Hello and welcome to part two of the Hugh Grantathon. This instalment will start in 1988 and end in 1990, and visit such exotic locations as Lake Geneva, Louisiana, the south of France and Glasgow. We’ve just moved out of the Colonial Years (although our first movie was actually released before The Bengali Night for those who are counting) and have moved into the, um, Doing An Accent Years. These were dark times for Hugh Grant.

Rowing With The Wind

The peculiar thing about trying to source not especially popular movies because an actor who would later become moderately famous had a bit part in them is that you tend to have to get them from slightly out-of-the-way places, or at least out-of-the-way relative to where I am. Not out-of-the-way if you live Spain, which is where I got my copy of Romando Al Viento. Perhaps more peculiarly not only did I have to source this film from Spain, but it appears to have been a legitimately Spanish film, by a Spanish film company, with a Spanish writer, director and cinematographer, released originally at a Spanish film festival. Except for some reason it was written in English and had an entirely English cast, which they seem to have dubbed into Spanish for the Spanish audience. Fortunately for me, the English language dialogue is still on the DVD.

Anyway, in this film Hugh Grant plays Byron. He is weirdly perfect as Byron, despite the fact he looks nothing like Byron. I think it might be the hair. In all of Hugh Grant’s early movies, he has really 80s hair which is fine in this context because Byron also had really 80s hair. I mean, yes, if we’re being technical probably it would be more correct to say that people in the 80s had hair influenced by a number of styles and movements, one of which was the New Romantics which was clearly inspired by the, well, Old Romantics so I suppose really the 80s had Byron hair.

This film is odd. It has the problem that most historical biopics have, which is that peoples’ lives don’t really fit neatly into pleasing narratives with instigating events, rising action, denouements and resolution. It loosely focuses on that bit that everybody knows happened but nobody knows any details about where Byron, the Shelleys and Polidori hung out by a lake somewhere and had a ghost story competition, which led to Mary Shelley writing Frankenstein, John Polidori writing The Vampire, and Byron and Shelley … I don’t know? Flaking out? Or producing something since lost to history but which I like to think was about zombies. Y’know, she walks in beauty like the night of the living dead. The Necessity of Atheism (And Eating Brains). That kind of thing.

The central conceit of the movie is basically that a bunch of bad shit happened to the Romantics (because it did) and Mary Shelley becomes convinced that it’s her fault because, in writing Frankenstein, she—in a very real sense—unleashed a monster that would doom them all. I mean, I say in “in a very real sense”. I really mean “in a totally metaphorical sense”, although the monster does pop up to be symbolic about every eighteen minutes.  Although I watched this film primarily for Hugh Grant as Byron, its focus is mainly on the Shelleys, particularly on Mary Shelley, which I liked because she tends to get left out stories about that set, despite being in many way the coolest of them. And because of the need to crowbar real history into something approaching an emotionally satisfying narrative arc, it spends a really, really long time showing us images of Shelley getting wet, thinking about water, going near water, and constantly reminding us that he can’t swim, but that this will definitely be totes okay. Because, y’know, what are the odds of him drowning off the coast of Italy any time soon, eh?

I actually think I quite enjoyed Romando Al Viento, despite in retrospect having very little sense about what it was about. I thought it was a bit unfair of them to accuse Polidori of murdering Byron’s dog (in fact, it died of rabies, during which condition Byron nursed it personally, because of course he did) but I thought it did an admirable job of creating the sense of the world as seen and inhabited by the Romantics. By which I mean, as seen and inhabited by a bunch of self-obsessed, self-destructive 19th century dilettantes. And that’s, y’know, cool.

Goodness of film: Like a 4? I think it might actually be a good film. Like it’s very what it is and I can’t decide how I could imagine a film that’s just sort of generally about the Romantics, and particularly about Mary Shelley and her emotional reaction to a bunch of things that happened in her life being any better. Also, and maybe The Bengali Night just lowered my expectations here by being shit in every conceivable way, but it looks beautiful for something filmed in 1988. It’s all continental vistas and frilly shirts in the rain. Also trivia point: this is the film on which Hugh Grant and Liz Hurley met. They would famously be a couple until 2000. And she would famously wear a dress held together with gold safety pins that became so notorious it actually has its own Wikipedia page.

Hugh Grantiness of film: Tricky one. Hugh Grant isn’t the main focus and although he is, in many ways, weirdly well cast as Byron it’s not the Hugh Grantiest of roles. I mean, he’s hardly flustered at all, although he does have massive hair to compensate. Weirdly, his 1988 turn as a careless, debauched and jaded Byron sort of anticipates the way he would re-invent himself in the late 2000s as a careless, debauched and jaded Hugh Grant. So because of that I’m giving it a 3.

The Lady and the Highwayman

Because of the difficulties I had sourcing Rowing With The Wind this was actually the first film I watched after The Bengali Night and, as such, I suspect it benefited disproportionately from the context. I mean, I’m pretty sure this was a bad film but but due to its lack of overt colonialism, and the fact Hugh Grant was actually in it quite a lot, I was basically thrilled.

Anyway.

Oh my God. Oh my God. Oh my God. How amazing is this?

This is a Hugh Grant film based on a Barbara Cartland novel called Cupid Rides Pillion. In case, you can’t guess from the title of the movie, he plays either a lady or a highwayman and, spoiler, it’s the highwayman. The film opens with him saving the life of the future Charles II (Michael York, by the way, being fabulous) through a daring hat-swapping operation. And it kind of doesn’t let up from there. Within about the first twenty minutes:

Hugh’s become a highwayman

the Restoration’s happened

Hugh has nevertheless decided to go on being a highwayman because, as he later explain to the heroine, the king still has, um, need of highwaymen to deal with his enemies because a lot of the aristocracy have remained loyal to Cromwell, y’know like they were on account of how popular Cromwell was with ruling classes

he’s rescued the heroine from being molested in a carriage after her forced married to a pervy tax-collector

who he instantly kills in a duel that has every single cliched movie duel spot you could possibly want packed into about 85 seconds

like seriously, if I ever have to fight someone I’ll say I accept, but only if you stand with your back to a pile of logs tied loosely together with rope so that I can cut through them and they can go rolling all over the place. Also someone has to go through a campfire and we need something to leap over

ps, by the way, Hugh and the heroine are totally cousins. Like they have the same surname and everything.

pps their surname is Vyne and her first name is Panthea, because that is what women were called in those days

And it just goes on from there. Panthea, yes Panthea, yes that’s definitely a real name, shut up stop looking at me like that, gets her family fortune and honour restored because the tax collector she was forcibly married to was carrying it round in his moneybags the whole time because that’s how property works. And so then she’s presented at court, where Charles II is instantly all up on her and Barbara Castlemaine is sups jelez and all like imma totes gonna bring you down now. Then basically everyone gets framed for basically everything, there’s really quite a long sequence where both of them are in jail and looking sad, and Barbara Castlemaine (who is also fabulous) shows up in Hugh’s cell and is all I’ll totally get you out of here but you totally have to bang me, and he’s all like hell no Barbara Castlemaine because even though you’re clearly much cooler than the heroine and also she’s my fucking cousin I’m going to remain true to Panthea and, yes, that is her real name, why are you looking at me like that?

Anyway, good triumphs over evil because the evil effete cousin who wants to steal the Vyne family inheritance (there is always an evil effete cousin who wants to steal the family inheritance) takes Hugh’s special symbolic king ring that he was given by Charles II in the opening scene and then wears it front of Charles II and then Charles II is all like hey brah where’d you get that special symbolic king ring that I gave my closest and most trusted ally when we swapped hats back in the day and the evil effete cousin is all like I dunno, just like found it I guess, definitely didn’t steal it from my cousin who I’m trying to have murdered, and then King Charles like whaaaaat and everyone’s like whaaaat and then Hugh Grant totally gets pardoned for being a highwayman and is allowed to marry his cousin so yay. And then King Charles is like hey brah what happened to that hat I lent you and that is the actual end of the movie.

Goodness of film: 5. Shut up, fuck off, I don’t care.

Hugh Grantiness of film: 5. I know it’s not quite the archetype he usually plays because he’s meant to be dashing and shit (where ‘and shit’ in this context means ‘and other things similar to that’) rather than bumbling and shit (where ‘and shit’ in this context means ‘not very good at things’). But, having said that, if you had to pick someone to play a highwayman who continues to be a highwayman after his stated reason for being a highwayman had ceased to apply and who marries his own cousin at the end of the film and whose major achievement is swapping hats with Charles II Hugh Grant is the man you’d get to play that role.

Champagne Charlie

This one defaults to having subtitles in Danish, so either I got it from Denmark or something very peculiar is happening. Champagne Charlie doesn’t show up on the Wikipedia filmography for Hugh Grant because it was a TV movie and, as a general rule, I’m excluding TV movies because otherwise I will never be able to stop watching things with Hugh Grant in them. But I didn’t realise that until I’d bought it.

This film (or TV movie) is actually in two parts, each of which is about 90 minutes long, making it really quite a lot of Hugh Grant for your money. It’s a sweeping epic about the champagne industry, the American Civil War and facial hair. You might remember how upset I was that Hugh has a moustache in Maurice. In this film he has a moustache and does a French accent and, halfway through the second chapter, grows a beard as well. Not happy. Seriously not happy.

Anyway, I feel quite ambivalent about Champagne Charlie. On one level, it’s an enjoyable piece of bunk that has a really 80s TV vibe to it (each chapter opens with a montage of the best bits in that chapter, with a cheesy voice over going ‘Tonight on Champagne Charlie’, and by the best bits, of course, I mean any bits where somebody rides a horse, punches somebody or gets their boobs out). On another level, it’s a made for TV 80s movie set against the backdrop of the American Civil War and, well, American Civil War. I should probably emphasise that I am in no way qualified to talk about the legacy of the slave trade or Civil War on American culture or American society. But I will say that I know a lot of people quite rightly take the whole thing very seriously and I should probably point out right away that quite a large of chunk of Champagne Charlie is a lighthearted romp in which Hugh Grant falls in love with a feisty Southern belle who runs guns for the Confederacy. And, well, that’s going to be not okay for a lot of people.

The first chapter takes place almost entirely in France, and Hugh Grant does not have a moustache in it (the less said about his French accent the better). I think, being set primarily in Europe, allows the difficult Civil War stuff to be at least dealable-with (and, again, I should stress that tolerance varies and it’s completely fine if your tolerance varies) since it’s mostly about Hugh Grant dealing with his evil uncle who’s taken over his winery. And while he’s having a whirlwind romance with a woman who is quite explicitly pro-slavery it’s still very much a story set in France in which one character happens to have some objectionable views. I could have done without the scene where Hugh Grant is all so that slave labour you guys use, what’s up with that and she’s all oh no, it’s fine, my slaves are like my family, we totally care about them. But because it’s just her you can reasonably interpret that as her worldview, rather than the narrative itself minimising the impact of the slave trade.

Things get a little bit tricky in the second half, firstly because Hugh Grant grows a moustache, but also because he actually goes to America and the Civil War actually starts. And, again, I’m not in a position to judge this stuff and I do think the film makes some effort to highlight that slavery is bad and that people who defend it are, at best, misguided and, at worst, malicious. But at the same time because the film is based on a real historical incident in which a champagne salesman was mistakenly arrested for being a Confederate spy Hugh has a lot of hostile run-ins with the Union. And the film has a very strong undercurrent of oh no the beautiful white houses, and good gentile southerners versus bad thuggish Yankees. And, to be fair again, there’s a scene towards the end where the worst cast Abraham Lincoln ever (seriously, I’ve seen people cross playing on the internet doing a better Lincoln) dresses down the Evil Yankee General for being too evil, but it all has this uncomfortable “both sides” feel to it.

And (I appreciate I’m saying this a lot) while it’s not my place to talk about this stuff I do think portraying this kind of very historically emotive conflict is really difficult. Ideally you don’t want to demonise either side because even though slavery was bad if you portray the Civil War as being the Good North versus the Evil South you wind up with a one-sided narrative that creates resentment among people who feel unfairly represented. On the other hand, if you present it as being all about the Evil North versus the Good South that’s, well, problematic for some fairly obvious reasons. What I think Champagne Charlie tries to do is to be more nuanced but it does that by essentially saying (and I apologise for the fact you basically can’t talk about talking about the Civil War this way without it inviting comparisons with really contemporary American politics) that there were good and bad people on both sides. And while that sounds nuanced it’s actually only one step less simplistic than making one side the goodies and one side the baddies. I think when you have a historical conflict in which there was a deep-seated ideological difference between the sides of that conflict and one side of that deep-seated ideological difference was more out-of-step with modern values than the other side, then you have to portray the people on the more out-of-step side as being complicit in an unjust system irrespective of their other good or bad qualities. And similarly you need to acknowledge that the people on the less out-of-step side would have had their own complex motivations independent of their circumstantial alignment against a historical injustice.

Basically I think the problem with the way Champagne Charlie portrays the Civil War is that it presents the North as mostly evil but with some non-evil people, which isn’t great. And it presents the South as mostly good, with a small and unrepresentative minority of the evil sort of slave owners that give the rest a bad name. When we actually see the heroine’s planation, her slaves seem genuinely happy and to enjoy working to her, and this seems to be borne out by the fact that when Hugh Grant finally persuades her that slavery is a bad thing and she frees them all they stay working for her and fight to defend her from the Union. And, yes, this is complex, and, yes, it’s a difficult situation (after all, I’m sure that kind of thing did occasionally happen, although if it did I suspect it might have had more to do with a freed slave not having anywhere to go than their genuine desire to work on a plantation for no money) but it seems to suggest that the problem with slavery wasn’t the institution itself so much as that some people were bad slave owners. Which is, well, uncomfortable-making.

The thing is, and I should stress that I’m saying this very much from a position of privilege, I did actually quite enjoy Champagne Charlie. It’s mostly about the personal journey of Hugh Grant’s facial hair as he tries to make it in the champagne business, despite the machinations of his wicked uncle and scheming business partners, and only a very, very little bit about the Civil War. I even quite liked the feisty Confederate love interest. Again, the apologia for slavery wasn’t great, but she had enormous 80s hair and, on a more serious note, a remarkable amount of her own shit going on for a female character in an 80s movie. Often in a love story one of the characters’ life choices will intervene in a way that breaks apart the romance but it’s usually either his career or her need for an appropriate marriage. And it was really interesting to see a love story where what keeps them apart is that they both have quite specific, and in some ways quite similar, commitments to something they perceive as a family legacy and that those commitments required them to live on different continents. And I liked that in the end both of them decided that the thing they were fighting for (his family vineyards in Hugh Grant’s case and, um, her family’s right to carry on owning people in hers) was more important than the fact that they were in love with each other. And I appreciated that this choice wasn’t presented as devaluing or undermining their love.

I mean, I’d have liked it more if there’d had been less slavery. Obviously.

Goodness of film: Just because of the Civil War thing this is super super subjective, especially in the current political climate. I would give this a 4 if you are happy with a film where the heroine is basically ideologically committed to fighting for the Confederacy in the Civil War and which presents this as ultimately misguided but fundamentally noble. If you are not okay with that, and I can completely see why a lot of people would not be, then it’s a 1.

Hugh Grantiness of film: Oh man. Like he’s actually proper Hugh Grant levels of incompetent in this. He falls in love with a woman who he fails to notice is a smuggler, he doesn’t realise that basically everyone in his entire life is ripping him off, he fails to bang a really hot vineyard worker, and spends the latter half of Chapter 2 dying and growing a terrible beard in a Yankee prison. Also he sometimes remembers to do a French accent, and I’m not sure if that’s worse or better than the times he doesn’t remember. I think this has to be a 3.

The Big Man (UK) / Crossing The Line (US)

Okay. You know how sometimes if a relatively small film gets released and there’s an actor in that film who gets significantly more famous later on than the film ever gets, then when they do a DVD release of the film, they big up the role of that actor even if he’s only in, like, five scenes? That’s Hugh Grant in this film.

The Big Man (or Crossing The Line) is a Liam Neeson movie about the impact of the 1984 miner’s strike on small-towns in Scotland using Glaswegian organised crime and bareknuckle boxing as a metaphor for the plight of the working class. Hugh Grant is in three scenes in which he plays a man named Gordon, who might be a doctor, and who the protagonist’s wife briefly becomes attached to when the protagonist gets drawn into the aforesaid world of bareknuckle boxing and Glaswegian organised crime.

This is actually quite a good film, in that very slow, everything is shit, everyone is using you, you cannot get out from under the man, but it’s okay because your community will more or less survive and, anyway, what other choice of have you got kind of a way. I have no idea how this film will play for an American audience. There was actually quite a big subgenre of movies about industrial decline in the Regions (which is what we call the bits of England that aren’t London and the South East). It kind of hit its peak around Brassed Off, Billie Elliott and The Full Monty and tended towards bittersweet dramedies in which laid-off industrial workers (often but not always miners) deal with disempowerment and masculine identity in a world that no longer needs them by doing something a little bit quirky, like stripping or being in a brass band. The genre had  tiny, tiny micro-revival recently with Pride which was about that and LGBTQ+ rights and the AIDs epidemic. There’s also a fairly rich vein of just super grimdark movies about poor people who lose everything and that’s it. And The Big Man / Crossing The Line sort of falls in the middle.

Basically Liam Neeson is a former pit worker who has had a spell in prison for assaulting a police office during a strike and is now coping with the fact that his community has changed unrecognisably, he relies on his wife to support him, and that, despite what stereotypes may persist about the working class, there is actually a stigma attached to having been in prison no matter how unjust the sentence. Anyway, his shitty mate, played by Billy Connolly, sets him up in a prize fight which brings him an immediate cash windfall but makes his wife walk out on him because it’s clearly dodgy as fuck. The vast majority of the middle of the film is just a very slow examination of him adjusting to his circumstances. And when you finally get to the actual fight you have these extremely mixed feelings because you obviously want Liam Neeson to win while also being aware that the fight is pointless, that his opponent is just as desperate as he is, and that basically everybody involved except for the two arseholes in suits is being exploited. This makes it quite an interesting counterpoint to the more uplifting narratives you get in films like Brassed Off and The Full Monty where people escape the restrictions of their social context. Whereas the fight in The Big Man / Crossing The Line just reaffirms it. There’s a slightly heavy-handed quote near the end where Liam Neeson’s character says “when we were kids, we used to race snails through puddles, and the one who lost got his snail stepped on” which sort of encapsulates everything the film is saying.

Anyway, Hugh Grant does not have a moustache in this film. But he does do a Scottish accent, which I think is at least more consistent than his French accent, possibly because he’s not on screen as much.

Goodness of film: 4, and I’m aware I’m going for 4s a lot here. Basically I actually think this is a good film in a very 90s movie about an 80s mine dispute way. It’s chronically unfun but everyone in it is good in it and this quite a resonant topic for those of us who are British and were alive in the late 20th century.

Hugh Grantiness of film: 2. He has multiple scenes in which he has dialogue and he delivers that dialogue adequately. But, again, this is one of those peculiar films in which he is called upon to play a character instead of playing some mannerisms under a haircut.

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The story of these updates is that there are some updates that are happening right now. (Guess who’s been rewatching Parks and Rec)

Spontaneous Giveaway

So a thing that happened recently was that I lost my copy of Crush—this being one of my favourite collections, beloved to such an excessive degree that a fragment from ‘A Primer for the Small Weird Loves’ kicks off Pansies. Which is the sort of thing you have to write and ask someone for permission to do, and they can charge you for it, but in this case Richard Siken didn’t. Although my email was so delirious he probably just thought I was unwell and wanted to get as far away from me as possible. Anyway, anyway, I looked everywhere for the misplaced book, despaired, bought another one, and then found the original under my pillow. I have no idea what it was doing there—I can only assume Ducky hid it to torment me, or else I was reading in bed, and the book got shuffled under somehow.

