenerys as his bride. Meanwhile, Yara Greyjoy (whose name is Asha in the books) has been captured by Stanis Baratheon and is bogged down with his army in the snow outside Winterfell. 

Somehow, in the books, Dany is going to need a fleet to sail to Westeros, but I question whether Asha and Theon will have anything to do with it.

 

The Battle of the Bastards


First, let me say, I loved how this played out on the show, even though it’s hard to understand why Sansa never told Jon about the knights of the Vale. Hopefully this little detail will be explained next episode. But for now, back to the books.

Assuming Jon gets resurrected, I believe The Winds Of Winter will cover this battle in some form or fashion. In fact, the end of A Dance With Dragons has already set up this conflict with Ramsay’s “pink” letter, which motivated Jon to go to war until his own men betrayed and stabbed him. Aside from this, however, there are some huge differences between the books and what’s been happening on the show. 


The biggest difference, in my view, is that Sansa Stark never married Ramsay, was never abused by him, and has never even left the Vale by the end of A Dance With Dragons. What this means is that the fitting end she gave Ramsay on the show will likely never happen in the books. It won’t surprise me if Ramsay dies at the end of the battle, but someone else is going to have do to the honors. 

The only way book Sansa would ever meet Ramsay is if he somehow captures her in The Winds Of Winter. But since she’s protected by the army of the Vale, I seriously doubt that would happen. That said, it would not surprise me if she and Littlefinger take the knights of the Vale to help Jon reclaim Winterfell. In fact, I’ll be a bit surprised if this doesn’t happen. Somehow book Sansa needs to go home, and getting there with an army of Vale knights makes plenty of sense.


Next, there’s the matter of poor Rickon, the most expendable Stark on Game of Thrones. Could I see book Rickon being captured by the Karstarks and turned over to Ramsay? Sure. Could I see Ramsay killing Rickon in a similarly sadistic manner? Absolutely. After all, Rickon has to play some role in the story, and being Ramsay’s victim might be it. But probably not.

In the books, Ramsay has Mance Rayder hostage, not Rickon Stark. Book Mance was never killed by Melisandre. Instead, Jon sends him to infiltrate Winterfell and rescue Jeyne Poole, whom Jon believes to be his younger sister Arya. In light of this, I think it’s more likely that we could see Ramsay take out Mance before the battle begins. Book Rickon will probably survive, and by the end of A Dance With Dragons, Davos Seaworth has even set off to find him. (Book Davos, incidentally, is never near Winterfell or the Wall.) As for what Martin ultimately has in store for the littlest Stark, only The Winds Of Winter will tell. 

All this said, the one thing I truly hope is that whenever this battle happens in the books, it will forever be known in Westeros as “The Battle of the Bastards.” A more fitting name could not be spoken.

* Images courtesy of Rotten Tomatoes

Friday, June 17, 2016

Where My Predictions Stand Going Into the Penultimate Episode of “Game of Thrones”

Season 6 of Game of Thrones promised to be the least predictable to date. Because the show had surpassed George R.R. Martin’s novels, readers like me would finally be surprised as events unfolded on screen. That is, until the show lurched back into material from A Feast For Crows. But still, heading into this season’s penultimate episode, how have my predictions fared?


Jon Snow


I had long predicted that Jon would come back to life, but so did most of the known world. I also predicted that Jon might become the new Ned Stark and win back Winterfell from evil Ramsay. That looks like it may happen next episode (titled “The Battle of the Bastards”), even though Sansa may have had to twist Jon’s arm to do it. We would all love Jon to kill Ramsay and retake the North. But this is Game of Thrones, so I have a feeling it may not end as well as we all hope. (For an amusing read on who should be the one to kill Ramsay click here.)


Arya


Many have wondered what the point was of Arya’s season-and-a-half hiatus in the House of Black and White, where she trained to be a faceless man only to quit two episodes ago. My theory was that her journey in the House of Black and White was designed to force Arya to make a choice: to either abandon her past and become faceless man or embrace her past as Arya Stark of Winterfell. That happened last episode when she chose to be Arya Stark, and I’m quite happy Needle played a role in her decision. Where she goes next may depend on whether she learns about Jon and Sansa in the North. Otherwise, it may be a visit to King’s Landing to scratch a few more names off her hit list.


Daenerys


My only observation about Dany this season was that her story seemed to be moving way too fast. Already she has been captured by the Dothraki; burned their leaders alive; summoned her giant dragon like it was no big thing; and appeared atop the pyramid in Meereen just as the city is being attacked by the Masters’ fleet. What we haven’t had is a single scene where Dany contemplates anything, whether it’s how she’ll control her uncontrollable dragons, how she should deal with Meereen, or when she might finally set off the claim the Iron Throne. This is a big break from prior seasons where we always tended to know what Dany was thinking. I suppose she needs to save Meereen by the end of this season so the story can move forward. But it still feels rushed. This may be why her story has become my least favorite this year.


