I said at the start of my last post on this subject that doing this “new series and old series at the same time” thing was a headfuck. Finishing up season three for the recaps, I became worryingly aware that it had slid from “headfuck” into “genuine engagement killer”.

Oh, also, this post contains spoilers for all of Game of Thrones that exists at time of writing and, even more randomly, for a 1971 Michael Caine movie.

Right now pretty much the entire GoT community is engaged in … well it’s engaged in the things all media communities are engaged in, so memes, infighting, bickering and fan theories but there’s at least a marginal focus right now on who is going to survive the upcoming Battle of Winterfell (I made two predictions last post, one of which has already been proven wrong—I said we might just cut to King’s Landing but apparently that’s not happening because we’re getting not only a battle sequence but an eighty minute battle sequence. Sigh.) Reddit is full of lists and images of people trying to work out who lives and who dies and as a result it’s really hard not to come to feel two annoying things:

  1. Anybody who isn’t at that battle (apart from Cersei who’s now the only one in King’s Landing) basically doesn’t matter.
  2. Anybody who is at that battle and dies was only in the series at all so we’d feel sad-slash-shocked when they kicked it fighting the Night King.

Incidentally there’s a fantastic thread on Reddit right now in which a random Redditor points out quite how badly the terrible army of the dead should get its arse kicked, because literally every single piece of evidence we’ve seen in the last however many seasons suggests that both wights and white walkers are actually incredibly bad at fighting. Like the Oathbreakers of Dunharrow, their primary weapon is fear and the fact that most weapons can’t hurt them. But with dragonglass, fire, or valyrian steel, they’re actually very, very easy to kill even if you aren’t defending a fortified position. The only thing the AotD really has going for it is that the Inverse Ninja Law seems to apply to the good guys as much as the bad guys. I mean yes, right now they’re outnumbered ten to one, but last season Jon and his droogs were outnumbered literally hundreds to one, and surrounded and trapped on an ice sheet with no food or shelter and they still suffered exactly one casualty. And that was fighting a bear.

Anyway, this post is supposed to be about season 3 rather than season 8, but the intent was always for it to be about the experience of watching season 3 while also watching season 8 (because like, I suspect, most people who aren’t real hardcore fans, my interest in any given bit of Game of Thrones is at its peak when I’m watching some other bit of Game of Thrones), and this was where the experiences really started to clash.

The characters we saw in S8E2 having their dark nights of the soul before the penultimate battle were, in alphabetical order: Arya, Bran, Beric Dondarrion, Brienne, Daenerys, Davos Seaworth, Gendry, Gilly, Grey Worm, the Hound, Jaime Lannister, Jon Snowgaryen, Jorah Mormont, Missandei, Sam, Sansa, Theon, Tormund, Tyrion, and Varys. Watching S3 having just watched S8E2 it was really hard to give a shit about anything that happened to anybody who wasn’t one of those people. Worse, it was also pretty hard to give a shit about anything that happened to anybody who was one of those people that didn’t flow directly (either causally or thematically) into their being in Winterfell before the eighty minute battle for the end of the world.

And in a lot of ways, this fucking kills me (I mean, in a having-a-sense-of-perspective kind of way, it’s just at TV show after all) because there’s so much great stuff in season 3 that I just couldn’t really enjoy because of how abruptly and pointlessly it was all going to get cut off. Like I freaking adore the Tyrells (for a start they’re the ones who produce all the fucking food #showusthegrainsilos) and the scene where Margaery explains to Sansa that sex is way cooler and more complicated than she’s been raised to understand, and then Sansa is all like “did your mother explain that to you,” and Margaery is all like “yup, that’s definitely what it is, I have certainly not been boinking my way around Highgarden at all” is absolutely to die for. But it all goes … where, exactly? Up in a cloud of wildfire for what feels uncomfortably like the sake of a cool set-piece. And I know that setting stuff up only to have it cruelly ripped away is what the show does but the problem is that doing that once is clever, doing it twice (or eleven thousand times) is a gimmick.

When I rewatched season one, I could still invest in Ned Stark’s story even though I knew it would wind up being cut abruptly short because it still had a coherence to it. I understood what mystery Ned was investigating (and yes, it was the mystery of Robert Baratheon’s magic semen, but we play the hand we are dealt), why he was motivated to pursue it, and what the stakes were for everybody involved. His death was shocking because it cut short a story that could reasonably have continued (I remember when I first read the book nearly twenty years ago how excited I’d been as I looked forward to seeing what happened when he was reunited with Jon Snow at the Wall) but it still has weight even when you know that story won’t continue because it also, in retrospect, created its own equally complete story. Ned Stark is a tragic figure in an almost classical sense, and he dies because of decisions he and other people make that stem from real and understandable flaws in his and their characters (insofar as “just too darned honourable” is a flaw and “just a psycho” is understandable). So it’s engaging to watch his story as many times as you like, because it doesn’t actually go nowhere, it’s just that the somewhere it goes happens to be his head getting chopped off on the steps of the Sept of Baelor.

The Red Wedding is the same way. I was less invested in Robb Stark’s story this time around, but not because I knew he would get massacred at a wedding. His arc still has a completeness to it, and his downfall still follows naturally from his choices, so it’s still a compelling story. It’s just that, as I explained at length in my previous post (and thanks for bearing with me, by the way, I’m aware that this is going to wind up being suuuuuper long when it’s all put together, although that’s kind of my metier blogging-wise), I think married to preserve the virtue of a woman I would otherwise have ruined fits a lot better than married for lurve. Hell there’s even a bit in this series where Robb tells Walder Frey that he broke his oath for love, and Walder replies “you broke your oath for firm tits and a tight fit, and I can’t say I blame you.” Which … like … I mean when you’re losing the moral high ground to Argus Filch from the Harry Potter movies, you’re in a bad place. But again, despite its shocking ending, Robb’s story doesn’t actually go nowhere. It just goes somewhere bad.

Even the out-of-nowhere deaths are often thematically resonant in the earlier series. Sure Joffrey suddenly drops dead at his own wedding and it’s shocking and dramatic and unexpected, but it still fits thematically. It’s like the end of Get Carter (see, I told you this post would include spoilers for a 1971 Michael Caine movie) where having finished off all his enemies, he’s randomly shot in the back of the head by a sniper we don’t even see. Joffrey is a cruel, capricious, and arbitrary ruler who does cruel, capricious and arbitrary things, and dies a cruel, capricious, and arbitrary death.

But Margaery Tyrell just … gets blowed up. It’s not like she underestimates Cersei. It’s not like a vast explosive death by wildfire is a fitting consequence of choices she makes or an ironic commentary on the way she lives her life. It’s just … poof, gone, turns out everything is arbitrary. What was clever about the early series was that they communicated a sense of arbitrariness in ways that were not, in fact, at all arbitrary. Looking back, the deaths of Joffrey and Robb and Eddard actually have a massive sense of inevitability to them, they’re all destroyed by their own weakness and the question is only ever when, not if.

But for the twenty-or-so named characters sitting in Winterfell awaiting the coming of the White Walkers there’s nothing so neat. A battle is coming. Battles are the sorts of things that get people killed. These characters are all going to be in the battle because the battle is kind of the plot, and also because it’s kind of a literal zombie apocalypse. And of course there’s ways to have character-defining moments in a fight scene. People can sacrifice themselves for people they care about, or die doing characterful things, but that’s not the same as the every-step-has-brought-you-here weight of fatalism that characterised the earlier series. Whoever dies at the battle for Winterfell will have died because they were just kind of doing a dangerous thing that they were going to have to do anyway at some point, and that a bunch of other people were also doing and pretty much anybody else could also have done.

This was supposed to be about season three, wasn’t it?

The thing is, so much of S3 is so coloured by S8 that it’s hard not to bounce between them like a thing that bounces between things. Several of the characters who are now waiting to die at Winterfell have arcs that either begin or kick into high gear in S3, but which also … don’t particularly require those characters to die or not die fighting the Night King at Winterfell.

Variously:

S3 is where Brienne the Beauty forges her bond with Jaime, where he lies to Roose Bolton’s men to protect her and loses his hand as a consequence. It’s where she fights a bear with a wooden sword (I mean, she has the wooden sword, not the bear) and where we start to get a great sense of how cool and honourable and awesome she is. But it’s also, in the overall scheme of things, kind of … pointless. She’s spent the whole show wandering the seven kingdoms being generically cool but … well … now isn’t she just kind of making up the numbers? What exactly does Brienne, by being Brienne, bring to this fight other than a general fondness for her character that kind of exists in a vacuum?

And don’t even get me started on Beric Dondarrion. In a relative sense, he is actually quite a major part of this season—he captures Arya and the Hound, interacts with Melisandre and the Red God plot, and sends Gendry off to Stannis—but even looking back from season eight, even looking back from the episode before the one where there is a good chance he will die, I still don’t quite understand what he’s doing. The Lord of Light brought him back from the dead twenty times (according to his conversation with the Hound) and Melisandre keeps insisting he has a role to play in the battle to come. But right now I don’t really see what that role can be. Because ultimately he’s just a guy with a fiery sword. Not even a magic fiery sword, as far as I can tell. There’s nothing he needs to do. He’s just … there.

Interestingly in the books he quite specifically dies fairly early on, passing the flame of the Lord of Light to Catelyn Stark who comes back as Lady Stoneheart. I understand a lot of fans are upset that this was cut from the TV show, but I honestly don’t mind that the change was made for focus and time constraints. I just wish they’d gone further and cut him out entirely, because he doesn’t really bring anything to the table. In season three or season eight.

And once again, I’m over two thousand words in and I’ve barely talked about the thing I came here to talk about (that is, the actual story arcs of S3). Some of these I’ve got a lot to say about, others less so. We’ll do the less-sos first.

Arya and the Hound. Brilliant character dynamic. Virtually nothing happens. See above re: Beric.

Jon and North of the Wall. Jon/Ygritte is amazing. Almost problematically amazing. I mean Kit Harrington and Rose Leslie have so much chemistry that they literally got married in real life. That’s the kind of thing that casts a long shadow, and (I’ll stop with the season 8 stuff soon I promise) it actually causes real problems for Jon/Dany because they just don’t live up. No amount of dragon riding and knee bending and white-walker slaying can live up to the iconic simplicity of “you know nothing, Jon Snow.”

King’s Landing. Sansa is great but now she’s less in Joffrey’s orbit I feel she has less to do. Margaery is great but I can’t care because I know she goes nowhere. Cersei is still surprisingly great despite also achieving very little. Tyrion is cool but this is actually the start of a slow decline for his character (as one podcast I was listening to pointed out, nothing he tries or recommends actually works after Blackwater). Tywin is fucking awesome, and watching him repeatedly school Joffrey is incredible. Although even here, knowing that eventually he’ll be dead and we’ll basically have forgotten all about him and none of the things he’s fighting for will wind up being narratively important kind of makes him feel hollower than he should.

And actually, hold that thought for a second because I think there’s a one here that bears being gone off on. And yes, this is going to be an S8 thing again, sorry.

Sort of a central theme of Game of Thrones is that people become fixated on things like honour or wealth or glory or tradition, when what really matters are the things that can keep you alive, and the things that can kill you. Part of the point of all the pointless posturing that occupies the middle six seasons of the show is that it is pointless. If the White Walkers eat the world it doesn’t matter who’s king. It doesn’t matter if you bring honour or shame on the name of your family. It doesn’t matter if you betray your guests at a wedding or blow up the Sept of Baelor. We’re ultimately invited to condemn Cersei (and by extension Tywin) for being more interested in playing politics than in safeguarding the realm, but … well … it seems very likely that next episode the armies of the living are going to fight the armies of the dead and … well … they’re probably going to win? And yes that victory will be costly, but not really any costlier than any other battle they’ll have fought. More than that, since it became show canon that killing a White Walker kills all the wights it created and since it seems to have been accepted as a canonical extension of this fact that killing the Night King will destroy all the White Walkers, this great threat that was supposed to take real unity and compromise and coordination to overcome seems increasingly like it’s going to come down to … two guys duelling on dragonback?

And obviously I might be eating my words next Tuesday. Maybe the Battle of Winterfell will be lost, and lost in such a way that it becomes clear that it would have been won had only the Southern lords put their differences aside and banded together to fight it. But if not, then basically Cersei is right. And Tywin is right. Or if they’re wrong, they’re not wrong for failing to recognise the threat posed by the White Walkers (who it seems increasingly probable will literally not come within three thousand miles of King’s Landing), they’re wrong for failing to recognise the threat posed by Daenerys’ dragons (there’s a bit early in S3 when Tywin insists that magic is gone from the world and dragons are never going to be a meaningful threat again—if there’s one thing he is mega wrong about it’s this). It winds up in this weird situation where the narrative thrust is saying one thing: that the Battle for Winterfell is the last stand of humanity against a terrible darkness, and those who did not pledge their support to it erred grievously and to their cost. But the actual course of events that happen in the world is saying a completely different thing: that for all the people in the castle are bigging up how apocalyptic this whole thing is, the Battle of Winterfell is no grander or more significant than the Battle of the Bastards or the Battle of Blackwater.

The story tells us Tywin Lannister’s worldview is fatally flawed. The history of the world proves he’s essentially right.

There are two other storylines I wanted to talk about in more detail, those being Stannis and Daenerys. I’m going to start with Stannis, because I expect the Daenerys one to run long and complicated.

Stannis was kind of my favourite character in season three, for a whole bunch of reasons, but chiefly because he actually does what Jon and Danaerys (and this is a season eight thing again, sorry) claim to be doing but aren’t.

Now obviously it isn’t great that Stannis has converted to a foreign religion that might be legitimately evil and which calls for actual human sacrifice, but aside from that single tiny flaw he’s clearly the best qualified candidate in the entire battle of five kings (indeed were I being cynical I might suggest that the whole reason for his conversion is that it’s really his only disqualifying quality and otherwise there’s no reason that literally everybody else doesn’t flock to his banner). He’s a seasoned general, a dutiful commander, genuinely cares for his wife and daughter despite the fact that they’re both—by the standards of his society—what you might call sub-optimal, and he seems to fit the all important Aslan criterion of not necessarily actually wanting the throne so much as feeling it’s his duty to take it.

But the bit that really sold me on Stannis was the bit where at the end of S3, Davos brings him a message from the Night’s Watch explaining that the White Walkers have come back, and his immediate response is “well I’d better go deal with that, then.”

And I suppose to be fair, Jon Snow sort of does that as well, but never as wholeheartedly as he pretends to. One of the parts of season seven I found most frustrating was when Jon, Dany and Cersei got together at the Dragonpit in King’s Landing and presented their demands to Cersei. The scene mostly annoyed me because nobody in that group was willing to give any ground on the matter of the Iron Throne, but it was presented as if only Cersei was the one who was being intransigent, and the fan reaction seemed to reflect that. I’m straying out of my depth again here, but this is something I’ve noticed being an endemic problem with the notion of compromise—people naturally think that “compromise” means their side getting pretty much everything it wants and, strangely, the more important the side in question seems to think the thing they want is the less willing they seem to be to give up other stuff to get it. Which is pretty much the opposite of how negotiations actually work.

I’m going to shy away from real world examples here (but I’m sure you can supply your own from basically anywhere the political spectrum), but Jon and Dany’s attitude seems to be that because the Army of the Dead is super important to them that Cersei should concede that importance and give up things she wants so that they can be better placed to solve their zombie problem. I’ve never seen anybody suggest that the right thing for Jon to do is persuade his allies to just let Cersei have the Iron Throne, even though her ruling in King’s Landing is in no way getting in the way of his avowed goal of stopping the Night King, and trying to stop her from ruling in King’s Landing actually, to some extent, is.

But you know who does effectively decide to give up fighting for the Iron Throne entirely once he realises that there’s a more important battle that needs his attention? Our boy Stannis. No questions, no posturing, no “I’ll only do this if the North submits”. Just “yeah, this needs doing,” and it’s done. That is the kind of no bullshit problem solving you want in a king.

To put it another way, the great thing about Stannis is that he’ll do what it takes to do what has to be done, but his idea of “what has to be done” is usually measured, considered, and unglamorous. Because pretty much everybody in the War of Five Kings has their own version of being able to “do whatever it takes” when the situation calls for it, but for everybody else there’s always just that edge of showing off. Cersei loves to show how inventively cruel and vindictive she can be. Jon will always take the heroic option over the option that’s most likely to actually help people. Renley only ever cared about appearances. Daenerys is pretty much always looking for an excuse to set something on fire. Stannis is the only person who you ever get the sense really considers multiple options and picks the best one. Team him up with Sam, the only man who reads, and you’d have an unstoppable combination of dull but efficacious government.

Indeed if Stannis has a flaw it isn’t really that he’s too uncompromising (which the show keeps telling us right from series one but profoundly fails to demonstrate), it’s that he has a tendency to see the merit in multiple strategies and fail to commit completely in one direction. This is symbolised to some extent by his punishment/elevation of Davos Seaworth, unwilling to let him go unpunished for smuggling or unrewarded for his support (“The good doesn’t wash out the bad, nor the bad the good” is pretty much Stannis’ whole MO). The problem is he lives in a world where everybody else is selling easy solutions that require wholehearted buy-in, and he’s often left in the middle. So he throws in with the cult of the Red God, but he leaves Melisandre behind at the Blackwater and (so she says) loses the battle as a consequence. He does just enough R’hllor shit to alienate people who are uncomfortable with sinister magic and dodgy fire gods, but doesn’t double down on it hard enough that it comes through when he needs it. If he’d stayed faithful to the Seven, he’d have wound up with more men. If he’d fully embraced the Red Lady, he’d have had more magic. Instead he went for a path between the two, and we all know dual-classing is underpowered.

Which is a shame, because he’s exactly the king the Seven Kingdoms needs. Although at this stage I kind of feel Jon is the king it deserves.

The plotline I’ve avoided talking about so far—semi-deliberately—is Dany’s plotline in Essos. I think I mentioned in my look back at season one or two that her whole arc with the Dothraki horde followed by the trek across the Red Wastes to Qarth could be interpreted either as a problematic white saviour narrative (she drops into Dothraki culture, flawlessly assimilates, earns the pretty much immediate respect of the entire horde, gets to bang a really hot dude, and develops literal superpowers) or a subversion of it (her insistence on pushing back against Dothraki traditions gets her husband killed, she trusts a witch for no reason, she leaves her people stranded in a desert with no plan or way out). Her season three arc looks … very much not subversive.