Longish story short: I now have two copies of Crush and, as much as I love it, I only really need one. Hence the spontaneous giveaway. If you would like my spare (brand new) copy of Crush, alongside a bonus hard copy of Pansies, please do enter the Rafflecopter below. Giveaway is open internationally.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Audio Stuff

I’m super super super excited to announce that How to Bang a Billionaire is going to be released on audio, narrated by the insanely talented Joel Leslie. He’s narrated some of my favourite audiobooks, including Hemovore by Jordan Castillo Price, and can do all the voices. Yes, all of them. So basically Ardy is in safe hands. Hopefully more news about this soon.

How To Blow it with A Billionaire

So, Blow is coming out on Tuesday 12th December. I’m doing a weekly countdown teaser every Tuesday so if you follow me on one of the eighty million social media platforms I half-arsedly use please do keep an eye out for those. And I understand it’s currently available as an ARC on Netgalley so if you’re a reviewing type person you can request it over there.

As the book is in the hands of at least some readers, I’d better do my usual “buyer’s guide” spiel. Again, my purpose here isn’t to spoil the book or, uh, dissuade anyone from buying it (please buy it if you want to) but my feeling is very much that readers have a right to be informed consumers and I’d rather people knew what they were getting going in rather than discovering halfway through they were in, fact, getting something else that they wouldn’t have wanted had they known what it was.

First off, I’m afraid I have some pretty serious trigger warnings for Blow, which cover I guess discussions of sexual, physical and emotional abuse. There’s no on page depictions, nor any graphic descriptions, but it’s still a very prevalent theme. So please do take care of yourself when deciding whether or not the book is for you. If you have any specific concerns about this content (or anything really) you can email me (ajhatquicunquevultdotcom) or Mary (maryatquicunquevultdotcom) and we’ll do our best to address them.

I will say that—to me at least, but your mileage may vary—the prologue (which you’ll be able to check out just by downloading a sample of the text when the book is available) is probably the section most likely to be triggering. It’s narrated by the man Caspian was (forgive the euphemistic language I’m about to use here but I’m trying to tread a line between what is obvious from the text itself and what could conceivably constitute a spoiler) with before Nathaniel, and illuminates some of the discussions that take place later in the book. But if you were at all worried about it, I think you could read Blow without it and still have enough information to function. Which, err, is not me telling you that I opened my book with something completely irrelevant to the story, it’s just that the prologues to both Bang and Blow (and the same will go for the third book) are meant to sort of interact with the text in abstract ways that I hope readers find interesting, especially when looking back on the book they’ve just read.

I should also probably address the romancelandia elephant in the room which is the fact Blow ends with the central couple not together. I know this is a highly non-ideal situation for a lot of readers, which I totally understand. And if it’s that a deal breaker for you, then that’s okay. But I’m just going to take an opportunity now to tell you a little bit about the ending and why I chose to do it this way—not, let me make it very clear, to change your mind or convince you that you’re wrong for not wanting to read the book just yet (or at all)—but because if you are thinking that you want to come on this journey with me I want to offer you what reassures I can. I don’t know how to put this less-dramatically so I’ll just say it: but I do believe that reader trust is a sacred thing. It’s gift you give me when you pick up one of my books and I genuinely cherish it. I wouldn’t want to do anything to compromise or damage that trust.

So from my perspective (and yours may be different, and that’s okay), I don’t feel the ending of Blow is a cliff-hanger exactly. It’s a cliff-hanger in the sense that there is obviously more story to come, but the same was true of book 1 (Caspian and Ardy were, admittedly, in a better place but clearly the compromises they’d made and the peace they’d found at that point were short-term fixes to deeper issues) but not in the sense of suspense or uncertainty. There is absolutely no question about whether Ardy and Caspian will get their happy ending. It is, I promise you, 100% guaranteed.

I also did my very best to leave our Ardy in a strong place for moving forward. I mean, obviously he’s sad, but he’s not broken on the floor with his life in pieces or anything. And, to me, that’s actually important enough to risk the couple being apart at the end of the second book. Obviously romance novels centralise love and that’s a wonderful thing to do, but for me (as a reader and a writer) I don’t believe that centralising love means diminishing everything else. It’s why I try (how successfully is up to you to judge) to give my characters a world to inhabit beyond their romantic relationships: I want falling in love with someone to be part of a character’s rich, satisfying, meaningful life. Not the only thing that matters to them.

And the Arden St Ives series is a sort of combination bildom / bildungsroman (bildomsroman – and I’m going to keep that using that terrible punmanteau until it happens, dammit) so it is as necessary for him to find a place in the world where he can thrive and be valued, as figure things out with his billionaire boyfriend. Ideally, of course, he would (and will) do both. But, right now, he needs to show himself (and the reader) that he doesn’t need Caspian’s wealth, power and belief in him to succeed. He can do it on his own. And, even putting aside Ardy’s personal circumstances, it’s sort of a requirement of the genre that your protagonist proves this: after all, while you could theoretically write a book where somebody solves all their personal and circumstantial problems by dating a billionaire, that’s not really the sort of thing most people want to read.

Of course, I could have shuffled things around so that the inevitable breakup section of the bildom trilogy happened another time and didn’t leave readers slightly in the lurch but, well, I honestly believe this is the right and time place for it. I mean, most bildom trilogies I’ve read (and, oh boy, have I read a lot) have the couple break up at the end of the first book and I did play with that structure originally but I decided against it in the end. One of the problems with writing a trilogy of any genre is making book two feel relevant to the overall arc, instead of just passing time until the exciting thing you’re waiting for happens. And I can’t really say if I’ve managed to do that, but, I’ve definitely managed to avoid the situation where book two is just waiting for the couple to get back together.

Except that now begs the question: will book three be just waiting for the couple to get back together? And I answer firmly: ummmm…I hope not? There’s a teaser for book three at the end of Blow and Caspian is back on page, and in the same room as Ardy, by chapter three. They’re not fixing things at that point (that would make the end of book 2 a bit like those episodes of Alias where you’re left being all like, oh noes, the heroine is falling off a cliff in a runaway minecart that’s on fire, how can she possibly survive and next episode they’re like wait, she wasn’t in the minecart at all, and is, in fact, totally fine in Prague!) but they will be strongly present in each other’s lives. So no random extended absences of the love interest which (despite having written a couple of such sequences, eek) are not my favourite romancelandia plot arcs.

All of which is to say: if you aren’t up for the main couple not being together at the end of the second book, that’s absolutely fine. I get it. If you’re okay to stick with me, thank you from the bottom of your heart for your trust. I hope by the time you get to the end of the book two, and you see why Ardy and Caspian aren’t ready to be together, where I have left them, and how their future story is likely to unfold, you will feel that trust has not been misplaced. If you do … oh God, I’m really sorry.

Release Run Up Stuff

There’ll be various things happening as we approach release day for both audio-Bang and text-Blow, including giveaways, teasers, deleted scenes, games, Q&As and other extras. I’ll try not to saturate my feeds in an annoying way but I’ll do my best to keep folks in the loop. Obviously you can opt-in or opt-out entirely freely, though probably my infamous newsletter is the best one-stop shop for significant updates—I only send a few out of these out a year, so you won’t be spammed.

Social Media Continues To Happen

Just a reminder it’s never too late to sign up to Alexis Crossing. And apparently I have an Instagram account now? Come for the pictures of Ducky. Stay for the, um, pictures of Ducky.

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At the risk of sounding like the sort of prick who keeps coming up with anecdotes about how terribly quirky and unconventional he is I should probably explain the thought process that got me started on the project I’m starting (or, more accurately, about to start blogging about having actually started it a couple of weeks ago).

I’ve been watching quite a lot of Pointless recently. For those unfamiliar with the show, it’s a British daytime quiz programme presented by Alexander Armstrong (the urbane-est man in the world) and Richard Osman (the tallest man in quizzing or possibly the quizziest man in tallness) in which pairs of contestants compete to get the lowest score possible by finding the answers that other people couldn’t. On one episode of this show, an clue on a round the theme of which I can no longer remember involved the phrase “… who wrote the poem Funeral Blues”. And I was surprised to discover that only about fourteen of the hundred people asked got the answer WH Auden. The reason I was surprised that so few people knew this, despite the fact that Auden isn’t exactly at Taylor Swift levels of popularity these days, is that Funeral Blues did quite specifically feature in the classic 1994 Britflick Four Weddings and Funeral.

This led to my having a really strong desire to watch Four Weddings and Funeral, which I did. And this led to my having a really strong desire to watch, um, every film that Hugh Grant has ever made. I’m not sure quite why I had this reaction because Four Weddings and a Funeral isn’t actually a very good film. In fact, thinking about it, that’s probably why I had such a reaction. Because, Four Weddings, and indeed Hugh Grant, sort of embody this peculiar idealised England of the late-Major / early-Blair years that I somehow have a tremendous nostalgia for while also being aware that it almost certainly never existed.

Also: I just really like doing pointless shit that nobody else cares about. Which might also explain why I’m so very invested in a quiz show that is literally called Pointless.

It turns out that because Hugh Grant began his career in the early 1980s, hilariously billed as ‘Hughie Grant’ in 1982 Oxford University produced dramedy called Privileged a lot of his, for what of a better term, juvenilia is actually quite difficult to access. We get very used to the idea that everything that’s ever produced pops up instantly on Amazon or Netflix, or illegally on Youtube, but that simply wasn’t the case 35 years ago.

As a result my excursion into the Grant canon has necessarily been restricted to those titles I can actually source. This means I’m having to start with the 1987 movie, Maurice, and will need to skip some shorts, some straight-to-TV movies, and some other things you just plain can’t find any more. Because Hugh Grant’s entire filmography crosses four decades I’m not getting through the whole thing in one sitting (also, I may not get through the whole thing at all, you might have noticed I’m notorious flaky).

This instalment, which I am loosely dubbing The Colonial Years, will stretch from 1987 to 1988 (Jesus fuck, he was in a lot of things in the late 80s) and cover the films Maurice, White Mischief, Lair of the White Worm, and The Bengali Night. For those who are paying attention, this means I’m skipping over two of his 1988 outings, those being Rowing With the Wind in which he played Lord Byron (though I am still trying to source this because Hugh Grant playing Byron must be the best thing ever) and The Dawning, in which he plays a bloke called Harry, but which unfortunately appears only to be available as a Region 1 DVD. For those of you who are disgustingly young, DVDs are an entertainment medium from the past, and regions were an ill-fated attempt by their manufacturers to control international distribution.

Anyway, let’s get going. Because Hugh Grant won’t watch himself.

Maurice

Happily, this project starts off with a film that is actually genuinely good (this state of affairs does not last long). Maurice is, of all things, a Merchant Ivory adaptation of EM Forster’s book of the same name, which he wrote between 1913 and 1914, but which was not released until 1971 after his death on account of how it was super gay. It’s not considered one of his best novels, partly because it’s probably not, but partly because it’s just uncomplicatedly romantic, essentially ending with the gay protagonist, and his gay partner, sailing off to America, where they live happily-ever-after as gay lumberjacks. I read somewhere (but I can’t remember where so I might just be making it up) that Forster did write an epilogue in which Maurice’s sister shows up in America and is all like “ooh, we’re so disgusted by how gay you are, you big gay” and he’s all like “whatevs” and goes back to being a gay lumberjack, but Forster felt that even that undermined the thing he was trying to do, which was write a gay lovestory without any sort of social or personal compromise. I mean, unless you count going off to be a lumberjack in America as a personal or social compromise, but even that has this sort of Eden vibe.

Anyway, Maurice the film is actually fairly close to the book. Hugh Grant does not play Maurice – he’s not going to get the starring role in anything until The Bengali Night and that—spoiler—isn’t going to be a triumph. He’s cast as Clive Durham, Maurice’s first love, who he meets at University, and with whom he has as intense, long-lasting but ultimately platonic relationship. Clive is a bit of a difficult character, both in the movie and the book, because he’s very close to occupying the treacherous bisexual role. There’s basically always a character in that type of story (and the ‘young man is gay at Oxford before the Great War’ is a surprisingly well-populated subgenre in British fiction) who is involved with the protagonist at University, always has a delicate, artistic temperament, and two, five or twenty years later shows up having completely divorced himself that part of his life and settled down into a miserable sham of a marriage with a ruthless social climber.

In the book, things are very much from Maurice’s point of view so we never really get a sense of why Clive is the way he is—you can read a lot of self-loathing out of the text, but it’s hard to really understand where his sudden emotional breakdown and subsequent decision to be totes straight now comes from. I presume this is because Maurice himself doesn’t really understand. In the movie, Clive’s nervous collapse is specifically contextualised against the background of an old Oxford friend being imprisoned and sentenced to hard labour for gross indecency, which sort of makes him a bit more sympathetic. It means we aren’t being asked to condemn him simply for being with a woman in later life (which, in this sort of story, often gets presented as a betrayal in and of itself, which is uncomfortable and biphobic). Instead, it commits the film more strongly to an interpretation in which whatever Clive’s identity is he consciously decides to protect himself by living the most conventional life he can. Part of this, apparently, involves growing a moustache. I’m not sure I was ready to see Hugh Grant with a moustache. As much as I enjoyed this film, and I do actually think it is a good film, I’m not sure any of my memories of it will remain untainted by the fact it contains Hugh Grant with a moustache.

Even if you are not trying to watch the complete canon of Hugh Grant (and, let’s be honest, who would do that) this film is genuinely watchable. And for a gay love story filmed in the 80s based on a book written before the First World War it’s surprisingly sincere. Apparently, it had a pretty troubled production, and Merchant Ivory got quite a lot of shit for putting out a gay romantic film in which neither the protagonist, nor his partner, ends up dead or in prison. I mean, it’s 2017 and in a lot of mainstream culture we still are only just getting to the point where you can have a gay love story that’s basically just told the same way as a straight love story. And here’s Merchant Ivory doing it in 1987. There’s kissing, and soft focus 80s movie sex scenes, and I honestly don’t know how they got away with it. Maybe everyone was just too distracted by the fact the film also includes Hugh Grant with a moustache.

I’m going to rate these films by goodness of film and Hugh Grantiness of film.

Maurice gets 5 out 5 for goodness in that it’s actually really good and not even in a “for 1987 way”. I mean, you have to like Merchant Ivory movies but, if you do, you’ll really enjoy it.

It gets 4 out of 5 for Hugh Grantiness because he’s quite a major character and he’s quite Hugh Granty (in that he plays a posh English bloke who went to Oxbridge, he’s hesitant about things, and spends a lot of time lying around looking pretty with big blue eyes). I couldn’t decide whether the film should gain a point or lose point for the moustache so you may treat this as either a 5 or a 3 depending on how much the idea of Hugh Grant with facial hair terrifies you.

White Mischief

Hugh Grant’s second 1987 outing is White Mischief. First of all, this film gets a +1 bonus to its Hugh Grantiness rating for the fact Hugh Grant plays a character who is actually called Hugh. According to the Wikipedia filmography for Hugh Grant, the Hugh in question is Hugh Cholmondeley, the 3rd Baron Delamere, who was an extremely influential figure in the colonial history of Kenya. He was active in recruiting settlers to East Africa, helped to found the so-called Happy Valley set (around whose antics the film revolves), coined the term ‘white hunter’, and was a pioneer of the dairy industry. He also, however, had been dead for ten years at the time the film was set, and not in a ‘tragically young in a hunting accident’ kind of way. In a ‘he was born in 1870 and the film is set in 1941’ kind of way. All of which makes casting the 28 year old Hugh Grant in the role a little bit of an odd choice, especially since the rest of the film is actually quite historically accurate. And, given that, Mr Grant’s character is just credited as ‘Hugh’ in the actual movie, I think it’s probable that it was just a different guy who happened to be called Hugh. Sorry Wikipedia.

In any case, I watched the whole of this film, even though Hugh Grant was only in it for 85 seconds, saying goodbye to Diana Broughton (the feisty blonde woman who the film is mostly about). It’s also got Charles Dance and John Hurt in it, and is kind fascinating in a deeply colonialist sort of way. It’s based around a real group of decadent expats who lived in a  place called Happy Valley in Kenya, who basically spent all their time getting off their faces, and fucking each other. And the plot, such it is, revolves around a very real incident in which one of their number (Charles Dance) was murdered by a party or parties whose identity or identities remain unknown to this day. Quite why we should give a fuck, I’m not entirely sure. I mean, I guess it was Tywin Lannister, but this is group of people who, in 1941, instead of fighting to stop Hitler were banging and taking smack on land that they stole from the native Kenyans (I’m aware that his oversimplifies the complex history of the British colonial presence in East Africa). It’s one of two films on this list that are based on true stories, and in the case of both the true stories they are based on are slightly more interesting than the movie.

Goodness of film. Two or two and a half, maybe? Like it’s fine. And you get to see Charles Dance dancing which is worth it just for the opportunity to shout “Charles Dancing” at the screen. Also, because of what I suspect was the writer’s / director’s inability to imagine anything more decadent than putting on the clothing of the opposite sex there’s a scene in which all of the characters (except, randomly, the heroine who they presumably thought—incorrectly—would be less hot in a suit) attend a cross-dressing party, which means you get to see a bunch of quite famous British actors in really half-hearted drag. And it’s sort of fabulous, especially Charles Dance who is sporting a slinky black number and actual pearls. And, like the moustache in Maurice, I couldn’t decide whether I should give it plus 1 or minus 1 for the dialogue, which is stilted in a way that I think requires a genuine talent to produce. I’m not sure I ever heard two characters say sequential sentences that actually connected to each other. It’s all “pass the sugar darling” “do you think the rain will come soon” “I’m so terribly terribly bored.”

Hugh Grantiness of film: 1.5, including the plus 1 for Hugh playing a character called Hugh. Seriously, he’s in it for, like, one scene. And he barely even gets flustered at anything.

Lair of the White Worm

For those keeping track,  Lair of the White Worm comes after The Dawning and before Rowing in the Wind, neither of which I was able to acquire. The Lair of the White Worm, however, is available online through Amazon. Interestingly you can buy it and rent it for the same amount money. That should tell you something about the film. The other thing that should tell you something about the film is the reason you seem to be able to access it via Amazon streaming service is that it is now being distributed by Starz. It is a very, very, Starzy film.

Lair of the White Worm makes you feel like you’re watching an episode of MST3K even though you are not watching an episode of MSTK3K. The film features Hugh Grant, as Lord James d’Ampton, the sole surviving heir of the d’Ampton family, which has been cursed since time immemorial (or since, like 800AD or something) by the legend of the d’Ampton worm. I’d say it’s a cheap ripoff of the Lambton Worm, except it’s not really a ripoff, it’s fairly explicitly the same thing, just they changed the first letter of the guy’s name for no reason, which annoys me way more than it should. There’s even a folksong about the Lambton Worm which they put verbatim into the film, except they randomly do a rock version of it and change all the Ls to Ds so it fits the name of Hugh Grant’s character, instead of the name that it actually had and would have been a perfectly acceptable name for Hugh Grant’s character in the first place. Like, did they think people wouldn’t realise he was an aristocrat if he didn’t have a d’ in his name. And what the hell kind of name is d’Ampton anyway? Does it mean he’s from Ampton? Where the fuck is Ampton?

Although the worm is named after his family, Hugh Grant is, at best, the co-star of this film, an accolade he shares with, of all people, Peter Capaldi, who plays a archeologist by the name of Angus Flint. It is, of course, always really hard to see Peter Capaldi in anything without expecting him to go off on a massive Malcom Tucker-like sweary rant at the slightest provocation. Which makes it super disconcerting to see him as a mild mannered archeologist with exceptionally fluffy hair.

