It’s been three years since my dad died, and so much has changed since that day. I’ve changed so much since that day, and I wish my dad was here to see that. Yet I’m also asking myself, would I have changed this much were he still alive? In many ways his death was a catalyst for me, because death, at long last, made him human to me. And I will always regret that it took his death to finally see his life. Yet maybe that’s what death is there for.
Fear of a death is a universal fear, every creature on earth shares it and will seek to escape death at any cost. Death is certain and arbitrary. There is no appeals process, it doesn’t discriminate, and can happen at any time for any number of reasons. Death is the great equalizer, rich or poor, saint or demon, it doesn’t care. It doesn’t matter who you were, or what you’ve done, when death comes for you. There is no negotiation.
I hated my father for a long time, and only years after his death am I realizing it was because I’d written him as the villain in my story. I blamed him for all my problems. I wouldn’t be so depressed if he’d been happier; I would have been more active if he hadn’t been so tired and played with me; I would have gone to college had he not spent my college fund paying the bills. If he hadn’t hated himself so much, I wouldn’t have grown up hating myself so much. My dad was larger-than-life to me, not in the good way unfortunately, but he wasn’t a real person to me.
Death made him real. Not all at once, in fact the first few months after he died, he became even less human. I was haunted by dreams of his for months on end, nightmares, flashes of memories, and sometimes, just an overwhelming sense of emptiness would wake me up in the middle of the night. He became a ghost for me. Eventually though, even the ghost faded, and death began its slow, methodical, but ultimately beautiful work.
I began to forget. My projections, assumptions, and judgments about who my father was began to fade away. I remember thinking them still, but the emotional core of those memories is gone. When I think about all our petty arguments, I no longer feel anger or hatred, most of the time I laugh now at how absurd it was that I let it grow so out of proportion. I realize now, he wasn’t the villain in my story, and he wasn’t the hero. He was just a man. And we were more alike than we were different.
Death is a terrifying prospect, and it still scares me, but not as much as it once did, because I now see the beauty of it. It reminds us of what’s important, the entropy of time slowly washes away all the junk that gets in the way of realizing we love each other. I never told my father I loved him when he was alive, aside from whispering it to him moments before he died. I like to think he heard me.
Death also reminded me that, one day, I’d be where my dad is, and that day might be here sooner than I’d like. It brought my life into focus for the first time, I couldn’t keep doing what I’d been doing.
When my dad was diagnosed with cancer I was out of work, a hundred-pounds overweight, and so depressed I was constantly thinking of suicide. That didn’t change overnight, but slowly and surely, it’s been changing. I began going to ballroom dance classes, I started going to a Dungeons and Dragons group, I found a full-time job finally. The full time job let me pursue my passions and I began dancing more frequently. I took an amazing trip to Europe with my best friend. When I returned I began to go to an amazing personal trainer who began helping me get in shape. Recently I went on an amazing emotional journey, discovering a lot about myself as well as building a larger support system for myself.
I even went on a date for the first time in 3 years, and it went badly, ending after 30 minutes and never hearing from the girl again. And I was sad for a few days, which wasn’t fun, but it also didn’t send me into a downward tailspin that left me depressed for months which would have happened a few years ago. The most important part though, is that I actually put myself out there again. That I was able to look at my shadow of “you’re a big, ugly, creepy loser, no one is going to want you” and actually ask someone out.
My life isn’t perfect, and it never will be. As grateful as I am to have a fulltime job, it doesn’t pay nearly enough considering the huge emotional drain it represents. A recent problem with my car has meant I’m living paycheck to paycheck. Due to that I wasn’t able to renew my WordPress membership, which is why this blog’s appearance has suddenly gone down the crapper. Yet I’m also coping with those challenges far better than I would have before. I’m looking for a new job, I’ll have the care problem paid off in a year, and eventually I will get the funds to rebuild this website. I’m making progress.
My work of self-improvement isn’t complete. It will never be complete, it will be a constant, never-ending task to make myself a better person. Yet the work has begun, and it’s largely due to my father dying.
As my mom told me recently, my dad wouldn’t recognize who I am today. I’m sad he’s not here to see it, but I want to honor my father, because without him I wouldn’t be here.
Thank you dad, for always encouraging my writing. . Thanks for always being in my corner, even when I didn’t realize you were. My elementary school principal recently told me how you took him aside on my first day of school, and asked him to take good care of me. When I was tortured by a dentist, it wasn’t until your funeral that someone told me how angry that had made you, and I’d somehow convinced myself you didn’t care. Thanks for trying your best, because I know you did.
And I forgive you for all the mean, hateful things you said to me, and I hope you forgive me for doing the same thing. I wish we could have said these things to each other in person, I wish we could have had a better relationship while you were still alive.
I honor you, Dad, for being the best person you could be. You weren’t perfect, but you also weren’t the monster I’d made you out to be. You were a good man who tried his hardest.
Well, here we are again. I keep saying I’m going to stop writing these articles, and yet stories keep screwing up their most crucial element, pulling me right back in again.