And this is … complicated. Like dealing with non-European-inspired cultures in fantasy is complicated, and dealing with the fact that slavery was a thing in a lot of the non-European cultures you might be taking as inspiration is complicated. You don’t want to sanitise the history of the slave trade, because that’s really problematic but you also want to avoid the thing you sometimes get in more lighthearted fantasy series where the existence of slavery in the non-quasi-European civilisations is confronted as a terrible social evil, while the existence of serfdom and the many attendant inequities of hereditary aristocracy in the quasi-European civilisations are glossed over entirely. And obviously it gets even more complicated because the biggest recent example of slavery in the real world (barring modern slavery which is also a thing but brings its own set of, y’know, complications) is the transatlantic slave trade, which ties into modern—especially modern American—racial politics in a whole bunch of complex and intersectional ways. And this makes talking about  (or for that matter creating) fictional settings that contrast non-European-style slave-owning societies against non-slave-owning European-style societies really difficult, because you don’t want to either minimise the historical evils of slavery (which a couple of centuries after the time period that inspired Game of Thrones will very much have been something Europeans were into) or to perpetuate the problematic idea that medieval Europe was a broadly more just society than the medieval East, when actually the opposite was often true.

Anyway Dany’s arc begins with her arriving in Astapor and negotiating the purchase of 8000 “Unsullied”, who are unstoppably terrifying slave-soldiers trained from birth to have no sense of self or identity, and to be absolutely loyal to whoever commands them. Dany trades all of the Unsullied for one of her dragons, and then does what you would obviously do to a city that had just sold you literally their entire army and commands the Unsullied to kill the slavers. Then she takes her dragon back, but not before commanding her dragon to kill the guy she “sold” it to and striking a cool pose.

Then once the masters are all dead, she tells the unsullied that she will not keep them as slaves, but that those who wish can follow her as free men. Then they all bang their spears on the ground and cheer.

Now … what has happened here? Because to my mind there are two possibilities.

Either Daenerys successfully orchestrated a slave revolt, and the Unsullied were so grateful to her for freeing them and their city that they followed her freely. Or Daenerys bought a slave army, then commanded them to act like they weren’t her slaves, and they went along with it because they were slaves and had no choice. The second scenario makes Daenerys a delusional hypocrite in a way that the show has never really called her on. The first scenario denies the agency of enslaved people. I’m not sure which scenario I prefer.

Because the thing is, Daenerys really brings nothing to the table here. Her dragon kills one man, the Unsullied do all of the rest of the fighting. Effectively they free themselves and then both they and Dany, and Dany’s followers and—most problematically—the framing provided in the show give Daenerys the credit. If their conditioning was so strong that they literally could not imagine the idea of rebellion then fair enough, but in that case we’re in the Dany-is-a-hypocrite scenario. If the Unsullied are so brainwashed that they don’t realise that they are the only people in the entire damned city with swords, then they are too brainwashed for Daenerys “freeing” them to be anything more than a fiction. If they have enough free will that they can meaningfully accept Dany’s offer of freedom and be grateful to her for it, then they should have rebelled long ago.

And I’m on thin ice here (and I know I say that a lot) because I am absolutely not meaning to imply that slaves only stay slaves because they lack the necessary gumption, manliness and rugged individualism to rebel. I’m not trying to go full Kanye and insist that eight thousand heavily armed soldiers not rebelling against their totally unarmed masters “sounds like a choice”. What I am saying (and what I think might have led to that unfortunate comment from Mr Kardashian) is that when we look at the history of slavery—or for that matter of any kind of oppression—we tend to do so in a way that implies oppressed people just sat around waiting to be rescued, and that usually isn’t true. The rebellion that Spartacus led in Rome was called the “Third Servile War” because it was … well … the third massive slave rebellion they’d had in about sixty years.

Now often slave revolts fail, because the thing about slaves is they tend not to have much in the way of resources, but slave-soldiers have a long history of winding up with a huge amount of actual power if they aren’t kept in check. The Janissaries wound up as one of the most powerful forces in the Ottoman empire, the Mamluks eventually straight up ran Egypt, and neither group had to wait for a white person to show up and give them permission.

And obviously I’m not suggesting that Slaver’s Bay had to be in the middle of an all-out slave revolt when Dany showed up, or that it’s unreasonable for the conditioning the Unsullied went through to have been sufficient to keep them from rebelling (although in that case then it would suggest that they really have been conditioned not be able to countenance freedom, which brings us back to scenario two above, where Dany just has a slave army and is really hypocritical about it). But the show seems to be creepily unbothered by the implications of Dany showing up and “freeing the slaves” in Astapor in a way that involves the slaves themselves doing all of the hard work and fighting while Dany gives one order and fries one dude. It makes it very hard not to walk away having drawn the inference that freedom was a gift Dany was somehow innately able to bestow upon these people that they could never have imagined taking for themselves.

It doesn’t help that literally every single Unsullied soldier chooses to stay with her, and that Grey Worm is so explicitly grateful to her and that Missandei falls into line so quickly and so unquestioningly. I mean no wonder Daenerys fails to foresee the terrible after-effects her attempts to abolish slavery would have on Slaver’s Bay, her personal experience is that when you free a slave, what happens is that they carry on happily doing the exact same job they were doing before you freed them, still for no pay, and without the uncomfortable moral questions.

This is why I was simultaneously pleased and infuriated by the scene in S8E2 where Grey Worm and Missandei make plans to retire to Naath. It was great to see them finally realise that they could just bail on this whole thing and go home, but I was frustrated that it (a) seemed to be a response to the realisation that Northmen are racist (in, as I discussed last post, what I interpret as a weirdly twenty-first century way) and (b) was clearly never going to happen and only there to make it sadder when one or both of them eventually die. If going back to Naath was on the table as an option, why didn’t she do it years ago? Just once I’d like to see a fantasy story in which the morally virtuous protagonist acquires a slave who will clearly be useful to their agenda/quest/goals, plays the “you are free but I ask that you come with me now as an equal” card and the former slave immediately comes back with “actually, I have a bunch of things I want to do with my life that don’t involve following around some random I just met. Peace, out.”

At least when Dany gets to Yunkai she actually has an army with her, and while the Yunkish do seem to employ slave-soldiers they also have an army of sellswords which explains why the slave-soldiers haven’t done what the only people with swords always do. But then she conquers the city with literally three guys. And fair enough, one of those guys is Daario Naharis (side note, my single favourite thing about Ed Skrein’s sadly unreprised performance here is the way he has a completely different accent for saying his name than for saying anything else) who is literally in charge of the army that is supposed to be defending the city, so the leaders of said city might reasonably have decided capitulation was their best chance. Although this leads me to another issue I’m beginning to have with Dany’s arc which is … wow when you think about it she gets handed a lot of stuff. And yes she also suffers, but her suffering and her acquisition of power and status are pretty much unrelated. There’s a bit when she shows up outside Yunkai where the Masters point out that she’s still in a pretty weak position, and she responds with something along the lines of “a month ago, I had no army. A year ago, I had no dragons.” And I think this is supposed to be evidence that Dany shouldn’t be underestimated but it’s sort of also evidence that she keeps … getting given things she hasn’t really earned? The dragon eggs were literally a gift, and while apparently she had “a dream” that told her how to hatch them, it’s not like she went to any effort to figure that out. And as I’ve rambled on about at length above, the Unsullied just freed themselves then decided to work for her for no reason.

And in a sense the same thing happens at Yunkai. The three leaders of the Second Sons decide that the quickest way to deal with Daenerys is for one of them to sneak into her camp and murder her in the night. They draw lots for who gets to do it, and Daario gets the short (or possibly long) straw. The next time we see him, he’s successfully infiltrated Daenerys’s tent, but twist it turns out that he’s killed the other two leaders of the Second Sons and decided to throw in his lot with her. An outcome that she has, once again, put no effort into producing.

Put in the context of that slightly-too-right-on conversation Dany and Sansa have about being a female ruler, it’s a bit awkward to realise quite how much of Daenerys’s power she owes directly to dudes wanting to bone her. And obviously there’s an element of problematic historical misogyny going on here in that (again I’m going to cite Cleopatra as an example) powerful female leaders tend to get defined in terms of their sexualities in retrospect or—like with Cersei and Euron Greyjoy—are problematically expected to put out even when what they’re actually offering is a perfectly advantageous and traditional military alliance. But in Dany’s case, so much of her rise to power pretty much relies on her being an attractive young woman. Daario was absolutely in a position to kill her while she was in the bath, and even if he hadn’t been when you’re defending a walled city 2000 mercenaries and a large number of armed slaves would have put up enough of a fight, even against the Unsullied, that taking Yunkai would have seriously hampered her chances of taking the Seven Kingdoms. He swapped sides instead specifically because she was young, female, and hot.

I’m honestly not sure what to think about this. On the one hand I think it’s really interesting to recognise that in a society with extremely rigid gender roles there will be some paths to power that are closed off to men just as there are many more that are closed off to women. And it’s almost interesting to take a step back and compare the way sexism in a historically modelled society like Westeros—where men and women have almost totally different spheres, crossing between them borders on impossible, and women are repressed primarily because the social spheres to which they’re relegated are inherently disempowering—and the way it works in the modern world—where men and women are now expected to interact in largely the same spheres but women face a large number of institutional barriers. But it does also play into some really difficult tropes that are not-un-misogynistic when they go unexamined. Because the idea that conventionally attractive women spend their whole lives just being given stuff and having men fall all over themselves to do their bidding is, as I understand it, mostly false. But for Daenerys it’s … mostly true?

And this is super awkward, and I am super out my lane.

Anyway, the Yunkai arc ends with the city’s slaves pouring out to greet the woman who liberated them, which leads to a scene I personally found really, really, really uncomfortable where we zoom into an overhead shot of Daenerys as the only white person (and since she’s got that Targaryen pseudo-albinism thing going on, she looks super white) surrounded by a crowd of dark-skinned people all reaching out their hands towards her in adoration and calling her “Mhysa”.

Which … yeah. I know it gets more complicated later on, but this no longer feels like it’s really a deconstruction of a white saviour trope.

Final #showusthegrainsilos notes.

This is actually the season where we get the estimated population of King’s Landing (Qyburn tauntingly asks Jaime how many lives he’s saved and Jamie replies “half a million” because he stopped the Mad King burning down King’s Landing). There’s also a scene at the start where Olenna Tyrell breaks down the supplies her family have provided for the winter as:

  • A million bushels of wheat.
  • Half a million bushels each of barley, oats and rye.
  • twenty thousand head of cattle, and similar numbers of sheep but I couldn’t make notes that fast and rewinding was getting obnoxious.

I’m going to tweak my earlier numbers and assume that the “wagons” that Margaery said were coming from Highgarden can each hold 100 bushels (that’s 6000lb or so, which should be okay for two horses on a good road). They’ve apparently sent 100 carts a day, so 10,000 bushels of supplies. They claim to have provided 2.5 million bushels so far, which suggest that these carts have been running solidly for 250 days—has that much time really passed? And isn’t there a civil war?

Anyway, 2.5 million bushels of assorted grains should last King’s Landing about 300 days. Which is the first 16% of the Winter taken care of. Hopefully it’s not coming too quickly, because they need to step their game up.

Also, where are they keeping it.

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So this project did, indeed, turn out to be kind of a headfuck, because here I am recapping/reviewing/sharing my scattered and unstructured thoughts on S8E2 having just finished writing about 5000 words in response to S2 and in between watching S3E4 and S3E5.

Holy shit there is a lot of this show.

Of course like everybody in modern fandom my first response on watching the latest episode of something is to hit the interwebs in order to find out what my opinion should be, and so I was a bit surprised when I did my obligatory googling and found that reactions to A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms were largely positive. Because I kind of … wasn’t?

I mean don’t get me wrong, there was a lot of cool stuff in it. A lot of good character moments, a couple of … other good character moments? I mean it was kind of all character moments? And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. On of the problems fantasy often has as a genre is that it tends to prioritise big things like thrones and dragons over small things like people and feelings, and one of the great strengths of Game of Thrones was that it created a realistic sense of a world where the petty motivations of petty people could have vast and disastrous consequences for those around them. And the show is at its best when the worldbuilding and the character work go hand in hand—knowing how political marriages work helps explain the details of Cersei’s relationship to Rob which in turn helps explain her behaviour, and his, and to some extent Joffrey’s, which in turn explains the vast continent-consuming war that takes up the first several seasons. Knowing about the culture of the Iron Islands explains why Theon turns on Winterfell, and knowing Theon’s history and personality explains why his betrayal is so sudden and so ultimately unsuccessful. In this episode, however—and this might be because my recap-watching and my new-episode-watching are now so bizarrely out of sync—an awful lot of its “moments” felt unearned.

We start off with Jaime Lannister explaining himself to Daenerys and Sansa, both of whom have massive reasons to want him dead. Tyrion vouches for him and this leads to a whole long bizarre sequence where characters stumble all over each other to justify the fact that Tyrion has been acting uncharacteristically foolishly since at least the end of season seven. It doesn’t help that the particular example of his uncharacteristic foolishness that is most pertinent to everybody is this insistence is that he told everybody they could totally trust Cersei, and the specific issue on which he told everybody they could totally trust Cersei was a transparent and pointless lie that—crucially—could not possibly have impacted the northerners’ plans whether they believed it or not. I mean they’re preparing Winterfell for a siege against the armies of the Night King. He’s the one that sets the schedule here, not Dany, not Jon Snow and certainly not the Lannisters, it’s not like expecting reinforcements from the south would actually change their plans, especially not when—as was firmly established in the first episode of season one—getting to Winterfell from King’s Landing takes about a month and the Night King is perhaps days away from the walls.

Again, I should stress that I have no problem with this episode being primarily character driven, but the problem here is that the episode is driven primarily by characters having conversations, often conversations laden with either exposition or … whatever the retrospective equivalent of exposition is. I’m naturally suspicious of “show don’t tell” as a piece of writing advice because I think it’s glib and overused and much harder to apply than it seems—when Bran says of the Night King “he wants to erase this world, and I am its memory” are we being told what the Night King’s motivations are and what Bran Stark’s place is in the cosmology, or are we being shown that Bran has grown from a child who loves to climb into a being barely human who sees deeply and lives beyond what most people consider reality? Both and neither, and that’s fine. But having said that, when Sam follows up Bran’s comment with a long speech about how death is truly forgetting, and that remembering what’s gone before is really important, and that they’ve all come a long way baby and had a lot of adventures over the past eight seasons that’s … yeah that’s just telling. Because we get it, it’s season eight, and we all love the show, and it’s been running a real long time now, and there’s a lot of textual and metatextual history behind us. But saying it out loud feels like fanservice, and it kind of makes the whole of the rest of the episode feel like fanservice.

S8E2 reminded me of two completely different works of long-running fiction, both of which—in different ways—had disappointing endings. I’ll get to the second much, much later in this pointlessly long post, but the first thing it reminded me of was Mass Effect. There’s a tradition in Bioware RPGs (for the non-gamers in the audience, Bioware is a games developer that has a tradition of making long, immersive, story-driven role-playing games although it’s recently made some bizarre sidesteps in a more actiony direction with weird consequences) that before the final confrontation with the big bad you have one last opportunity to talk to your companions and reflect on all the journeys you’ve had together and tell your NPC romantic interest how important the jerky, awkwardly-animated sex scenes you shared were to you. The Mass Effect saga was a huge trilogy of games that ran from 2007 to 2012 (so about half a Game of Thrones but still pretty epic by video game standards) that had a famously disappointing ending, and one of the ways that the developers tried to sweeten the otherwise bitter pill of that ending was with the release of the Citadel DLC, which was the “one last goodbye” scene on a combination of acid and steroids. It gave you the opportunity to speak to every one of the characters you’d spent the last five real-world years and perhaps hundreds of gameplay hours with, relive old stories and old injokes and generally celebrate the very real achievement the games represented even with the shonky final confrontation. It was silly, but it was great. It was fanservice in its best and purest form. It was fanservice doing what fanservice needs to do, which is … well … serving fans.

S8E2 felt to me like the Citadel DLC, except instead of being a piece of additional content that hardcore fans can pick up and play through at their leisure if they feel like taking some time out to celebrate all that’s gone before, it’s a full episode taken out of a six-episode season. We’re a third of the way into the series, and it’s still nothing but setup and back-patting. By contrast, a third of the way into the first season Bran had been pushed out of a window, Ned had arrived in King’s Landing, and Dany was well on the way to sealing her role as Khaleesi of the Dothraki Horde. And here we’ve just had … hugging. Lots and lots of hugging.

And of course I loved seeing Brienne (not dead, thank fuck) get knighted, but it still felt like it was just there because it made good TV, not because it actually made sense. It felt unearned, by which I absolutely don’t mean that Brienne doesn’t deserve to be a knight, but this has never been a show about people getting what they deserve, and surely making Brienne a knight misses the point because the series has always made it abundantly clear that “knights” are mostly overprivileged sacks of shit. And it was wonderful to see Brienne look genuinely happy for the first time in the show, but to me a far stronger, far more authentic moment of emotional payoff came about twenty minutes earlier when Jaime told her that he’d be honoured to serve under her in the battle. And what does Brienne being a knight even mean? Have we fixed sexism now? Are eight millennia of uninterrupted patriarchy, patrimony, and patrilinearity in the seven kingdoms just gone overnight?

I’m about to step onto some very thin ice, and I’m deeply conscious that I might start sounding like one of those fantasy fans who complains about beta cuck soyboys ruining everything with their political agendas, but … well … I do think it’s noticeable that the show seems to be making more of an effort to directly address real-world political issues and I’m not totally certain it’s working.

Sansa and Dany have a long conversation about how difficult it is to get people to take you seriously as a female ruler, and it feels more like it’s about the problems facing Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris than the problems that Sansa and Dany actually had to deal with in the TV show. Because “not being taken seriously” is never a problem they’ve really had. Not being taken seriously was less of a problem for Daenerys than it was a strategic advantage (or if we’re being honest, a legitimate assessment of how likely she and her motly band of outcasts were to pose a threat to people with a large entrenched power structure), and when people objected to her rule it was usually because of things she’d concretely done or tried to do (like outlawing slavery) rather than because she was a girl. Similarly, while Sansa didn’t get to be Lady of Winterfell until literally everybody with a penis had been killed (I’m not exactly sure how Jon Snow wound up as King in the North, incidentally … surely he’s a bastard and either still bound by his oaths to the Night’s Watch or freed from them because he’s technically dead, which should also remove him from the line of succession … I digress) but once she took over people fell in line because her being a Stark was far more important than her being a woman.

I’m not trying to suggest that sexism wasn’t a thing in pre-enlightnment times, or that female rulers didn’t face structural disadvantages (look at the way history has treated Cleopatra as a sexy sexy temptress lady instead of the intensely capable politician and leader that she actually was) but they’re different from the structural disadvantages faced by women in politics today. The Dothraki flat out refuse to follow women, so when Khal Drogo died Daenerys simply lost control of most of them, only getting them back when she was able to credibly threaten to burn them all alive, at which point they came back to her because while they generally don’t follow women they do respect strength. The moment she was able to demonstrate sufficient strength they were happy to work for her, gender be damned. It’s not like she rocked up with her dragons, incinerated Vaes Dothrak, and was immediately met by a bunch of Dothraki all saying “well I agree that her ability to command the living embodiments of primordial fire is pretty good, but I don’t think she’s very likeable.”