I think there was a law in the 1980s that all horror films had to start with an archeologist digging up an unconvincing-looking skeleton. That is how this film starts. It builds a sense of mystery for approximately 12 seconds before Amanda Donohoe shows up as sexy lady in sunglasses and a headscarf who is definitely an evil snake cultist and proceeds to demonstrate this to the audience by immediately popping fangs and spitting poison all over a crucifix. The action of the film, if it can be called action, revolves around Capaldi and Grant ineffectively trying to solve the mystery of the d’Ampton worm, mostly by looking in a cave they already know is empty, while Donohoe (whose character is called Lady Sylvia Marsh, because that’s obviously what you’d be called if you secretly worshipped a snake god and didn’t want anyone to know about it) goes around trying to fuck and/or murder basically anything that moves and crowbarring increasingly heavy-handed snake imagery into every interaction she has with anyone. This reaches its zenith (or nadir, depending on how you feel about this kind of thing) in the scene where she sexily picks up a naive young man on the road and invites him back to her house so he can get out of the rain. We then cut to a scene in which they are playing Snakes & Ladders (oh d’you see), and she has apparently, at some point, got changed into a black PVC lingerie and thigh highs ensemble. I think this sequence might actually have been more incongruous than Hugh Grant with a moustache. And that is saying a lot.

Anyway, the innocent young man meets a sticky end when Lady Sylvia Marsh gives him a poison blowjob and drowns him a hot tub, a transaction she is forced to expedite because she needs to go to the door (I seem to recall still in the aforesaid thigh highs and lingerie get-up) in order to greet Hugh Grant who has come to her house for, I think, basically no good reason. At which point, Lady Sylvia skilfully deflects his suspicions by engaging in ostensibly seductive dialogue that goes something like: Oh I’m all alone, Oh I’m so scared of snakes, Gosh snakes really fascinate me, you know what I really like? Snakes? Do you want to play some Snakes & Ladders. No, I hate snakes. You’re right, that does make my previous comments about Snakes & Ladders a bit peculiar, oh you’re leaving, I don’t suppose you fancy a poison blowjob?

It actually gets worse from there. It turns out that Lady Sylvia is maybe possibly some sort of immortal or something? And that all of the other characters might be the reincarnation of someone. Reincarnations of who? We don’t know, they never really say. Although one of the characters does keep having flashbacks to, um, nuns with their boobs out, covered in blood. Because something something conflict between christianity and paganism something something ancient snake god temple something something boobs. I did mention this was distributed by Starz, right?

The whole film obviously ends with the sexy sexy snake lady trying to sacrifice sexy sexy nun flashbacks lady to her giant snake god and winding up getting fed to her own giant snake god because of course she does. Seriously, that’s why we don’t worship giant snake gods. It’s basically the equivalent of setting up a table in a pro-wrestling match. No-one is going through that table except you. The final confrontation is particularly odd because Hugh Grant’s character is still in the empty hole trying to smoke out the giant snake and according to a conversation he has afterwards with Malcom Tucker that smoking out somehow allowed them to beat the snake god but in the scene it’s not clear at all that it’s having any affect whatsoever. Perhaps even more bizarrely the snake god is ultimately destroyed because Peter Capaldi’s mild mannered archeologist character has a hand grenade with him that has not previously been mentioned at all. So presumably he just goes around with a hand grenade all the time – I guess in case he might need to dislodge a particularly stubborn rock formation.

Oh, also there’s this thing where sometimes if the sexy snake lady bites you you turn into kind of a snake vampire. And as well as having the obligatory 80s horror movie beginning where you dig up skeleton this movie also has the obligatory 80s horror movie ending where you discover that the good guys have been turned into vampires/werewolves/body-snatchers already. Also there’s this dream sequence where Hugh Grant is on a plane and the sexy snake lady is a stewardess and she’s trying to either seduce or murder him or possibly both and he’s holding a pencil which seems to represent his erection. What is this? I don’t even.

Very briefly, in case this incoherent and rambling summary has inspired you to watch Lair of the White Worm (and if the sort of film this film definitely is is the sort of film that you like then you should absolutely watch it) I should mention that it does get quite explicitly rapey at points. There’s some fairly specific ancient fertility god stuff towards the end which is handled with as much sensitivity as you’d expect from everything else in the movie. So if you really like schlocky 80s horror movies but find sexual violence off-putting maybe give this one a miss.

Goodness of film: Like 1 or like 5 but basically nothing in between. It’s a terrible, cheesy, 80s monster flick about a sexy monster lady that sexes people to death brackets one of those people is Hugh Grant close brackets. You know if you want to watch that film.

Hugh Grantiness of film: I would say about 3. He’s got quite a major role, and he plays a bumbling aristocrat, which is basically Hugh Grant’s entire career. Also, he and Capaldi are the only people who can do anything with the atrocious 80s horror movie dialogue – in Grant’s case, I suspect this is because he always sounds like he’s forgotten his lines anyway. I think I’m only giving it a 3 rather than a 5 because he spends quite a lot of the movie in hole and because the eightiesieness and Starziness almost blot out the Hugh Grantiness.

The Bengali Night

Oh dear me. This is the second colonial era film that Hugh Grant appeared in between 1987 and 1988 and, like White Mischief, the story it’s based on is slightly more interesting than the film itself. What’s even more interesting than that is the actual true story behind the not-actually-particularly-true story that the book the film is based on is based on. Basically, The Bengali Night is a terrible film. The only version you can get has terrible picture quality, terrible sound quality, and every single English actor in it looks like they give zero fucks. Hugh Grant can’t even be bothered to give his character a consistent accent.

But, on top of that, it’s just really, really, really skeevy. Potted summary: white European man in his mid-to-late twenties goes to India, fucks 16 year-old girl. It’s based on a book, the plot summary of which is: white European man in his mid-to-late twenties goes to India, fucks 16 year-old girl, then randomly goes up a mountain and fucks a blonde woman. The actual story on which the book is based goes something more like this: white Romanian man goes to India, stays with Indian man, has intense and probably romantic relationship with Indian man’s sixteen-year-old daughter who is already a well-regarded poet and writer in her own right, Indian man asks him to leave, sixteen-year-old goes on to have successful and fulfilling life in India as a wife, a mother, political activist and well-respected intellectual, Indian woman discovers later in life that white Romanian man has written book in which he claims he fucked her when he didn’t, Indian woman is not happy about this. White European director makes film based on White European man’s book. Indian woman is even less happy. Film stars Hugh Grant. Not a career highlight.

So, yeah. Everything about this is fucked up. The film and the context surrounding the film is this vortex of colonialism that is sickly fascinating if you come from a position of sufficient privilege to be sickly fascinated by it rather than just fucking bored and sad. Skipping over the fact that the film itself is a classic “white man goes to hot country and is awesome and bangs a hot babe because of how awesome he is and she’s stifled by her society because her society is objectively worse than western society and her family freak out because reverse racism and shit and certainly not because a guy in his twenties is attempting to fuck their underaged daughter so white man is driven out, everything ends catastrophically because non-white people are not capable of surviving without their white saviour” narrative the meta-text around the film is basically that again. Only worse.

Some bits of the story are actually true in that the author really did live in India, really did live with an Indian man and his family, and really did, arguably, actually fall in love with the Indian’s man daughter. In a weird way, what’s possibly skeeviest about the story is that the skeeviest bits are made up. And, obviously, this is a tricky one because, from a certain point of view it’s better for a bad thing not to have happened but, well, it takes a really special kind of dickhead to lie in a way that makes him sound even more like a dickhead.

To put some actual names on these characters, the white European man in question is called Mircea Eliade and the Indian woman is called Maitreyi Devi, and both of them wrote books about the relationship they had when she was sixteen and he was twenty-something. This is often presented as a kind of “he said she said” but since her book was written only in direct response to his book I’m inclined to assume that her account is the more reliable one. The two elements of The Bengali Night that I found most troubling were the fact that a white European man seemed to be using India as his personal sex party and that the moment the white European man left, Maitreyi’s parents beat her up, locked her in a cellar and then I think possibly died or something? (In the film their fate is relayed to Hugh Grant’s character by a third party about thirty seconds before the credits roll after he’s had the obligatory white man dip in the Ganges). According to her account, neither of these things happened, which suggests that not only did did Mr Eliade live a life that was quite similar to a stereotypical racist and colonial narrative he then wrote about it in a way that made it even more like a stereotypical racist and colonial narrative than it actually was.

I mean, ultimately, The Bengali Night is a 1988 film based on a semi-autobiographical novel from 1933. There was no way it was ever going to have a nuanced portrayal of India or one that treated its Indian characters as real humans with real internal lives. But I think the fact that the girl in the story grew up to be an actual adult woman who had the resources and wherewithal to object to the way she had been portrayed forces us to confront quite how skeevy and de-humanising the whole thing is.  The film taken in conjunction with the background information on the film that I looked up as part of this project leaves you with the deeply discomforting impression that the author/narrator/Hugh Grant character clearly doesn’t particularly think of Maitreyi (Gayatri in the film) as a real human being. But, worse, that he obviously doesn’t realise this.

The whole thing gives the impression of having been written by someone who believes himself to have a profound love and respect for India and the Indian people while also treating the whole place like it’s basically a giant theme park. Perhaps the thing that most encapsulates this is that when he wrote the original book (which was always intended to be at least partly fictional) Eliade changed his own name (Hugh Grant’s character in the film is called Allan) but didn’t change hers. And while I’m aware that one should not too easily read symbolism into small gestures or unconscious errors surely nothing signals that you don’t really think of someone as real quite as much as writing a fictionalised account of an event in which you still use their full actual name. Especially when you realise that Maitreyi Devi was kind of a big deal. She was a philanthropist, an activist, a writer, a poet and a philosopher. But in the book and the film she’s just this sixteen-year-old girl whose only meaningful achievement was falling in love with a white guy. And it clearly didn’t occur to Eliade that she would ever be anything else.

So.

Goodness of film: 0. It’s colonialist and boring.

Hugh Grantiness of film: 2. I mean, it is Hugh Grant playing a slightly confused European man, which is, again, the only job he’s allowed. But he genuinely can’t seem to decide what accent he’s doing (if I’m being charitable, I might suggest he’s deliberately trying to signal which language his character is speaking by which accent he does, so he speaks with something approaching a France accent around the characters who I think who are supposed to be French, and an English accent around the Indian characters to whom I think he’s supposed to be speaking in English but mostly it’s just confusing) and, well, not even Hugh Grant could imbue a role like this with anything approaching grace or charm.

I’m really glad that the next movie on the list is based on a Barbara Cartland novel and Hugh Grant plays a highwayman.

watching
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So a couple of weeks ago now I wrote a post about my initial thoughts on the BBC serial killer drama Rellik. I basically didn’t rate it, but I found it the right level of fascinating-slash-irritating that I carried on watching it.

This article is going to include a lot of spoilers for Rellik, including giving away the identity of the killer, and the details of the ending. I don’t really expect that to be an issue for anybody, since my recommendation in the previous article was that the show wasn’t especially worth watching and having finished the show I haven’t actually changed my mind.

But I almost did.

I decided to write a follow-up article at the end of Episode 5, when the identity of the killer was finally revealed and I was able, for about the space of a week, to convince myself that the show was actually a smart and savvy deconstruction of the tropes of the serial killer genre. Spoiler, it wasn’t. But I thought it might be worth talking a bit about why I thought it might be.

Just to get everybody up to speed, because honestly my original post didn’t actually include much in the way of plot summary (being mostly concerned with describing the structure of the show and inventing insulting nicknames for the main characters), the premise of Rellik is this:

We follow DCI Gabriel Markham (the guy I consistently referred to as Detective Manpain, Acidburns McWhinyguts, and similar) and his partner DI Elaine Shepard as they attempt to track down a serial killer who leaves their victims displayed in public playgrounds, their faces burned off with acid, their fingertips severed and their other identifying marks removed. We start watching with the death of the pair’s most promising suspect, a mentally ill man named Steven Mills who is shot in a botched arrest attempt. Then we spool backwards through other significant developments in the case – the mysterious fire in the police station that destroys a laptop which might have contained vital evidence, the many interviews between the police and the obviously dodgy psychiatrist Isaac Taylor, and so on. The mid-season climax (as it were – this is a British show we’re talking about, so the series is six episodes) comes in episode four, when we finally see the attack in which DCI Markham was scarred with acid.

The fifth episode shows us the events that led up to that attack, and brings the whole case to the beginning, finally revealing that the killer (the rellik?) is none other than DI Shepard, who has played DCI Markham and the audience for fools this whole time. I sort of meta-spoilered myself for this reveal. I watched the last three episodes of Rellik with half an eye on other things because it – well – because I didn’t really like it very much. I was flicking between the show and reviews of the show on the internets, and I noticed that reviews were saying that the identity of the killer got revealed at the end of episode five, at which point I put about forty seconds of thought into working out who the killer could be, at which point it was pretty obvious.

I’m going to go into a bit more detail about this. I should add that towards the end there will be trigger warnings for child abuse.

Clues and Twists and That

So here are the forty-seconds-worth of thoughts I had when I noticed that we’d be getting the reveal about the killer in episode five.

I’d already basically ruled out all of the most obvious suspects (like creepy Isaac Taylor and all of the people the detectives suspected) for basic TV reasons. I was also about 50/50 on whether the fact that the killer had been able to destroy evidence in police custody and ambush Gabriel outside a police safehouse that only he and Elaine knew he was going to would turn out to be actual clues to the identity of the killer or just things the writers lost track of in pursuit of dramatic events to put in earlier episodes. This is why I only worked out that Elaine was going to be the killer when I found out that we were finding out the killer’s identity in episode five. I couldn’t quite believe that the writers would put something as obvious as “the killer attacks Gabriel at the precise place he arranged to meet Elaine, and then Elaine shows up on that exact spot mere moments later just as the killer whose height and build matches hers very closely disappears” unless it was either a legit clue or a deliberate fakeout. And since there was no indication that we were supposed to be suspecting Elaine at that point, I figured she was probably the serial killer. And I was right.

This was the bit where I almost decided that the show was being subversive. Serial Killer shows have a tendency to devolve into a Battle of the Geniuses: the detective is a super genius brilliant detective whose super genius brilliant detectiving can be thwarted only by a serial killer who is even more super genius brilliant. TV serial killers quite often seem to have literal superpowers – part of the reason I wasn’t sure whether tracking the detective to a definitionally secure location that only one person knew he was going to or starting fire in a police evidence locker were supposed to point to the killer being a police insider is that those are the sorts of things TV shows often assume that serial killers can just do. Red John in The Mentalist is an especially egregious example of this phenomenon – by the time I quit watching he had demonstrated so much reach and influence that the only person he could turn out to be and still have things make sense was “actually God, like literally”.

Once it was revealed that DCI Markham had failed to identify the killer despite the fact that he was not only having sex with her, but had actually arranged to meet her for sex at the police safehouse outside which he was attacked (and had done this at sufficiently short notice that there was definitely no way anybody else could possibly have been expecting him to go there) I thought for a moment that the show was trying to deliberately challenge the “genius vs genius” stereotype. I thought that the reverse format had been chosen quite cleverly so that the audience would start the show assuming that they would be watching the story of a smart, dedicated cop diligently pursuing a serial killer and be surprised and challenged by the realisation that they had instead been watching the story of a selfish, narcissistic dickhead of a cop fucking up a murder investigation because he’s a prick and bad at his job.

This interpretation was (in my brief window of thinking the show might turn out to be good) reinforced by the strange way that Gabriel’s character develops over the course of the show. Because we watch the action unfold backwards, we see Gabriel’s character develop backwards as well. But what’s weird is that the further back in time we go, and the less time Gabriel has spent hunting down this mysterious unstoppable serial killer, the more starts to act like a cop who’s cracking under the strain of a high-pressure criminal investigation. In the first episode Gabriel, although scarred, is basically a pretty decent cop. He tries to talk Mills down, and is only prevented from succeeding because Mills goes for his phone and the snipers (who Gabriel never asked for in the first place) overreact. And afterwards he’s introspective and thinks carefully about the case and tries to evaluate clues in order to work out who the murderer might be.

Then we go back 24 hours and he’s intimidating suspects, driving the wrong way up motorways and yelling at people. A couple of days before that he’s punching clubgoers. When we see what he was like before the acid attack, it turns out he was even worse, using police safehouses as his personal shag pad, freaking out at press conferences, and beating up barmen and banging their girlfriends. Backwards-in-time Gabriel seems to have the emotional arc that the detectives in these kinds of shows normally have forwards in time, starting out calmly and rationally seeking the public good and ending up freaking out at his family and jumping at shadows. By the end we see way, way, way more scenes of Gabriel arguing with his wife, trying to have sex with random women, or needlessly harassing people than we do of him actually trying to solve the serial murders he’s purportedly investigating. The people around him are just as bad – we see them playing pranks on each other, being homophobic at each other, and ill-advisedly proposing marriage to one another, but we never see them actually trying to solve the crimes.

When they revealed that Gabriel had literally had his dick inside the killer and not noticed, I really thought that they might be building to an ending in which the twist wasn’t so much “you thought Elaine was a good guy but really she’s a bad guy” as “you thought Gabriel was the hero but really he’s a shitty cop and the reason they didn’t catch the killer isn’t that the killer was hard to catch, it’s that this entire police department is clearly miserably ineffective.” Which would have been amazing.

That wasn’t how it ended.

Forget it, Gabriel, it’s the Salvia Unit

The last episode of Rellik abandons the reverse chronological format and adopts a much more conventional “linear narrative with flashbacks” structure. I’m honestly torn about this. On the one hand, telling a satisfying story backwards is clearly difficult, and you have to cheat a little to make it work (even Memento has forwards bits). On the other hand, having watched the whole of Rellik, it feels a lot like you could basically watch episode one, then jump straight to episode six and miss out on basically nothing. All you get in episodes 2-5 is information about false leads that the incompetent investigators ran after and personal melodrama stuff that basically doesn’t lead anywhere or add up to anything.

Perhaps the most damning indication that the last four episodes of reverse-order mayhem haven’t really achieved anything is that one of the first things we see in Episode 6 is a series of flashbacks from Elaine’s perspective showing how she got to the point of being a serial killer. In the first episode Markham muses about how we could understand crime better if we could go back to where things began, and he’s sort of right, but this flashback sequence highlights quite how little connection there is between this core concept about the origins of seemingly inexplicable things and the central plot device of showing us the investigation in reverse chronological order. Because it’s pretty clear that if we want to understand anything that happens in the show, we need to go back to well before the show even started. You don’t learn anything by following the investigation backwards, you learn stuff by being told – through entirely non-diegetic means – about things that happened twenty years ago. The unspooling through the investigation tells you nothing, because the police never came remotely close to investigating the right things.

I’ve described about six different things in this show as perfectly encapsulating everything that is wrong with it. I’m going to add a seventh now.

In an early scene of the sixth episode we see that Elaine has now abducted the creepy psychiatrist Isaac Taylor (whose partner had been her first victim) and is in the process of trying to frame him for the murders (why she feels the need to do this when the police are clearly nowhere near suspecting her I have no idea). During this sequence, she asks if he recognises her and, when he says he does not, she hints to him that her name is an anagram. She then reveals that her real name is Helena Parides.

I am … I am fairly sure that we have never heard the name Helena Parides before.

A lot is made of how confusing it is to follow the plot of Rellik on account of its being told backwards, but the truth is that it’s hard to follow the plot of Rellik because it doesn’t make a lick of sense, and because so much effort gets put into creating scenarios that will lead to a cool revelation when you go back in time, there isn’t room to actually establish long term setups and payoffs. I couldn’t absolutely swear that we never once get a reference to a Helena Parides anywhere in the series (I wasn’t engaged enough to keep track of every minor detail), but the internet is really good at following this kind of thing, and I’m sure I would have noticed if “who is Helena Parides?” was a recurring mystery. I mean I’ve read articles with recaps of most episodes, including those “10 questions from episode 4” type lists that fixate on exactly these kinds of tiny details. Helena Parides, if she was mentioned, was not on the community’s radar.

