Friday, July 29, 2016

Pirates & the Caribbean Revisited

I'm still figuring out what to do in a post Game of Thrones world, so this week I'm resurrecting a post from the summer of 2013. Hope you enjoy it.

For the third year in a row, I plan to spend my summer vacation in the Bahamas. It’s hard not to like the Caribbean with its perfect beaches and wonderful resorts, but as a fan of history, the Caribbean always makes me think about pirates. Maybe it was the Disneyland ride I used to adore long before Johnny Depp became Jack Sparrow, but for me it always comes back to those rum-swigging buccaneers. So two years ago I reviewed Michael Crichton’s posthumously published Pirate Latitudes, and this year I’m focusing on the most classic pirate story of all time: Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island.

The Coolest Treasure Island Cover I've Seen By Far!
After probably 30-some years, I re-read Treasure Island, this time with my eight-year-old daughter, and it was an interesting experience after half-a-lifetime of reading adventure tales. The first thing that struck me was how much dialect there is in this book. Half the time it was hard to understand what the heck Long John Silver and his pirate friends were saying to the poor, and much more well-spoken, protagonist Jim Hawkins. Here’s a good example from Mr. Silver’s mouth: “Not much worth to fight, you ain’t. P’r’aps you can understand King George’s English. I’m cap’n here by ‘lection.” I don’t know how I overlooked this as a kid, but it has far more dialect than I’m used to. Yet given that it’s a classic, that must have worked back in 1883, so I can’t be too critical.

Can you believe they named a fast-food place after this guy?
The story also contains less action than I’m used to from reading fiction written in the 20th and 21st centuries, but back in 1883, Treasure Island may have been that generation’s “Star Wars.” The plot is fairly straightforward. Young Jim Hawkins, who works with his mother at an English inn called the Admiral Benbow, meets a drunken old seaman named Billy Bones who is fearful of a mysterious one-legged man. After Billy dies, Jim discovers his old treasure map (with an “X” that marks the spot). He shows it to Dr. Livsey and Squire Trewlaney, a pair of gentlemen willing to take risks for the sake of adventure and a chest full of gold, and soon finds himself on a sea voyage to Skeleton Island. Unfortunately, the crew hired by Trewlaney – who seriously needs to work on his background checks – is comprised of former pirates who have been seeking the treasure for some time. Even worse, they are led by the one-legged man that Billy so feared: Long John Silver (“shiver my timbers!”). Naturally, a mutiny ensues, and before long, it’s up to young Jim to save the day.
Take that Israel Hands!
Almost every pirate clich√© you can think of derived from this novel, including the peg-legged captain, the talking parrot, the map with a great big X, and “yo-ho and a bottle of rum!” No wonder it’s a classic. It did to pirates what Tolkien did to dwarves and elves. There were enough harrowing moments to keep me engaged, despite the awkward dialect and a penchant for “telling,” instead of “showing,” which seems to have been rampant in 19th century writing. There was more violence than I remembered, which made it less than ideal for my eight–year-old, but no one can fault Mr. Stevenson for that. I’m glad I re-read it, and I understand why it’s so famous, but I must say, I think I’d prefer a more recently crafted pirate tale. That said, it’s hard to be too hard on a classic.

Along with Pirate Latitudes, this makes a whopping two novels I’ve read about pirates and the Caribbean. If I go to the Bahamas next year, I’ll surely need one more, so any good recommendation will be much appreciated!

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 √° 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