To put it another way, contrast the conversations about being a woman in the political system that Cersei and Olenna Martell have with Sansa in the early seasons with the conversation she has with Dany in season eight. In the early seasons, everything the other noblewomen say is grounded in the specifics of a gendered experience of the actual society in which they live, whereas in S8 they start suddenly projecting the quantitatively different problems of the real world onto their culture. I mean heck, everybody takes Lyanna Mormont seriously and she’s both a woman and a child, but they listen to her because she’s the legitimate heir of House Mormont and that is how feudalism works. You follow your liege lord even if he’s ten years old or murderously insane or female.

While we’re on this topic, I was also slightly bothered by the way they dressed Sansa in this episode. She’s got a chain around her neck and is wearing this quasi-armour of leather straps which looks a little bit … bondagey? And pro tip, do not google the phrase “bondage Sansa” unless you want your browser to go to some very dark places. Basically she’s dressed like the Ranger or Druid illustration in a D&D manual, or an early-2010s Warhammer character. And I’d previously really liked the fact that as Sansa had grown as a person her costumes had gone from dressing like a child to dressing like a princess to dressing like a queen or a Lady of Winterfell, and they’d never previously felt the need to signal her strength by masculinising her outfits. Again I should stress that I’m very much out of my lane here, but one of the things I thought worked almost unintentionally well in the earlier series was that the showrunners had taken a world designed with a nerdishly (as always, I use that term as much as a compliment as a descriptor) detailed view of medieval or quasi-medieval history and thrown in a cast of extremely talented actors who managed to create a well-rounded ensemble of female characters who were at once nuanced and well realised human beings and believably part of a highly gendered premodern society. I thought it was really valuable and important that Sansa was allowed to have an arc of growing strength and confidence that fit within the social expectations of a Westerosi woman, rather than being required to justify herself to specifically masculine (and ultimately flawed) models of strength and success.

I’m really concerned that they’ll actually have her fighting wights in the next episode, which to me will be a problematic validation of the setting’s implicit toxic masculinity. Sansa should not have to be able to shank a white walker with a dragonglass dagger for us to know she’s a badass, she’s been a badass ever since she learned to survive in the politics of King’s Landing.

The other real-world social issue that I thought this episode handled really oddly was racism. There were a couple of references in the last episode to the North not liking outsiders, and there’s a scene about halfway through this episode where Missandei says a friendly hello to two northern children and they look at her suspiciously, hold hands, and walk away, which then prompts Grey Worm to tell her that there’ll be “no place” for them (that’s him and Missandei, not the children) in Westeros once the war for the Iron Throne is over. This has been greeted with—I actually don’t think “joy” is too strong a word—by a lot of the more left-leaning commentators in the Game of Thrones community. Alyssa Rosenberg in the Washington Post wrote that she appreciated “the show’s efforts … to incorporate racism into its worldbuilding rather than pretending that Northerners are so busy with the White Walkers that they don’t see color” and the commentators on the Citadel Dropouts podcast (which I’ve been listening to since the series dropped) seem to feel that the show is trying to show the pushback of nativism against Daenerys’s dream of a more culturally integrated society and … I just … I mean maybe? But that seems an odd thing to try to do in a world of medieval fantasy.

First of all, Dany’s not pushing a model of a more culturally integrated Westeros, she’s pushing a straight up restoration of the Targaryen dynasty (she talks about “breaking the wheel” which the folks on Citadel Dropouts seem to read as wanting to overturn Westerosi social injustices but which I only ever read as her wanting to break the “wheel” of dynastic cycles by founding a dynasty that will never be overthrown). And her armies aren’t immigrants or refugees. They’re certainly not the caravan. They are, in fact, a literal invading army. The Dothraki are specifically pillagers, much like the Ironborn. They consider people who farm to be weak and worthy only of being plundered. Their reputation for being ruthless invaders who sack cities and enslave people is based on the fact that they … are ruthless invaders who sack cities and enslave people. (Also, side note, where are the Dothraki in this episode? I’m sure they’re still with the army somewhere, perhaps they went into whatever pocket dimension Brienne was hiding in for episode one). There isn’t a compromise to be had here: either the Dothraki give up core elements of their culture and way of life, or they leave Westeros, or Westeros is totally fucked.

Secondly, racism—and due warning, this next paragraph is going to be a white guy talking about race issues like he knows shit about shit, and I’m aware that many people are quite rightly not here for that—is actually highly sensitive to context. I have absolutely no doubt that a version of the scene where Missandei makes a sincerely friendly gesture to two white children and they react with fear and suspicion plays out every day all over America (and Europe, for that matter), but that’s precisely why it feels so out of place here. Again, I am not an expert or a scholar on this matter but I think it’s fairly uncontroversial to say that attitudes to race in the real world are profoundly affected by the twin legacies of colonialism and the transatlantic slave trade. When two white children look at a black woman making a friendly gesture in the real world their reaction draws on a whole history of systematised racial oppression and white supremacy—every throwaway reference to “thug culture”, every stereotypical black criminal they’ve ever seen on a TV show, the freaking crows from Dumbo, every political rant about “illegals” bringing “crime and drugs” to the country that even young children will have heard if not from TV then from their relatives. To put it another way, South Pacific was right in this regard, you have, in fact, Got to be Carefully Taught.

None of that context exists in Westeros. And while I do agree with Alyssa Rosenberg that it’s good for fantasy writers to engage with racism in their worldbuilding one way or another (although for what it’s worth I actually think “not assuming that societies, by default, have to be racist” is an equally valid way to make that engagement) I think it’s really, really important that they reflect on what racism would actually be like in the context of their world and not just assume that it would be exactly like racism in our world. Because otherwise that actually normalises racism by treating it as something that is natural and inevitable instead of as something that is—consciously or unconsciously—created and perpetuated by people and institutions. Those Northern children would never have seen a black person before—they might never have heard of black people before. They have no reason whatsoever to be afraid, and fear actually usually isn’t the response of children to something unfamiliar. It’s the response of children to a person TV or their society or their parents have told them is dangerous. Ironically if the show did especially want to put a real-world racist microaggression into the episode a more realistic response (or I should say, a response that would feel more realistic to me—again super not an expert on either racism or children) from a young child who had never seen a person from Essos before to suddenly having Missandei say hello to them in an obviously friendly way would be … well … to ask if they could touch her hair.

And of course depending on how well the children had been taught about the history and geography of the Seven Kingdoms they could also, y’know, ask if she was from Dorne like Princess Elia Martell, the extremely famous wife of the extremely famous Rhaegar Targaryen. Because, yeah, there’s also that. Grey Worm says that there will be no place for him and Missandei in Westeros when the war is over and, fair enough, his only experience of Westeros is this weird version of Winterfell he’s been dropped into that’s suddenly had 21st century racial prejudices painted onto it so he doesn’t really know any better, but most of the commentators I’ve read seem to be taking what he says at face value, despite the fact that one of the “Seven Kingdoms” they’re trying to help Daenerys conquer is actually ruled and primarily inhabited by dark-skinned people. And people in the other six kingdoms know that and are fine with it. And this isn’t even unrealistic. Race as we understand it today is a relatively modern obsession, people five hundred to a thousand years ago cared about different things, and in earlier series the show was really good at selling the reality of that (it all comes back to Ned Stark caring more about Joffrey’s parentage than his manifest unfitness to rule).

I think I was most bothered by the response to this scene because my initial response to it had also been “oh good, they’re addressing some of the implicit racism”. It’s just that the implicit racism I’d been thinking about hadn’t been the racism of ordinary Westerosi, it had been the racism of Daenerys Targaryen. Because what I read (or, being honest, over-read) into that scene was Grey Worm and Missandei realising (slightly too late) that they could just go home and stop following Dany about like the slaves she kept insisting they weren’t any more. Because actually, I … I don’t think it’s okay that Daenerys buys a bunch of people as slaves, tells them they’re free but then pretty much assumes that they’ll carry on doing exactly what they did when they were slaves, and still as far as I can tell not for any actual money, but out of “loyalty”. And I super don’t think it’s okay that she seems to be right. I mean if the basic dynamic of Dany’s relationship with Grey Worm and Missandei was transposed onto a white woman in the antebellum South it would be … well it would be the kind of story that actually, as far as I know, does exist, but which now makes everybody so uncomfortable that I do actually feel a little bit queasy just for having brought it up.

Sorry, that got long, and I’m super aware that it’s not my topic to talk about.

The other major thing that happens in this episode is that Arya totally bangs Gendry. And … you know what, I was really up for it. Maisie Williams’ body is shot in a way that emphasises the fact that she’s a human adult who is covered in scars, rather than a way that emphasises … the things that are usually emphasised in a Game of Thrones sex scene. It isn’t framed as coming from any kind of place of damage, she’s just a young woman who might die tomorrow and wants to boink a hot dude and does. It’s so respectfully and tastefully done that I’m almost retrospectively offended for the crass and gratuitous way the show has handled sex for the last actual decade. Like you could have done this at any time, guys. At any time.

I’m fine that the hot dude she picks is Gendry, it makes a lot of sense: they know each other, always had a sort of flirtatious relationship, and he has that “I swing heavy bits of metal for a living” thing going on. That said, she should clearly actually have gone with Podrick. PSA for all the women currently in Winterfell: it is actual series canon that Podrick has a magic penis, experience it before you die.

Aaand … that’s pretty much what I have to say about that. This is another one of those “we never leave Winterfell” episodes. It’s also one of those “we get one fucking look at the zombie army and it’s right at the end and seriously I am so bored of waiting for this battle right about now” episodes.

Oh wait! That reminds me. I said about two thousand words ago that this episode reminded me of two science fiction franchises with famously disappointing endings. One was Mass Effect, the other was Babylon 5.

Back in the day, Babylon 5 was kind of the Game of Thrones of science fiction in … quite a lot of ways actually. It had a large ensemble cast, a huge overarching plot and almost novelistic structure (or at least as far as you could get away with in the 1990s) and delighted in subverting people’s expectations for its genre. It took the same “big space opera universe with multiple alien races all exploring space together” setup as Star Trek but grounded it against a grimier background of short-sighted governments, rising authoritarianism, racial mistrust and—much like Game of Thrones—an ancient and resurgent evil that needed to be thwarted, but the thwarting of which was undermined by the petty rivalries or outright betrayal of the great powers.

At the end of the series, the ancient enemy was defeated, the corrupt governments cast down, the good guys triumphed and the various alien races of the galaxy signed onto a new Interstellar Alliance that would ensure peace and justice in the galaxy for centuries to come (this isn’t even speculation, the last episode is a massive flash-forward dedicated almost entirely to bigging up the legacy of the show’s Great Man protagonist). This did, however, lead certain commentators to point out that having built its entire premise around challenging and tearing down Star Trek cliches, the final plot beat of the series was that the sentient races of the galaxy all got together and set up Starfleet.

In a similar way, I can’t help but notice that having spent ten years and seven seasons breaking down fantasy cliches, Game of Thrones is now setting up to end with a big battle between a team of unlikely heroes and an army of zombies. An army of zombies, no less, that will all die if some plucky individual is able to kill its leader. Apparently a lot of people on the left of the GoT community are quite keen to interpret the White Walkers as a metaphor for climate change, while those on the right are quite keen to interpret them as a metaphor for unchecked illegal immigration on the southern border. But they’re clearly neither. They’re an army of zombies. Both immigration and climate change are large, complicated, multifaceted problems that defy (or should defy) simplistic solutions. The Army of the Dead, it has now been pretty safely established, will go away if Jon Snow can find the right scary man and stab him in the face.

Now things are getting underway, we’re well into the “guess who will die next episode” game. People have been betting big so far (people seemed to think we might see Jaime or Sam go this episode, which turned out to be epically incorrect).

My predictions are as follows:

Either nobody because we’re going to cut away from the North to catch up with events in King’s Landing, and the actual battle for all life in Westeros will take place in episode four or five. Or Lyanna Mormont and nobody else.

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The original plan was to do these alternating with recaps of the new series, but it turns out S8 is only going to be six episodes (which means when you think about it that the series so far—I am writing this, as you might gather, before S8E2 drops—is shaping up to be at least 16% people hugging) and with the fence-post problem (where you need 11 fence posts set a meter apart to make a 10m fence, because there has to be one at each end so you effectively start from 0) there are only five gaps in the middle to do season recaps. And part of me thinks it would be cute to just say fuck it and limply carry on recapping seasons six and seven two weeks after the grand finale of everything but, well, this is binge TV, and so I’ve already watched two seasons of it, and I’d really rather bookend this whole blogging project with S8E1 and S8E6.

My experience of rewatching S1 was one of being uncomfortably reminded quite how much nudity there was in the show, and of being pleasantly surprised at how much progress, character development, and thematic coherence they packed into their ten episodes. My experience of watching S2 was one of remembering quite how quickly that “who is that what is he doing didn’t he die already” feeling set in. The show almost exists in this strange time loop where no matter which series you’re watching, you feel like you need to go back and watch all the other series for context, because either you’re seeing the second appearance of somebody who you’re sure showed up two seasons ago, or else you’re seeing the first appearance of somebody who you’re sure does something important two seasons later. My current rewatch of S1 was legitimately the first time I’d ever noticed that the guy Ned Stark sends off to capture the Mountain was Beric Dondarrion, who later shows up as the eternally-resurrected leader of the Brotherhood Without Banners. Also Benjen Stark was a thing? Who knew?

And the feeling that most struck me most at the end of the series was the memory of the strange … hollowness I always used to get after watching a season of Game of Thrones. Somehow it manages to pack every scene, episode and series with so much incident that by the end of it all you’re struck by the simultaneous, conflicting notions that a huge amount has happened, and nothing has happened.

Viewed as a series of events and set-pieces, S2 is full of stuff. You get Brienne defeating the Knight of Flowers and becoming sworn to Renley’s kingsguard, only to watch him murdered by a shadow with his brother’s face. You get Stannis Baratheon burning his idols and the Red Woman doing evil sex magic. You get Tyrion just owning basically the entire season for basically the whole thing. You get Daenerys gradually growing into her role as Mother of Dragons. You get Jaqen H’gar being all a man has a thirst. You get to meet warlocks visit Craster’s house ‘o incest. You get Bronn doing Bronn things and also singing because let’s please never forget that Jerome Flynn was in a ‘90s musical duo that had a UK number one with a song containing the line “I believe for every drop of rain that falls, a flower grows.”

Awesome, basically.

But viewed as a set of narrative arcs suddenly it feels a lot more sparse. There are so many stories being told all at once that hardly anything happens in any of them, and because they all need to reach their ends at roughly the same time, despite naturally running on very different clocks (this is most notable with Daenerys’s story, which pretty much has to be drawn out until her dragons are big enough to sit on, which should be years of in-world time, but has to be set against things like engagements, murders and wars that need to be progressing far more quickly on the other side of the Narrow Sea) quite a lot of them feel a bit … fillery? What you might call the central storyline, with Tyrion getting recalled to King’s Landing to stand in as Hand for his father and preparing the defence of the city from Stannis’s invading fleet despite his being constantly undermined at every turn by Cersei, Joffrey and basically everybody else around him is really meaty and satisfying, although it does reduce Stannis’s arc to “tries to take King’s Landing, fails.” Meanwhile Jaime spends half the series in a cage and the second half in handcuffs. Cersei spends the whole series drunk and while she has a tremendous screen presence she doesn’t really move her story forward. I love Brienne to bits but while she’s cool, she’s introduced and makes it onto Renley’s Kingsguard in episode 3, Renley dies in episode 4, and then she’s just sort of … wandering around taking people places like some kind of Westerosi Uber. So many people have encounters and experiences in the show that, while you can make a case that they’re significant and formative, also leave them narratively pretty much exactly where they started.

Arya starts the series travelling north with Hot Pie and Gendry, she gets captured by the Lannisters, taken to Harrenhall, meets Jaqen H’gar and learns the words Valar Morghulis, but then she goes right back to travelling north with Hot Pie and Gendry. And obviously eventually her encounter with the Faceless Man will be an important part of her experiences, and ultimately she will wind up following him to Bravos to train as an assassin, but that doesn’t happen until season five. And don’t get me wrong, the Arya/Tywin stuff at Harrenhall is cool and really develops both of their characters. And the Arya/Hound stuff in the next two entire seasons is cool, and really develops both of their characters as well, but it’s not moving her arc towards any kind of conclusion.

Dany’s season two arc, in many ways, suffers even more from this issue. Having stepped out of the flames as the Mother of Dragons she wanders the Red Wastes while her people slowly starve to death and … again I should stress that I really like Dany but you do have to take a step back and ask yourself why we’re supposed to be on her side here. She promised these people glory and freedom but she had no plan, is clearly only really interested in her own self-aggrandisement (when you think about it, the “Mother of Dragons” thing is really double-edged because it’s become such an unironic anthem of empowerment that it’s easy to forget that it’s also essentially the same kind of rhetoric that her dynasty have always used to justify their cruelties and excesses), and constantly acts as if she’s entitled to expect people to sacrifice themselves for her (not least because they constantly do).

Anyway she arrives at the gates of Qarth, which usually just leaves people to starve in the wastes but doesn’t here because reasons (to be fair, there’s actually a fairly decent reason that comes out later on but it basically boils down to “because Daenerys is magic”, but at least in this case it’s that she’s magic in the literal sense). She’s taken in by a guy called Xaro Xhoan Daxos who claims that he wants to marry her so that they can rule the universe together as father and … husband and wife, but it all turns out to be a trick and yadda yadda betrayal, yadda yadda stole my dragons, yadda yadda dracarys. Again, it’s nice to see her gradually growing into her power but the thing is that the keyword here is gradual. Daenerys arrives at Qarth with her followers and her dragons. She leaves with slightly fewer followers, slightly more gold, and her dragons. Her passing through the city left literally all of its leaders dead, but since we’re never going back there again and Essos has always had this slightly problematic theme-park vibe where we’re never really invited to care as much about what happens in it as we are about what happens in Westeros (it’s sort of there for Westerosis to be exiled to, and so foreigners have somewhere foreign to come from) that doesn’t in any broader sense matter. Dany’s season 2 arc is that her dragons get a little bit bigger.

Oh, also, at the end of the series she seals Xaro Xhoan Daxos and the handmaiden who betrayed her to him into his own impregnable vault, and leaves them to die. Which we are … sort of invited to think is edgy but cool? And I get that she’s not burning people alive in their own armour or forcing prostitutes to beat one another bloody at crossbow-point but … well once again why are we supposed to be on her side? Jorah Mormont says that she has a kind heart and that she’s the once-in-a-dynasty example of somebody who both can rule and should rule but … is she? Is she really?