Which is good in some ways, because fandom fucking loves an anagram, and if “who is Helena Parides” had been a major question in the show, the fact that it was an anagram of “Elaine Shepard” would have been worked out in minutes. Indeed, I wonder if that was part of the reason the writers were so cagey about dropping the name in the first place – fear of giving away a surprise. But if so, they made a classic rookie error. An audience can only be surprised by something if it runs contrary to their expectations, and it can only be contrary to their expectations if they have some expectations to begin with. Discovering that Elaine Shepard was really Helena Parides would have been shocking if we’d had any idea who Helena Parides was, or indeed if we’d been more than peripherally aware that a person named Helena Parides existed at all.

It’s sort of as if we’d got to the end of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and Tom Riddle had revealed that his full name was an anagram of I AM LORD VOLDEMORT … but we’d never actually heard the name Voldemort before.

Of course the whole Elaine Shepard/Helena Parides thing has a couple of points in common with the Tom Riddle/Lord Voldemort thing. And they’re points that you can more or less get away with in a children’s book about wizards and very much can’t get away with in a mature thriller series about a serial killer. Firstly, there’s the fact that both names only work because they contain essentially made up elements to account for the spare letters. “Marvolo” isn’t a real name, JK Rowling invented it so that Voldemort’s very mundane Muggle name would link up with his ah-do-you-see-it-literally-means-fly-from-death Wizard name. Similarly “Parides” isn’t an actual surname, it’s the Latin name of a butterfly. It also makes her sound vaguely Mediterranean, which is weird because her dad and mum both look like “Shepard” fits them as a name far better than “Parides”. Essentially it looks a lot like they came up with the name “Elaine Shepard” first, then decided that it would be cool for it to be an anagram afterwards.

Of course the second point here is rather more pertinent, which is that picking a pseudonym that is an anagram of your real name just feels … a bit naff? I mean it’s fine if you’re an actual supervillain in a children’s book, not so much if you want me to take you seriously as the antagonist of a gritty thriller for grownups. And before you write in, yes some real serial killers have used wordplay, but not in quite that way. For example the BTK killer sent letters to the police using the name Bill Thomas Killman, but then he was just using a pseudonym that hinted at a different pseudonym. He wasn’t using an anagram of his real actual name that the police could immediately use to catch him (he left that in MSWord documents he hadn’t deleted properly).

The anagram thing makes particularly little sense because it’s fairly clear that Elaine had largely suppressed the memories of the traumatic experiences that led to her going all serial killer until a chance encounter with one of the people responsible for her childhood abuse brought everything back to her (more on this later, it is problematic in about nine different ways). The arc the show seems to be asking us to accept is one in which young Helena Parides, after witnessing her father murdering her mother is committed to a psychiatric facility at which she is further abused then, as an adult, tries to put everything behind her by changing her name to … an anagram of her original name? Was she actively trying to set things up for a cool reveal in later life? I mean I get that there’s no single right way to handle a traumatic experience but that just seems weird.

And I suppose we’ve now got to the point where we can’t avoid talking about Elaine/Helena’s background, how it connects to Gabriel’s background, and why it can seriously go fuck itself.

So for reasons that are never entirely made clear, young Helena Parides’ father stabs her mother to death with a broken bottle in front of her. As a result of this, she is committed to a psychiatric facility called the Salvia unit, which is run by Creepy Isaac Taylor and his partner Dead Jonas Borner (the acid killer’s first victim – and incidentally I am childishly amused that if you google for “Jonas Borner” you get “did you mean Jonas Boner”). Here she is systematically and repeatedly raped by at least one member of the staff, and this is covered up by Taylor and Borner, who give her electroconvulsive therapy in order to make her forget about it (I’m not completely certain that this is how ECT actually works).

At the same time Helena is incarcerated in the Salvia unit, a young rookie cop by the name of Gabriel Markham and his partner Edward Benton (later the superintendent in charge of overseeing Gabriel’s hopelessly incompetent investigation into the acid killer case) receive a 999 call from the Salvia unit. They are told by the receptionist that it was probably just a false alarm because sometimes the inmates get hold of telephones and call the police on them, but the cops ask if they can look around anyway. And the receptionist is fine with this. Because apparently Taylor and Borner are willing to electrocute the brain of a ten-year-old girl to cover up the abuses going on at their hospital, but are perfectly happy to let cops walk around anywhere they like? So like basically everybody else in the show they’re both amoral and incompetent?

Anyway, Gabriel hears crying, and walks in to literally find Helena in the process of being raped by an orderly (listed in the credits as “Salvia Unit, Evil Orderly” which is … not the most nuanced way of describing the abuses of power that can take place in closed communities without external scrutiny). The orderly rushes at Gabriel, who shoves him sideways, causing him to crack his head on a radiator and instantly die. Y’know. Like always happens.

We then see Gabriel outside, and we realise that this is the traumatic past experience that led to the collapse of Garbriel’s marriage, his drinking, drugs and philandering, and general descent into narcissistic fuckholery.

Because obviously what’s really important about the systematic and repeated rape of a ten-year-old girl by the employees of an institution that had an obligation to protect and care for her is the emotional impact it has on the policeman who witnesses a tiny fraction of it.

Anyway, the flashback ends with Helena giving Gabriel this weird grateful/creepy/yearning look that basically says “I’m going to get totally obsessed with you and start murdering people when I grow up.”

Then we cut back to the present day, and Gabriel finally works out that Elaine was the girl from the Salvia unit, that everything really is all about him and his manpain, and that if they want to catch Elaine they will have to go back to the ruins of the spooky abandoned psychiatric institution so that it can all end where it began.

Which would, again, be way more satisfying if we’d had more than the slightest inkling that Helena Parides, the Salvia Unit, or Gabriel’s past experiences were remotely significant to the plot. Which we didn’t. Because we were too busy watching supporting characters dressing up as chickens.

To go back to the “it’s like [other thing x] without [thing that makes other thing x work]”, it’s basically like if you took the film Chinatown, made the final scene into a big fight in Chinatown where everything gets set on fire, and then systematically removed all references to Chinatown in the rest of the script so that people wouldn’t guess where the final showdown was going to happen.

Rambling Towards a Conclusion

 Annoyingly, I suspect I will once again find that the most helpful thing I can say about Rellik is “it is exactly like you would expect it to be, given that it is called Rellik.” Which is to say, approximately 78% less clever than it thinks it is.

 I think the thing that most bugs me about the show is that people still persist in talking as if it’s the structure that made it difficult to follow, rather than the fact that the plot just legitimately did not make sense. It feels like a classic Emperor’s New Clothes situation – there seems to be this feeling out there that the reason the viewing public didn’t like Rellik was that it was too smart for them, when actually they were, by and large, too smart for it.

 The show persistently fails to keep track of its own plot, consistently has characters act in irrational ways, and consistently has major plot points that only make sense if the characters are deliberately self-sabotaging.

 In the last episode, Gabriel intuits that all of the victims of the acid killer are associated with the Salvia unit. But he has made no effort to identify any of the victims except Borner. And yes, the point of burning their faces off with acid is to make identification harder, but surely you’d still try. Otherwise the cops just feel like those Stormtroopers in the first Star Wars movie who decide that the droids they’re looking for couldn’t possibly be inside a locked building. It’s like they look at the bodies and go “welp, the killer didn’t want these people identified, so we should probably respect that, y’know.”

 Then there’s the fact that Gabriel never bothers to consider that the killer consistently demonstrates specific knowledge of police procedures, and access to police resources including safe houses and evidence rooms.

 Then there’s the fact that the reason the killer needed to access the evidence room in the first place is that the laptop Gabriel took from Creepy Isaac Taylor contained archival footage of his interviews with young Helena Parides, and she was concerned that Gabriel would recognise her on them. Just to clarify, those interviews took place twenty years ago. And they were evidence of Gabriel’s complicity in the abuses that got the Salvia unit closed down. Yet he apparently kept copies of them anyway, even after starting a new practice. And didn’t keep them on an external drive or a separate server, but actually on his personal laptop. For twenty years.

 I mean, maybe I’m just a technophile, but I’m pretty sure I’ve owned more than one laptop since 1997. So did Isaac carefully sit down every time he bought a new work PC and say “hold on, better make sure I safely transfer over those videos that prove I covered up for a rapist, wouldn’t want to lose them at any time in the next two decades”?

 Then again, since Taylor had, in fact, done this, Elaine’s instincts were at least correct. But maybe it just took one to know one, because a core assumption of the show’s criminology seems to be that criminals always make video recordings that prove they’re guilty of crimes that could otherwise in no way be traced back to them. Which is presumably why Elaine videoed Steven Mills killing the last victim, even though the existence of such a video made it obvious that he was being coerced and could only ever have made it less likely that he would have been convicted for the crimes for which she was presumably trying to frame him.

 So … so yeah. That’s Rellik.

 The internet talks a lot about how confusing it is. But the truth is that it’s not so much “confusing” as, well, “blah.”

watching
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So, having recently shared the story of Peanut (a love story across time, space, death and reality), let me tell you about Barold.

Barold is … well. He’s generally considered one of the ugliest villagers available in Animal Crossing. And given he’s kind of a bear with a neckbeard … it’s … okay, I don’t want to judge, but it’s not a good look, dude. Also, in my game, he randomly asked me for a T-shirt and the only thing I was willing to squander on Barold was this unfortunate pastel item with a creepy pink elephant face on it. So now he’s wearing that unremittingly. And looks, there’s no way of putting this nicely, like he spends all day in a basement, arguing on the internet and complaining about SJWs ruining the world.

Now I have discovered the power of Animal Crossing Amiibo cards, I keep meaning to ask him to move out. And keep failing to do so. Because he was one of my first villagers. And sometimes when life deals you a sex offending bear with a neckbeard you … make lemonade? Look, I guess I somehow got fond of him. He’s not Peanut, don’t get me wrong, but he’s no Paula either. Also if I make two bears move out of my village, people are going to think I’m a bear racist.

Part of the reason I’m having trouble getting rid of Barold is that he can be unexpectedly sweet. A totally (as far as I can tell) pointless feature of Animal Crossing is that you can write letters to your villagers, and send them gifts, a process that does actually entail laboriously tapping out a message to a creepy bear with your 3DS stylus like the saddest human being imaginable. Anyway, the other day, Barold was like “Hey, M, look at this” and he showed me a letter  I’d sent him way back when. And it was, frankly, really embarrassing because the letter said something like “I can’t believe I’m writing a letter to a fake bear in a computer game. You look creepy but I guess I like you” and also it was a frankly unnecessary reminder that I’d written real words to a fake bear. “This is first the letter you ever sent me,” went on Barold, blinking at me through his broad coverage neckbeard. “I’ll treasure it.”

Which … got me thinking about letters. Now, I’m not actually one of these “oh ah the lost art of letter writing” type people. I like communication to be as technological effective as possible and there’s no reason that emails can’t be like letters, if you treat them as more discursive and less logistical.

Except. Except.

Letters are kind of nice, aren’t they?

And I honestly can’t remember the last time I received one (I mean, that wasn’t a bill, a pizza flyer or a notification of works from National Rail) or sent one. There’s definitely part of me that resists the whole letter-writing thing as profoundly unnecessary. But there’s another part of me that is drawn to it precisely because it is unnecessary. Not in a OATLAOLW way but just because unnecessary things accumulate their own meanings.

All of which is to say, I’m embarking on an, um, letter-writing project. The basic idea goes like this:

If you would like to receive a letter from me (hand-written, old school style, on pretty paper, the whole works) then you can sign up to … well… I’m calling it Alexis Crossing. Because I thought that was cute. Obviously you’ll have to trust with me a name and address,  which might be a deal breaker for some people, and that’s totally cool.

I’ve designed a really quick form that asks for the relevant information, as well as inviting you to ask me a question (any question, doesn’t have to be about me or anything like that) and—optionally—tell me something (again, this doesn’t have to be a deeply personal revelation about your soul, although it can be if you like).

Then, I’ll pick randomly from the list, drop you an alert to say to keep an eye on the post (and make sure you haven’t moved house or whatever) and send you a letter.

I can’t tell, at this point, if this is cool or weird. And I definitely don’t expect you to come up to me in fifty years and pull a Barold.

But yes, in summary. If you would like a random letter with hard-to-read handwriting, probably on unicorn paper, from me click here to sign up.

I’m going to run this pretty much continuously until I get bored or everyone else does, so you can sign up whenever. My planned timetable is one letter a month but in the unlikely event of demand outstripping supply I can speed things up.

Oh, I should also say, there are no geographical limitations here. If you can get mail, I’m good to send it.

And, while I remember, in the next couple of days I’ll be sending out a newsletter, which will include a free download of My Last Husband, a short story in which I attempt to do horror.

Although, honestly, it’s more like mildly unpleasant, this is me we’re talking about. My idea of horror is not being able to find a matching sock or someone putting tea in the microwave.

But err, sign up if you haven’t already and it’s a thing you’re interested in.

And loooooooook at the cover.

Ah, you came. I’m so glad. Give me your hand—why look at this, you still have paint beneath your fingernails. Oh, don’t apologise. It’s charming. Would you care for champagne? It’s a very special vintage, from a walled vineyard near Chouilly in the Cote de Blancs. Do you like it? Such a heavy sweetness, don’t you think? Like butter and gold. I can take you out there, if you want. It’s quite a wonder: the same land, held by the same family for nearly five hundred years. Though, of course, it’s mine now.

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silliness
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There are few things I find more compelling than a fascinating premise disappointingly executed. I was overjoyed to discover, nearly two decades ago, that somebody had come up with the excellent idea of making an intense spy thriller shot entirely in real time, with each episode unfolding over the course of an hour and each following directly on from the next. I was somewhat let down when I actually watched the first series of 24 and realised that it was basically a completely ordinary spy thriller, with completely ordinary spy thriller pacing, which made no concessions whatsoever to the implications or limitations of its gimmick. I mean seriously, it takes more than two minutes to drive across LA in rush hour traffic.

You know what else would be a cool idea for a thriller – a hunt for a serial killer shot backwards, so you end with the suspect being caught and then each episode comes before the last. After all, the way a murder mystery normally works is that you begin with the exciting bit (the death) and then the detective carefully pieces together the evidence, effectively taking you back in time to the start of the whole affair, why not take that idea and turn it into a framing device?

Turns out there are a whole lot of reasons why not.

Enter Rellik, the BBC’s new thriller series which, with its grey-and-brown palette, grisly crimes and moody protagonist, seems to be aiming for a slice of the scandi-noir market (viewers apparently can’t get enough of slightly grumpy people solving slightly horrible crimes in gloomy bits of Europe) but winds up reading far more as farce than as tragedy. I mean it probably isn’t a good sign when three episodes into your very serious thriller, the Radio Times (for international readers, that’s a popular UK Television listings magazine) is running articles with titles like Is Rellik Supposed to be Funny?

Also, you’ve probably already noticed that the title of the show, Rellik, is Killer spelled backwards. This … this really should set your expectations for what the show is like.

Before I go any further, because the show is shot in reverse (periodically the action pauses and we see things rapidly spool backwards until we restart with a caption saying something like “12 hours and 8 minutes earlier”) talking about timing is going to be a nightmare. I’m going to use the convention of referring to the timeline as experienced by the characters (where the beginning is first and the ending is last) as diegetic and the timeline experienced by the viewers (where the ending is first and the beginning is last) as narrative. I expect this to be slightly clearer than mud, but only slightly.

The Bad Beginning

Not all of these subheadings will come from Lemony Snicket titles but, well, I wanted to start at the beginning, and a lot of the issues I have with the show are evident from the outset, so it just sort of fit.

I’d love to say that Rellik starts strongly. And it almost does. Okay, it almost-almost does. Okay, it gets within throwing distance of almost does. Almost. We open with a man in a hoodie, his face horribly scarred as if by acid, going into a petrol station (I think? Some kind of late night shop – it’s honestly not a massively memorable sequence) and buying something or being intimidating to the owner or … seriously my recollection is vague. We catch a fragment of a news report about how a serial killer who burns people’s faces off with acid has been killed in a police shootout. Then we see mysterious hoodie man digging through a grave with his bare hands, and finding some kind of prescription bottle which seems to contain an SD card, and looking at the camera like something significant has happened. Then we spool backwards and OMG Plot Twist! He is actually a police detective trying to catch a serial killer!

This so nearly works. We hit all the right beats – we are presented with a mysterious situation, then we spool back and we get new information which at once clarifies and challenges. We learn who the strange man was, but also learn that he is not who we expect. It’s actually pretty … pretty okay? For about nine minutes.

Then we get the (narratively) next and (diegetically) previous part of the story. We see our acid-scarred stranger (actually a policeman) facing off against the suspected serial killer who we know from the news report from narratively-earlier-diegetically-later will be killed in this very confrontation. The suspect is obviously distressed, and obviously about as dangerous as a raspberry muffin. Never the less, when he reaches into his pocket for his phone, the police snipers who … who apparently always come along when they pick up suspects in high profile cases? I guess? Anyway, the police snipers shoot him dead. Then we cut to the investigating officers celebrating the end of their serial killer hunt because the guy they shot was definitely the right guy and definitely not an unarmed mentally ill man who was set up by the real killer, while Broody McScarredface sits in a corner and angsts to his much younger, much more attractive, much more female partner who he is obviously banging and who is obviously going to turn out to have had a tragic and abusive backstory that he is uneasy because he’s not sure that the unarmed and clearly harmless mentally ill man they just gunned down for no reason was actually the cold, calculating serial killer they were after. She tries to reassure him, but he’s all “no, I’m sure we MISSED SOMETHING, probably in the PAST back during all the OTHER STUFF THAT HAPPENED which you’re TOTALLY GOING TO SEE IN FUTURE EPISODES.”

Indeed there’s a lot of setting-up-its-theme in episode one (as well there might be). There’s a scene about halfway through were Gloomy McAcidburns looks through his grimy, grimdark car window at one of those guys who non-consensually wash windscreens at traffic lights and pontificates about how if we could just understand that guy’s past and what had brought him to his current situation, everything would be much better and the police would be better at policing and all that. This speech, in which Herr Whiny von Bangshispartner notices that the windscreen-washer is probably also a heroin addict, and wonders what led to his addiction, pretty much sums up what’s wrong with the narrative structure of Rellik.

This is going to need a new subheading.

Memento and Her Sisters

The classic told-backwards story is Memento, but the “six days earlier” episode is actually kind of a staple of serial fiction, both drama and comedy. It usually works, but I think the ingredients that make it work aren’t present (and to an extent can’t be present) in Rellik.

In both Memento and the six-days-earlier story the hook is “how did we get here”. It relies on the story opening with a scenario sufficiently outlandish that the audience genuinely wants to watch on to find out what the hell is going on and how it could possibly make sense. In Memento the entire setup is bizarre, with Guy Pearce’s character (Leonard) – all tattoos and mantras and poorly understood medical conditions – presenting a mystery for us to solve in and of himself. We start with Leonard shooting Teddy and Teddy taunting him with how little he knows about himself, and the film invites us to find out why Leonard shoots Teddy, and what Teddy was talking about. In the “six days earlier” episode of an established series, we will either open with something self-consciously wacky (if the series is comedic) or with a scene in which characters we already know well are behaving in a way we know to be out of character. And again, we will want to know how we got there.