I want to make it absolutely clear who I’m laying the blame on. It’s not the actors, nor the production team, nor any of the support staff who put in a mindboggling amount of work into this show. No, the blame lies squarely on the shoulders of Weiss and Benioff. Had HBO come to them and said “this show is too expensive, wrap it up in 13 episodes,” I would have understood this season. Under such tight time constraints, this is perhaps the best we could have hoped for. That’s not what happened.
HBO would have loved to have kept this show going. This wasn’t going to be a case of a show going longer than it should have, there was still story to be told. But the showrunners Weiss and Benioff told HBO they wanted to end their show in 13 episodes. And as we’ve just seen, that was a woefully inadequate time frame to tell this story. So much went so wrong, so quickly, and the question that will be asked for years to come is this:
What was the rush?
All That Matters is the Ending:
Game of Thrones
As I rewatched this season of Game of Thrones, four things struck me as having gone wrong. First and most strikingly, there was absolutely no consistency in the writing. Then there was the fact that characters began acting completely contrary to their established character. Piled on top of that was the dialogue this season, which was almost nonexistent when compared to earlier seasons, and what little there was mostly expository. And finally, most critically, the finale failed to emotionally resonate with the audience because in the end, there was no point to this story.
Any one of these faults the show could have overcome by the sheer quality of its pedigree, but all four together managed to destroy one of the greatest TV shows ever made.
Inconsistent Storytelling Led to a Lack of Drama
Game of Thrones spent the last 8 years building one of the most elaborately detailed fantasy worlds ever seen in a TV show. From the rich history of Westeros to the brutally realistic political system that controlled it, everything felt real. It felt realistic, even though it featured dragons and zombies, because it paid such close attention to detail. Distance, time, and most importantly, the consequences of character’s actions, were treated with respect. Nothing was treated with respect this season. People and armies appeared where they needed to with no explanation, and the story would contradict itself in the course of single episode. It completely shattered the audience’s suspension of disbelief, the very foundation of a good story.
And the thing is, I can forgive a lot. I can forgive inconsistent writing if it’s accidental, attention to detail in in world-building is a learned skill like any other and inexperienced writers can make mistakes; hell, even the most experienced writers will occasionally slip and contradict themselves.
But that’s not what happened this season.
These were not simple mistakes like forgetting a coffee cup on a table or a water bottle on the ground, these were conscious decisions. Weiss and Benioff made a choice to have Daenerys’ army respawn like video game characters after the Battle of Winterfell. They chose to make the scorpions supersonic, laser-guided super weapons and then immediately render them useless the following episode. They wanted their story to have certain scenes and hit specific plot points, but didn’t want to take the time to get there properly. They wanted to get to the end as quickly as possible and the story suffered for it. Was even destroyed by it.
Thing is, the characters overcoming these challenges would have made for a great story. With most of Daenerys’ army dead, how would she fight Cersei? We could have had an episode or two of Daenerys forging alliances with the kingdom of Dorne, while Sansa rallied the armies of The Vale. We could have Yara return with troops from the Iron Islands, and had a great scene of her mourning her brother while also celebrating his glorious death and redemption. Finally Daenerys could march on King’s Landing at the head of a true coaltion, united in their single aim of destroying Cersei.
When the battle came, instead of Drogon managing to destroy all the scorpions due to convenient scene cuts and a fundamental shift in how they operated for no reason, let the scorpions continue to be a threat. Give us a daring siege where the first objective of the battle are disabling the scorpions on the walls. Show us Greyworm and Jon fighting on the walls, and after hours of intense fighting, lighting fire to the scorpions. Show us their retreat from the wall as dusk falls, and Drogon swoops in to light the walls, and its defenders, on fire. Then cut to that night with a scene of Davos Seaworth smuggling in a handful of Daenerys’ best warriors, led by Arya, to infiltrate the city and eliminate the remaining scorpions guarding the palace. And after they’ve succeeded, show us Arya sneaking into the Red Keep, her objective certain… and then roll credits.
Instead of any of that, the plot decided to simply hand Daenerys back her army and rendered the scorpions useless. In doing so, these scenes were robbed of the conflict that was badly needed to hit the emotional high notes they were aiming for.
How do the characters overcome the obstacles standing in their way? That’s the fundamental question a writer has to answer in a story to create conflict and drama. If the writers answer that question with “because they’re the heroes,” then the story is robbed of its emotional core. There was no emotional response (aside from anger and disappointment) to the last season precisely for this reason. There was no sense of danger, no challenge to the characters, and no opportunity for growth. Without that conflict there is no story.
It was not only damaging to the story, it was disrespectful to the audience. Any storyteller should treat their audience with at least a modicum of respect, after all they’re investing their time and emotions in your story.
Showing an entire ceiling caving in on Jaime and Cersei, and then revealing the next episode that it was only a couple of loose bricks coming down, is not respecting your audience. That’s treating your audience like complete fucking idiots. It’s the equivalent of a magician trying to make an elephant disappear not through smoke and mirrors, but by saying “the elephant is now gone.” And then blaming the audience when it gets mad that they can see the elephant is still there.