On which subject, let’s talk about the Joffrey arc for a bit. And probably the most important thing to say about the Joffrey arc is that ideally this would be about Sansa’s arc, but those two storylines actually become increasingly divorced over the series. I’ll come back to Sansa later (possibly much later, this got long), pausing now only to say that Sophie Turner is fantastic, and her evolution even in the short space of seasons 1-2 from naive enthusiasm about court life, to abject terror at it, to stoic but calculated defiance with a core of goodness is probably the most fascinating arc in the show (and one I seem to recall didn’t come across nearly so well in the books).

For now, though, I want to talk about the big J. Well, I suppose the little J, since there are a whole bunch of Js in Westeros and they’re almost all bigger than King Joffrey Baratheon, first of his name. Now obviously I don’t actually like Joffrey, because he is unremittingly a bad person. But if this was a reality TV show I think he’d have a fair claim that he’d been given the villain edit.

The thing that always gets said about Game of Thrones is that it subverts fantasy cliches. Although I think it might also be fair to point out that a lot of the time, the people saying this are people who aren’t super-familiar with the genre and have quite a narrow view of what fantasy literature looks like, or even looked like in the 1990s. I mean heck, Terry Pratchett was deconstructing fantasy’s uncritical enthusiasm for monarchy decades ago, with the artificiality of the “true king” schtick being a central theme of Wyrd Sisters in 1988 and Guards! Guards! In 1989. And while I’d argue that “subverts fantasy cliches” is a less interesting reading of Game of Thrones or A Song of Ice and Fire than “holds a fantasy setting to a near-unprecedented level of historical verisimilitude” there is obviously a sense in which it’s trying to challenge your expectations, and the more I think about it, the more Joffrey is … less challenging than he seems.

The deconstruction you get in the first series of Game of Thrones is that you expect it to be all knights and chivalry and romance but it turns out to be all blood and treachery and self-interest. Sansa begins the series believing that Joffrey will be good because he’s a prince and will one day be a king, and the expectation that is set up by chivalric romances is that princes and kings are always good. The “fantasy cliche” that season one is supposed to subvert here is—very broadly—that monarchy is at all fair or functional as a system of government. Joffrey appears as this beautiful golden-haired prince, but turns out to be an absolute monster, thus is the cliché subverted.

Except … the thing is … the fantasy cliché isn’t that kings are good. It’s that true kings are good. In yon generic fantasy story, the solution to a bad or tyrannical king is always to find the true heir and put them back on the throne and expect this to magically fix everything (and, looking at season eight, there’s a reasonable chance that this might ironically be the way GoT winds up ending). But if, in yon generic fantasy story, the guy on the throne is literally a bastard born of incest, then fantasy cliché demands that he turns out to be petty, venal and unworthy in exactly the way that Joffrey does.

Hell, when you think about it, rather than being a subversion of a fantasy cliché, Joffrey is a completely straight implementation of a folkloric archetype that literally goes back to Mordred. When Joffrey does become subversive, though, is when you stop thinking of him as a villain and step back and ask yourself how he could possibly be other than he was.

I’ve heard it pointed out—and bear with me because I am going somewhere with this—that the problem with the original Shrek is that the whole message of the film is that you shouldn’t judge people by their appearances but the film still uses the villain’s height as both the butt of its jokes and a symbol of his character defects. And you really don’t get to make both arguments at once—if the whole point of your movie is that a person can be morally good despite being physically ugly, you can’t also use the fact that a person is short to signal that they’re petty and inconsequential.

With Joffrey it isn’t his looks that are the issue, it’s his—not to put too fine a point on it—capacity for violence. Joffrey lives in a world (and, rather more problematically, a narrative) where a man’s worth is judged almost exclusively by his capacity to mete out physical violence—often lethal physical violence—where necessary. This message is spelled out loud and clear in the very first episode, when it’s revealed that Ned Stark (the closest thing the series has to a moral arbiter) explains that you shouldn’t employ a headsman because the man who passes the sentence should swing the sword (and however you feel about capital punishment … no? Those are different skillsets). It’s reinforced at the end of the second season when Sandor Clegane tells Sansa that her father and brother are killers and her sons will be killers. It comes up in the first series when  Joffrey is so utterly ashamed to admit that he lost a fight to a girl and that he was afraid to be attacked by an actual fucking direwolf, and his mother responds to his fear by making him deny what really happened and telling him that one day he’ll have the power to kill anybody who opposes him. It’s reinforced once more when the entire city looks on Joffrey in contempt at the Battle of the Blackwater for not rushing out to fight in the vanguard of his army even though he is, at this point, thirteen years old.

What’s really odd for a show that’s so often celebrated for challenging romanticised stereotypes about the historical periods from which it draws its inspiration is that it takes something of a … shall we say … steps-forward-steps-back approach to deromanticising its core chivalric legends. It starts with knights in shining armour, and then it reveals—unflinchingly and over the course of several really nasty sequences—that knights are just killers in pretty coats. But what’s weird about the show is that the thing it seems to have most trouble with about that construct is the pretty coats. Because be honest, doesn’t the show make the actual being a killer part seem … y’know … kinda cool?

I’m afraid this is another rabbit-hole, so do please mind your head, but while I was working on this article I started to notice that for all its grimdark talk about how honourable knights are just nicely dressed murderers, there’s actually a surprisingly strong correlation shown in the show between how good at killing a man is and how good a person a man is.

Ned Stark? One of the best men in the seven kingdoms, and one of the best fighters, let down only by the fact that he fights too honourably. Jaime Lannister? Probably the best fighter and yes he starts the series by shoving a ten-year-old child out of a window, but only to protect his family and for the whole of the rest of the series he’s presented in a remarkably sympathetic light. Barristan Selmy? Most honourable man on the Kingsguard and strongest fighter. Ser Loras? Good dude, good swordsman. Robert Baratheon? Ace warrior, terrible king but nothing in the text suggests we’re supposed to think he’s a terrible man, just one that got in over his head in a war he started for love. Jon Snow? Do we even need to talk about Jon Snow? Khal Drogo? Best warrior best husband, so much so that the show skims right over how utterly nonconsensual his early relationship with Daenerys is.

What about the sellswords? Well yes they’re dishonourable, but the show is fairly clear that honour and goodness are nothing like the same thing. Bronn and the Hound (not technically a sellsword, but he wears the same kind of armour so I’m putting him in the same box) piss on the idea of virtue while at the same time consistently displaying an almost absurd amount of it. The Hound defends the Stark girls more loyally and faithfully than any six knights you’d care to name, while Bronn never actually does anything even remotely morally suspect that I can think of. Sure he likes his wine and his prostitutes, but who doesn’t?

Then you get the other end of the spectrum. Theon Greyjoy actually gets notably worse at fighting once he starts heading down the road to sacking Winterfell. When we’re supposed to think he’s a good guy he’s pretty badass, shooting wildlings down before they can hurt Bran and acquitting himself well in Robb’s battles. It’s only when he turns traitor that he suddenly turns all beta and wussy and becomes unable to cut a prisoner’s head off cleanly (again, passing the sentence and swinging the sword are different skills). Then of course we have the absolute puniest man in Westeros (leaving aside actual children and pensioners), Viserys Targaryen, who is so unmanly that the only person he can beat in a fight is his baby sister and who we all hated so much that we cheered when the much manlier and therefore much better Khal Drogo boiled his face off with molten gold.

There are about two or three stark (that’s small-s stark) exceptions to this model. The biggest is Ser Gregor Clegane, who is clearly just a monster (literally so in the later seasons where he’s a zombie in gold armour), and you can make a reasonable case that he’s almost like the Night King—not really a man at all but a destructive force that comes out every now and again to fuck with people. It’s also worth pointing out, though, that he actually loses fights surprisingly often. People talk about how dangerous Gregor Clegane is, but we never really see him win a battle against a character we care about except when he fights Oberyn Martell, and even then that’s kind of a draw. The second biggest is Samwell Tarly, who is clearly deeply unmanly but is also clearly one of the best men in Westeros. And I’d say that did for my manliness-is-next-to-godliness theory were it not for the fact that the motherfucker motherfucking kills a motherfucking White Walker. And of course finally there’s Tyrion Lannister who is … difficult. On the one hand he’s actually not at all a good person, but he keeps doing good-person type things and he’s a massive fan favourite. And actually I’d argue that the way he navigates the show’s violence pretty much reflects that. He’s not good at fighting because he has a real physical disability that means he will never be as good at fighting as his brother, but he’s also not afraid of fighting and he regularly goes heroically into battle to earn the respect of fighting men.

And I suppose you could make the case that this is the key difference between people like Tyrion and Samwell (who are not conventionally masculine, but towards whom the show is broadly sympathetic) and people like Joffrey and Viserys (who are not conventionally masculine, and who the show openly despises for it); Tyrion and Samwell are ultimately brave when they have to be. Except … umm … that’s kind of some toxic masculinity bullshit right there. It’s completely fine to be scared of dangerous things. Dangerous things are scary. It’s even fine to stay away from dangerous things. More than fine, it’s physically and psychologically healthy. Especially when, just as a reminder, the “dangerous thing” is a literal invading army that is also by the way actually on fire, and you are fucking thirteen.

Which brings us back to Joffrey and his habit of beating and humiliating people who are much weaker than him, especially women. And don’t get me wrong, of course that is morally reprehensible. But it’s the consequence of a society that raises boys with the understanding that their only purpose in life is to physically dominate other people. And it’s sort of creepy to me that the show never quite seems to notice that. Joffrey’s violent outbursts are always condemned in terms of his weakness and his failure as a man. It’s “can’t beat down anybody except a girl”, or “can’t get a woman any other way” never “it’s not okay to do that to people” or “your worth as a human being isn’t bound up in who you are able to beat in a fight”. And obviously those aren’t realistic ways for people in Westeros to relate to a young man struggling to find his place in the world. But then really when you think about it, it’s not super realistic that Bronn and the Hound never get violent with sympathetic characters either—the men are both professional killers who have learned the hard way that everybody is just meat, after all—but the show seems to buy into the worryingly common (and, ironically, chivalry-and-fantasy based) cliché that only people who are bad at fighting behave violently towards helpless people.

Aaand that’s nearly four thousand words, and there is so much I haven’t touched on yet.

Very quick what the fuck roundup:

What the fuck happened to make Stannis decide that converting to an obviously dodgy foreign religion would be a really good idea (I am sure this is answered in a short story or on a wiki somewhere but I haven’t looked)? What the fuck does the Night’s Watch need Craster for other than grimdark points? Kill him and install a couple of brothers in his stronghold, job done. What the fuck is up with Harrenhall and why do they keep giving it to people? It’s a ruin of melted stone that is no use to anyone. What the fuck is up with John Snow getting separated from his brothers in this almost slapstick “I can’t cut your head off now we are falling” moment? What the fuck happened to Jeyne Westerling?

Actually, I need to talk more about that one.

So for those who aren’t book fans (sorry, that came across really wanky), in the novels Robb Stark isn’t a viewpoint character, so most of what happens to him happens off camera, and so it’s only second-hand that we learn that at some point during his campaign in the Westerlands he was wounded while laying siege to the Crag, ancestral seat of House Westerling, and nursed back to health by the lord’s daughter Jeyne Westerling. One thing leads to another and they totally do it, and then Robb marries her because otherwise she’ll be ruined on account of Westerosi society taking virginity really, really seriously, so you get this parallelism where Robb is brought down for essentially the same reason his father is—he makes a mistake and is too honourable to avoid facing the consequences, even though the consequences in this case are “everybody gets killed”.

Also, side-note, there was a mad fan conspiracy theory that the Jeyne Westerling Robb married wasn’t the Jeyne Westerling Jaime Lannister meets later, based on a minor difference in the description of her hips. The “Jeyne Westerling Hips Theory” is a real thing in the A Song of Ice and Fire community. Seriously I fucking love fandom.

Now I barely remembered Jeyne Westerling as a character, because these books have a massive cast and she last appeared in A Feast for Crows, which released in 2005, but I did remember the surrounding narrative: incidental, almost meaningless encounter forces Robb to choose between honour and victory, he chooses honour, everything goes to shit. So I was a bit … confused … when in the TV show she was replaced with a spunky nurse named Talisa Maegyr from Volantis.

I hate to be all they changed it now it sucks but … they changed it now it sucks.

The actual behind-the-scenes story of how Jeyne Westerling from the Crag who Robb marries out of a sense of honour and duty became Talisa Maegyr from Volantis who Robb marries out of a fundamentally selfish desire to be married to the cool attractive healer lady actually came about in several different ways and by several different steps. Apparently the showrunners had just finished reading A Dance With Dragons, and liked the idea of introducing a character from Volantis to set up the city (which is fair enough, although since my recall of this show is pretty minimal I had actually completely forgotten that we even went to Volantis in it, or that not-Jeyne-Westerling was from there), and they also wanted to make the storyline more “dramatically compelling” by making it a more conventional love story rather than another story of something something honour something.

Which. I mean. Okay. And there is part of me that does get that because it’s not the 1870s any more “oh no, we did the sex, now you must marry me or else I shall be ruined” is nowhere near as relatable to a modern audience as “I said I’d marry someone else but I just love you so god damned much” but … umm … you know I keep on talking about the way the show keeps getting celebrated for challenging fantasy cliches? And you know how “I want to marry for love instead of political convenience” is probably the biggest fantasy cliché out there by a very very long way? Umm … that?

Again, this is just personal. Again, your mileage can and will and should vary, but particularly in the early series (before the show overtook the books and became far more televisual in its sensibilities) one of its great strengths was a sense of being set in a place that is not here and a time that is not now. Tywin Lannister gives a whole speech in the second season about how the family name is the only thing that matters, because it’s the only thing that outlives you when you’re gone. Ned Stark refuses to take a course of action that would save the kingdom and his life because it conflicts with his sense of honour. Jon Snow swears an oath to defend the realms of men from the threats from beyond the wall, and then considers breaking that oath out of loyalty to his half-brother and is brought back out of loyalty to his sworn brothers who themselves risk death for desertion out of loyalty to him. These kinds of stories just don’t sit alongside the kind of narrative where a man like Robb stark would seriously consider jeopardising a vital alliance with a famously easily-offended lord for something so out-of-keeping with his entire value system as “marrying for love”. Not even season one Sansa, at her most naive and childlike, ever talks about “marrying for love” like it’s a thing that makes sense in her world and her society, because it isn’t and it doesn’t.

Basically all the Talisa scenes feel kind of like a DLC character in a computer RPG. She’s got just slightly more dialogue and backstory than everybody else, and it doesn’t quite fit in with the rest of the narrative in ways that are hard to pin down but—for me at least—shake me out of the story. Heck she’s even partly in there to set up content that will be released years down the line, which is pretty much exactly what every Dragon Age DLC did. I am completely on board with TV adaptations changing the source material in ways that make for better TV, but this just feels so strange to me.

Anyway, I should probably wrap this up before I hit five thousand words, because there’s still a lot more of this to get through, and another episode to come this evening.

Final bonus prediction: Gendry will wind up on the Iron Throne. Seriously the guy should have been killed so many times by now and this is, like, the only thing they can be keeping him alive for.

Final final #showusthegrainsilos observation. At the start of season three, Margaery Tyrell tells Joffrey and Cersei that a hundred wagons of grain are now arriving every day from Highgarden. Now draft horses can pull an amazing amount of weight, but over long distances (like from Highgarden to King’s Landing) a horse shouldn’t be expected to pull more 1-2 times its own bodyweight unless the roads are exceptionally good. Let’s assume we have 100 wagons each pulled by two 1000lb horses, each pulling twice their bodyweight. That gives us 400,000lb of grain being delivered to King’s Landing each day, it might go as high as 600,000 if you load the horses down more, although we’re already assuming massless carts here. King’s Landing, you will recall, contains 500,000 people, each of whom eat 2lb of grain a day, so every day Highgarden is sending enough grain to feed the people of King’s Landing for 0.4 to 0.6 days. And there’s an indication that the city is already having trouble with food, and they aren’t building a surplus, and Winter is Coming.

#showusthegrainsilos

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So after watching S8E1 I realised I had NFC what was going on in GoT and so I had to go back to S1E1 so I could … and I really wanted to keep up this thing where I kept talking in acronyms and initialisms, but I can’t so—yeah. Anyway I went back to the first episode of the first season and … really weird experience you guys.

My basic feeling about the first season was that it was thematically and narratively coherent in a way that did an excellent job of setting up for series 8, but I couldn’t help but have a niggling suspicion that I remembered this coherence falling apart pretty much the moment Sean Bean got his head cut off.

Oh yes, spoilers, by the way. For a ten year old TV series in which the most shocking plot twist is that Sean Bean’s character dies at the end.

There was a lot I’d forgotten about the first series of Game of Thrones, although the thing I’d most forgotten can best be summed up as “boobs”. I mean seriously, I know it’s a running joke, I know it’s what the series is infamous for, to the extent that there were cake-and-eat-it style gags in the most recent episode about the “sexposition” but I hadn’t remembered quite how bad it was. I mean I’ve just finished watching Harlots, a show distributed by Starz and in which virtually all of the major viewpoint characters are actually prostitutes and it didn’t have anything like the number of nipples on display that early Thrones did. It’s been a darned long time but I can’t quite remember what we were thinking back in the 2010s, but I have this vague recollection that we’d just got to the point where it was socially acceptable to show nudity on TV and people went completely bananas over it, and it took us a good five or six years to turn around and say “hang on, are we sure this isn’t maybe just a little bit skeevy and exploitative?”

On the subject of “skeevy an exploitative”, my perception of the all-tits-all-the-time policy of the series isn’t helped by an impression I’ve picked up from somewhere (and I can’t really source this, so please for the love of the Old Gods and the New don’t cite me as any kind of authority) that Emilia Clarke was not super comfortable doing nude work. Certainly she stops it entirely after the first season and the way I’ve heard it told (again, I should stress, only from nebulous “they say” type sources) was that the position she took after the first series was along the lines of “you know how the character I play is completely essential to the plot and I’ve become so iconic in the role that there’s no way you could recast it or make the show without me? Yeah, I’d like to keep my clothes on, thanks.” Which might not be true, but if is, then (and I apologise, because this is what people are going to say every time Emilia Clarke does anything even remotely cool for the rest of her life) that is some mother of dragons shit right there.