Rellik offers us neither of those hooks. It is an original series, with no establishing framework to let us know what the characters’ lives were like before the events that we are now watching play out, so when Scarsy O’Sadface starts acting in a grossly unprofessional way (abducting and intimidating witnesses, breaking into houses without a warrant, banging his hot partner) we aren’t intrigued about how he got to where he is, we just assume that he was always kind of a shitty cop. As for the other style of backwards story hook, the scenario so strange that you really want to find out what led up to it, well the show could have offered us that. But it didn’t. After the first scene, in which we learn that the strange scarred man is a policeman hunting an acid-themed serial killer, there isn’t really any intrigue left. When we see the confrontation that leads to the obviously innocent suspect getting shot dead, we aren’t left wondering what could possibly have brought us to this point. Because while it’s sad and violent, it’s a completely pedestrian scenario. The police think this guy is a dangerous serial killer, a firearms officer misinterprets a non-threatening gesture as a violent one, and a guy gets shot. We really can fill in the blanks for ourselves.

In a good non-chronological narrative, the diegetically-earlier-narratively-later scenes provide information and context that genuinely illuminates the diegetically-later-narratively-earlier scenes. We understand better why a character reacts a particular way in a particular situation because we understand more about their past experiences; a question that has hitherto troubled us is resolved with a revelation that is surprising but satisfying. The thing is, these kinds of narratives are much harder to put together than it seems, and are probably even harder to put together if you restrict yourself to what you might call a hard reverse structure (that is, strictly showing events backwards, rather than doing as – say – Memento does and playing a portion of the narrative forwards in order to provide context, or embedding the story within a wider series that follows a more conventional chronology).

Every time Rellik spools backwards, we find out a bit more about either the main story about the acid killer, or one of the show’s rather-too-many, rather-too-inconsequential side plots. The problem is that the things we find out are almost always either completely unsurprising, or pointlessly out of left field. Often within the same plotline.

So for example in the first episode, we start (after the grave scene) with Detective Philanderer del Manpain facing off against the obviously completely innocent suspect, who gets shot. The (narratively) next scene shows the events that led up to the confrontation. Which were “they said they had evidence that the guy was a serial killer” and “they thought he had a gun”. Which – um – is sort of what I’d assume the events leading up to that confrontation were. So all that’s happened is that a completely straightforward story about the police incorrectly identifying an unarmed and innocent man as a dangerous multiple murderer gets told in an unhelpfully nontraditional order, for no actual benefit.

Then at the end of the episode we discover that the reason that there was evidence linking Obviously Innocent Guy to the murder was because he had actually committed the murder, but that he had been forced to do it at gunpoint by a mysterious shadowy figure who, by the way, also filmed the whole thing for some reason? And then somebody, possibly innocent guy or possibly somebody else, came back to the crime scene and took the SD card out of the camera on which mysterious spooky person inexplicably filmed the murder they forced somebody else to do, and we are left to draw the inference that this is the SD card that Inspector Mopesalot finds in the first scene. But we also know that whatever consequences may come about as a result of the existence of that SD card, they’re going to have to happen (diegetically) after the events of the first episode, and therefore that they will on no account ever come up over the course of the series. And not only will everything else that happens in the series precede this scene, but we will be following Detective Protagonist, not Obviously Innocent Guy, and we know that Detective Protagonist did not know about this event, or presumably any of the interactions between innocent guy and mysterious spooky individual that led up to it.

Watching Rellik is basically watching an aggressively miserable detective be bad at his job, in reverse chronological order.

Columbo

The faint praise with which Rellik is often damned is that maintaining a sense of mystery and tension in a story when you already know how that story will end is sufficiently difficult that, like a dog walking on its hind legs, we should be impressed not that it is done well, but that it is done at all.

Which would be a fair point, if it weren’t for the existence of Columbo.

Columbo ran for ten seasons spanning three decades, kept a loyal audience, and won 13 Emmys despite the fact that it was a detective show whose whole gimmick was that you actually saw who committed the murder in the opening scene.

There’s a sort of received wisdom that “playing along at home” is a big part of the appeal of detective fiction, and it’s probably half true – Agatha Christie notoriously had to make her plots ever more byzantine (or, less charitably, absurd) in order to meet the demands of an audience who wanted ever more baffling cases to sink their teeth into. But for a lot of readers (and even more so for a lot of viewers) it’s much less important than it seems. We usually aren’t out to beat the detective – that’s a competition in which neither side can really play fair, since the detective can easily withhold information from the audience (as Holmes does), while the audience can access metatextual clues that the detective can’t (in at lest 90% of TV detective shows, the killer is the first person they interview who isn’t a suspect). In fact perhaps a better way to put it is that playing along at home is a big part of the appeal of detective fiction, but that the key word is “along” – we aren’t trying to one-up the detective, or to shortcut the investigation with our real-world knowledge, we’re trying to spot the same clues the detective spots, and to work out how the detective will put them together. The detective is one part guide, one part surrogate.

That’s why Columbo remains fun to watch even though you already know who the killer is. You aren’t trying to guess who the murderer is, you’re trying to guess how Columbo will work out who the murderer is, or how he will trap the murderer into giving themselves away.

This is also part of what makes Rellik so unsatisfying. You can’t follow the case alongside Detectives Scaryface and Sexypants, because you’re following their investigation backwards, so as you come to understand more about the situation, they come to understand less of it.

Although actually, it’s even worse than that. As the show progresses (narratively) forward, you learn more about the investigation that led to the final confrontation with Obviously Innocent Guy, and while much of what you learn would never have been known to the police (suspects are also viewpoint characters, so you get to concretely find out who carried out at least two killings by episode four) much of it would have. In a successful non-linear narrative, the narratively early scenes are intriguing but don’t make much sense, and the narratively late scenes provide much-needed context that answers the questions you previously had about the beginning. Rillek does almost the opposite. The opening is completely comprehensible – botched arrest leads to death of suspect who is suspected for perfectly sensible reasons. But as the story progresses and we discover what happened (diegetically) earlier in the investigation, it makes less sense rather than more that Detective Badatpolicework would ever have considered Obviously Innocent Guy a viable suspect.

When we see the confrontation it is a little bit implausible that the police would think Obviously Innocent Guy was a threat. He’s tiny, twitchy, and terrified (to be fair, frightened men with guns are dangerous, but he also had no visible weapon). Just over the course of that first episode, it only gets less plausible. We hear that they have “incontrovertible evidence” that he’s the killer, but that “incontrovertible evidence” is “fingerprints at the crime scene”. And yes, on TV fingerprints are basically magic but even if we ignore the fact that fingerprints are unreliable and assume that they really do constitute evidence that he was 100% definitely at the scene, that’s not at all the same as evidence that he was 100% definitely responsible for that and a half-dozen other murders. Certainly that and an unconfirmed report of a gunshot don’t seem to be undeniable evidence that Obviously Innocent Guy is so definitely guilty and dangerous as to warrant the full sniper treatment.

Then we go a bit further back, and we discover that less than twenty hours before Obviously Innocent Guy gets tragically shot dead by plot snipers, Detective Offtherails had not only never heard of him, but was firmly convinced that the killer was somebody completely different. Like, completely different. As in Obviously Innocent Guy is a skinny white guy with a ratty beard and a diagnosis of schizophrenia, and the previous suspect was a black woman with acid scars of her own and a previous conviction for melting a guy’s face off.

I mean, I don’t want to be essentialist or anything, but are we really expected to invest in a detective who had so little idea about who the killer was that he thought it was equally likely for them to be a black woman in her twenties or a white man in his forties? I mean I’m sure Criminal Minds wasn’t 100% accurate but surely he had some kind of profile? Surely he had narrowed the pool of suspects down at least a little bit? I mean from what we can tell, Detective Seriouslywhydosomanyhotwomenwanttobonethisguy was actually physically attacked by the real killer. I know it was a traumatic experience, but did he really come away from the encounter with “well it was probably either a man or a woman and might have had some kind of height or weight or possibly both.” I mean if we’d got to episode four and discovered that Gabriel (sorry, that’s his real name, I should have mentioned that earlier) spent a week convinced that the acid killer was actually forty squirrels in a trenchcoat, I would not be surprised at all.

In episode two we discover that at one point a laptop, which was vital evidence in the investigation, was destroyed in a mysterious fire inside a police evidence room. He takes this as evidence that Acid Scars Woman is definitely the killer, even though he has no indication that she would have any ability whatsoever to start a fire inside a secure police station. She’s a resolutely working class woman with severe mental health issues and seemingly no friends, family, contacts or support network, why does he think that she’s capable of pulling off this mafia-boss level evidence tampering? Why, when Obviously Innocent Guy shows up and wipes Acid Scars Woman off of his mental radar entirely, does he once again not think to ask himself “would this man have been capable of destroying evidence in police custody?”

Part of the pleasure of a mystery is following the detective’s reasoning. This is somewhat difficult in Rellik, because the detective seems to actually be incapable of following his own.

Mysteries, Thrillers, and Intrigue

Of course you could reasonably argue that Rellik doesn’t have to function as a mystery because it’s really more of a thriller. It’s not about finding out who the acid killer is, it’s about exciting action scenes, sexy sex scenes (in theory, although basically Gabriel and his partner spend a lot of time having what I’ve taken to calling “Sad Police Sex”) and emotionally charged argument scenes.

Which would be fine. But none of that benefits from being shot in reverse order.

I don’t want to overgeneralise, but I find it very hard to think of any reason to shoot a story backwards except to specifically preserve a sense of mystery. Detective fiction is a broad genre, and sometimes a story can be unfairly maligned because a reviewer reads a thriller as if it were a mystery or a whodunnit as if it were an action adventure. Rellik doesn’t stand up as a mystery because nothing about its setup is remotely mysterious – we know the moment we see Gabriel’s acid scars that he will have got them in a confrontation with the acid killer (seriously the clue is in the name), we know the moment we see Obviously Innocent Guy get shot in the chest that he’s not the real murderer, we know the moment Gabriel and his wife argue about his affair, and he talks about the “terrible thing” his wife did and how she “lied to him” that he’s not his daughter’s real father. So when these things come out, it isn’t a shock or a surprise, it’s just the confirmation of something we already know. So the only tension that can remain is from wondering what the consequences of these events might be, but we also know that we aren’t going to see the consequences of the events, or that we have already seen them, because the show is telling us its story backwards, even though the kind of story it is telling us is the kind of story that in no way benefits from being told backwards.

The show’s many subplots are a good example of this. Several times an episode we’ll have a scene of one of the members of Gabriel’s team doing something unrelated to the investigation – announcing an engagement, being a victim of homophobic bullying, finding a dead pig in their house, something like that. Then later in the episode we will see something that gives more context to the event, which might change our understanding of it, or might not, but either way it won’t make much difference because we already know that the (narratively) first time we were introduced to that plotline is the (diegetically) last time it will come up, so we know that there will be no consequences.

For example, in episode two we have three little vignettes about the relationship between one of the detectives and the receptionist in the police station. In scene one the detective reveals that she and the receptionist are engaged (and do you see, the detective is the woman and the receptionist is the man, take that your hidebound expectations), saying that she “wasn’t supposed to make a scene” but felt she had to. Then we see the receptionist quietly asking her to marry him in the canteen, saying he “doesn’t want to make a scene”. Then, shock twist, we see the receptionist telling a colleague that he’s going to dump the detective but is worried that she’ll “make a scene”, and then just as he’s about to do it, she tells him she’s pregnant. And that’s the last we see of that arc. And okay, it’s sort of an alright story. But not only did that story not benefit from being told backwards, the show didn’t particularly benefit from its being told at all.

Basically the whole thing is presented in a very impressionistic way, which seems to be the only way that it can cope with its framing device. But this makes everything feel very disconnected and consequenceless. Which is sort of a problem for a narrative that’s supposed to be about the ultimate causes of things.

Episode three opens with the protagonist dragging his unconscious daughter out of a skeevy nightclub. Now we already know that she is fine, because we have seen her in (narratively) earlier episodes. We also pretty much know that she was in the nightclub voluntarily, because in those episodes she has been grounded for this specific act of teenage rebellion. We even know, or at least strongly suspect that she is specifically acting out because she has found out about her father’s affair with his partner. So straight from the off we know why she’s there, how she got there, how she got out, and that she’ll definitely be fine. This makes the rest of the episode, in which we see Gabriel searching for his missing daughter, and find out that yes, she heard her parents arguing about her father’s affair and yes, that was what made her go out and do the bad drugs at the bad drugs party, feel spectacularly pointless. There’s no tension, because we already know how it is going to end, and there is no mystery, because we already know how it began. All the show can do is fill in blanks that the audience has already filled in for itself.

Conclusion

Rellik has a fascinating premise. It’s just that the show doesn’t seem to have thought through the way that premise would impact its narrative. I don’t think it’s as simple as just taking a regular thriller plot and putting the scenes in reverse order (that would probably have been more interesting, but much harder to follow). Or rather, I think within individual episodes, that seems to be what’s happening (which is why episode three feels so hollow – it seems to be taking a perfectly satisfying story about Gabriel’s daughter finding out about his affair and endangering herself as a consequence, and putting it into reverse order in a way that makes it actively less engaging) but the individual episodes seem to have the opposite issue – they feel like they were only ever imagined in reverse order, with very little indication that, for example, the first episode (the one with the death of Obviously Innocent Guy) was written with the awareness that Gabriel should know about all of the things that would happen in narratively-later-diegetically-earlier episodes.

In a this sense, the show does strangely manage to produce a satisfying sense of progression. As we get closer to the end of the series, Gabriel actually seems to have a better handle on the mystery than he did in previous episodes, despite the fact that he should actually know less. I’ve only watched the first three episodes so far, but our back-in-time story does seem to be building to a climactic confrontation with the real killer. The fact that this will essentially frame everything Gabriel did afterwards as a massive failure of judgement with fatal consequences might even wind up being quite cool – after all he is clearly traumatised by his experience and probably isn’t thinking straight, and I can almost get behind that as a dark central irony.

But only almost.

And while I’ve written well over 4000 words about the show now, I suspect that there is little I can say about Rellik that sums it up better than this: it’s a show about a policeman hunting a killer, told backwards, and the title is the word “killer” spelled backwards. And the show is exactly like you would expect that show to be.

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So for the last couple of years, in an erratic, incompetent, beautifully satisfying way I’ve been playing Animal Crossing New Leaf. Much has been written and theorised about this series because it is, in many ways, unique—even compared to broadly similar things like Harvest Moon or Stardew Valley. All these games emphasise self-expression, personal and community narratives, and low-pressure play. But I think Animal Crossing goes further in having goals even more nebulous than “have a successful farm” and by happening, essentially, in real time. Truthfully, although I found Stardew Valley one of the most charming game experiences I’ve had for a very long time, and I was obsessed with it for an embarrassingly lengthy period, I never found it that relaxing: I was ragingly committed to improving my farm, I worried that I was planting the right crops to utilise my resources and maximise my profits, and I could play for literally hours, sprinting my little farmer from one end of the valley to the next, driving them to bed exhausted, only to chivvy them out of it again at 4am the next day.

The basic premise of Animal Crossing New Leaf is that you’re the disturbingly human mayor of a town of strange but not unfriendly animal creatures and … that’s kind of it. There’s a vague notion that maybe you should improve things, but absolutely no pressure to do so. In fact, things will develop regardless: spending money makes the shops grow, new animal-people will arrive and open new businesses, trees will fruit and flowers will bloom, the sun will rise and set, and the seasons will pass. In all honesty, my attempts to improve my town have been grossly questionable: I planted a random rose arch on a clifftop and stuck a café in a really stupid place. But such is the gentle resilience of Animal Crossing that it’s all good.

Of course, it’s also Dystopian as fuck. I mean, when the game opens you’re on a train, and the next thing you know, you’ve got off at the wrong station and everyone is claiming you’re the mayor of their town and refuse to believe you when you say you’re not. That’s the kind of situation I could have nightmares about. And let’s not even get started on the dodgy racoon who insists on building you a house and then charges you through the nose for it. And the fact that you have to pay for all improvements to the town yourself. That is not how government works. But then I’m pretty sure most governments can’t officially sanction you if you wear a T-shirt they don’t like which, err, I have been known to do to my citizens.  Oh Jesus, I’m a tyrant.

But, anyway, it’s remarkable how quickly you adjust to the rhythm of life in Animal Crossing. To fishing because you feel like fishing. To collecting fossils because you want to build up the museum. To wandering around the shops conspicuously consuming because, well, if you were the Mayor of a town of animal-folk wouldn’t you want to wander around in a gas mask and knee socks. Or maybe that’s just me. It’s genuinely pleasurable to watch your town evolve and, now that I’ve bothered to do the bare minimum of internet research, I’ve realised I’ve done it all wrong. I could have, for example, not answered the initial questions in a way that resulted in my character having demonic red eyes. I could have not put all my public works in stupid places. I could have made paths and orchards and gardens instead of just swamping my entire town in a completely uncontrolled deluge of plants and fruit trees. And, obviously, I could start again. Build a new and better town, efficient and beautiful, and bristling with facilities, by applying everything I’ve learned over the last two years. But I’m not gonna. Because this town is mine. And feels authentic to me in a way something less hopeless would not.

And I’ve got friends here. Very dear friends. Yes, oh reader mine, the time has come to speak of Peanut.

Peanut was a small pink squirrel and my bestie. She was the first weird-animal-creature to speak to me when I was non-consensually made Mayor. And she called me slacker, which I feel displayed an inherent understanding of who I am. Though, as we grew closer, she bestowed a variety of nicknames on me, including the short-lived Sweet M, and the much preferred and Bowie-esque Major M (M is my initial in Animal Crossing). Fundamentally, Peanut was a lovely person: she was always happy, never held a grudge, and, best of all, when she asked me to do something for her she usually forgot she’d asked. Also her house was next to mine so we were like special closest neighbour closest friends: she was usually the first thing I saw when I left my home. And so was so adorable, her chirpy pinkness, that I was always glad to see.

We had good times, Peanut and me. Like when I forgot her birthday and she invited me to her birthday party and the only item I had in my inventory was a Gentleman’s Toilet. But she acted like that Gentleman’s Toilet was the best present in the world, and told she would always treasure it because it came from me. Indeed, whenever I visited her, the Gentleman’s Toilet would always be there, proudly displayed. How many of us have friends so kind and true? In all honesty, if someone gave me a Gentleman’s Toilet for my birthday I would not take it nearly so well. And I certainly wouldn’t put it in the middle of my living room.

And then, then Paula happened. Paula moved into my village fairly recently. She is a bear with ill-advised eyeshadow and she built her house aggressively close to me and Peanut. And while I am, on some level, aware Paula is a virtual bear … I can’t stand her. Her personality is a strange mixture of pushy and cloying. She insists on greeting me with yodelay, interfering in my shit (like this one time, I had a hammerhead shark in my inventory and she was all commenting on it, when what I have in my inventory is none of anyone’s business, thank you very much) and talking to me like we’re friends. We are not friends, Paula. Peanut is my friend.

And if you think that’s bad, it gets worse. She viciously stole Peanut’s nickname for me and started calling me Major M too. Was nothing good in my life to remain untainted by this damn bear? There are supposed to be ways you can encourage villagers to leave your town – but no matter how many times I complained to Isabelle (my deputy), nothing changed. It got to the point that I stopped playing Animal Crossing as much because there was Paula, in my face, makin’ it weird.

Months passed. And Peanut would always forgive me. Make some excuse for me. Talk to me with all the old warmth. But I could tell it was getting to her. And, finally, one day I started up the game, and there was a message from Peanut in my mailbox. I guess it’s time, she said. You were pretty fun to have around. I hope the neighbours in my new town are just like you.

Noooooooooooooooooo.

My Peanut was gone.

There are, maybe, about a hundred potential villagers in Animal Crossing. When a villager moves out, another will take their place, chosen at random. Even if I found a way to drive every villager repeatedly from my town, which, as far as I can tell, is impossible the likelihood of me ever seeing Peanut again was negligible.

Paula had ruined everything. Invaded my space, destroyed my peace, driven away my dearest friend, probably forever. I’ve never engaged in hostile behaviour to villagers but I wanted to hit her with my net so hard. So many times. I didn’t, though. There are some depths to which I will not stoop.