Game of Thrones was the show that built itself on respecting the consequences of a character’s actions, regardless of the outcome. People talk about all the shocking and unexpected deaths: Ned, Robb, Catelyn, Tywin, etc. But in reality you could see these deaths coming from a mile away, these weren’t M Night Shyamalan-esque twists, they were the natural result of the character’s actions. The only shocking thing about their deaths was that they were allowed to die. Plot armor had become so ubiquitous in fantasy stories that suddenly experiencing one where our favorite characters were vulnerable to dying was a shock to the system.
This season the characters had plot armor so thick it shattered our suspension of disbelief. Or characters died because the plot demanded they die, rather that it being a result of their actions. How the hell did Missandei get captured when all the characters were on the same boat and the rest washed up on shore? Greyworm does tell her to “get to the skiff” but how does that lead to her capture exactly? You’d think on a boat she’d have been the only one able to escape, and everyone else gets captured.
Yet the plot demanded that Missandei die to give Daenerys’ descent into madness a veneer of credibility, and so she died. Even though Cersei, a devious plotter who tried to plan for every contingency, would likely have kept Missandei alive as a human shield and bargaining chip should she lose the battle. Which leads nicely into my next point.
The Characters Became Strangers
The characters we met this season may have had the same names, and the same actors playing them, but they were not the characters we’d grown to love. Everyone acted completely out of character, doing things this season that they would never have done in previous ones.
There is one scene that encapsulates this problem perfectly: the negotiation with Cersei, when Tyrion is trying to convince her to surrender. This scene plays out in exact opposition to every character’s established traits.
The old, better written Tyrion would never have suggested this stupid plan. In fact if someone else had, he would have called them a fucking idiot. Based on everything he knows about Cersei, her ruthless desire for power and her obsession with her children, the old Tyrion would know that Cersei would never surrender. He would also have known that standing in front of the walls of King’s Landing would have resulted in all of them dying, Cersei doesn’t give a shit about the rules of war. She would have killed them all.
Cersei doesn’t, which is completely out of character. Cersei wants to protect her child at any cost and retain the Iron Throne she’s fought so hard to sit upon. She’s never cared about the etiquette of chivalrous warfare, she wouldn’t care that Daenerys was there under a flag of truce. Her greatest rival, her advisers, including the hated brother she’s wanted to kill for so long, and Drogon are within range of her scorpions and probably her archers as well. This was the perfect opportunity to end the war in a single blow with no risk to her own troops, and Cersei of all people, would take it.
Then there’s Daenerys, she gives people only one chance. The Masters of Meereen, the Khals of the Dothraki, the Tarlys: She offered them all one chance to surrender and serve her, and when they refused she killed them. Daenerys gave Cersei her one and only chance last season, to swear a truce until the Night King is dealt with, and Cersei broke her agreement. Even if Cersei had surrendered in this scene, Daenerys would never have accepted. So her even agreeing to this charade is out of character. And as for “let the people see I tried to stop this,” reasoning, who the hell was going to see this meeting except soldiers? It’s not like this was televised on Westeros CNN.
Of course the character that was least recognizable this season was Jaime Lannister. He was easily one of the most nuanced characters in both the books and the show. I started off hating Jaime, his smug arrogant air of superiority just pissed me off. Add to that the fact that he killed the former king so that his father Tywin could take the city? He was despicable.
And then I found out the real reason he killed The Mad King. The king was about to burn the entire city to the ground rather than let his enemies take it, and Jaime did exactly what a knight is supposed to do: he picked up his sword and protected the innocent. And for this act of heroism, he was shamed. “Kingslayer” was his title now. His arrogance and aloofness was the armor he wore to protect himself from the judgement of his peers, so he could pretend it didn’t wound him to his core.
And then he was captured, and Catelyn Stark gave him the one thing he’d always wanted: a noble quest. Find two innocent girls in the middle of a war and return them safely to their mother. Brienne went with him and in her he found something he’d never found before: someone who would listen to him.
You think the “honorable” Ned Stark wanted to hear my side? He judged me guilty the moment he set eyes on me.
– Jaime Lannister to Brienne
All Jaime wanted was for someone, anyone to listen to his side of the story. To not dismiss him as a monster because he killed the man he was sworn to protect, but to listen to why he had to do it and how hard it was for him, despite everything The Mad King had done. To listen to how much it still haunted him.
“Help! The Kingslayer!”
– Brienne of Tarth
“Jaime…my name is Jaime.”
Thanks to Brienne, Jaime was able to start seeing himself for who he was, rather than how the world saw him. It was a beautiful arc of redemption and personal growth. Now that’s not to say that Jaime couldn’t have ended up back with Cersei. He loved Cersei, for better or worse, and under the right circumstances I could see him going back to her.
Maybe he would go back to convince her to surrender peacefully, as he’d tried to convince the Mad King before her. To sail away with him into exile and let Daenerys have the seven kingdoms, that nothing else mattered as long as they were together. That’s not the story the show was telling us though.
She’s hateful… and so am I.
– Jaime Lannister
That’s his whole justification for going back to her. Multiple seasons of Jaime becoming a better person, washed away by that single line. I had hoped that maybe this was a “throwing stones at a dog so it runs away” scene, that he was just saying something awful so Brienne wouldn’t follow him. But no, he seems to believe it, and it’s made even worse with this line:
When have I been able to convince Cersei of anything?