Dany’s arc in the first season is, on rewatching, kind of problematically brilliant. On the one hand it’s great to see her grow from a terrified child into a confident leader and commander, but on the other hand it’s hard to shake the awareness that this is essentially a story about a white woman who goes to a decidedly non-white (I suppose quasi-turco-mongolic if we’re being specific) culture, alternately excels at or is contemptuous of all of their practices and traditions, convinces their leader to risk everything in support of what—despite all her brother’s talk of heritage and her supposed rejection of his hypocrisy—is still ultimately a vain and petty desire to rule a country she doesn’t even remember. And even when she gets her husband and their unborn child murdered by a witch she was explicitly warned not to trust, an opportunity that said witch only got because he was wounded in a fight that she started over her adopted people’s right to take slaves from a battle she started that was explicitly designed to finance a war that she wanted to happen somehow a fair number of them remain loyal to her, and the audience seems genuinely to be asked to view her as noble and heroic rather than, when you get right down to it, scarcely better than her brother.

Don’t get me wrong, I still love Dany, but her story isn’t exactly written from a perspective of ethnographic sensitivity. I mean you could make the case that her season one arc in particular is almost a deliberate subversion of a white saviour narrative, in the sense that she rocks up with her smug sense of western superiority and gets all outraged at the Dothraki doing things that are … actually pretty much part of what conquering armies do everywhere in the setting, and ultimately part of what she herself wants them to for her in Westeros, and ultimately it loses her everything. Even the bit with Mirri Maz Duur seems fairly explicitly set up to subvert audience expectations (much as everything in early Thrones or for that matter early Ice and Fire was set up to subvert audience expectations). Looking back on when I first read these books nearly two decades ago, I honestly can’t remember how surprised-or-otherwise I was when the woman who the Dothraki constantly denounced as maegi turned out to actually be working against Danaerys rather than for her. With my 2019 head on I look at that plotline and think oh come on Danaerys, she’s so clearly evil what in the seven Hells do you think you’re doing, but back in the early 2000s I’m pretty sure I was actually suckered in, because we have been super trained by years of fantasy tropes and cliches to assume that women who claim to be healers but are accused of being witches by angry men with swords are always 100% innocent, honest and benevolent. Especially when the angry men with swords come from a denigrated ethnic group that our culture still tends to characterise as nothing more than unthinkingly violent.

Unfortunately the Dany-as-subversion-of-white-saviour interpretation is slightly undermined by the fact that the series ends with her literally having a miraculous rebirth from the flames. At which point she is kind of, well, literally a saviour figure. A complicated saviour figure, admittedly, but still a saviour figure.

Aaaand we’re a thousand words in and I’ve only talked about Danaerys and bosoms, so I should probably skip over the narrow sea and say some things about goings-on in Westeros.

Let’s start with our boy Ned. In fact, let’s start with the throwaway joke I always make about Game of Thrones, which is that I love the fact that because they cast Sean Bean as Ned Stark, his accent became the default accent of “the North” and so every other actor playing a Stark or Stark bannerman has had to spend the next eight years talking like Sharpe. I just find near limitless joy in the idea that Winterfell will forever, in TV canon at least, be Sheffield.

Anyway, blah blah honour blah blah Hand of the King, blah blah oops he’s dead. I’d forgotten quite how quickly the whole “Jon Arryn had evidence that Cersei’s children were bastards born of incest and that evidence was based entirely on hair colour” thing comes out, or how slowly it comes together after that. On reflection I am … I am not sure how I feel about it. Especially given that Jon Arryn’s last words were the seed is strong, which makes it sound like the evidence against Cersei is essentially a peculiar faith that Robert Baratheon had magic spunk. I mean based on my very, very, very cursory research the actual genetics of hair colour are quite complicated, and since human hair colour actually often changes with age and circumstance it probably isn’t a purely genetic phenomenon at all. And when you think about it, it’s kind of weird that the Lannisters are somehow the only blondes in Westeros. And it’s even weirder that they’re blonde at all if we accept that apparently in this cosmology non-blonde DNA overrwrites blonde DNA infallibly. Tywin Lannister’s mother was a Marbrand, what did her hair look like? What did it look like I ask you? Perhaps she was bald.

But I digress.

Jokes about King Robert’s all-powerful semen aside, what I most like about Ned Stark’s arc is how deeply it gets you to invest in a worldview that’s actually completely alien to the modern world. In fact zooming out for a moment, that’s sort of what I like most about the whole series, in print and on TV. Although fantasy is almost always set in a world that has pre-industrial technology and pre-modern social institutions, the characters usually care about the kinds of things that modern people care about—especially the kinds of enlightenment values that animated the American Revolution. Your generic fantasy hero might be born on a farm, but there’s always a sense in which he’s an old west homesteader or a colonial-era yeoman farmer rather than a feudal serf, and while he might be fighting for honour in some abstract sense, his values are likely to be more-or-less recognisable as variations on Truth, Justice and the American Way. But the characters in Game of Thrones are legitimately motivated by ethical frameworks that really did kind of go out of fashion with the Tudors.

Because when you think about it, every single man, woman, child and direwolf in the Seven Kingdoms knows that Joffrey will be a shit king. They know he’s shallow, venal, prone to violent tantrums and dangerous outbursts, and utterly unwilling to listen to advice or accept correction. Yet Ned Stark spends the whole of the first series gathering evidence not that he will be bad at the important job of governing Westeros, but that he wasn’t made using the correct jism. Because Ned Stark has a medieval worldview and from his perspective who Joffrey’s real father is actually a more important question than will Joffrey flat out ruin the kingdom and kill a bunch of innocent people. This is patently absurd, and it’s testimony to how well Ned comes across that it’s so easy to buy into this as both acceptable and honourable. You see reflections of this throughout the series, like the way everybody is a colossal dick to Jaime Lannister about his betrayal of Aerys Targaryen even though Aerys Targaryen was definitely a dangerous psychopath. You see it most clearly in the Starks, who seem to genuinely despite him for his status as the “Kingslayer” even though the king he slew was the one that Ned Stark was actively rebelling against (and who, let’s not forget, literally burned Ned’s father alive). And it’s interesting, on rewatching, to notice that from a certain perspective Ned’s honour isn’t just naive, it’s actively hypocritical. He’s happy to accept terrible things happening, and to accept terrible rulers being in power, as long as those terrible things are done and those terrible rulers rule, within the confines of a completely arbitrary set of rules that only really exist in his head.

Incidentally this perspective also makes Joffrey’s decision to go full off-with-his-head in episode nine weirdly more sympathetic. It’s easy when you’re reading a book or watching a TV show to forget that the characters aren’t reading or watching along with you. Ned’s only objection to Joffrey’s rule (and for that matter his marriage to his vulnerable underage daughter) is that he’s a bastard (in the technical rather than colloquial sense). A conclusion he reaches on the basis of remarkably scant evidence and barely shares with anyone (and with no-one who can be relied upon to back him up) before publicly denouncing Joffrey at his moment of succession. Now yes, Joffrey’s a shit, but he doesn’t know he’s a bastard. As far as he’s concerned he is unambiguously, unequivocally, the King of Westeros, and Ned Stark has come out of nowhere with a half-baked lie and attempted to strip him of his throne. Honestly at this point cutting his head off is kind of a fair call. Yes it’s politically ill-advised, but not that ill-advised. As far as anybody knows, Ned Stark is a traitor to the crown, so in a sense it’s kind of odd that so many people kick off so hard in his defence. I mean yeah, Stannis gets the “bee-tee-dubs, Joffrey’s a bastard” raven, but Robb didn’t, he just goes to war because he doesn’t like the idea of his father being executed for what as far as he knows is an actual crime of which he’s actually guilty. And Renley rebels because he … wants to?

Looking at this from the hindsight of season 8, it all feels a bit immaterial—it feels almost silly to worry about little questions like whose balls Joffrey started off in given that he’s been dead for almost half the series now. The war stopped being about honour or glory or legitimacy long ago and is now about—what, exactly? And I don’t mean that in a negative way. The whole point has always been that it was pointless. In some ways the thing that Season 1 sets up best for season 8 is that everything going on in the south is, in fact, meaningless. Because it doesn’t actually matter who winds up on the Iron Throne. We see this reflected in characters like Pycelle, Littlefinger and Varys, all of whom have served multiple kings, and who weather changes of regime much like the Seven Kingdoms weather the changing of the seasons. And of course we see it reflected in the show’s ultimate tagline, the House Stark motto that Winter is Coming. Indeed perhaps the most petty and futile thing about the war that—depending on who you ask—Joffrey, Ned, Stannis or Renley needlessly start at the end of the first book-slash-season is that the absolute last thing you want to be doing in your final growing season before a winter that might last a full decade is having a bunch of armed men trample all the crops and burn all the farmers.

On which point, one last thing that has actually been bugging me. And warning, this is going to get nerdy ay-eff.

The thing that I’ve always found most absorbing about Westeros is how plausibly like real medieval Europe it felt, from its social structures to its cultural mores to its castles. And it’s testimony to the detail and deftness of its worldbuilding that I’ve only recently begun to realise that its very familiarity might be the most implausible thing about it. Because its social structure is based on a society where 90% of the population spent their whole lives producing food, and they were just about able to survive in a climate where you could actually grow, produce, or harvest food for nine months out of every twelve. I am not a medieval historian by any stretch of the imagination, but my basic understanding is that over the course of a farming year in the middle ages the average agrarian society would produce just enough surplus that you could be reasonably sure of getting through a three-month winter and even then a bad harvest or a late spring could screw you.

And obviously in a fantasy world where things are different, systems and infrastructures will be different, and maybe they are, but Westeros is so specifically similar to our world that it’s hard to see where those differences come in.

This whole rabbit-hole of thinking was triggered by a scene (spoiler) early in the second season (I’ve been watching ahead) where Janos Slynt explains that the wars are damaging the fields and the city is filling up with refugees and there might be trouble laying in food for the winter, to which Cersei responds “so a few peasants will die”. To which I respond “you do understand that the peasants are the ones that grow the food? And that you’re talking about a world where winters can last five years.” In a world where getting enough to eat was that difficult and that important, you’d think that the social structures would reflect that, rather than being all about the value of swords, wars and dragons. And I do sort of get that the fact the nobility are constantly distracted by pretty baubles is kind of the point, because they’re worrying about thrones and crowns instead of livestock and harvests and this screws everyone, but that idea slips further and further away as the series progresses. Also, they’ve been acting like this for centuries, why didn’t everybody starve years ago?

That was when I started doing some maths.

According to a random google search, the average medieval peasant would consume 2-3lb of grain a day. That means getting a village of—say—a hundred people through a regular 90-day winter requires about 18000lb of grain. Which is about 8 long tons or 9 short tons. A lot, but not as much as it seems. According to a handy online food calculator I found 18000lb of wheat takes up about 355 cubic feet. Which fits in a silo about 7 feet by 7 feet by 7 feet. Very doable.

But that’s for a three-month winter, and for one village. The estimated population of King’s Landing (because of course there are estimates for these things on the internet) is 500,000. Over the course of a five-year winter, a population of 500,000 requires about 1.8 billion pounds of grain. Taking up about 36 million cubic feet. Which would be either a single silo three hundred and thirty feet to a side (Buckingham Palace is 79’ high, and the Tower of London is about 90’, assuming the Red Keep is of a similar size, that means that the skyline of King’s Landing should be dominated by a grain silo three times taller than its largest civic building). They could keep it in barns, I suppose. A barn 40’ by 50’ and filled 15’ deep with grain would contain 30,000 cubic feet of the stuff. Which means they’d need only 1,200 of these to store the city’s entire grain supply. Which almost works, but you can find maps of the city online and very few of them contain whole districts labelled “this bit is legit just food storage”. And that’s before you get into the question of spoilage, insect infestation (admittedly less of an issue in a years-long winter that threatens to eradicate all life on the planet) and just general unforeseen circumstances. I repeat, why haven’t they starved already, especially given how bad at governing we know half their rulers have been?

And I know I’ve way overthought this, and I will absolutely defend to the death the right of any fantasy setting to be built around thematic and narrative concerns rather than this kind of nerdview nonsense, but it is really going to bug me now. Like seriously, what do they eat in winter, why don’t all the wild animals basically starve? Do the large predators hibernate for years at a time? What storage solutions do they use and why do we never see them.

#showusthegrainsilos, man, #showusthegrainsilos.

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Check me out, doing a blog project about a thing that’s currently happening.

So I belatedly realised that the first episode of the final series of Game of Thrones dropped last night. And I discovered, to my surprise, that I could have access to it this time via a streaming service I actually use rather than having to subscribe to something weird or wait for the whole thing to come out on Amazon. And, thinking about it, it’s testimony to how damn long this series has been running that I watched S1 on an legit physical medium that I had to put in a machine and press play on like a fucking caveman.

Anyway, I was sort of dithering over whether to try and watch the new GoT as it released rather than waiting and binging it, but I decided it might be nice to build a blogging project round it. Then I saw the first episode and discovered that I was in no position to say anything insightful about the show whatsoever because it’s been two years since the last series, a decade since the first series and nearly twenty years since the book was released, and I had no idea who anyone was or what was going on.

So I kind of took a pause, and started trying to thrash through strategies of how to deal with this, not just in terms of blogging, but also in terms of not wasting an hour a week going “who’s that?”, “I thought he was dead?”, “wasn’t she on the other side of the world?” I briefly considered sticking a pin in the new series and just going back to a full thon of Seasons 1 to 7 to get myself caught up. But I hesitated for two reasons. Firstly, I super don’t feel that consuming entertainment should require you to do homework. And, secondly, as I was paging through the older series on the various services through which I can access it, I was struck by the thought that so much of what I was going to be watching would be totally irrelevant.

I mean, from a certain point of view, the only GoT summary you’ll ever need is as follows:

  • S1E1: Ned Stark and his children leave Winterfell
  • S8E1: The surviving Stark children come back to Winterfell

I feel really conflicted about the emotional reaction I had to all the stuff that happened in ‘Winterfell’ (that being the title of the first episode of the final series) in that it was really satisfying to see these things that you’ve known were coming for so long finally unfolding in front of you. On the other hand, I couldn’t quite shake the notion that they’d taken their sweet time getting there, and that an awful lot of the things that had happened in the middle played almost no part in connecting where we started to where we were always going to wind up.

Because it’s great to finally see … I mean, the list is so long it borders on fanservice but Jon and Arya, Arya and the Hound, Arya and I wanna say Gendry? I think I mean Gendry, y’know, Chris from Skins, the Ginger Wildling and the guys from Brotherhood Without Banners, Jaime and Bran, Sansa and Danaerys, and pretty much any character combination/pairing you can think of meeting or being reunited after all this time. You look at them, particularly the ones who were legitimately child actors when the series began, and say “oh my God, they’ve come so far and so much has happened” but then, if you’re me, you immediately think: but most of the much that has happened and the far that they’ve come was just kind of random and arbitrary. Also, perhaps it was just because my memory of the previous season was a bit woolly but every three minutes I found myself going “hang on a second, when did he/she get to Winterfell, wasn’t he/she somewhere completely different and/or dead?”

So for what it’s worth, I decided that the structure for this blog project is going to be as follows: I’m going to watch the new episodes as they come out and I’m also going to re-watch the previous series … serieses … and rather than doing either “this is my experience of watching series 8, having refreshed myself on everything else” or “this is my experience of re-watching this series now that it’s finished” or “this is my experience of watching this series without a clue about what happened earlier” I thought I’d do sort of … all of them mashed up at once. A tiny part of me was quite tempted to do an episode-by-episode of the whole thing but then I realised that would be committing to 70 blog posts, which is more than I wrote about Hugh Grant, and we can’t have that. My vague intent, therefore, will be to alternate a not-exactly review of the new episode of the new season with a not-exactly recap of a whole previous series. This is clearly absurd, and probably won’t work.

Anyway, for those who are still paying attention or care, my thoughts on Season 8 Episode 1 … well … I mean it really can be summed up as “wow, that got super focused super quickly.” We went from having characters spread all over the world, doing a thousand different things (I’ve sort of developed a rule for when I’m watching TV on Amazon that when the episode summary just lists four different characters doing four unrelated things, something has probably gone structurally wrong with the show) to having them in exactly two different places and, really, in King’s Landing it’s just Cersei, her pet necromancer, and one of the Greyjoys.

The rest of the episode of pretty much all exposition and foreshadowing. A child, who has unexpectedly been thrust into a positon of responsibility for which he woefully unprepared, is nailed to a wall to remind us that this is the kind of show where children get nailed to walls, and also to remind us that the Night King is still a thing. Although, really, this raises more questions than it answers because everything we’ve seen so far from the Wights and the White Walkers suggests that they come in force and destroy all your shit. In the scene where a bunch of beloved characters we haven’t encountered for a while, and whose names I’ve completely forgotten, find Little Lord Doomed pinned up and surrounded by weird severed limbs that look at once insectoid and fleshy and form some bizarre occult sigil, one of the characters declares that this is “a message from the Night King”. Which …  isn’t the kind of thing the Night King has ever done? A message from the Night King is “I have just walked over your Wall with a giant army of zombies, one of whom is a dragon”. Who exactly is sneaking around the North doing installation art with dead kids?

I mean, obviously fans, nerds and nerdy fans pontificating about the whole point of their favourite media franchises is something that it’s very easy to overdose on but I can’t help but feel that the whole point of the White Walkers (from my perspective at least) was that they were this implacable force of nature. One of the scariest things about them, like the scary thing about a lot of undead horrors in a variety of fictions, is that they weren’t especially interested in scaring you. So having them suddenly go full Edgelord was a bit … odd?

It’s probably not a good idea to judge the new series too early or too harshly but I am dimly reminded about one of the things I found unsatisfying about series 7, which was the drift away from a focus on detail to a focus on spectacle. Don’t get me the wrong, the scene with the burning screaming Wight Child at the centre of the spiral of flames is terribly dramatic but I’m left with the niggling suspicion that it’s just dramatic in a vacuum. Maybe I need to have more faith, but my feeling is that all we can take away from that sequence is that the White Walkers are getting closer, and things are getting spooky yo, rather than anything more concrete about what they are, where they come from, or what they want. Although I’m sure this is the point where someone links me to a Wiki, detailing that the symbol is actually a really important bit of deep lore that highlights something crucially important I’ve missed.

Other notable happenings: Jon Snow rides a dragon, thereby establishing that he is at least as cool as Harry Potter and discovers, in the course of one conversation, that he is secretly the true king of everything, that the woman he’s sworn fealty to is way happier to burn people alive that he might have imagined, and also that, oh yeah, he’s fucking his aunt. On which subject, there’s a super strange bit where Jon and Dany start making out somewhere in Skyrim and then the implication is they’re gonna, like, legit do it and the camera cuts to a shot of one of Danaerys’ dragons watching them with a perplexed look on its face. And while we’re talking about Jon and Dany, there’s also a scene where Tyrion, Varys and Jorah Mormomt really explicitly ship them, then go on to have a melancholy conversation about youth and age and shit. It’s like everyone in this world is obsessed with Jon and Dany’s sex life.