I didn’t play Animal Crossing again. Until, very recently, an update came out that … well, I don’t know quite what it does. I’m not really up for having virtual worlds interface with accessories in the real world, but that’s a very Nintendo thing to do. In any case, there are things called Amiibo Cards, which you can buy fairly cheaply in randomised packs. Each represents a villager and by scanning the card into your 3DS you can … oh frabjous day … invite that villager to live in your village. I’ve been a committed nerd for long enough that I know buying randomised packs of anything is for the birds. I hopped onto Ebay and bought a Peanut card for the … admittedly slightly excessive rate of £6.50. But it was worth it. This was Peanut, after all.

Anyway,  the card arrived. I scanned it and, sure enough, Peanut moved back the next day.

Except … not back. She was the same Peanut, happy, bouncy, overly fond of pink, but she greeted me like I was a stranger. Called me slacker again. Our friendship… the memories of our friendship … lost like tears in rain.

What happened to you, Peanut? Are you a clone? Is this a Prestige situation? Did darkness take you. Did you stray out of thought and mind? Was the pain of our parting simply too much to bear?

I mean, okay … obviously it’s a different version of Peanut.

But still. I will not forget. She is still my Peanut. She will always be my Peanut. We are souls entwined and I believe, I truly believe, that, as the flowers bloom and the trees fruit, and the seasons roll past, we will find each other again.

Also, I still need to get rid of that fucking bear.

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In my last couple of what’s-happen-with-my-actual-creative-works updates I’ve been a little bit cagey about what’s going on with the Kate Kane series because things were a bit up in the air and I didn’t want to say anything until I was pretty sure I knew what was going on.

I have now formally requested the rights for the first book back from my publisher and will be requesting the rights for the second when that contract expires early next year. I intend to work on polishing up and finishing my first draft of the long overdue book three, Fire and Water, over the December break. And aim to move forward with a self-published version of all three books some time towards the end of 2018.

I do appreciate that this creates a delay for those readers who are waiting for book three. Embarrassingly, and I can’t quite believe I’m saying this, a lot of it comes down to a branding issue. Since my publishers will retain the rights to the layout and cover art of the existing editions it would be difficult for me to produce a third instalment that felt in-keeping with the first two. And I don’t know very much about publishing but keeping your series looking like a series is, from everything I’ve ever been told, really important. All of which means it’s just cleaner all round to start fresh once the rights revert.

While I’m on the subject of the series, do be aware that my publisher has arranged a Bookbub for the first book mid-way through October (I’m not allowed to give the actual date). This puts me in a slightly awkward position because, while I’m obviously always happy for people to buy my books, I would not personally have chosen this October as the best time to encourage new readers to try the series, given that the rights are in transition, and I don’t foresee being able to release volume three before the end of next year. Of course, if you do want to take this opportunity to invest in some f/f paranormal that’s cool. It’s just you’ll have a bit of a wait before the series picks up again.

In other news, How to Blow it With a Billionaire is apparently up for pre-order in all the usual places you can go to pre-order things. I think it’s coming out early-to-mid December. And I seem to recall being told that the first book, How to Bang a Billionaire, will be on sale around the same time. So that actually is quite a good time to get into the series. The third book—provisionally titled How to Belong with a Billionaire—will be out some time in 2018. (Also check out what I did with those universal links there – my social media person is gonna be so proud of me).

And since this the post where I try to be really transparent about stuff, I should warn those readers to whom it is potentially an issue that the central couple aren’t together at the end of book 2. I tried not to make it an epic downer but, well, the couple kind of have to break up at some point otherwise it’s just a book about some people having a lovely time. And in any case, spoiler, they get together again in the next one. I’ll talk a bit more about, um, Blow nearer the time.

So … watch this space, I guess?

And I think that’s it for me on the writing front. Now back to blogging about nonsense.

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At the start of this year, I made a slightly wild (and probably pointless) commitment to trying to whittle down my tbr. And, lo, the whittling was moderately successful – it’s now September and I’ve cut my unread books by about half, and written about some of the more interesting ones here on the blog (they’re helpfully gathered under the ‘reading’ category in case anyone gives a fuck). As with any project undertaken for its own sake, I’ve been fairly relaxed about tossing books aside if I didn’t feel I was getting anything out of them, and simply writing off things I was clearly never going to get round to ever. All of which is to say, I’m calling the undertaking a success and intend to continue with it, albeit perhaps not as rigidly as I have up til now.

Anyway, while dealing with my tbr, I realised something about my leisure time. I mean, apart from the fact I don’t have enough of it. But basically, for me, reading and playing computer games occupy the same mental space (maybe because I tend to play narrative-heavy games? I dunno) and essentially have the same affect, in terms of chilling me out and moving my Sim needs bars from the red to the green. Which, given the limitations on my time (self-imposed limitations I should say in that I’m a greedy fuck in that I apparently want two jobs, a relationship, friends and hobbies) means I can’t—and, actually don’t need—to do both. At least not simultaneously.

So I’ve recently been applying the “my old shit” principles to games as well as books. Last Christmas (oh God, how is September already?) was actually the first time I’d fully finished a game in ages—and the game, embarrassingly, was from 2012. It was Sleeping Dogs, okay? But I had a really nice time, and it was extraordinarily satisfying to experience the whole game, as opposed to the first ten hours, which is how it usually goes for me these days. I think it doesn’t help that I suffer from completionist tendencies, which means I’ll wind up obsessively trying to collect the 27 Golden Monkey Bollocks of Astigorth instead of, y’know, having fun with the parts of the game I actually enjoy playing and am invested in. And, since modern games are ever more preoccupied with justifying their price tag, there’s a lot of monkey testicles out there. But, having given myself permission to put aside books I’m not enjoying, I’ve tried to stop impeding my fun when it comes to computer games.

And with all due awareness that this is probably even less relevant to my readers than my usual babblings: here’s what I’ve been playing. Will probably contain some spoilers.

Nier: Automata

This was so spectacularly weird and sad I don’t quite know where to begin. It’s set on a ruined future-earth where human-built androids fight alien robots, while the survivors of the human race sit on the moon waiting until it’s safe to come home. Obviously the first conclusion you draw when you hear a premise like that—especially when you learn pretty much immediately that the only contact between the androids and the humans are audio broadcasts—is that there probably aren’t any people on the moon. So I don’t think it’s massive spoiler to say: there aren’t people on the moon.  Which means what you’re left with is this really melancholy, peculiar game-entity-thing about androids and robots trying to define what it means to be human while trapped in ceaseless conflict with each other.

Oh, and the female androids dress as samurai French maids. Because obviously. Needless to say I’m pretty conflicted about the juxtaposition of lavish up-skirt shots and German philosophy—although, to be fair, they both make me feel like a teenager. I mean, Nier Automata is full of strange contradictions and connections, but it kind of says everything about gaming as a medium that you can have this quite beautiful, thought-provoking and ultimately compassionate story, which nevertheless wants to make sure you have ample opportunities to see the underwear of the female character you’re controlling.

Obviously your mileage may vary on the degree to which you find sword fighting in your lingerie titillating, an acceptable foible, or just fucking nonsense in the twenty first century. But if you can get past it, this game is … honestly like no other game I’ve ever played, and it’s a little hard to unpick the meaning of that, or ascribe a value to it, since novelty for its own sake isn’t inherently beneficial. The gameplay itself is of the jumpy-fighty-shooty variety, although it switches modes (from 3D to 2D, from ground to air, from fully realised to 8bit) with astonishing fluidity. I will say that Nier Automata doesn’t always respect your time: there’s a lot of running back and forth across the same environments, although annoyingly all that running about grants the geography familiarity and an emotional resonance that contributes to your sense of the world and the characters’ place in it. And you have to play whole game five times: yes you heard me, five times, although the first play through is by far the longest and the final three are substantially different from both each other and the first two.

Basically what it comes down to is: Nier Automata has a coherence of vision that makes the game feel genuinely artful in a way few games do. Which is not a criticism of games as whole—sometimes you just want to shoot things, and you don’t need an artistic purpose to achieve that. But it’s striking and fascinating when a game tries to do something … else. And Nier Automata very much does something … else. I legitimately ugly-cried a bunch of times. Came away tremendously moved, both by the game, and by human beings in general. And that’s, y’know, that’s something.

Also the soundtrack is fucking stunning, each track echoing the themes of the environment it represents.

Tales of Berseria

This is a jRPG—and I haven’t finished a jRPG for so long that I can’t actually remember the last jRPG I finished, so I’m extra chuffed that I finished this. Which makes it sound like playing it was some kinda task when that’s not the case at all. I actually romped through, if you can call 61 hours romped. Eeek, now I look it up, that seems a lot, but I didn’t notice the time at all.

I think what makes computer games especially difficult as … oh whatever you want to call them. a medium. an art form. an entertainment … is that they have to bring together some quite disparate elements and make them, if not equally engaging, at least not too great a hindrance for each other.  Ideally you want the game to be fun to play and the story to be interesting enough to make you want to play and you can kind of get past shonky gameplay if the story is strong, or mediocre writing if you’re having a good time shooting stuff. But jRPGs run long, really long, so there’s even more pressure on your attention span. Generally, I tend to flake out of them because either the story is just too oblique, or the characters just too punchable, or the gameplay—which is usually running from plot point to plot point, encountering a random selection of monsters, which you defeat through some flavour of turn-based combat—is sufficiently repetitious that I can’t be bothered with it any more. But then I also haven’t been paying much attention to developments in the subgenre: we’re actually a long way from three people standing in a line waiting for their turn to attack or throw Phoenix Down over one of their mates.  I didn’t get very far with Final Fantasy XIII because it was basically just a very beautiful corridor, but I seem to recall the combat was actually pretty dynamic, and involved fluidly swapping roles and characters, and then getting your face shot off because I didn’t play enough to get the hang of it.

Anyway, long story slightly less long: Tales of Berseria was a revelation to me. The combat is super super fun. I’m not entirely sure how it works—something to do with chaining artes that I was semi-competent with by the end of the game—but you press a lot of buttons, and you character charges around the battlefield in real time doing cool stuff, while your computer-controlled companions do the same, apparently quite adequately too. Basically, it’s loud and shiny, with lots of explosions and people yelling. I especially loved the yelling, and would gleefully yell along (PERFECT MAYHEM! MEGA SONIC THRUST!), which might partially explain my enthusiasm.

Storywise, I’m not 100% sure what it was actually about. But the game does a really good job of entwining the big gods and demons and churches and saving the world stuff with more personal themes and motivations. It’s also really dark: the heroine, Velvet Crowe, is actually a village girl, who becomes a demon when she witnesses her surrogate father figure sacrifice her sickly younger brother for … well … complex, not completely evil (although still quite ill-advised) reasons that become apparent later. So while the world does get saved, it’s more of a side-effect of Velvet’s personal quest for revenge. A quest on which she does some quite difficult and morally dubious things. And while “oh noes, my village, my family member, now I will lose touch with my humanity” is an incredibly obvious setup I was actually pretty moved by the whole business by the end. And Velvet herself is just awesome, being incredibly bad ass, and bitter as fuck. Part of her arc is, as you might expect, learning to care about people again, but what’s really interesting about it, at least to me, is that it’s also as much about accepting that we all have the capacity to do shitty things sometimes, and there is a necessary power in that, and that you’re still worthy of love and happiness regardless. I thought that was a pretty cool story for a female jRPG protagonist to be at the centre of. (Also, having kicked up a fuss about Nier Automata, I should probably say that Velvet’s default outfit is essentially a cape and some boots and a belt, but you can put her in some nice sensible trousers if you so wish.)

Also, unusually for me, I completely adored the supporting cast, perhaps partially because there wasn’t an army of them so they all had their place in the plot, their stories weaving through Velvet’s, and their choices reflecting on or contrasting against hers.  And I guess I’m turning into a total sap in my old age because Laphicet—the angel child Velvet totally healthily names after her dead brother—is unbelievably adorable, and infuses the whole adventure with hope and wonder. Given the nature of the conflict, and the internal forces that drive the characters, the ending was bittersweet. But fitting.

Oh and in case I’ve given the impression of too much gloom and darkness: the character interactions in this game are delightful, and had me laughing on several occasions. Here’s the cursed pirate and the demon swordsman debating way too earnestly about what to call a bug.

The Witcher 3

So the 115 hours I’ve spent on The Witcher 3 plus its two expansions is making those 61 hours on Beseria look fairly limp right now. I don’t have anything to say about The Witcher games, the third one in particular, that hasn’t been said a million times before: these are a fucking remarkable achievement. Maybe one of the best games I’ve ever played. And the only reason I hadn’t finished the final piece of DLC, despite only having a couple of hours of it left, was because I simply wasn’t ready to let go.

Blood and Wine (the final expansion) is really more of an epilogue than anything, although there’s also plenty of story and monsters to kill. And what it offers, in a series that has always staunchly turned away from traditional heroism, is a happy ending for an old witcher who has kind of earned one. Most of the stories, large and small, that make up the games are ultimately exercises in compromise: yes you can break a curse, but the woman is still dead, yes you can defeat a monster, but others will come, yes you can try to do the right thing but greed and selfishness and the will to power can always motivate people more strongly than kindness or virtue.

But in pseudo-France, among the fairytales (literally in the case of one quest), Geralt gets to spend time with old friends, bring about a relatively optimistic resolution to the plot, and finally retire to a vineyard with the love of his life. It was an odd moment, as I galloped Roach (Geralt’s faithful steed) over that now familiar hill, just as the sun was setting, in far less bloody shades than in the main game, dismounted in the stables and jogged Geralt over to Yennefer’s side, knowing that when I logged out, it would likely to be for the very last time. Forgive me a moment of sentimentality, but it didn’t feel like I was stopping playing a game. It felt like I was saying goodbye to a world.

And if you haven’t read enough about the Witcher, here’s Kelly Jensen’s thoughts. Because there should be some sort of romance writers who like computer games type league.

The Witcher

Yeah, I know. This is weird. But I finished The Witcher 3 and realised I’d never finished the first game. I’ve always been at the tail end of a computer life cycle when a Witcher game comes out, so they’ve been borderline impossible to play on whatever wheezing machine I happened to own. I’ve made several attempts to play The Witcher properly since it was released (in 2007 – help, help, I’m old) but always bogged down somewhere in the middle, largely because deciding to replay a thing involves re-playing the bit of the game you’ve probably already played at least a couple of times before. Kind of like attempting to read Lord of the Rings: I always get to Rivendell, where they start having a committee meeting, and then give up.

Usefully I had a save game knocking around, where I’d pretty much completed the first chapter – the bit of the game I remember most vividly. So I picked up from where I’d left off and, perhaps partly because a game from 2007 now runs as smooth as butter on my computer, completed it.  It’s quite different to the other two games, having much more in common with older school RPGs, and a lot more gratuitous boobs (which, for The Witcher, is saying something), but it gives a lot of context to what comes after. The story-telling is intricate and flavourful, though not quite as assured as later games, although it also has their hallmarks, like a willingness to just take a time out in order to do character work or let Geralt go a party.

Each of the chapters has a distinct flavour as well, the highlight for me actually being Chapter 2, which has a bad rap for being impenetrable. And it kind of is, but in a cool way. It’s the first city-based chapter and perhaps an example of ambition outstripping capacity because it essentially involves untangling a web of deceit that … is actually really webby, really tangled and really deceitful. And I do have vague memories of attempting it in the past and failing miserably—and not being quite sure why I was failing or what I missing. This time, having spent a decade honing my “play computer games” skillset, I figured it all out and felt pretty good about myself. Mystery-stuff in games is really, really hard to do well, even in games that are actively mysteries: and this, at least, has the benefit of being genuinely mysterious.

Mafia II

This is one of those games I’ve always heard people speak well of, but never got round to playing. Well, I got round to it, and I actually found it pretty amazing. Like Nier Automata it has a coherence of vision—I love games, obviously, and I don’t want to sound like I’m championing auteurship but Triple A games especially can often come across as a product. And while products do things, they’re not always about things. If that distinction makes sense. Mafia II is about things. And mainly what it’s about is that being in the mafia totally sucks.

The hero, Vito Scarletta, is the son of an Italian immigrant who essentially gets involved with the mafia not out of any great desire to be in the mafia but because he wants to earn money. And the opportunities available to him, as an Italian ex-con, ex-soldier in WWII-embroiled America, are pretty much negligible. The game spans about a decade—and whereas games usually cover an ascent to power of some kind, Vito basically claws his way to about the middle. Only to discover that much of what he thought he knew was a lie anyway, everything he’s accumulated can be taken away from him at any moment, and no matter how hard he works, the downward slide is a hell of a lot faster and easier than the uphill climb. It’s interesting and unusual, as is the way the gameplay itself contrives to reinforce just how unglamorous Vito’s life of crime truly is. Most open world games give you a city full of dazzling opportunities: playing as Vito Scarletta, the city around you is just your commute to work. And the work itself ranges from the mundane to the mundanely violent. There’s even another stint in prison for the relatively petty crime of forging gas stamps.

Again, I don’t want to get into stuff I really don’t have standing to talk about but: deconstruction of American dream yadda yadda. Good stuff.

Mafia III

I was so impressed by Mafia II I immediately leapt into Mafia III. And, uh, this was a mistake because Mafia III is bad. Or rather, I’m sure it’s super interesting. It has a non-white protagonist and it’s supposed to be—among other things—about racial tensions in 1960s … well it’s made up city but it’s blatantly New Orleans. Like Mafia II, the characters and the dialogue and the plot itself (though it’s a fairly standard ‘this guy killed family, now I’ll fuck his shit up’ type affair) are really interesting and engaging and, as we’ve seen, I’m appreciative of games with some kind of vision that they want to communicate to the player.

Problem is, Mafia III is really, really boring. Which is to say, the gameplay is not only repetitive, which I could live with as long as it was fun, but it’s laboriously repetitive. Mafia II was about the mundanity of crime, but the game itself was never mundane. I mean, even driving from one end of the city to the other, listening to the radio, and obeying the traffic laws so you didn’t get into trouble, was sufficiently reflective of the experience of being Vito Scarletta that served a purpose. And while Vito might have taken on a range of incredibly dull jobs—including selling stolen cigarettes out of the back of a truck—those jobs were themselves varied. So while what you were doing in-game was boring, you yourself were not bored as player.

In Mafia III, you have to slowly take over the city, district by district, and you do that by repeating the same actions, over and over and over again. The actions being, go somewhere, shoot some people, get in your car, do it again. And there’s no way to streamline it or automate it or shortcut it. I did two districts, took one look at the size of the map, realised I was going to have to spend the next 30 hours doing the same shit, and thought … fuck this.

Life is too short to be this bored by a thing I am doing for fun.

Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate

I’m honesty pretty bored of the Assassin’s Creed games by now. And I have lost all track of the metaplot, although I have a vague memory of Q shooting someone or maybe being shot in another game. And there’s an English guy? I think I like the English guy. But I played this one because it was set in London – or rather, a kind of mad, steampunk London. And so I  had a lot of fun with it because the Assassin’s Creed series has stagnated to the point that the only thing that really matters any more is the environment. You’ll be doing the same sort of things regardless, but it just about manages to be entertaining, despite the tired formula, if you’re running-jumping-crouching-stabbing your way round somewhere that has some kind of resonance for you.

This probably isn’t a great game, and the flaws of the Assassin’s Creed series are well-documented, but it’s super Londony, and the voice actors are eating the scenery with extreme gusto, and I got my character to pose next to Charles Dickens, so, y’know. What more could you want from an Assassin’s Creed set in London? The one minor innovation of this addition to the franchise is being able to swap between two protagonists pretty much at will. And since this appears to be a running theme, I am happy to report that Evie Frye is extremely sensibly attired. Finally, the Ripper (as in Jack The not Kris) expansion (if it’s set in Victorian London you have to have a Ripper thing) is really atmospheric , and lets you play as the Ripper a bit, with like scrawly voices in your  head, so I enjoyed that too.