– Jaime Lannister
Try. If not for yourself, if not for her, then for any one of the million people in that city. Innocent or otherwise.
To be honest, I never really cared much for them.
Never cared much for them? Interesting considering the core of his character’s trauma and dramatic arc has revolved around breaking his oath to protect his king, in order to protect those very people. Compare that line to episode 7 in season 3, when he tells Qyburn, with pride, how he saved the city:
And how many people have you saved?
Half a million. The population of King’s Landing.
– Jaime Lannister
Now it could be that Jaime is simply reassuming his arrogant and aloof attitude to once again protect himself emotionally… but it was up to the writers to show that happening. But they didn’t give themselves time to show the degradation of his character to this extent, so none of this made sense. Though even if they’d given themselves the time, it likely wouldn’t have helped since, as you may have noticed…
The Dialogue Was Awful
Even more so than the amazing world-building, Game of Thrones made its mark with the complex and riveting dialogue it created. It used the dialogue to not only give depth to its characters but also to create the conflict in the story. Most of the running time of Game of Thrones has been spent showing people talking to each other, and that story was all the richer for it.
This season the dialogue is shockingly sparse, and what little there is of it, is expository. Most of the lines of season 8 are wasted either explaining the plot or a character’s motivations to the audience. Now obviously dialogue is supposed to reveal a character’s motivations, but by showing the audience, not telling them.
Since the show tries to use Daenerys’s crucifixion of The Masters to justify her later burning of King’s Landing, let’s use that as a good example of dialogue.
Daenerys finds these children crucified as she marches on Meereen, as a warning from The Masters. Here’s how the scene plays out:
There’s one on every mile marker between here and Meereen.
– Ser Jorah Mormont
How many miles are there between here and Meereen.
One-hundred-and-sixty-three, your grace.
– Ser Jorah
I’ll have our men to ride ahead and bury them. You don’t need to see this.
-Ser Barristan Selmy
You will do no such thing. I will see each and every one of their faces. Remove that collar before you bury her.
This is such a short exchange, but it conveys everything we as the audience needs to know about Daenerys’ state of mind. She’s calm and controlled in this scene, there is no crying or screaming, but you can feel the seething rage. There was never any doubt about what was going to happen to The Masters when she finally took the city.
Remind me, Ser Jorah, how many children did The Masters nail to mile posts?
Daenerys asks this question already knowing the answer, it’s rhetorical, even though Jorah does answer her.
– Ser Jorah Mormont
She didn’t want to hear the answer, she wanted to revel in the schadenfreude of the justice she was about to inflict upon The Masters. She wanted to take a moment to remember the face of every single one of those 163 children, so she could fully appreciate the satisfaction of watching 163 masters suffer the same fate. And because the dialogue is so effective at conveying Daenerys’ state of mind, we find ourselves reveling in watching The Masters crucified as well. It was this kind of dialogue that foreshadowed her eventual fall.
Now let’s look at Daenery’s dialogue when she decides to burn King’s Landing.
We don’t get any insight into Daenery’s state of mind, because she doesn’t get any dialogue to convey it. Instead what we get gems like these:
I worry about her state of mind.
She hasn’t seen anyone since we returned. Hasn’t left her chambers, hasn’t accept any food. […] We both know what she’s about to do.
We get other characters telegraphing (not foreshadowing, that’s more a subtle art) Daenery’s fall into madness. We never get to hear from what is arguably the most important character in the entire series. The closest we get is when she confront Tyrion about Varys knowing about Jon’s true heritage, and again it’s 90% expository, simply recounting what we already know.
Someone has betrayed me.
You know what, I’m not even going to bother transcribing the rest; she just recounts everything that happened in the previous episode, they should have just made it a narration for the “last time on Game of Thrones” recap. It conveys nothing about her character, doesn’t give us the slightest inkling that she’s about to level an entire city. More than anything else, it’s that lack of insight into Daenerys’ thinking that made the destruction of King’s Landing feel like such a whiplash inducing twist in the narrative.
And somehow, that isn’t even the worst example. Let’s look at at Jon and Tyrion talking about what Daenery’s did to King’s Landing in episode 6.
It was vanity to think I could guide her. Our Queen’s nature is fire and blood.
– Tyrion Lannister
You think our house words are stamped on our bodies when we’re born and that’s who we are?
– Jon Snow
First of all, I just want to point out that this line of dialogue is way too long. “You think our house words are stamped on our bodies” that’s all you need here, the rest is unnecessary, but I don’t want to get into the minutiae of dialogue construction. Secondly, for the sweet love of the Old Gods and the New, Jon, she literally just took the city with fire and blood. This part of the conversation would only make sense if it happened before she set an entire city on fire. Just a few sentences before this exchange, Jon says he won’t try to justify what happened. This is him immediately trying to justify it:
Cersei left her no choice. She saw her friend beheaded. She saw her dragon shot out of the sky.