Aaaand, I think that’s kind of it? Unless you count Cersei banging the Spare Greyjoy for no reason, and Theon rescuing Kate from Upstart Crow, all of which takes about three minutes before we bounce back to yet more people showing up at Winterfell. The last of whom, in a shock reveal, is Jaime Lannister, weirdly no longer blond. Because apparently even hair goes grimdark in Westeros.

My glibbest reaction to the first episode, and this was always going to be inevitable given how much it had to cover, is that it almost felt like a really, really, really long trailer. You get dragons, an ominous soundbite every six to eight seconds, and a bunch of shots which imply that people are about to start or have just finished having sex. Even the more serious reviews from more serious reviewing sites basically describe the episode as “a taste of things to come” which is a polite way of saying that nothing, strictly speaking, happens in it.

And where was Brienne? Everyone winds up at Winterfell except Brienne. Shit, is she dead? She better not be dead.

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 You know what I haven’t talked about in a really long time? Okay, lots of things—Hugh Grant movies, Star Trek, FFG’s Arkham Files franchise. But the thing I haven’t talked about in a really long time that I’m going to talk about right now is board games. Specifically “Legacy” board games.

 For those of you who don’t remember this deeply obscure bit of boardgaming lore that I haven’t really looped back to since talking about Pandemic: Legacy more than a year ago, a “Legacy” game is a board game where as you play it you make permanent changes to the board, cards and rules, so that the game is fundamentally different every time. Or at least the first 10-15 times. They naturally cap out after a while as you see all the cards and fill in all the tables and tick all the boxes. But then really how many big board games do you own that you’ve played more than fifteen times?

 The first Legacy game was Risk: Legacy, which was kind of mind-blowing when it first came out because the sheer adrenaline rush of opening little boxes, tearing up cards and discovering that there was a little envelope taped to the bottom of the box labelled DO NOT OPEN UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES was amazing. Buuuut it suffered from the core problem that it was based around Risk, and Risk is actually turning sixty this year. It’s quite a traditional game and has quite a lot of traditional game problems, most of which boil down to its being … just not very good. There are some fun variants that have come out over its very very long life (I enjoyed the 2004 Risk: Godstorm and I admit to being weirdly curious about 2018s Risk: Rick and Morty) but Legacy starts as basic Risk, which is a bit dull, and yes if you play it long enough it eventually evolves into a more interesting version of Risk but … you could just play one of the more interesting versions straight off.

 As a result, the boardgames community’s mind was even more blown with the release of Pandemic: Legacy (which I spoke about at some length on this blog). As my personal favourite gaming review site put it, it had all the cool stuff that made you excited for Risk: Legacy, with the added advantage that the base game was actually good. Pandemic was a hugely enjoyable and classic game, one of the few titles I think you could unironically describe as “beloved”. And the Legacy version added a huge amount of nuance and complication to the game in well-timed increments that kept the level of challenge up for more experienced players. The second “season” of Pandemic: Legacy didn’t quite live up to the first, because it essentially took the opposite approach—instead of starting with base pandemic and building up, it started with a game that was kind of less good than Pandemic and slowly built up to a game that was … more complicated but still less good than Pandemic.

 Once the “Legacy” concept became more baked into boardgame culture, you also started seeing games that were built from the ground up to be a Legacy game. The first of these was Seafall, which came out in 2016 and which I didn’t pick up because the reviews I’d looked at suggested it shared a similar issue to Risk: Legacy—the appeal was mostly in the novelty of discovery and the legacy features, not in the innate playability of the underlying game, which apparently took a while (and in Legacy game terms, a while means multiple full play sessions) to get going and wasn’t hugely satisfying even when it did. Then there was Gloomhaven, which I did pick up, because the reviews I read suggested that it was a stonkingly good dungeoncrawler out the gate.

 That pretty much became my rule for Legacy games: only play it if you’d also play it if it wasn’t a Legacy game. Expecting Legacy elements to fix what you don’t like a board game is a bit like expecting marriage to fix what you don’t like about your relationship. It very seldom works and instead ties you into a long-term and likely quite expensive commitment you’ll probably regret.

 Which brings me, after a mere seven-hundred-and-thirty-odd words, to the actual game I wanted to talk about today, which is Betrayal: Legacy.

 The base game of Betrayal: Legacy is Betrayal at House on the Hill (which feels like it’s missing an article somewhere). And Betrayal at House on the Hill is … inconsistent. It’s not a bad game. It’s often actually quite a fun game. But it’s equally often a frustrating and pointless game. The basic premise of original Betrayal is that you are … kind of in a 70s horror movie? Or a spooky campfire tale? A group of you go up to this weird old hous house, and scary stuff happens to you, and then suddenly there is BETRAYAL and you’re pitched into one of fifty different scenarios (called “Haunts”), in most of which it turns out that one player was a bad guy all along.

 Because it relies so much on randomness—a random house that you move around having random things happening to you which will randomly lead to a random endgame—and because keeping consistent quality over fifty unique stories-slash-minigames is a huge ask, it’s fairly common to get to the end of a game of Betrayal and think is that it? To put it another way, the saving grace of original Betrayal is that it’s short and low-impact, which is kind of faint praise. And I was trepidatious to say the least about investing £70 (about $90-$100 US depending on exchange rate) on a long-term investment in the Legacy version of a game when often the best thing you could say about the base game is often that it’s over quickly.

 It turns out I shouldn’t have worried, because this seems to be the one in a million time when marrying a game really does fix your relationship with it.

 Okay, the marriage analogy might be a bit weird. A better comparison might be with playing rock, paper, scissors. Which I appreciate is probably still a bit weird and in need of unpacking.

 Played once, rock, paper, scissors is an essentially random game, or near enough to it. You don’t know what your opponent is going to do and while there are little things you can do to try to influence them (apparently a common tactic in what the pros call “street RPS” is to flash one of the signs while you’re clarifying that you throw after three not on three, and then throw the counter to that sign) but those marginal advantages only become apparent over a very large number of games. I suppose thinking about it professional poker might be an even better analogy. Contrary to the way it works in the movies, being an excellent poker player doesn’t mean you’ll always definitely win every hand (or even the crucial hand that matters when you’ve just bet your life savings or the nuclear codes), it means that—in the words of Kenny Rogers—you know when to hold ‘em and know when to fold ‘em, which leads to a net profit over many games.

 Playing one game of Betrayal at House on the Hill (seriously why isn’t there an extra the in there somewhere) is like playing one game of rock paper scissors, or one hand of poker. Great if it goes well, entirely pointless if it goes badly. Of course because Betrayal is quite a thematic game, going well doesn’t necessarily mean winning. Some of the most satisfying games of BaHotH (and incidentally I’ve just noticed how fitting it is that Bahoth sounds like the name of a demon in a cheesy ‘80s movie in its own right) I’ve played have been ones where I’ve lost but it’s felt really appropriate, like when one of the characters turned out to be possessed by the ghost of a serial killer and tracked us all down one by one, or when as the traitor I’ve been defeated in an nailbiting final struggle against the one surviving player. The worst games are the ones where it either ends too quickly or too slowly. Where either the traitor got really badly beaten up wandering around the house and then died instantly the moment the turned evil, or where it was obvious really early on that the good guys couldn’t actually do the thing they needed to do because it was too long-winded and complicated or the scenario was just poorly balanced.

 Betrayal: Legacy doesn’t strictly solve the problem of the game sometimes whiffing. You can still fairly often wind up just not really achieving much before your inevitable doom, but where in the standalone game that feels like you’ve just kind of wasted forty to ninety minutes, in the Legacy game even the most ignominious of endings and disappointing of outcomes become part of a more interesting wider story.

 The core campaign of Betrayal: Legacy unfolds over thirteen sessions beginning in the sixteenth century and ending in the present day, with the house growing and filling up with spooky objects, strange rooms and peculiar inhabitants, many of which you name yourself. Each player takes control of a family that interacts with the house down the years, and every game you record your character’s name, age, and eventual fate. It’s deliberately set up so that if you’re a child in one game (and you often are if you base your character’s age on the model that represents them) and you survive you can plausibly come back as an adult in the next game, creating a real sense of continuity. In the base game the various items and events that pop up over the course of play can just feel a bit arbitrary and disconnected—why is there a mystical chalice in this room, a pair of glasses in this room, and a shotgun on the balcony? How exactly does the spooky apparition in this room relate to the bloody handprints in this room to the mysterious bright light in the basement?

 Convert the game to a Legacy game and you get to build the house slowly over centuries. You know exactly what that random crossbow is—it’s the crossbow that you shot your friends with in the opening scenario. That ghostly apparition is specifically the spirit of the Viking berserker who possessed you in the second scenario when you found the strange object under the hanging tree. The marrow spoon that rewards you for eating dead people … yeah that’s still a bit random.

 Without giving too much away, the game does a really good job of building on the silly, campy fun of Betrayal in a bunch of cool ways. It adds neutral characters to the house who can die and die permanently (which is anticlimactic if they snuff it in the scenario where they show up, but ah well), it introduces mysterious Hammer-Horror-level quasi-occult signs and artefacts. There are the usual boxes to open and envelopes to unseal, and they’re all presented in this knowing, slightly cheesy way that nicely marries the innate excitement of opening new bits of a legacy game with the spooooky hidden mysteries vibe of its particular flavour of pulpy horror. I mean it even calls the space underneath the box insert where you store dead and destroyed characters and objects “the tomb”.

 Prior to Betrayal, my experience with Legacy mechanics was that they worked when they took an already excellent game and added depth and complexity to it, accentuating the positive like the song says. Betrayal: Legacy is the first Legacy game I’ve seen that successfully uses Legacy elements to do the opposite and eliminate the negative. It’s true that the first couple of times you play it, the game you’re playing is effectively a stripped down version of base BaHotH, but unlike—for example—Seafall or Pandemic Legacy Season Two where it feels like you have to play about halfway through the campaign before the game is even really feature-complete, Betrayal: Legacy’s early game is effectively a distillation of everything that makes the game actually fun to play, with all the other stuff that can get in the way stuffed into legacy decks and sealed boxes for later. In the first scenario, the “house” on the hill is quite specifically a colonial-era homestead and contains barely a dozen rooms. Which means yes, you don’t get as much of the “wandering around finding weird things and having weird encounters” part of the game as you normally would, but it also means that you get to jump very quickly to the Haunt, which is the part of the game that’s actually unique and fun.

 Basically it’s exactly as enjoyable as the original game, with the two significant advantages that the Legacy bells and whistles are fun in their own right, and that building into an overarching haunted house story makes even individually disappointing play experiences satisfying long term as you realise that the character who turned evil and murdered all his friends in the previous game died bathetically at the hands of a bad horse in this one.

 As always I should wrap up with the “is it good for couples or children” questions. The first is easy: this game does not work at all with two players—it’s based on the premise that one player unexpectedly turns on the rest and while there’s some effort made to balance the game around 3, 4 or 5 players, it’s generally not possible for one player on their own to beat a player-turned-traitor with monsters backing them up. Also, some scenarios have a hidden traitor, and that mechanic goes out the window with two. Three is a hard minimum and it’s best with four to five.

 The question of playing with children is … a tricky one. It wasn’t until I was typing up this review that I quite realised how odd it is that Betrayal (both the original and the legacy version) is a game in which you regularly play small children and those small children regularly die horribly. Perhaps the best way to think about it is in terms of traditional spooky campfire stories—when you think about it, for all we worry about children being exposed to violent content from modern sources (online, in video games, on TV), the kinds of stories we habitually tell children in certain contexts (like fairytales and traditional ghost stories) are crazy bloody. Heck, the Lizzie Borden song is a children’s rhyme and it’s literally about a girl who murders her parents with an axe, and is based on a real crime. I should probably clarify that the game isn’t actually that explicit about its violence or its horror aspect, and it steers very heavily into straightforward horror and haunted house tropes. It’s just that those tropes do include things like “axe murderers” and “dismembered body parts” as well as “vampires and mummies.” As always, mileage varies and different people will draw their lines in different places so. Yeah. Is what it is, y’know.

 In a lot of ways I think my final thought on Betrayal Legacy is a lot like my final thought on T.I.M.E. Stories (yes, I know I’ve now just compared the game to a completely different game that I haven’t mentioned at any point in the last 2,500 words, sorry I am terrible at structure) in that I think whether you should buy it depends a lot on whether you have the kinds of gaming friends it works with, and those types of friends might wind up being quite specific. The base game skews casual—it’s a low-investment game with a short playtime that’s sometimes disappointing but usually a decent way to pass a smallish chunk of your afternoon, so it’s a nice option to have on your shelf for if people fancy it and doesn’t require your friends to be super into boardgaming. But Legacy games are kind of the opposite—you’re committing to playing one game with one group of people, semi-regularly, for at least thirteen sessions.

 I think if I had to sum up the friend-group you need to get the most out of this game, it would be a group of people who really like board games but don’t mind not taking them super seriously. People who won’t look at you funny when you start saying “hey, let’s play this game that might take us the best part of a year to finish and which also requires you to put stickers all over the board and tear up the cards” but who also won’t get hacked off playing a game that doesn’t really involve any kind of strategy, often turns on an extremely swingy dice system, and is likely to be more silly than scary most of the time.

 One sentence summary: Like the original but better. Worth a look either as a straight upgrade over base Betrayal, or as a fairly low-impact introduction to Legacy games in general.

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Hello, this is slightly late. I have no particular excuses, I just suck at scheduling my time. Anyway, hopefully this will not be one long thing on a videogame none of you are going to play.

Harlots

Season 2 of this has finally become available in England – courtesy of the Starz channel on Amazon Prime, which is about the most obvious alliance I can possibly think of. It’s the company that does all the digital distribution teaming up with the a channel that digitally distributes slightly campy TV full of boobs and stabbing, and a TV show that is pretty much mandated to be full of boobs and stabbing.

Actually, that’s a little bit unfair to Starz because what I really like about them is that a lot of their shows seem to use the “boobs and stabbing” stuff to draw you in (because who doesn’t love boobs and stabbing – I appreciate the answer to that is ‘quite a lot of people’) and then by episode three you’re suddenly like “hey, where’s all the boobs and stabbing gone, what’s this surprisingly sophisticated exploration of intersecting marginalisations and the injustices inherent in entrenched power structures.” And, actually, even that is a bit unfair to Harlots, which isn’t actually by Starz, and which for a show about prostitution in the 18th century is resolutely uninterested in being titillating.

In broad strokes what I like about Harlots is that it’s a character-driven drama that manages to veer wildly between high camp and genuine nuance. There’s something fundamentally appealing and faintly absurd about the premise of the show, which is that it’s a battle to death between two aging brothel owners, played by Samantha Morton and Lesley Manville who are clearly having the best time sweeping defiantly into each other’s houses in amazing frocks and chewing up the scenery. But as the series progresses it becomes increasingly apparent that what’s going on here is that you have two women who hate and want to destroy each other pretty much because their lives have been made shit by social forces so vast and complex that they can barely perceive them let alone fight them. And don’t get me wrong, Lydia Quigley (Lesley Manville’s character) is a horrible person who abducts virgins for gangs of rich men who want to murder them but it’s genuinely a bit heart-breaking to see the way all the other characters direct their very justifiable outrage at her specifically, rather than the men who hire her or the demonstrably corrupt institutions that essentially force her to exist.

It’s fairly explicitly a show about power from the point of view of people who don’t have any, and it does a good job (I mean, insofar as I’m any judge, not being myself an 18th century prostitute) of portraying a range of people from a range of different backgrounds, all of whom have their own shit going on that is sufficiently intense that it stops them from being able to understand other people’s shit, and presenting them all with a (mostly) equal degree of sympathy. Obviously this doesn’t make it the easiest show to watch, because, well, stuff about powerless people making terrible decisions isn’t exactly light viewing, but it’s also got a lot of warmth. And when its characters find moments of connection, however fleeting they sometimes are, it’s genuinely moving.

Also Nancy Birch is amazing.

This Garrus Vakarian Body Pillow

Because Garrus is bae.

Parts of Umbrella Academy

By ‘parts’ I mostly mean ‘Ellen Page’. And, in fact, I mostly mean Ellen Page playing a violin in a white suit while the world explodes. Spoilers.

This is honestly a difficult one because the experience I had with Umbrella Academy was the experience I get surprisingly often with Netflix shows, where about three episodes in I find myself kind of not liking them but determined to keep going in the irrational belief that this will change.

I think the thing about Umbrella Academy is that it’s a bunch of things I individually liked packaged in a way that really didn’t work for me. Also it’s based on a comic from about 2007 and perhaps my awareness of this was colouring my perception but I kept being painfully of quite how much has changed socially in the last twelve years (oh my God, 2007 was twelve years ago). Because, and I appreciate I’m a bit out my lane here, it felt really jarring to me that the entire premise was that it was about a family of seven superheroes, of whom only two were women, of whom has no powers at the beginning and the other has no powers at the end. Also the gay character was this confused, spindly amoral drug addict, whose boyfriend he both meets and loses tragically in a time-travel related incident that occurs between two episodes. That’s not even Bury Your Queers, that’s Try To Give Your Character The Bury Your Queers Emotional Arc Without Evening Bothering To Bury Your Queers.

On other hand, Ellen Page is awesome and I would watch her play a violin in a white suit forever.

Megaquarium

This is a gentle sim game, I mean in the sense a game that is simulating something, rather than a game that is part of the increasingly sprawling Sims franchise, about running an aquarium.

It turns out, fish have surprisingly complex needs. Sometimes they like to be housed with other similar fish, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they want to eat green pellets, sometimes they want to eat orange pellets. Sometimes they like their water very warm, sometimes like their water very cold. Sometimes they like rocks to hide in, sometimes they like plants. And sometimes they grow unexpectedly large and eat each other. The sub-aquatic bastards.

Basically, like all simulation games, it’s a series of interlocking puzzles, where you have to balance various resources (money, fish happiness, visitor enjoyment, pellets) in order to satisfy the arbitrary and taxing criteria of the Sim Gods. I think the part of me that enjoys reading traditional English mysteries (there is disorder, then an upper middle class person shows up and re-aligns the universe) finds these kind of games quietly reassuring.

Because I get to impose order and harmony on my small fishy universe.

Also you can zoom right in and see your fish swimming about in the tanks you’ve built for them.

Vampire: the Masquerade – 5th Edition

I mean, don’t get me wrong, Vampire is kind of terrible, but in a brilliant, brilliant way. And, basically, everybody hates the new edition because it steers into one set of things that were brilliant and terrible about the game (back in about 1992) as opposed the slightly more popular set of things that were brilliant and terrible about the game (in about 1999).