I suppose it’s kind of telling, though, that high point of my game experience was actually just a profound moment of absurdity that occurred in the final mission. In said mission, your arch nemesis, the brilliantly named Crawford Starrick, is attempting to assassinate or blow up or something Queen Victoria at a party she’s holding at Buck Palace. So you sneak in to save the day which, in Evie’s case, involves casing the joint in a fabulous frock, while trying not to draw too much attention to herself. Obviously I was very here for this, though mainly what I was here for was the frock.  At one point, I went a little bit too close to a restricted area: a staircase with two guards at the bottom. Now instead of warning me or anything, the guards just took one look at me walking nearby, magically intuited I was dodgy and attacked me. Since Evie was wearing a dress, her move-set was restricted to party-appropriate activities, and she had no weapons. So these two fine gentlemen beat her to death in the middle of the party.

And it was just one of those moments that remind you you’re playing a game governed by mechanics rather than inhabiting a world governed by … y’know … common sense. I mean, I know Queen Vic was a bit of a hard arse but, to my knowledge, she never had someone murdered in front of her at a ball for standing too close to a staircase.

Prey

I picked this up because it’s from the people who brought us the Dishonored series, which has some of the best environmental storytelling I’ve experienced in recent years. Prey does a similar thing, except the environment is a space station over-run by aliens. And, like most survival games, the best bit is the beginning when you have no idea what you’re doing, where anything is, and the all that’s standing between you and a swift messy death is a wrench and walking very slowly.

By far Prey’s most interesting mechanic is that one particular type of alien—little black squoogly things—have the power to mimic anything around them. And while you’re weak, scared and confused this creates pretty much insta-terror. My first act in entering any room, or rather sidling into any room, while trying to look in all directions simultaneously, would be to scan the area frantically for suspicious looking furniture: that fallen-over chair, is that a natural position for a fallen-over chair? Why are there two coffee cups? Should there be two coffee cups? And then leap across the room, screaming IT’S THE CUP IT’S THE CUP, while whacking my wrench hysterically against a perfectly innocent piece of crockery. Only to then get attacked by the second waste paper basket I hadn’t noticed. But once you get a gun and have boosted your health a bit, the mimics become little more than the occasional  jump-scare which is kind of sad really. And, unfortunately, the rest of the aliens are, well, a bit dull. There’s the big scary ones. And the bigger scarier ones.

Which kind of brings me to the crux of what went wrong for me with Prey. I attempted one run through, favouring stealth and caution as is my wont, only to reach a point whereby it was impossible for me to progress. The station does not stay static. You can set up handy safe zones with turrets, or mark out the movements of aliens, but as you pass from area to area the aliens will come back, will get stronger, and will usually fuck your shit up. Which is cool in theory, except I pretty soon ran out of resources and was basically stuck unable to do anything except cower under an office desk, hugging my wrench.

So I started a second run and used all the knowledge I’d gained from my abortive first run to pimp myself up like crazy. I snuck into places I shouldn’t have been able to get, prioritised equipment I knew I would need and basically became godlike in my ability to muller aliens. Thus I got bored and stopped playing.

And this, of course, is my fault not Prey’s. I may go back to it at some point, but it’ll have to be when I’ve forgotten enough to come at it afresh. So I’m ticking it off my to-play list for now.

One thing I did really like about the game’s design, though, was the station itself.  You could genuinely figure out how things were connected – even to the extent of being able to pop out of an airlock and slowly space-wade your way to another airlock on the other side of the station. The cohesive geographical freedom of that was kind of awesome.

Baldur’s Gate II

This is another thing I’ve had on the go for ages. I played the Baldur’s Gate games as a nipper, long before I really knew what Advanced Dungeons & Dungeons was, so when I say I played them, what I think I mean is, I interacted with them with equal parts fascination and confusion. As other people on the internet who are not me have said, Baldur’s Gate, and its sequel, are pretty much unique in that what they are attempting to do is replicate in a computer game an experience similar to tabletop D&D. So, essentially, my first encounter with the Baldur’s Gate games was a thing I’d never experienced before based on a thing I’d never experienced before. Fun all round.

These days, the games have a reputation for being deeply obtuse in their adherence to a gaming system that has long since been surpassed. But they are also beloved. So much so, that in 2014, a company called Beamdog released a modernised, enhanced edition of the first game, and a little later, the second. It’s been so long since I’ve played the first, that I can’t really articulate the differences except that the enhanced edition has support for modern gaming graphics, and lots of minor quality of life upgrades, like being able to see how many hitpoints each member your party has, and what statuses are affecting them, and so on.

Anyway, I started a playthrough of Baldurs Gate I: Enhanced Edition forever ago. And completed it, along with the expansion, and exported my character into Baldur’s Gate II, played about two thirds of it, and then … I don’t know? Saw a shiny thing and wandered off somewhere? Under the aegis of the “my old shit” project, I came back to my unfinished playthrough of Baldur’s Gate II and finished it off, plus the Throne of Bhaal expansion.

And, wow, it’s been one hell of a journey. Like The Witcher games, playing Baldur’s Gate kind of makes you feel like you lived through something. You go from being a level 1 nobody who can legit get killed by rats to, well, I personally took up the portfolio of my dad – which was to say, I became the God of Murder. Except, y’know, in a good way because I’m good person. And, I should add, at great personal sacrifice because there was an annoying cleric dude who wanted to marry me. But I felt I had a responsibility not leave the portfolio of murderin’ open to any psycho who fancied their chances. Regardless, it felt like the culmination of a journey at once epic and deeply personal.

The other thing I found super interesting about playing Baldur’s Gate as a grown up is that I came to it with actual knowledge of D&D. Which meant, forgive me for blowing my own Balagarn’s Iron Horn here, I didn’t suck. I did the difficult stuff, you know. Meaning the two expansion-content fights, Durlag’s Tower and Watcher’s Keep, including Demogorgon himself, which I found literally impossible when I first played these games.

I think what’s interesting about this—apart from how tragic it is that I’m bragging about my leet skills in playing Baldur’s Gate—is the way fights are managed in these games, which is completely unlike the way computer game fights are usually managed. Because normally, well, fights are fun. In Baldur’s Gate, you have a party of six, you can pause whenever, so it’s pretty much as turn-based as you want to make it, but while there’s some in-the-field manoeuvring, ultimately it’s all about preparation. You find out what’s ahead of you, you either discover through trial and error what its strengths and weaknesses are, or you look them up in the massive manual that came with the game or the actual D&D rulebook, you prepare against the strengths and prepare to exploit the weaknesses. And then you, err, win. Which means all fights are either insanely difficult or insanely easy. And are largely conducted in a shop half a world away, as you stock up on scrolls and potions against the most likely eventualities, like you’re your own mum, sending you off on a school trip. As experiences go, it’s simultaneously satisfying and … really boring. By the end of the game, when we were going up almost exclusively against epic level enemies, each fight would take me about 10 minutes: 9 minutes of thinking, casting spells and drinking potions, then 1 minute of actual combat.

You can kind of see why they don’t make them like that anymore.

Though at the same time, it’s a teeny tiny bit sad they don’t.

Oh, I should, the other thing I really enjoyed about my Baldur’s Gate play through was the romance. Which was to say, no, I did not enjoy the romance. The romance was stupid. And, to add insult to injury, the only person available for a female character to romance is the annoying cleric I mentioned earlier. But, I guess, any annoying cleric in a storm. I mean, okay, points for the attempt at character development and character interaction at a time when there wasn’t much of either around. But what consistently entertained me about my love affair with the annoying cleric was that it appeared to be triggered based on the passage of real time. Which meant, in practice, that he always wanted to whisper sweet nothings to me in the most ludicrous imaginable situations.

You might need to click these to images to appreciate the full scope of my Annoying Cleric’s sense of romance.

Dude, we are not alone. We are with four of our friends, in the mouth of an enormous troll skull.

Um. This is pretty sudden. Especially considering we’re standing right in front of vulval death crevice in hell.

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There’s no reason for this picture to be here but it’s Cersei and that’s reason enough for me

Given that I consume my TV in bulk these days (I genuinely don’t see the point in watching stuff week-by-week any more unless it’s some kind of competition—you can’t really binge-watch Bake Off or Strictly) I’m actually pretty proud that I’m writing the “what I thought about Season 7 of Game of Thrones” post barely a week after the season finale aired. I mean, I know a week is a long time in politics and six long times in Internet but, hey, I’m making progress here.

So, slightly too late to be topical: that raven was pretty quick, huh?

And, obviously, it is in fact too late to do an analysis of whether it makes sense for a raven to fly from The Wall to Dragonstone and for Daenerys to fly back on a dragon before four dudes can freeze to death on a lake because that kind of thing really does need to be part of the frenzy of in-the-moment internet pop culture discussion.  But that isn’t going to stop me. Or rather it isn’t going to stop me using the somewhat infamous supersonic raven incident as a jumping off point for several thousand words worth of rambling about how recent series of Game of Thrones are different from old series of Game of Thrones.

I should also add that pretty much everything I say here is going to be staggeringly unoriginal. Observing that since the show started to outpace the books Game of Thrones has got more done but made less sense is about as insightful as declaring that some elements of the Star Wars prequels were quite disappointing. But I do think the raven incident was interesting and illustrative and so I thought I’d talk in this post about why I was interested and what I think it illustrates.

Spoilers for everything up to Season 7 of Game of Thrones, potentially including the books. Also subheadings because always subheadings.

Once Upon An Ice Floe Dreary

So for those of you who haven’t been following HBO’s Game of Thrones (which I suspect will be rather fewer of you than those who haven’t been following the things I usually blog about) the “infamous raven incident” I keep talking about is a sequence in the penultimate episode of Season 7 in which several characters are trapped upon an ice floe surrounded by an army of indestructible killer zombies and their blue-eyed super zombie masters with no possible hope of escape. Or rather, with one possible hope of escape which is to send one of their number running an unknown distance to the nearest castle in order that he might, from there, dispatch a raven (ravens are the standard messenger birds in Game of Thrones for those of you who haven’t watched/read it) to one of their allies in order that she might then fly on her dragon to rescue them.

The issue here is that the ally in question is in a castle approximately two thousand miles south of our heroes, the ice floe, and the zombies.

Now, of course, the show doesn’t actually say how long the characters in question are trapped in that perilous situation. The zombies are initially held at bay by a lake they cannot cross but which is gradually freezing over and so it’s possible that our heroes have, indeed, been waiting there for the several days it would take for a large and not especially fast-moving bird to carry a message from New York to Mexico City. And there are even people on the internets who will argue that it actually all adds up. There’s a Reddit thread somewhere in which somebody pulls together some slightly shonkily curated bits of Wikipedia data to argue that a raven can fly two thousand miles in about two days—the calculation here being based on the assumption that ravens fly at 50mph which is the top recorded speed of homing pigeons over much shorter distances, and fly 20 hours a day without rest, and that the four day round trip this calculation suggests exactly aligns with the time it would take for the surface of a lake to freeze over in sub-zero conditions. Another writer (I think in Forbes of all places?) argues that it should be even quicker on the somewhat spurious grounds that since ravens are the primary means of communication in Westeros they’ll obviously be better than homing pigeons and that dragons will obviously be able to fly at several hundred miles an hour (as you can plainly tell from their falcon-like aerodynamic build and the sense of unbelievable speed you get every time they’re on screen).

Now as it happens, I think these calculations are way off. The two day estimate, in particular, is based on the avian equivalent of assuming that because Usain Bolt can reach a top speed of 23 miles per hour that he could, therefore, run from Paris to Moscow in three and a bit days. This just isn’t how moving works.

But to an extent I think getting hung up on the details is missing the point. The showrunners have been interviewed about the Infamous Raven Sequence and they’ve defended it in terms of “plausible impossibilities”. Their philosophy appears to be that it doesn’t matter if something couldn’t really happen as long as, in the moment, viewers can accept that it did. And from a certain point of view I think they’re absolutely right, although I’m afraid I would beg to raise two minor points of disagreement in this specific context.

Firstly, most obviously, but actually least importantly: that clearly wasn’t the case with this incident. The show has been so clear about the vast distances involved and the terrible urgency of the situation that even if you can run numbers that make it vaguely possible for a lady on a dragon to rescue some dudes on a lake before said dudes freeze, starve or get zombied to death, the prima facie plausibility of it is zero.

The second point, however, is the one that really bothers me. Which is, that this mode of thinking is, to me, kind of antithetical to what made Game of Thrones the series or A Song of Ice and Fire the books work in the first place.

Maps and Genealogies

A Song of Ice and Fire is in the fine old tradition of fantasy novels that could legitimately stop a bullet. Each one has the approximate dimensions and weight of a house brick and is full of appendices detailing the minutiae of invented histories and geographies that are really important to understanding how the story works. George RR Martin, as far as I can tell, is a genuine Medieval history nerd and while I’m sure an actual Medieval historian could shoot his world-building full of holes it has a tremendous ring of authenticity to it. Even the bits that are totally made up.

I’ve gone over a thousand words without a seemingly irreverent aside so here’s a seemingly irrelevant aside. The word mole, meaning spy or infiltrator within an organisation, especially in reference to espionage, was not real tradecraft terminology. It was invented by John le Carre explicitly for (I think) Tinker Tailor Solider Spy but it had such a level of truthiness to it that it felt almost realer than real spy language. And, as a result, it has now become real spy language, and that sense of that word has passed into everyday English almost without comment.

And Martin does something very similar. His world is full of terms and terminology and phrases that feel like they’re authentic medieval stuff when I’m pretty sure they’re just things he’s made up. Most obviously, the use of “[x]th of his/her name” as a way of describing someone’s position in a succession. Or his use of “knock, draw, loose” as a more archery appropriate substitute for the modern phrase “ready, aim, fire.” Or the phrase “to call one’s banners” to mean mustering your vassals your war. Or even, for that matter, the phrase “bend the knee” as a specific construction to mean swearing fealty. And I’d add that these are all so authentic-seeming that I’m a little bit uncertain about every single one of them. But I’ve read a fair amount of fantasy and a fair amount of history and I’ve only ever encountered these specific bits of language in Martin, but they work so well for what they’re used for that I forget that they’re just something some guy invented to sound medievaley.

And the point here is that (in, as always, my opinion) what makes the Song of Ice and Fire / Game of Thrones series compelling and absorbing is a level of attention to detail that not only makes them feel real but makes them feel like an evocation of a time that is noticeably different from our own. A time in which it is understandable that people would care more about their family’s name than their personal survival. That people would ride to war just because their father’s brother married someone else’s sister’s cousin. That the question of “do I kill the man I am sworn to protect or allow him to carry on roasting completely innocent people alive” is anything but a no-brainer. And, for that matter, that even the people whose relatives were being roasted would look down on you for taking option A.

tl;dr GoT/ASoIaF is a detailed-orientated fantasy setting. Its narrative and emotional weight comes from the reader’s investment in a set of assumptions that have to be supported by a consistent commitment to the integrity of its worldview. Probably the most infamous and most impactful event in the whole of GoT is the Red Wedding. Robb Stark, at the height of his military success, attempts to shore up a faltering alliance by marrying his uncle to the daughter of Walder Frey and his entire court gets slaughtered for their troubles. Everything in this scene relies on the viewer / reader having internalised some very alien, very medieval (or medieval-seeming … medeivish?) concepts. There’s the idea of political marriages being a real and significant thing rather than a plot device for a heroine to pull against. There’s the notion that even though somebody definitely hates you and would definitely benefit from your death it is not stupid to go unarmed into their house because people really strongly believe in hospitality. There’s the notion that these things are sufficiently complicated and sufficiently socially ingrained that a sequence in which:

  • You agree to marry somebody’s daughter in order to secure access to a bridge for your armies
  • You marry someone else while on campaign (and here there’s a book/show difference that I’ll talk about later)
  • The other guy takes this as a sufficient insult that your access to this bridge is now in peril
  • You consider offering up your uncle instead to be a sensible response to this
  • The other guy remains insulted but pretends to be mollified as a result of having been subverted by your enemies
  • He has you and your entire family murdered after you have put yourself in a situation in which it would be trivially easy for him to murder you

is at once emotionally plausible, easy to follow for a modern audience, and nevertheless utterly shocking. This is genuinely masterful and remarkable, but you can’t get there without doing the groundwork.

And, just to play book nerd for a moment, I would point out that the books do a little bit more groundwork than the TV series in that Robb Stark’s reasons for breaking his proposed marriage alliances with the Freys are quite different between the two versions. In the TV show he meets Jeyne Poole and they fall in love and get married on account of what an awesome healer she is. In the book, he has a sexual relationship with Jeyne Poole that actually seems pretty casual (based on the second hand reports that are all we get because Robb isn’t a POV character) and marries her out of a sense of honour because to do otherwise would forever tarnish her reputation. These are very different stories, and, in hindsight, sort of illustrate the different between the type of show HBO is making, and the type of books George R. R. Martin is writing.

Let’s get back to the raven. The problem with the raven isn’t so much that is it implausible (or plausibly impossible) that a raven could fly from beyond The Wall to Dragonstone and that Daenerys could fly from Dragonstone to beyond The Wall in a small enough space of time that neither she nor the dudes she’s rescuing show any especial signs of suffering from starvation, sleep deprivation or hypothermia.  The problem I have is that the showrunners clearly don’t seem to have thought it mattered.

To be glib for a moment you could say that the difference between writing horror and writing fantasy is that if you’re writing horror you have to jump through a lot of hoops to get around the fact that mobile phones exist and if you’re writing fantasy you have to jump through a lot of hoops to get around the fact that they don’t. Which is to say, if you are writer who has grown up in a world where instantaneous communication over vast distances is a thing, and where you find out pretty much instantly about any significant event that happens pretty much anywhere, it’s natural that the sorts of storylines you would think of are ones that assume sending messages is trivial. It requires conscious effort to be double-checking everything you write for the constraints imposed upon your world by the technology that exists in it. And in a lot of situations there’s no real benefit to doing so. If you’re writing a straight-down-the-line, high fantasy, coming-of-age about a farm boy who discovers he’s the heir to the throne you don’t really have to worry how he actually gets to the Dark Lord’s castle for the final confrontation. Or how his wise old mentor always seems to know where he is and when he needs help. Or why everyone has such damn good hygiene.

But if you’re writing a story in which a central theme is that high ideals often crumble when faced with the stark and banal necessities of reality you kind of have to pay attention to the banal necessities of reality. So much about what’s good about the series (both on TV and in print) is that, by and large, sympathetic characters don’t get handed free wins for being the heroes. They have to make compromises, make sacrifices, and deal with unglamorous things like how to actually govern a city after you’ve conquered it or where you get your food from or even how to get accurate information about something that happened three hundred miles away to a group of people who are now all dead.

What’s especially bewildering about the more recent series of the TV show is that they sometimes pay lip service to these ideas. There’s quite a cool bit in Season 7 where Daenerys’s armies under the guidance of Tyrion Lannister capture Casterly Rock (ancestral seat of House Lannister) thinking this will be a great blow against their enemies. But, in fact, the Lannisters have abandoned Casterly Rock and have taken their entire army south to capture Highgarden, seat of House Tyrell, thereby not only eliminating one of their rivals, but also securing control of House Tyrell’s lands, and more importantly, vast reserves of grain. It’s a call-back to the sensibility of the earlier seasons in which we are presented with something romantic (in this case the fall of the ancestral seat of a Great House) and are then reminded that it is meaningless when compared with something practical (in this case, actual food). But this only makes sense if this is the kind of story where that kind of detail matters. There’s another scene in the North where Sansa, having been left in charge of Winterfell by Jon Snow (who’s gone two thousand miles south on a supersonic ship to talk to Daenerys) is overseeing the castle’s preparations for the winter. And, again, she’s paying close attention to details, like how much grain they’ve got, and whether or not they’ve added insulation to their armour so they can still fight in the cold. But you can’t expect me to simultaneously believe that I’m being told a story where these kind of things matter while at the same time being asked to accept blacksmiths’ sons sprinting alone across zombie-invested wastelands without encountering any danger whatsoever and messages travelling at the speed of light just to set up a dramatic rescue scene.