– Jon Snow
And here’s is why this whole scene is nothing but expository dialogue: the writers are trying to justify Daenery’s actions to the audience (almost as if they knew the previous episode wouldn’t be well received). It’s so badly written it almost breaks the fourth wall. Tyrion’s job in this scene is to emphasize the horror of what Daenerys did last episode, and Jon’s job is to defend her actions and make them seem reasonable. That’s it. This scene does nothing to build any kind of drama, there’s no characterization going on, in fact it once again makes Jon act out of character.
Jon, like Ned, is an honorable man. Now I thought his character arc was building towards being an honorable man, while also having the pragmatism to do bad things for a greater good when it was called for (IE abandoning Sam in the battle of Winterfell.) That ultimately doesn’t go anywhere, which I’ll come to in a moment, but Jon is still an honorable man.
After Jon joins the Night’s Watch and they first visit Craster’s Keep, Jon stands up to Craster for abusing his daughter-wives, and is angry at Mormont for allowing these abuses to continue. Later when Mance Rayder is captured, he tries to convince him to surrender and bend the knee to Stannis, so that his people can live. And finally, at Hardhome, he risks everything to save an enemy he’s been taught to hate.
There’s nothing in his character that would let him look at Daenerys burning an entire city to the ground, likely killing hundreds of thousands of people, and saying “yeah, they had it coming.” The only way this could work is if Jon were so madly in love with Daenerys that he was blinded by it. Yet all we were ever shown of their romance was a single night together at the end of last season, and then some romantic dragon flights. There wasn’t enough time to devoted to their relationship to justify this kind of devotion, especially since most of the season was dedicated to Jon looking uncomfortable after finding out she was his aunt.
It’s easy to judge when you’re standing far from the battlefield.
– Jon Snow
Jon was looking just as horrified as Tyrion as they watched the city burn, he tried to hold back his own soldiers to stop them participating in the slaughter.
When she murdered the the slavers of Astapor, no one but the slavers complained, after all they were evil men. When she crucified hundreds of Meerenese nobles, who could argue, they were evil men. The Dothraki Khals she burned alive, they would have done worse to her. Everywhere she goes, evil men die and we cheer her for it. And she grows more powerful and more sure that she is good and right.
And here is the cardinal sin of this scene: it’s useless. We shouldn’t need the show to recount all the things Daenery’s has done to justify the previous episode. If this season had been better written, Daenery’s turn to madness would have made sense, and this scene would be unnecessary. As it is, it’s a pitiful attempt to explain away Daenery’s sharp and unjustified turn into a madwoman, and it fails to do even that.
Again, any one of these problems, perhaps the show could have overcome by the sheer strength of quality that had come before. Yet when you combine these things with its biggest problem, that ultimately Game of Thrones isn’t about anything, we’re truly left with an ending worse than anyone could have imagined.
In the End, Game of Thrones Wasn’t About Anything
After the final episode aired, I was browsing twitter when I saw someone post this article, which had a rather shocking quote from Benioff and Weiss.
When I asked Benioff and Weiss if it was possible to infer any overall intentionality to the upcoming 10 episodes, they sneered. “Themes are for eighth-grade book reports,” Benioff told me.
No, they’re not Benioff, the theme is what makes your story mean something. It’s true that the majority of people don’t consciously think about the theme, unless they’re writing a book report, but nonetheless it’s the theme that makes a story resonate emotionally with the audience. Few people came out of reading/watching the Harry Potter series thinking “gee, I really liked the themes about family and home.” Yet it was those themes that made people bond with the story.
One of the core themes of Harry Potter is about finding home. That a home isn’t a building or a location, like Harry’s house with the Dursley’s, but that special place that we find where we truly belong. How precious it is when we truly find a home, as Harry does at Hogwarts. This theme resonated so powerfully that people still talk about which House the Sorting Hat would put them in, because whether or not they’re aware of it, Hogwarts represents the ideal of home in their minds.
The fact that there is apparently no theme to Game of Thrones is both shocking, and a big chunk of why the ending falls totally flat. The tragedy is that this show started off with profound themes; it unflinchingly explored the ugly parts of the human psyche. It explored how we’re so obsessed about who gets to rule the imaginary social constructs we call countries, that we ignore threats to our very existence.
The Night King was supposed to embody that existential threat, the eternal winter he was bringing was going to wipe out all life on Westeros, and quite possibly the planet. Yet in the end, despite all the buildup and power at his command, he not only failed to kill Bran but his army didn’t even inflict more than 50% casualties on Daenery’s army. If he couldn’t even defeat a conventional army on the field, he wasn’t exactly an existential threat was he? Which undermines the whole theme of the show.
Fortunately that’s not the only theme! The other strong theme that’s run throughout the show has been about family. And it was a unique take at that, while most books explore finding your chosen family, Game of Thrones explored how we survive the family we’re born into. Among the Starks, Targaryens, Lannisters, and even the Tarlys, not a single family is what I would call well adjusted. The show and books explored how do we, as people, react to a bad family situation: do we let it define us, and repeat the same mistakes, or do we learn and move beyond it.
Which is why Jaime and Tyrion were two of my favorite characters, because they were both exploring what it was to move beyond the trauma their father inflicted on them. Jaime had to learn to move past his father’s expectations that he inherit Casterly Rock, and to pursue his own path. And Tyrion had to learn how to survive a family that hated him for merely existing. And the one good scene in this whole debacle is Tyrion’s goodbye to Jaime.