For those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about Vampire: the Masquerade is a tabletop roleplaying game (for those of you who still have no idea what I’m talking about, I really don’t have time to explain that) in which you are all vampires. It was kind of a massive deal in the 90s because while it wasn’t the first RPG in which you played something other than a generic adventurer with a sword who goes into a dungeon and kills goblins for loot, it pretended it was and, if I’m honest, for a lot of people it might as well have been. It famously billed itself as “A Storytelling Game of Personal Horror” and if you listen to any Actual Play on the internet or talk to anyone who played the game at pretty much any point during its life cycle it was blatantly “A Storytelling Game of Doing Missions for People Who Are More Powerful Than You: Also You Probably Have A Gun.”

I’m not going to lie. I fucking love it.

The latest edition tries to dial back on some of the weirder stuff that accrued to the game over its first decade of life (or, I suppose, unlife). And by weirder stuff, I mean … oh God, where to start? Three-eyed healer vampires? A mystery and shadowy cult that lives in the Underworld and was canonically blown up by the ghost of the nukes they dropped in the Second World War? Vampires whose shapeshifting powers are alien parasites? And, probably my personal favourite, vampires who have the innate ability to do time travel.

And while I can absolutely see why some people are disappointed that they’ve swept all the completely bonkers stuff under the rug I just think it’s kind of nice to go back to a game where you play, like, y’know regular vampires? Doing regular vampire stuff. That is, ignoring the fact you’re an immortal creature of the night and doing missions for people who are more powerful than you that probably involve shooting someone.

Bonus vampire related thing: Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines 2.

And wow colon abuse in that sentence is terrible. Vampire: the Masquerade – Bloodlines is a iconically flawed videogame related to the iconically flawed tabletop game mentioned above. I played it at just the right to have my mind blown by its edgy maturity.

Pretty much everything you need to know about the game can be summed up by the following factoid. If you take the seduction skill on a male character, you can have sex with about three of the women in the game, and nobody else. If you take the seduction skill on a female character, you can have sex with those three women, a bunch of other women, and a fair few men too. I’m embarrassed for my teenage self, I really am.

And, for obvious reasons, I haven’t dared go back to the game since. However, I have deep, deep love for it and I’m unbelievably excited that they’re finally doing a sequel. Although also kind of … dubious. Because I feel like if it’s got all the problematic shit of the original it won’t be very fun. And if it hasn’t got all the problematic shit of the original, it won’t be very fun.

Aaaand I think that’s it from me. As ever, please do tell me what you’re enjoying in the comments – or, um, don’t.

silliness

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I started the first draft of this blog post by doing the “hey, I’m still doing a series of related blog posts even though I normally give up on my series of related blog posts really quickly” speech. Then I started writing about the first thing I liked this month and I didn’t stop writing about the first thing I liked this month. So “things I liked” for February is actually going to be one thing I liked in February in tremendous detail.  If you’ve been reading this blog for more than never this should not at all surprise you.

I will go back to talk about some of the other things I liked in February at a future date, but I might talk about them in March. Because, after all, I’ll probably still like them in March. And the joy of living in the digital age is that you very, very rarely have to watch or read or play or listen to something at the same time as other people are doing it.

So, yes, the thing I like for February is probably not very good videogame about being a vampire. It’s called Vampyr. Yes, with a Y.

 There’s a certain pleasure in playing, or otherwise engaging with, something generally perceived to be mediocre. I think it gives you more freedom to enjoy the fuck out of it. Vampyr is, I guess, a double-A game? Is that a thing? As in, a game by an indie developer that has good enough production values that you don’t quite think of it as an indie game, but isn’t as swanky as a triple-A game.

You’d think games about being a vampire would be more common than they are, since, y’know, being a vampire is super fun. Or maybe I just think that because I grew up right in the middle of the Interview With The (Not A) Vampire into Buffy into Twilight vampstravaganza that was the mid-90s to mid-2000s because actually they’re a bit thin on the ground, and tend to have a reputation for being flawed but interesting. Troika’s Vampire: the Masquerade – Bloodlines being basically the poster child for flawed but interesting from the studio that was itself also a poster child for flawed but interesting. And Vampyr is no exception. You play an Edwardian doctor who, on returning from the First World War, finds London in the grip of a deadly pestilence. And then you become a vampire. Vampyr?

Anyway, it’s all just super intriguing as you have to balance your newly acquired vampire nature with the ethics and practicalities of being a doctor. This premise on its own helps the game avoid a pitfall that a lot of vampire games (both video and tabletop) stumble into, in that a really, really important part of the core vampire archetype is that you were once an ordinary person and then you get transformed into a monster driven by bloodlust, but most games pay little more than lip service to the “ordinary person” aspect of that and double down on the “now you are supernatural being who exists in a community of supernatural beings and does side quests for supernatural beings” aspect. Or to put it another way, a lot of games treat “ordinary person” as meaning just that: before you became a vampire you were some guy/girl, now you are a vampire. The protagonist of Vampyr has a specific identity, with friends and family and a history that interacts meaningfully with what follows.

I’m aware the game has flaws—the combat is not great, and there’s quite tedious sections of trying to get across London while fighting identikit enemies, the animations are adequate at best and sort of (non-deliberately) ghoulish at worst, the plot could probably have been slightly better developed, and I would have liked a bit more from some of the more significant supporting characters (especially the vampire hunter dude you have a sort of twisted foeyay with). But I found those flaws easy to overlook because the game has such strong themes and such a clear vision of what it wants to be, underscored by actually, really strong voice work from pretty much every character (especially the protagonist). I also really appreciate that it has a notable sense of place and time—it’s very specifically set in foggy, plague stricken London in the aftermath of the First World War, with all the social and political upheaval that implies. But where I find the game, or rather the wider context of the game, especially though-provoking is that some of the things that are widely regarded as flaws by the community (whatever that means – I think I mean people I’ve seen talking about the game on the internet) I tended to read as deliberate and, more importantly, effective creative choices.

So, to quote Noah Caldwell-Gervais, let’s get into it.

A lot of people don’t like that the game’s central romance is non-optional and somewhat subdued—I mean the protagonist (Jonathan Reid) will always fall head-over-heels for this random lady on the basis of three conversations, unless you actively seek more opportunities to talk to her (which I did). It still worked for me because the game has a very late 19th century / early 20th century vibe to it so you’d expect a, for want of a better word, courtship between two upper middle class people living in that world, one of whom is already centuries old, to have a certain mannered quality. There’s lots of quiet looks and tea, which I’m totally here for. I also appreciated that it felt mature in the actual sense, rather than in the “mature content” sense. You’re two adults who’ve lived full lives, and suffered a lot, who find each other in the middle of a vampire epidemic. You’re not two teenagers desperate to bone. As for the non-optionality, I think a lot of people forget that not all video game protagonists are supposed to be blank slates. Jonathan Reid is clearly a very specific person with a very specific story, and his relationship with Lady Ashbury is clearly part of that story. It’s not like a Bioware game where customising your build and picking your romantic interest are core elements of the expected experience.

This difference between a coherent story about a developed protagonist in a developed world and a customisable blank slate in a sandbox (which is what people are very primed to want from this sort of game) becomes even more marked when you look at the game’s side stories. Throughout Vampyr, you will encounter well-realised NPCs who have shit going on that super needs to be fixed and you super won’t be able to fix it. Pretty much the only option you have for interacting with someone else’s story is to kill and eat them. Because you are a vampire. And, for many people, this represents a failure of the game to provide what the industry has long since taken to referring to as “choice and consequence.” Which I find sort of fascinating because, if you look at it in a vacuum, that makes no sense. Maybe I’m wrong but I think if you took someone who’d never played a videogame before and said to them, okay so this man has a probably clinically depressed, maybe illegitimate son who he is raising alone since his wife died, and towards whom he cannot express emotional intimacy, their first instinct probably wouldn’t be “okay, I’ll just have a five minute conversation with each of them which should fix the kid’s depression and make the father get over his emotional hangups.” But if you take someone who’s been trained by years of increasingly streamlined RPGs that are sold explicitly on “C&C” that’s exactly what they’d expect to happen. Because it’s what would happen in any other game.

I have a particularly strong memory of a random encounter in a Dragon Age game (I think it’s II?) where you meet this elf who’s on a quest to kill the man who murdered his mother and you get to talk him out of it with literally one line of dialogue (which, as I seem to recall is, “Is this what your mother would have wanted” and to which strict genre convention prohibited him from replying “Yes, our culture has a deeply held tradition of blood vengeance”). And it felt so unbelievably shallow and cheap that, since then, I’ve been pleasantly surprised every time a game has reminded me that people don’t just sit around waiting for a player character to tell them what to think about their sincerest and most profound beliefs. All of which is to say, I liked the fact that you learn about the people in Jonathan Reid’s world but, apart from giving them the occasional headache pill, you can’t fix them or change them. I mean, change them into anything other than dead people.

The final thing that people don’t like about Vampyr is the way the game handles morality, and how this feeds into the game’s endings. Basically, the ending you get depends (as far as I can tell) only on how many people you’ve killed, and not especially on what sorts of people they were and why you killed them. Some players have a particular problem with the fact that to get the “best” ending, you have to have killed literally nobody (I mean, and okay this is a classic example of what the cool kids call ludonarrative dissonance, nobody outside the combat, where you can slaughter as many randoms as you like). Once again, this strikes me as people having a negative reaction as a result of the way they’ve been trained by other games. In most games that track kills, particularly games that track kills as a negative rather than a positive (for example Dishonored and its sequel) you can get away with a small amount of murder as long as you don’t go super trigger happy. But there are two important differences here. The first is that those games are usually specifically stealth-em-ups and avoiding killing is as much a matter of mechanical skill as moral choice (and, to be fair to Dishonored, on a low chaos Dishonored playthrough you’ll probably kill fewer random mooks than you do in “no kills” Vampyr playthrough). The second difference, which sort of relates, is that kills in stealth games tend to be about leaving evidence or destabilising a city, whereas in Vampyr they’re much more specifically about whether you’re a murderer or not. And, call me old fashioned, but I do think that there’s a meaningful difference between somebody who has murdered one person and somebody who has murdered zero people. And I don’t think it’s unreasonable for the game to recognise that.

The other bit of video game training that Vampyr trips people up on (and, again, the mandatory combat sequences do it no favours here) is that a lot of, I might even say most, RPGs distinguish between good kills and bad kills. The karma system in the Fallout games is a classic example here: it apparently inhabits a moral universe wherein shooting one innocent shopkeeper for fun and then shooting twenty bandits for the loot makes you a good person overall. In Vampyr, by contrast, a kill is a kill is a kill. Eating the serial killer or the slum landlord or the nice girl who sells flowers all make you a murderer.  And, bizarrely, a lot of people seem to feel this makes the game morally simplistic, when what it actually does is put the moral responsibility for your choices back on the player. We seem to have been habituated by decades of D&D derived alignment systems to view a moral choice as one in which you have to work out which of two options the game has pre-emptively labelled as good or bad. What’s interesting about the moral choices in Vampyr is it doesn’t give you that out. You can absolutely make the case that it is morally right to kill and eat the serial killer, because he’s making his mother’s life miserable, and also he’s a serial killer. But what makes that a choice is that it’s set against game mechanics which reinforce the reality that even so, you’re still murderin’ a dude.

Even more fascinating, Vampyr is the only vampire-based game I’ve seen that really recreates that degeneration into a killing machine that is supposed to be a constant temptation in the classic vampire archetype. And it’s exactly the much-maligned “one murder is one too many” policy that lets it do that. Normally, when you play a vampire game, you’re told your character has this hunger but you can’t really feel it, because you’re just sitting in a chair rolling dice or pressing buttons, and consequently it doesn’t really affect you or your decision-making. Vampyr, however, really doubles down on making the murdering incredibly tempting – mechanically (you get massive XP bonuses), morally (I repeat: serial killer) and emotionally (some of the NPCs are just total shits). For most of the game, I really steadfastly went for the “don’t kill anyone” ending, because I do, in fact, generally think that murdering people is wrong #unpopularopinions. But I will admit I did struggle with this for the aforesaid reasons of XP, shits and serial killers.

Then I met Carina Billows. She’s a former suffragette living on the streets of London, eating live rats because a vampire is messing with her mind, and just lucid enough to beg for death because it’s the only way to release her from her suffering. So, after angsting for a while, I ate her. But, of course, because I knew that eating her locked out the zero kills ending and that I had a little bit of flexibility on the “low kills” ending, suddenly the serial killer and the slumlord were looking way tastier. And this is a remarkable piece of structure, because essentially the game mechanics reinforce the argument behind their own design. The objection one could make to the best ending being locked behind zero kills is that it should be perfectly possible to kill one person as a vampire without particularly eroding your overall sense of the value of life. But, of course, killing one person in Vampyr literally erodes your overall sense of the value of life because your first killing is the only one that locks out the best ending and you know that you can still get a quite good ending by only killing a few people round the edges. So the game’s decision to distinguish mechanically between a player who kills one person and a player who kills zero people is reinforced by the way in which your first kill changes the game’s reward structure and your second kill doesn’t.

So anyway. Since I’d already killed Carina Billows, for what I felt were morally justifiable reasons, I killed the serial killer and justified this on the grounds that he was an actual serial killer. Then I killed Cadogan Bates, the slum landlord. And what really gets to me is that I knew it was totally personal. Don’t get me wrong he’s a terrible human being, who exploits and (it’s strongly implied) sexually abuses his tenants, but that’s clearly a wider social problem that is no way impacted by his death. Not only that, but he was only worth 1000XP. I genuinely just hated him. And that was the point where I stopped killing people because the game had actually given me the “oh my God, what have I become” moment that is such an important part of vampire fiction. If I could have looked at my bloodstained hands, I would have.

And I’m actually still thinking about the moral journey I went on even now. From a certain perspective, I find it very interesting, but slightly problematic, that the progression I had went from a killing that was basically euthanasia (which, as it happens, I do believe in) to a killing that is basically capital punishment (which, as it happens, I don’t believe in) to outright murder because I didn’t like someone’s face. There’s part of me which feels that the game artificially pushed me into a slippery slope argument because it mechanically encourages you to view every murder after the first as less significant (I think you can get away with 3-4 before you get the “I have gone too far” ending). But another, and I think larger, part of me feels like the game challenged me in good faith to interrogate my own assumptions. Because it treats all killings as equal it doesn’t feel like it’s making a specific argument for or against killing for any particular reason. I happen to believe that consensual euthanasia is categorically different from murder but I know there are plenty of people who believe the same thing about capital punishment. And what the game does, in both contexts, is essentially ask you “yeah, okay, but what if it’s not?” And that’s … pretty much the opposite of morally simplistic.

So … yeah. That’s Vampyr. Don’t get me wrong, it does have significant issues and if you’re not already a gamer, or not already really into vampires, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it. But it’s been one of the best experiences I’ve had in a game for a really long time, precisely because it made me think about things I normally just take for granted.

Anyway, I’ll be back next month with an list of things I enjoyed in March, which hopefully won’t be three thousand words talking about a single video game.

As ever, feel free to tell me what you’ve been enjoying in the comments. Or don’t.

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Happy new year! I kind of eschewed doing an end of year wrap up for 2018 because, well, I had other things on my mind and I really thought it was the last thing the universe needed.

However, I’m glad to be starting 2019 with yet another list of stuff I’m into.

Company (at the Gielgud)

Sondheim is weird. Like, there’s no two ways about it, Sondheim is weird. Things he has written musicals about include, a fictional Victorian serial killer, real 19th and 20th century murderers, pointillism, and fairytales. In some ways, Company is one of his oddest musicals because, to paraphrase his own description of it, it’s basically a musical about the sorts of people who go and see musicals. Which is to say, middle class people in their 30s who aren’t quite sure what they want from life, but have a nebulous feeling they’re doing it wrong. In a lot of ways, it’s kind of dated. The original story about a man in his thirties who isn’t married but has a broad and eclectic group of friends who are is still sort of relatable in some ways in that, in any given friendship group, there’s going to be one person who’s the last to get a partner. But culturally-speaking we’re a lot less concerned with being settled down by 28 than we were in 1970, so the show loses quite a lot of its emotional force because instead of thinking “I wonder why that nice man isn’t married yet” you’re thinking “I wonder why that nice man hangs out with these bizarrely out of touch people.”

Anyway, the shtick with the current Gielgud Theatre revival (which I think is running til March now, so if you’re in the UK, and like going to the theatre, and particularly like Sondheim, which I’m very aware is an acquired taste, you can still check it out) is that they’ve re-gendered the central character, and made a couple tweaks to the friends so that their relationships feel a bit less, well, mid-20th century (so a few of them are interracial, one of the couples have had their genders flipped, and another couple is same-sex now). And it works amazingly well. So well, allegedly, that one crew member who was unaware of the original genuinely didn’t understand how it made sense with a male central character.

To use a phrase I have no doubt I’ll get letters about out of context, I feel quite ambivalent about gender-flipping things. This isn’t to say that I never think it’s good, or interesting, or worthwhile, and I’m not one of those people who gets on their high horse because A Woman/Black/Gay Couldn’t Do That In The Historical/Cultural/Original Context. But sometimes gender-flips get done naively and in a way that just flat out doesn’t work. And, obviously, this depends a lot on what you’re flipping.

To get needlessly pseudy for a moment and work with purely Shakespearean examples, gender-flipping, say, Prospero (which has been done) is basically a totally neutral call because, unless you want to pull some kind problematic bullshit about how a woman would have a harder time surviving alone on an island, it’s not really a gendered role. I mean, yes, technically a woman would never have been Duke of Milan but the political reality of 17th century Italy is just not at all relevant to The Tempest. Conversely, if you wanted to gender-flip Taming of the Shrew, you’d need to do a lot more heavy lifting because it’s an explicitly (and unpleasantly) gendered story. And there are things you could do with it—weirdly you could argue that gender-flipping it might enable a modern audience to see it as the light-hearted comedy it was always intended to be, rather than the harrowing tale of domestic abuse it tends to read as these days. But you can’t re-gender the characters without utterly changing the way the narrative comes across.

From this perspective, Company is in a really weird position. On the one hand, the protagonist’s gender is a massive part of how the story works. On the other hand, our cultural expectations for men 30s (and, for that matter, women in their 30s) have shifted such an enormous amount since 1970 that gender-flipping the show is in some ways much less of a problem than updating it. Strangely, gender-flipping the character of Bobby actually goes a long way towards helping Company stay relevant, despite its somewhat outdated mores. Because while you would no longer look twice at a 35 year old man who was refusing to settle down and spending his evenings hooking up with hipsters and hot stewardesses, a 35 year old woman who tried to live the same way would, well, probably get looked at twice.