And I suppose there’s an extent to which I’m looking at the series wrong. I watch Sansa patrolling the grounds of Winterfell, showing a detailed knowledge of the castle’s operation and defences, and read that as suggesting that details of the castle’s operation and defences matter. When actually that scene is just supposed to be a character beat for Sansa. It shows her generically being good at Lording. The Lannister army leaving Casterly Rock to take Highgarden isn’t making a point about food being more important than sentiment in a civil war. It’s just a fake-out or a plot twist, which is why nobody seems overly concerned when Daenerys’s dragons burn all the grain two episodes later. And why, somehow, the Lannisters were able to take actual gold from Highgarden of sufficient value to clear all their family’s, and presumably the Crown’s, debts to the Iron Bank of Bravos. And also hire the best mercenaries in the world with what was left over. As one recap video I was listening to put it, “I knew the Tyrells were supposed to be rich but I didn’t know you could just steal the rich”. I mean, I should stress that I’m not a medieval scholar but my understanding is that the vast majority of the wealth of major families in that era (or rather the era on which Game of Thrones is based, which actually covers everything from the Mongol invasion in the 13th century to the War of the Roses in the 15th) was not particularly liquid. And I always assumed that the wealth of Tyrells was in their lush arable land and diligent peasantry. Not in a big vault marked “Tyrell Fortune: Do Not Steal”, filled with easily transportable currency that they themselves for some reason didn’t use for anything.

Once again, contrast all of this against the Red Wedding which 100% revolved around Robb Stark’s need to use a bridge. That entire plot arc, including for that matter Walder Frey being such a dick because he was a feudal lord whose only useful resource was control of a strategic point that hadn’t mattered for a very, very long time and was, therefore, determined to leverage it for all he could get the one time it came up, evolves from a specific technical necessity and the choices and compromises the characters involved have to make to deal with that technical necessity. And it created probably the most iconic scene in the entire seven plus year run of the series.

Not only that but it was a scene that paid off everything building up to it and set up everything that followed in a way that was clear, plausible, natural and fully integrated into the established principles of the world and the story. Daenerys showing up at East Watch with a dragon was cool in the moment but it actually undermined everything had happened earlier (because if it’s that trivial for her to nip up and see the army of the dead, why didn’t she do that instead of insisting Jon go on this weird, roundabout catch-a-zombie quest and if catching a zombie was so important that it had to be done anyway why not send the dragons along to begin with because dragons are really useful and could surely just have grabbed one) and is likely to continue to undermine things that happen afterwards because there’s no point in paying attention to what’s going on now and where the armies are and who’s on who’s side and who’s running out of money or starving to death if what happens next is going to depend not all those things but on the Rule of Cool.

Which sort of brings me to my next point.

Having Your Grimdark And Eating It

I will admit that probably not everybody is as interested in the nitty gritty of moving large bodies of men around a war-torn fantasy kingdom as I am. I can completely see that for a lot of people a scene of Sansa counting grain shipments or inspecting armour really does only need to tell us that Sansa is good at being in charge of Winterfell and absolutely does not need to tell us that the length of time that Winterfell can withstand a siege is a specific issue that will be important later. I admit that, on some level, these are niche preferences (although I suspect they’re preferences I share with quite a lot of viewers and even more readers). What I think is less niche is related to this issue, although in a wibbly wobbly handwavey way rather than a down-and-dirty beancounting way. And that’s the tonal and thematic shifts when you allow dramatic rescues and heroic last stands in a story that has previously been about the merciless calculus of a grim reality.

I’ve talked a bit about how the Red Wedding was one of the most iconic scenes in Game of Thrones and how it evolved out of the necessary consequences of a bunch of very boring details of the setting. Probably the second most iconic scene in Game of Thrones is the shocking-until-you-remember-he’s-played-by-Sean-Bean death of Ned Stark in the first season. And, again, this is an inexorable consequence of intersecting questions of character and circumstance leading to a genuine emotional sucker punch in which you wait desperately for a dramatic rescue or sudden reprieve that is never going to come. And the reason it’s never going to come is because Westeros isn’t that kind of world and Game of Thrones isn’t that kind of story.

Except … now it kind of is.

I mean, wouldn’t it have been cool if just as Ned Stark was about to get his head chopped off, Robb had ridden in on a direwolf, stabbed Joffrey, grabbed his dad, and bounded down the steps of the Great Sept of Baelor in triumph? It would have been an exciting, dramatic scene that would have been a great emotional payoff for a tense build-up. It would also, of course, have felt incredibly cheap and changed the entire character and flavour of the series. And I’m sure if I’d gone onto a message board at around the time that episode aired and suggested that it would have been better for that scene to end in that way I would have been laughed off the internet. Because, after all, who on earth would think it was a good idea for a climactic scene in this grimdark, low fantasy, medieval setting to conclude with a character who, last time we checked, was two thousand miles away and who our heroes can contact only by slow-moving, unreliable carrier birds to ride in on the back of a quasi-mythological creature and save the day. D’you see what I did there?

Throughout Season 7 we keep getting scenes where Jon Snow will say or do something stupid but noble and people say to him “that kind of thinking got your father killed”. And yes. Yes it did. But so far there’s no indication that Jon is going to wind up the same way. I mean, he did once, but then he was immediately resurrected so it doesn’t count. And for that matter you can make a reasonable case that the only thing Jon Snow and Daenerys really have in common in this series (there’s this whole arc where they fall in wuv with each other which really doesn’t work because they have all the chemistry of a weak cup of herbal tea) is that people keep telling them that they run of risk of making the same mistakes as their dead fathers while the entire machinery of the narrative prevents us from remotely believing that they run the risks of making the same mistakes as their dead fathers. So Jon will rush pointlessly into danger or refuse to lie to prevent a war (check that: not even refuse to lie, refuse to break to an oath that he was only in a position to make because he’d already broken several other oaths by which he should still, in fact, have been bound) but we never really feel that this will be his undoing. Daenerys has her enemies burned alive by dragons and is told by her various advisors that she needs to stop doing that on account of that being what the mad king did but the audience never really gets the sense that Daenerys is anything other than a basically good ruler (not least because everybody who meets her is instantly struck by how amazing she is and convinced she’d be a good ruler, even the people who are also warning her that she’s going a bit Mad King Aerys).

Essentially the show is sort of resting on its earlier brutality. It’s relying on our memories of the terrible, shocking and harrowing things it did in earlier seasons to distract us from the fact that those sorts of things should by all rights still be happening but aren’t. And when I say “they should still be happening” I don’t mean because I liked all the tits, neck-stabbing and cock-chopping. I mean that all the bad things that happen to be people in earlier seasons happened because those people willingly or unwillingly found themselves in situations where bad things were very likely to happen. People who did dangerous things stood a really good chance of dying. People who took ill-advised stands on points of principle stood a really good chance of, well, also dying.  But in Season 7 we have things like Daenerys falling on the Lannister army with three dragons and a Dothraki hoard, butchering basically everybody but, somehow, not killing any of the major named characters. They even introduce a new sympathetic character in just that episode so that she can roast him so that we can forget that she somehow failed to roast Jaime and Bronn. In the episode with the magic raven, the party going north of the wall contains a literal magnificent seven (Jon, Tormund, Gendry, the Hound, Beric Dondarrion, Thoros of Myr, and a redshirt) who march out into the most inhospitable place in the continent, fight a gigantic near indestructible zombie-bear, a patrol of zombies, one of whom they are trying to capture without destroying, and whole of army of zombies led by the actual king of the zombies and who keep them trapped on a freezing lake for (as we’ve previously discussed) at least two days … and the only people who die are the boring priest and the redshirt. If those seven guys could face that much peril with that rate of attrition then Ned Stark and his mates should have been able to fight their way out of King’s Landing with no problem.

And, actually, I should step back here and say that I don’t think this problem is entirely the showrunners fault. I’ve read a fair few articles about this season of Game of Thrones and at least one of them referred to the Jon/Daenerys relationship you get in this series as “fanservice” which, well, strikes me as odd because “Jon is going to wind up marrying Daenerys” has been a pretty respected fan theory since about 1998. And a lot of the tonal difficulties that you get in the more recent seasons of the TV show actually seem likely to stem from the structure of Martin’s story, rather than decisions made by the showrunners. I don’t think I know anyone who read the books back in the late 90s /early 2000s who didn’t broadly agree that the most likely ending for the series was that Jon would turn out to be the son of Lyanna Stark and Rhaegar Targaryen, that he would marry Daenerys, ride into battle on a dragon and wind up ruling the Seven Kingdoms alongside her. Of course, the problem with this ending is that it’s a completely generic fantasy novel ending. It’s just “nobleman’s bastard discover he’s the true king and becomes king”. It’s so generic that by its very genericness it fights against the entire structure of the story to date. A world in which the man who rebels against a tyrannical king becomes a terrible ruler because he’s more interested in fighting than governing, in which holding heroically to your principles gets you beheaded, in which the greatest fencing master on two continents can be easily killed by some dickhead with a better sword and better armour, in which your heroic war to avenge your dead father just gets you killed as well, is not a world in which the plucky but honourable bastard grows up to be king of everything.

And maybe the intent for both the books and the TV show is to pull the rug out from underneath us one last glorious time. To have Jon and Daenerys unite, defeat the dead in the north, defeat the Lannisters in the south, and march into King’s Landing only to realise that half the people they now have to rule fought against them, that she knows nothing about Westeros and he knows nothing about governance, that the army of horse nomads with which they took the Seven Kingdoms are still here and still fundamentally survive by pillaging farmers which isn’t great when you’re trying to  rule a primarily agrarian society, and that re-building an empire the size of western Europe after a decade of civil war and supernatural conflict requires goodwill that they have squandered, men they’ve already led to their deaths, and money that they never had to begin with. But that wouldn’t just be an unsatisfying ending, it wouldn’t be an ending. The thing that’s really appealing about Game of Thrones is that in many ways it feels like real history. But the thing about real history is that it doesn’t stop.

So instead it seems very likely that the TV show and the books are going to conclude the only way they can: by bringing Westeros to a point where we can at least be reasonably certain that things will be reasonably boring for a reasonably long time. And that isn’t compatible with a grimdark look at the very real problems of governing a medieval fantasy kingdom.

Essentially there are two possible outcomes to the series that will leave Westeros in a stable state. The first outcome is what I understand some people refer to as the wincest ending (that’s wincest with a small ‘w’ as in ‘incestuous and winning’ as opposed Wincest with a big ‘w’ which is Supernatural fanfic involving an incestuous relationship between the Winchesters): Jon marries Daenerys, they become king and queen, and crucially the narrative contrives to ignore all the ways in which Jon and Daenerys being king and queen would be a terrible thing for Westeros. The second outcome is what you might call the status quo ending or more simply the Cersei Wins ending (and it occurs to me that this means that we’re now down to a duel between two incestuous power couples like a really weird reality TV show). If the series ends with Cersei on the throne that will mean acknowledging that the people of the Seven Kingdoms will carry on having shitty lives but they will at least be shitty in the way they’ve always been shitty to date. Which means we can at least assume there will be stability without also having to assume that the new rulers will have magical good guy powers that allow them to circumvent the very real problems that have led to the Seven Kingdoms being in the state they’re in to begin with.  An ending where Cersei wins would be miserable but satisfying because we know the Seven Kingdoms under Cersei would look like (we’ve basically seen it for the last seven years and, actually, civil war aside it’s not been that bad). By contrast an ending where Jon and Daenerys win would be upbeat but ultimately unsatisfying because, unless we assume the aforesaid good guy powers, we have no idea how their governance will actually look. Presumably he’ll act like a fool and she’ll roast people but the details of how Westeros will react to that are complex enough that they can’t just be taken as read.

I feel a lot like the show is heading for the wincest ending, which is why it feels to me like that they’re going down this weird tonal road where they’re trying to pretend that everything is as dark and gritty and complicated as it ever was whereas as actually we have people who are basically honest-to-god heroes flying about on honest-to-god dragons fighting honest-to-god monsters and never having to compromise their principles. And, on the flipside, Cersei’s behaviour becomes increasingly evil for its own sake when two or three seasons ago she was being ruthless because she lived in a society where you would die if you weren’t ruthless. On which subject…

The Quality of Cersei

So. The last three episodes of Season 7 of Game of Thrones pretty much revolve around Jon Snow’s efforts to persuade the other belligerents in the increasingly inaccurately named War of the Five Kings to put their differences aside and team up with him to fight the army of the dead in the North.

I don’t talk much about American politics on this blog because I think it’s not my place but one of the things I have noticed not just under the current Presidency but for the best part of the last decade is an increasing condemnation of partisanship. My limited understanding of the American political system is that there’s an expectation (outside of the Presidency, which is one person) that stuff will only get done if people from both sides come together and cooperate. The thing about partisanship, though, is that it’s a lot easier to identify in your political opponents than in yourself. Because when you take a partisan stand on something you’re being principled about an important issue. But when you’re opponents do it they’re just being difficult.

And the army of the dead works basically the same way.

At this stage in the game, there are only three players who matter. Jon, Daenerys and Cersei. Jon wants people to fight the army of the dead but doesn’t want Cersei to be queen of the Seven Kingdoms. Once he moves into a state of pre-boning with Daenerys he would quite like Daenerys to be queen of the Seven Kingdoms. Daenerys very much wants Daenerys to be queen of the Seven Kingdoms and, once she moves into a state of pre-boning with Jon, would quite like to stop the army of the dead (once the Night King kills one of her dragon babies, “defeat the army of the dead” and “become queen of the Seven Kingdoms” wind up pretty equal on her list of priorities). Cersei wants Cersei to be queen of the Seven Kingdoms and would slightly prefer if all life in Westeros wasn’t exterminated if that’s all the same to everybody else.

Not a single one of these fuckers will budge on anything in order to get the Stop the White Walkers Bill through Congress. Which would be fine if it weren’t for the fact that the show seems to think that Jon and Dany were being perfectly reasonable, while Cersei was being completely unreasonable.

At the start of the last episode Jon, Dany and Cersei and also basically every other important named character in the whole damn thing have a big sit down meeting somewhere near King’s Landing. Jon and Dany show Cersei a captured zombie so she’ll realise that the army of the dead is a real thing and then Jon and Dany propose an armistice whereby they will go North to fight the White Walkers and Cersei will not stab them in the back while they’re doing it. Cersei’s response to this is to say “okay, but I want you two to guarantee that you won’t just gang up on me when you’re finished.” And now maybe I’ve just had my head turned by Lena Headey but this seemed like the fairest counteroffer she could possibly have made. It’s not like she even asked Daenerys to give up her claim on the Iron Throne. She just wanted them to back down from their initial position of “we’re going to kill the Night King, then we’re going to come back south and kill you, are you fine with that?” Yet from the way they reacted it’s like they were on Dragon’s Den (which is kind of ironic considering the meeting took place in an actual dragon’s den) and she’d come back with “I’ll give you the money but I want 50% of your company.”

This, by the way, is the bit where Jon digs his heels in on the Stark honour thing. Cersei asks him specifically to sit out the war between herself and Daenerys and Jon says he can’t because he’s already sworn fealty to Daenerys. Which is news to basically everyone, including both his and Daenerys’s closest advisors. I also find it a little bit annoying that the show (through the words and actions of pretty much every character we’re supposed to respect) frames this as Jon, like his father, being too uncompromising and honourable for his own good, given that—as I briefly pointed out earlier on—he’s only in a position to swear fealty to Daenerys in the first place because he has violated all of his oaths to the Night’s Watch. Which, for what it’s worth, he also broke originally because of he met somebody he wanted to bone down on. He’s not honourable. He’s just horny.

Anyway, the whole “let’s maybe not have a civil war while monsters are eating the world” thing goes south so Tyrion has a private meeting with Cersei in which there is some cool character work and after which Cersei returns to Jon and Dany and tells them that she’s changed her mind and that she will not only respect the armistice but that she will send her armies north to help them fight the king of the dead.

Later in the episode, we discover that she is, in fact, planning to betray Jon and Daenerys: that instead of sending her armies to the wall, she will … not send them to the wall? And also that, although it seemed like Euron Greyjoy stormed out of the “let’s prevent the apocalypse meeting” this was actually a work and he was, instead, taking the Iron Fleet to Bravos or somewhere in order to hire a load of mercenaries with which Cersei could carry on pursuing her war. She explains this to Jaime who is so outraged by her perfidy that he at last abandons her having stuck by her side through child murder, civil war, and the blowing up of their culture’s most important religious building.

But let’s just think about what Cersei does here.

Two people come to her and say they want a temporary cessation of hostilities so that they can go and fight a war somewhere else. She tries to extract concessions from them: fair enough. It then becomes clear she’s not going to get those concessions and so she is faced with four choices.

  1. Agree to the armistice anyway and use the time when her enemies are off fighting an unstoppable army of zombies that definitely exist to consolidate her position in the south. Remember at this point she basically controls everything south of The Trident, leaving her opponents with the Vale of Arryn and a snowbound wasteland that can’t grow anything. Remember also that she can be pretty damn certain that her enemies are completely sincere in their intent to go north and fight an overwhelmingly powerful army of the dead, and their doing this will almost certainly weaken them massively.
  2. Agree to the armistice anyway but lie and immediately attack Jon and Daenerys when they head north.
  3. Tell them you are so moved by their entreaties that you intend to join them in their fight, send your armies north with them and use the opportunity to ambush them when they are at their weakest or, alternatively, simply assassinate Jon and Daenerys.
  4. Tell them you are so moved by their entreaties that you intend to join them in their fight but then don’t send your armies anywhere so that they immediately know you’ve lied, even though the thing you lied about was something they weren’t even asking you to do in the first place, and by lying all you’ve actually done is do the thing that you wouldn’t originally agree to do which is leave your armies where they were while your enemies march north to fight the zombies. So you’ve essentially put yourself in a position that is exactly like situation 1, except you’ve clearly signalled to your enemies that you plan to betray them and finally alienated your own brother, who is basically the only person in your corner who isn’t a mad scientist or a re-animated corpse.

This is pretty much where I think the show’s lack of attention to detail gets fatal. I’ve given about three or four conflicting theories about what I think the key to the success of the series is and, if you put me under oath, I wouldn’t swear to any of them. But I think you can make a good case that, at its heart, Game of Thrones is a character driven drama. All of the world-building detail needs to be there because it’s necessary to underpin the characters’ motivations. We can’t understand the Starks unless we know what it means to be a Stark of Winterfell. We can’t understand Catelyn unless we understand that being a Tully of Riverrun is different from being a Stark of Winterfell but that their and interests are compatible in these ways and incompatible in those ways. We cannot understand Cersei unless we understand the history of Lannisters and the history of Robert’s rebellion, and the nature of her father, which itself is a reflection of the nature of his society. If you let the world stuff slide, you will inevitably start letting the character stuff slide because people can’t exist in a vacuum. If you allow your hero to be rescued from a fundamentally ill-conceived plan without any thought as to how his rescuer found out he was in danger or knew where he was or got to him in time—without on some level thinking about how long it would take a raven to fly somewhere—then you’re only a short step away from allowing your main villain to pointlessly sabotage her own position just so you can have a scene where it turns out she’s betrayed someone.

And that’s not the show I started watching seven years ago.

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