That’s the only emotional payoff I got out of this whole series. Whether it’s a book, TV show, movie or video game, when the audience has reached the end of the journey there needs to be some kind of emotional payoff. It can be sadness, joy, grief, or ideally a truly great story will have us feeling the full gamut of emotions. Watching Tyrion crying in his brother’s arms made me sad that Jaime was all Tyrion had, and yet overjoyed that at least he had his brother.
Now let me ask you: what did you feel when the credits rolled on the final episode of Game of Thrones?
I didn’t feel anything except a mild annoyance. In fact I was getting bored by the end, Daenerys dies 30 minutes into the episode, and then it’s just a long slog of increasingly nonsensical scenes until it finally ends. The Starks, whose whole journey has more or less focused on finding their way back to each other, go their separate ways for some reason; brutally murdering the only theme left in this show.
But let’s back up, and look at the absolute worst scene in this whole mess of an ending: choosing the new king.
All of the problems I’ve gone over, that plagued this season, merged into a perfect storm that absolutely annihilated this scene and by extension, the entire series. First of all, there’s no consistency in how this scene plays out. Tyrion is a prisoner, there as a bargaining chip to be negotiated over. More than that, he’s the the imp, the show has established repeatedly that everyone hates him because he’s a dwarf. That’s why he’s had to work behind the scenes, but now everyone is willing to just listen to him fundamentally change the system of government in Westeros?
Then there’s the fact that Greyworm is acting way out of character here, with Missandei dead, the only thing left to him was his utter devotion to Daenerys. Yet somehow we’re expected to believe that when Jon went to Greyworm and admitted his crime, he wasn’t immediately executed? And they go even further, expecting us to believe that Greyworm would agree to let whoever is elected the new ruler decide the punishment? And as if that wasn’t far enough to push our disbelief, they also expect us to believe that Greyworm would accept Jon’s half-brother handing down the verdict, as if that wasn’t a massive conflict of interest?
And Bran!? Seriously? The absolute nothing of a character, the void into which all interesting personality is sucked in and destroyed? That’s who they pick to sit on the Iron Throne?
Leaving aside how he absolutely does not have the best story, this should have been a huge point of contention among the lords assembled. Again this show is called Game of Thrones and yet here, at the end, with the Throne literally at stake, all the great houses just say: “yeah, okay, Bran can have it.”
I would imagine the North’s armies are depleted, though given the lack of consistency in this area they might have the largest army in the world at this point. Bran has absolutely no ability to back up his claim with military might, which was critical during this period in history. No one in this council knows him aside from his siblings, he’s forged no alliances, made no promises. And then to compound the error that is this ending, Sansa just decides to declare independence and no one bats so much as an eyelash at it.
This should have spun the realm into yet another civil war, because why didn’t every other kingdom say “fuck this, we’re independent too” upon seeing Bran just agree to it. There’s reason some of the bloodiest, most vicious wars in history were civil wars, because there was the fear of those in power that if you let one region peacefully secede, others would follow in droves. Game of Thrones used the cutthroat politics of feudal governance as a backdrop to tell amazing stories, and in the final indignity, even that was finally abandoned.
Then of course, to put the final nail in the coffin, was the god awful dialogue in this scene. Tyrion goes into a long, drawn out, fourth-wall breaking monologue about the importance of storytellers. It was so indulgent that I don’t even want to transcribe it here… and yet I must, because like a train wreck, it demands to be seen.
What unites people? Armies? Gold? Flags? Stories. There’s nothing in the world more powerful than a good story. Nothing can stop it. No enemy can defeat it. And who has a better story than Bran the Broken. The boy who fell from a high tower and lived. He knew he’d never walk again, so he learned to fly. He crossed beyond the wall, a crippled boy, and became the Three-Eyed Raven. He is our memory. The keeper of all our stories; the wars, weddings, births, massacres, famines, our triumphs, our defeats… our past. Who better to lead us into the future.
-Tyrion Lannister, having totally lost his god damn mind.
The sad thing about this is… I agree with everything he says here. I think stories do have power, and I think the right stories can shape our society for the better. But why is Tyrion saying this? He’s not a storyteller, and to my knowledge has never once voiced these beliefs before. More to the point though, this whole scene comes across as Benioff and Weiss talking to us directly, as if applauding their own accomplishments. And boys… you misread the room if you thought this was a good time for a curtain call.
And then, after that awkward and painful scene… it’s over. Arya heads west because she asked what was west of Westeros that one time, Sansa becomes Queen in the North, and Jon resumes his command at the Night’s Watch… even though there’s no longer a Night King to watch against. Then Jon heads beyond the wall with the Wildlings, either to become a new King-Beyond-the-Wall like Mance, or just to escort them home. I don’t know, the story didn’t tell me.
That’s it, eight years, 80+ hours, hundreds of millions of dollars… all to tell a story that ultimately went nowhere. And the sad thing is that this ending isn’t just disappointing, if it simply failed to live up to expectations, that would be one thing. No, this is a bad ending, destructive even.