And, obviously, it’s not as simple as standards for 30-something women today aligning with standards for 30-something men 50 years ago. But the show also does a really good job of making the changes it needs to turn a story about the latter into a story about the former. It’s unexpectedly more tragic with a female central character because, ultimately, the original—for all that Bobby comes across as fairly sympathetic and has some really moving songs and is portrayed compassionately—is about an immature manchild who is scared of responsibility. The re-gendered version is more complicated than that because it’s set against, and I appreciate this is an unhelpful shorthand, the “having it all” narrative. Even in 2018 marriage for men is pretty much a flat bonus. There’s no implication that a 35 year old man who gets married is going to have to sacrifice anything except for things he should probably have given up on at least 6 years ago (see: stewardesses, hot). Whereas in 2018 (and I’m conscious I’m quite a long way outside my lane here) marriage for women has gone from “the only thing you’re expected to aspire to” to “one of several possible aspirations that are assumed to conflict with one another.” And, actually, one of the things that makes this version of that story interesting is that, because it started out as a story about a bloke in the 70s, there isn’t any particular implication that Bobbi has remained unmarried because she wants to focus on her career or because she has particularly strong objections to marriage as an institution. Instead, she’s restless, and nebulously discontent, and under increasing social pressure from her friends to resolve that restlessness and discontentment by doing something she knows may change her life in ways she doesn’t want and doesn’t seem to be offering her what she’s looking for.

I’ve now written over a thousand words about this show so I’d probably wrap it out. But basically everything about it is awesome: the casting is excellent, the staging is amazing, Patti LuPone is in it and I’d say she’s fabulous but she’s Patti Fucking LuPone, of course she’s fabulous. I think there are two ways to tell that you’ve really enjoyed a show. The first is if you come out and immediately want to see the show again, which is the feeling I got from Hamilton and Les Miserables. The second is if you come out and never want to see another production because you cannot imagine it living up. And that’s what I got from this version of Company.

The Musical Drinkingware Game

One of the items of merchandising you can purchase from the current production of Company is a mug that says “I’ll drink to that.” I really wish I’d bought one, but I didn’t, and anyway I kind of have too many mugs already.

It did, however, mean that we got to spend the entire interval playing the Quotes From Musicals You Could Put On Drinking Vessels And Sell As Merchandising For That Musical game (or the QFMYCPODVASAMFTM game for short).

Here are some of our favourites:

  • A mug with ‘Drink with me to days gone by” from Les Miserables
  • A pint glass or tankard with “Would you like a drop of ale” from Sweeney Todd
  • A set of six shot glasses, saying severally “I’m”, “Not”, “Throwing”, “Away”, “My”, and “Shot” from Hamilton. (And, incidentally, I’d be amazed if this didn’t exist already)
  • “No more notes, no more ghost, here’s a health, here’s toast” from Phantom of the Opera, on any kind of drinking vessel or, indeed, a notebook.

Do feel free to play in the comments.

Dragon Quest XI

The thing about Dragon Quest games is that they’re always exactly the same. This is what I love about them, and DQXI is, by definition, no exception. I think what I find really engaging about them is that they’re designed along different principles to games that are big in the west: they’re the gaming equivalent of a book you read before bedtime. Every session is designed to be pretty, gentle, engaging, and satisfying in about twenty minutes. You’ll fight a few adorable monsters, you’ll get a bit of story, you’ll wander through the gorgeous countryside, you’ll giggle at the puns, you’ll chat a bit with your charming companions. And then you’ll stop, quietly looking forward to picking the game up again, but feel no particular pressure to carry on right there and then.

The problem with being a grown up is that fitting gaming into your life is actually quite difficult. Wading through 100 hours of densely plotted, strategically complex, lore-heavy drama is all well and good, and I’ll always love that stuff, but, honestly, by the time I’d finished The Witcher III (and, for that matter, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey) I’d forgotten what had happened at the beginning. And, actually, I’ll probably spend about 100 hours playing DQXI as well but the difference is that big AAA games expect you to put a 100 hours into them in exchange for the narrative or mechanical experience you get, whereas Dragon Quest expects to get 100 hours out of it in low investment twenty minute bursts.

DQXI has successfully managed to modernise itself in small quality-of-life type ways (there’s hardly any loading screens, you get a horse to gallop around on, the map notes points of interest for you) while remaining completely true to the core values and general style of the Dragon Quest series. Being the smoothest, and glossiest, and shiniest it’s a really good starting point for the series if you’re happy to engage with it on its own terms, instead of looking for something it’s never been trying to be.

It’s made me very happy. Also it’s got one of the most explicitly and positively queer companions I’ve seen in a JPRG so far—and by explicit, I mean, nobody ever talks about it, but he’s terribly, terribly fabulous, has a harem of beautiful boys who follow him around adoringly, and, despite all of his special moves, involving dancing and blowing kisses, he’s an interesting mixture of hyper-feminine and quite macho. He was raised to be a knight, so he approaches the world with a set of very traditional knightly virtues, he just chooses to express them in an outrageously flamboyant way. And, obviously, the conflation of male queerness and femininity is problematic, but it’s one of the few times I’ve seen a game inviting you to admire and be charming by this sort of character’s approach to the world, rather than laughing at it.

PS: if you’re interested in DQ or this DQ in particular, there’s a great Kotaku video about it from a self-confessedly raging DQ fanboy. But I find his understanding of the core values of the series, and this enthusiasm for them, really endearing.

The Hbomberguy Donkey Kong Stream Thing

This was honestly just the nicest way to start 2019.

Probably the best way for me to explain the background to this for those who don’t know is to link you to his original video but basically the story was like this: Mermaids is a UK charity that works with children and young people with gender dysphoria, they got a small grant from the UK National Lottery, and this made a minor celebrity really, really angry because apparently we shouldn’t be using the funds from the spurious legalised gambling that is run by a state approved but ultimately for profit company to help children. Said minor celebrity got on Mumsnet, and orchestrated a series of letters of concerns to someone at the lottery regulator and got the whole grant put under review. In response to this, Hbomberguy (who is a left-wing, Youtube essayist whose videos I’ve been following for a while) organised a nonstop livestream of Donkey Kong 64 with the aim of raising about £3000 for Mermaids.

It wound up raising $340,000.

Basically, it felt like the entire internet (and, with my humility hat on I should point out that what I really mean is the subset of the internet that happens to agree with me on social issues) turned out for this, including Chelsea Manning, Mara Wilson and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

And, obviously, it’s complicated because when this kind of thing goes high profile it can just entrench culture war narratives and lead to greater polarisation on both sides. But, you know what, it’s a nice thing. A charity that I happen to think does good and important work in an area that I support got a lot of money and publicity as a consequence of somebody who I would interpret as mean spirited trying to mess with it.

So. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a positive. And, actually, it was really nice watching it happening.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer

I’m terrified that I’ve reached the stage in my life that the majority of my TV watching is me re-visiting shows that I remember from twenty-plus years ago. But, hey, Buffy’s on Amazon Prime now, and so I’m watching it.

It’s really weird feeling. It’s about one half joyful nostalgia and things actually being as good as or better than I remember them being, especially the episodes that I remember kind of sucking, which are actually usually perfectly serviceable. And one half excruciating awareness that things have changed quite a lot.

Perhaps I just have a distorted perspective on this, but what really impressed me was how not-dated a lot of it seems. The show seems to have made a deliberate strategic choice to try and evoke a fairly non-specific sense of teenagerness, which means that—looking back on it—it doesn’t look like a show set in a high school in the 1990s. It just looks like a show set in a high school. The way the characters talk is unique to them (and was famously so at the time—I seem to recall you could buy guides to Buffyspeak), the way they dress was mocked 20 years ago for being nothing like any sensible teenager would dress but now looks, well, still nothing like any sensible teenager would dress but not in a dated way. Even the music in the Bronze isn’t iconic 90s music. It’s random Indie bands that give the show its own bespoke soundtrack. As long as the characters aren’t talking about, or using, computers you could genuinely forget that it wasn’t set in 2018. Or maybe I’m just one of those old men who assumes that stuff from his youth is still bang up-to-date and down with the kids.

I think where it’s aged less well, ironically, are the areas where it was progressive or mould-breaking in its time. Not to put too fine a point on it, the notion of a high action show with a female protagonist who gets to fight monsters and kiss boys is no longer radical. For all the reasons, I hesitate to give a cisgendered white man credit for altering the way women are portrayed in popular culture but I think it’s quite hard to deny that Buffy’s effect on that particular subgenre of television was similar to The Matrix’s effect on action movies. You could see its fingerprints in everything that came out for about five years afterwards, and for a long time “conventionally hot kick ass heroine” was kind of the gold standard for a certain kind of pop culture, hence Alias, Dark Angel, Charmed, Veronica Mars, etc. And gradually that evolved, especially post-Twilight, into shows that put a lot more emphasis on the kissing and less on the punching (True Blood, Vampire Diaries and so on). And then, of course, you got the shows where people appeared to have watched Buffy and said, “you know, I like this chosen one fights monsters thing, but wouldn’t be a cool twist if the protagonist were straight white men”, hence Supernatural and Grimm. Point is, the ideas that were laid out in Buffy have been thoroughly explored since from a variety of different perspectives and this has rendered strangely archaic in retrospect.

I think also, just social attitudes have moved on quite a bit. So, for example, Xander’s persistent unwillingness to accept that Buffy just isn’t into him for about two seasons, and his deeply toxic hostility towards Angel that we’re just kind of supposed to accept as normal behaviour for a guy who likes a girl, reads as way more problematic than I remember it doing it in the late 90s. On top of which it’s a bit weird that this show as such a reputation for and was so explicitly designed to centralise (terrible phrase alert) strong female characters arguably does a better job with its beta male everyman than it does with basically any of the women in it. And, don’t get me wrong, I love Buffy (the character), especially in the early seasons when she still had interests other than making speeches, but I think it is noticeable that the show still comes from a time when the only character traits women were allowed to have on TV boiled down to “accepts or rejects stereotypically feminine behaviour.”

The impression I get looking back is that there were just so many more tools to use in the late 1990s for rounding out the character of Xander than were for rounding out the character of Buffy. It is, I think, noticeable that Xander is the only character who gets a whole episode (The Zeppo) highlighting his perspective on and his feelings about his role in the Scooby gang and how that interacts with his self-perception and self-identity. Cordelia comes close in The Wish but she actually gets killed about halfway into the episode and, at the end, the whole thing is erased from her memory so she gets zero character development from it. Buffy is obviously at the centre of all the major story arcs but they almost always focus around her role as the Slayer and when they don’t they’re contrasted against her role as the Slayer (like The Body, where she has to deal with the fact her powers won’t let her save her mother). Basically, Buffy is always a superposition of two archetypes (teenage girl and vampire slayer—the clue is very much in the name of the show here) but Xander gets to be an actual person, with hangs ups and neuroses and feelings and motivations that are consistently explored.

Also he gets with, like, everybody. Apart from Buffy, he dates, kisses or has sex with pretty much every single recurring female character who isn’t over thirty, under fifteen or a lesbian. What’s with that?

And finally…

I just really enjoyed this.

As ever, tell me what you’re liking in the comments. Or, y’know, don’t.

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Welcome back to another edition of Things I Liked, and gosh don’t the months go by quickly? On the other hand, this is the third instalment of this series, which means I’ve actually stuck to it for far longer than I have basically anything else except Hugh Grant. Go me.

Anyway, here’s stuff I liked in December.

The Holiday Period

I’m not really a massive fan of huge public celebrations. But it’s hard not to get caught up in the general air of harmless and directionless cheerfulness that attends the holiday season. It’s just kind of nice to have pretty lights everywhere when it’s otherwise just cold and dark and miserable. Also I’m a big fan of long periods of time off work. And there’s something about this particular long period of time off work that feels doubly permissive. I’m usually the sort of person who spends at least half my holiday fretting about all the stuff I need to be getting done before I once again have zero time, but the thing about Christmas is that you have complete licence to say “well, it’s Christmas” when you’re deciding to do your taxes later, put off the cleaning, or buy an extra box of Ferrero Rocher.

So, least controversial opinion I’ve probably ever had. Christmas is good. Hope you’re all enjoying the holiday period too.

My Planner

I wrote in my planner that I should write about my planner in the Things I Liked article that I also wrote down that I had to write in my planner. Then I wrote a whole article about my planner that was on a different list in a different part of my planner. Point is, I really love my planner and you can read all my about it here.

An Article by Heather Alexandra

A couple of days ago one of Kotaku’s staff writers published this piece about going back to the Star Wars MMO after years of absence. It’s a kind of melancholy, hopeful article about MMOs as both digital and emotional spaces, and it got me right in the feels because it touches on exactly the sort of ideas that led me to write Looking For Group. And now I feel really awkward because I’m worried that it looks like I’m using somebody else’s work to plug my back catalogue (available on iTunes). But mostly for me it was that thing that Alan Bennett talks about The History Boys when you read something that somebody else has written and it articulates so perfectly an experience you thought was private to you. Again, I don’t want to be talking too much about myself here—although, y’know what, screw it, it’s my blog—but while LFG has never been one of my most popular books it’s the one that seems to have inspired that Alan Bennett reaction in other people. I think because it’s about something so specific that’s very strongly recognisable to those who have invested in it, but seldom gets talked about. So, in a weird way, reading Heather’s article closed that loop for me because it said to me what I hope LFG says to other people.

Ferrero Rocher

I don’t even know if you have these in America, and if you do they’re probably called something like Jed’s Crunchy Nutballs. But they’re kind of chocolates with delusions of grandeur—famously advertised in the 80s as the kind of thing you would literally serve at an Embassy Ball, specifically, with the line “the Ambassador’s receptions are noted in society for their host’s exquisite taste, which captivates his guests”. And this is something you can buy from Sainsbury’s for a fiver.

They are, in all honesty, quite nice – being a hazelnut, in squidgy chocolate, surrounded by wafer (in the 80s, nothing was classier than wafer), coated in less squidgy chocolate, with nuts in. But they look rubbish, since they’re knobbly balls wrapped in gold foil, and you would in no way serve them to foreign dignitaries. And, if you did, they would certainly not reply “Monsieur, with zis rocher you are really spoiling us.”

But for some reason I really enjoy them at Christmas, which is the only time of year I ever get them.

Sarah Phelps’ Agatha Christies for the BBC

For the past four years, which basically makes it a beloved and eternal tradition, every Christmas the BBC has commissioned a writer called Sarah Phelps to produce a modern adaption of a classic Agatha Christie story. So far, two of them have been quite obscure (Witness for the Prosecution, Ordeal by Innocence), one has been an iconic standalone (And Then There Were None), and the most recent is both iconic and an actual Poirot (The ABC Murders). What they have in common, beyond their source, is that they’re kind of edgy, moody adaptations that are all about post-war anxiety and its very real parallels with modern social problems around which an Agatha Christie is stitched very, very loosely.

I said that these adaptations were becoming a beloved Christmas tradition when it might more accurate to say that it’s becoming a beloved Christmas tradition for the BBC to put out a new Sarah Phelps adaptation of an Agatha Christie novel and for the internet to lose its fucking shit. The thing is that A Crizzle was very much a mystery writer in the classic puzzle box mould. Your only duty when reading an Agatha Christie is to work out which of the details that she deliberately put into the book are clues and thereby determine which of the often cipher-like characters you are being told committed the murder. The classic mystery novel is almost like a cryptic crossword: it has its own set of rules and principles, wholly divorced from anything else, and fans engage with it as a purely intellectual exercise.  The other thing is, that Sarah Phelps has zero interest in that kind of story and, instead, wants to make a TV drama with characters and themes.

And, to an extent, you can do both, because the clue stuff has already been done, and there isn’t much work for an adaptor to do there, so putting your time and effort into telling an actual story that’s relevant to a modern audience is probably a good call. But, of course, there is another perspective which TV tropes helpfully summarises as “they changed it, and now it sucks.” If I was feeling self-servingly high-minded I’d say that which side of the fence you come on is primarily a factor of your personal philosophy of adaptation, and whether you believe that translating a work to a new medium should be an inherently conservative or an inherently transformative process. If I’m being honesty with myself, I suspect it has at least as much to do with how much you like the original.

Last year’s production (Ordeal by Innocence) was especially controversial because Phelps didn’t just add a bunch of themes that weren’t in the book, she completely changed who the murderer was. And while on an abstract level I could understand that changing who the killer is in a genre where that’s literally the whole point should probably be kind of taboo (it strays perilously close to those 19th century versions of Shakespeare where people don’t die in the tragedies) I thought it worked fine as a drama and, when I Wikipedia-ed the original ending, I was really glad they hadn’t gone with it as it was kind of shit.

This year’s mystery is the ABC Murders but because it’s kind of what this series does they’ve added a whole bunch of slightly odd commentary about immigration. It’s a Poirot and Poirot’s backstory has always been that he’s a Belgian policeman who came to live in England after the war (which from Christie’s perspective and, I strongly suspect from the perspective of 1920s England, was super not a big deal) and the story seems to want to be as much about Poirot’s experience as a refugee as about the murders. And this is where I have to accept that my highfalutin belief in the transformative nature of adaptation butts up against the fact that I kind of like Poirot.

I mean, I’m incredibly here for John Malkovitch’s performance as slightly past-it, somewhat tormented Hercule Poirot and I actually think alternative interpretations of iconic detectives can be quite powerful (after all, people have been doing what they like with Sherlock Holmes since Conan Doyle gave them explicit permission to do so in exactly those words). And I even think that the fact that Poirot is an immigrant (who, as we know from Hamilton, get the job done) is an interesting element of his character that I’ve never seen explored before. It’s just that, particularly given where we are right now, it seems to be really, really, really pointedly about Brexit. Like to the extent I’m beginning to find it distracting. And while all the other adaptations have had slightly specious themes in them that weren’t from the original book, they also didn’t seem quite so ripped from the headlines or tacked on. Because, y’know, I’m upset about Brexit too. And I can actually recognise the value of trying to tell a story the re-appropriates the War (which is often used to prop up quite parochialist, quite little-Englandist ideas about Britain standing alone against the world) as a story about the importance of international cooperation and strong ties to Europe. I just don’t think it fits with Poirot. And I suppose if I’m being objective that’s kind of what all of the other complaints have been about as well. It’s just here, because I know the source material better, and because I have such strong sense that it is supposed to be a baffling mystery about a serial killer, not a searing indictment of a culture that grows increasingly hostile to foreigners, that it feels really jarring to me.

Um. I appreciate that this is supposed to be the things I’m enjoying article, and I do actually love the Sarah Phelps Christies, and not only am I enjoying the ABC Murders so much that I watched it live (I know, what is this, 1874?) but I also intend to re-binge the last three as well, and John Malkovitch is great as sad, old Poirot, it’s just this one, for me, works less well than the others. And apparently whether I think something is working or not has less impact than I’d have thought it would about whether or not I enjoy it.

And that’s it for December. As ever, I’d love to hear what you’ve been enjoying in the comments. If you’d enjoy telling me. If not, then don’t.

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