Varys


I didn’t make any predictions about Varys going into the season, but I’ll make an observation now. Last season, the showrunners departed from the books by sending him to Meereen. In the novels, however, he stays in King’s Landing and is involved in a shocking scene at the end of A Dance With Dragons that alters the political landscape. Now that Varys is going home, I wonder if we’ll see that scene before the season ends.


The Hound vs. the Mountain


The return of the Hound reopened the possibility of a battle with his brother, the Mountain, who burned the Hound’s face so many years ago. Some even speculated the matchup may come as early as Cersei’s trial by combat, with the Hound fighting for the Faith and the Mountain for Cersei (The Ringer has been calling this The Cleganebowl). But after last week’s episode, that doesn’t look to be the case. Tommen, under the influence of either Margaery or the High Sparrow, abolished the right to trial by combat, putting Cersei in a bad place. It still seems like she has a plan to save her neck, but trial by combat in the Cleganebowl seems unlikely. 


Lady You-Know-Who


Before last Sunday, I felt fairly certain that the final two episodes would touch on a major plotline in A Feast For Crows. After all, the Brotherhood without Banners are back and Pod and Brienne have returned to the Riverlands, which means everything was set for the revelation of Lady You-Know-Who. Until last episode, that is, when we saw Beric Dondarrion, the Brotherhood’s leader whom Thoros of Myr (a red priest like Melisandre) had resurrected numerous times.

The problem is that by A Feast For Crows, Dondarrion is dead, having given up his life so Thoros could resurrect someone else in his place. So what does Dondarrion’s presence mean? Either he’s a signal to the book readers that Lady You-Know-Who will never appear on the show. Or we will still see her, but the writers have altered her origin story. My hope is it’s the latter, but I’m far less willing to put money it now. As for others weighing the odds, The Ringer thinks Dondarrion’s appearance means RIP Lady-You-Know-Who.

But those are just my thoughts. What are yours heading into the penultimate episode of Game of Thrones?

** Images courtesy of Rotten Tomatoes

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Book Review: “The Conjurers” by David Waid

These days, it’s quite rare when I agree to do a book review. The problem is time. There’s just not much of it given my job and my writing. But David’s pitch for his novel The Conjurers caught my eye, and I’m glad I read it.


The subtitle of The Conjurers is “A Gritty Fantasy of Witches and Wizards,” which is an apt description for this tale. While it’s set in fourteenth century Europe, the historical setting is a backdrop to what otherwise is a heavily fantasy-weighted piece of historical fantasy fiction. In short, the story concerns a game of sorts between witches and wizards, and the novel’s young protagonists are caught in the middle of this sometimes dark, but exciting tale. 

The novel follows two parallel storylines involving teenagers blessed with a secret gift that makes them the desired objects of a society of witches and wizards known as the Maleficarum. The first of the two stories involves the plight of Eamon, an Irish boy of fifteen, and his younger sister Caitlin. After their village is attacked by brigands, for reasons they have yet to understand, the brother and sister soon find themselves pursued by agents of the Maleficarum. Aided by a benign old witch named Nairne in the snowy lands near Dublin, Eamon and Caitlin must find a way to survive the growing list of foes trying to hunt them down.

The second tale involves a similarly gifted fourteen-year-old girl named Teresa, who is the daughter of a wealthy Italian family in Genoa. After her older brother goes missing, Teresa soon finds herself investigating his suspected murder at the hands of his employer, an alchemist named Maestro Lodovicetti. A visit by her brother’s ghost sends Teresa on a mission inside the Maestro’s inner sanctum, where she uncovers his dark secrets. Ultimately, she learns that the Maestro is one of the Maleficarum who is in search of a geistmage, a once-in-a-generation individual who can wield magic with mere thought and will, instead of having to employ the dark and disturbing rituals that witches and wizards are forced to use. Even more, the Maestro has located one of the geistmagen in Dublin, and has gone to find him in order to steal his powers. Believing her late brother would want her to go to Dublin too, Teresa sets out to find her way to Ireland.

At its heart, this is a story about witches and wizards and their hunt for three gifted geistmagen: Eamon, Caitlin, and Teresa. There are plenty of tense and violent moments along the way, and the author does a good job of building a sense of threat throughout. He also hints at another force opposing the Maleficarum, namely the Knights Templar, who have been secretly watching the children since they were born. Due to a series of events, the Knights end up playing a scant role in the story, though I suspect the sequel may expand their role considerably and tie this fantasy tale closer to history.

Overall, I found The Conjurers to be a suspenseful fantasy with an interesting premise. Despite covering ground from Italy to Ireland, it is not epic in feel, but intimate, always focusing on the plight of its protagonists or the plans of the various witches and wizards out to get them. This intimacy is effective because the author has created characters the reader can care about, particularly Teresa, whose longer journey allows more opportunities for decisions, both good and bad, that inevitably put her in greater danger. 

The novel ends with a twist of sorts and the promise of much more to come in this magic-focused tale. We’ll have to wait for the sequel before the game resumes. And in the next installment, I hope the Knights Templar get a bit more playing time before the end game begins.

Thanks to a very cool feature on Amazon, you can read a preview of The Conjurers here.