Just before the first episode of this season aired, the friends I watched this show with were talking about watching the whole thing in a giant marathon after the final season was over. We’re no longer talking about that. What would be the point, when we know there’s no pay off to that kind of time commitment?
I’m glad the show existed, because it was shared cultural phenomenon. It was cool to go to work and talk to coworkers about the latest episode, and it was great excuse to get together with my friends every Sunday. Yet people who watch this in the future, won’t have that experience… all they’ll have is this story.
If someone came up to me in five years and asked if they should watch Game of Thrones… I honestly don’t know what I’d say. I would have to ask them what they’re looking for: if you just want to see some great acting and spectacular battles, then absolutely watch it. If you want a good story that means something?
Look elsewhere, because this ending destroyed the story.
Here were my responses to episode 5 of Game of Thrones season 8:
“Wait, but just last episode…”
“What? How did that happen?”
“What the hell is going on?”
And laughter, full on laughter in moments that were definitely not aiming for humor.
This is going to be quick and dirty, just sharing how horribly disappointed I am by this latest episode. Rest assured though, one of my patented All That Matters is the Ending articles is coming. In fact I’ll start working on it tomorrow because nothing that can happen in the final 80 minutes will fix the disaster that has become Game of Thrones.
Game of Thrones:
The Battle of King’s Landing
What the Hell Was That!?
I barely even know where to start with this. Are David Benioff and DB Weiss doing this kind of damage to the story intentionally? I can’t imagine the sheer incompetence necessary to completely nosedive a story into the ground this quickly. Let’s take it step by step.
The Writers Aren’t Even Pretending to Care About Consistency
So last episode, Rhaegal got taken down by Qyburn’s scorpions. The fact they seemed laser guided and armor piercing was a bit ridiculous, but it’s a fantasy story so I was willing to let this play out. Obviously the writers wanted to establish what a threat the scorpions were to Drogon in the final battle. It was sloppily done, but if that’s what they need to set up a reason why Drogon couldn’t simply destroy the city’s defenses, so be it.
Then in the very next episode Drogon destroys the city’s defenses. By himself.
If you were watching episodes 4 and 5 back to back like a movie, just 40 minutes earlier you would have seen these scorpions tear through Rhaegal like butter, and then reload almost instantly to destroy Daenerys’ fleet. And now suddenly they can only get a few shots off on Drogon, the projectiles are slower, and their slow to reload. There’s absolutely no reason given for why the scorpions fundamentally change.
Game of Thrones later seasons have been plagued by inconsistent storytelling, fundamentally changing how the world works. These changes have been gradual, however, and that made it easier to swallow. I wrote about those changes at the end of last season. This season however, all pretense of consistency has been unceremoniously burned along with the rest of King’s Landing.
The whiplash inducing change of fantastical supersonic, rapid firing scorpions to a more historical model is the most egregious example, but it’s not the only one. Remember at the end of The Long Night how everyone except our main characters seemed dead? Because Game of Thrones sure doesn’t remember.
All those dead soldiers apparently respawned in time for the battle of King’s Landing. There’s not even an attempt to explain away this inconsistency. They could have had a line in episode 2 about how only part of the army had arrived, and the rest were still a couple days away. It would have been lazy, but also believable, moving gigantic medieval armies was a massive undertaking. No, the writer’s don’t even care enough to make an attempt.
Good stories rely on things being consistent in the details, without that there’s nothing to ground the audience, no context for them to understand what’s happening. As sloppy as Rhaegal’s death was, at least it would have served to give us a good reason that Drogon couldn’t do exactly what he did in this episode. And maybe then, we could have had an actual battle for King’s Landing.
The Pacing was Terrible. Again.
Here we have the exact opposite problem of episode 3. As I wrote before, because the Winterfell defense was so utterly screwed from the opening moments of battle, there was no way to create the rising action necessary for a good battle scene. Now, Drogon is so damn efficient at destroying the defenses of King’s Landing, that the battle is over before it even begins. There’s absolutely no tension to these battle scenes because we know there’s no conceivable way they can lose at this point. This “battle” is even worse than the battle of Winterfell because at least there, at the start, we thought our main characters might be in real danger of dying. Here, there’s absolutely no sense of danger.
Without that fear of losing our beloved characters, there’s no emotional context for the scene. The fact that Daenerys’ army wins so quickly and so overwhelmingly means there absolutely no dramatic weight to these scenes: they mean nothing. It’s purely spectacle for the sake of it.
If this had been a real battle, and the Lannisters and Golden Company had put up an actual fight, maybe that would have led into how Daenery’s goes full mad queen. Show us vicious street to street fighting, with Dany watching her army paying in blood for every block they seize. Having some sense of loss, or frustration, or anger at how the battle was proceeding might have led more organically into Daenery’s turning into the story’s final, and most destructive, villain.
The Mad Queen
The books and the show have been foreshadowing Daenerys becoming the Mad Queen since she was first introduced. However, the way in which this plot point came to fruition was so inelegant, so forced, that it made it seem like it came out of nowhere.
Dany has done some terrible things in this show, we’ve seen her wrath before; crucifying the Masters in Meereen, and burning the Tarly’s alive for refusing to bend the knee. These were cruel acts of retribution that for Dany seemed like justice, and it was that warped sense of justice that foreshadowed her turning into the Mad Queen.
However, it’s a huge fucking leap to go from those examples, to literally killing hundreds of thousands of innocent people. There simply wasn’t enough time given to Dany’s descent into madness to make this feel real. I could almost have seen this working had, at the very least, Dany attacked the Red Keep first.
Instead, Dany attacks King’s Landing first, leveling the city block by block and building by building. Which doesn’t make any sense given what the writer’s have shown us. Ostensibly, according to the writers, it’s Cersei’s betrayal of their truce and the execution of Missandei that drives her to this act of fury. So why attack King’s Landing? Dany knows where Cersei is, she’s staring directly at the Red Keep when she loses her mind, and Cersei should be her first target.
By destroying the city first, Dany was giving Cersei a golden opportunity to flee. Cersei probably would have had a good chance of making it too, had she not stood there like an idiot the entire time watching it happen. You can’t convince me that someone given to this kind of rage would take the risk of allowing the object of her fury to escape her wrath.
This scene would have operated much better had Dany started with destroying the Red Keep. Then show us a reaction shot of Dany surveying the wreckage, her face still twisted with rage; killing Cersei didn’t quench her thirst for revenge. Then she loses control and destroys the city entirely. It wouldn’t have been perfect but I could have suspended my disbelief for that at least.
What would have been even better, would be for this massacre to happen after the battle. If the showrunners had taken HBO up on their offer and used 10 episodes instead 6, we could have had a proper battle for King’s Landing and then an episode of Dany trying to control the city.
Undoubtedly the people of King’s Landing would be afraid of Dany, but I also think they’d be angry: a foreign (at least to the peasants) queen with an army of foreigners conquered their home. Hell, the Dothraki probably started doing their rape and pillage thing when the city fell. And (since the show apparently forgot) winter has arrived, maybe there’s a food shortage as well. Egged on by Lannister loyalists still left alive, or better yet, a still alive Varys hoping to generate support for Jon, the city breaks into riots. Dany sends the Unsullied to put them down, and some lucky bastard manages to kill Greyworm (a la the same thing that happened to Barristan Selmy.)
And that’s when Dany snaps; the people she came to save don’t see her as a liberator, they hate her. They could never love her. And fueled by rumors of growing support for Jon’s claim to the throne, Dany decides that the only way to rule the seven kingdoms is through fear. And the destruction of King’s Landing is the perfect demonstration of her power.
This would have seemed far more oraganic and true to her character. It makes no sense that Dany would slaughter a population that had already surrendered to her. However, if the people had rejected her claim to the throne, and murdered her last remaining loyal servant, that would have fed directly into Dany’s twisted sense of justice. They won’t bend the knee, and they murdered the only man she could still trust, so now they’ll burn for it. And the rest of the Seven Kingdoms will finally know who is queen.
Unfortunately we didn’t get any of that. Instead we witnessed the death of a story, the utter destruction of everything that made this show great. Now all that’s left is to watch the final episode and see what meaning we can sift from the ashes of this disastrous finale.
Since spoilers are a tricky subject on the internet these days, here be your first and last warning:
Spoilers abound below, obviously. Read at your own risk.
The Battle of Winterfell
The Battle of Winterfell has come and gone, and the White Walkers are gone not so much with a bang, but a whimper. Oh the battle was spectacular, the action intense, but the plot and character decisions that strung it all together? It was quite easily one of the worst written episodes of Game of Thrones we’ve seen.
The ridiculous plot armor, the pacing of the battle, Arya’s saving throw, and the overall plot of this season all suffered for the bad writing. Let’s take these in order and I’ll show you how:
The Plot Armor
Plot Armor: that special armor possessed by main characters that protects them from all danger. I’ve said it before, suspension of disbelief is a magic trick; to maintain it, the writer has to distract the audience from the unbelievable parts of the narrative. Plot armor is no different. The first part of the magic trick is usually giving the character’s amazing combat abilities, magical powers, or, as in the case of Frodo, literal armor that protects them. The second part is to put the characters in danger carefully and strategically, so that it never occurs to the audience how ridiculous these moments are. Frodo’s mythril chain only comes into play once (at least in the films, it’s been year since reading the book, so don’t remember if it shows up again) and in most action films, major injuries (ex. gunshot wounds to the shoulder) are saved until the climax.
Instead of doing any of that, this episode instead chose to focus our attention on the unbelievable survival of every single character. We see Brienne get dragged down screaming, and suffer multiple wounds, in the first few minutes of the battle. And then we see it again later. And then again. And by the end, when she’s up against a wall surrounded by walkers, all the tension of the scene is lost because we know that nothing is going to happen. We saw this same thing with almost every other major character, not once, not twice, but often three, four, or even five times. Yet it was Sam that was the most egregious.
Here’s a character with almost no combat ability on the frontline of the most horrific battle of all time. Ed manages to save him once but dies doing it. Then over the course of the episode we see Sam multiple times on the verge of being overwhelmed by White Walkers. At the end of the episode we see him one last time, on the ground, bleeding from multiple wounds, crying out as White Walkers surround him. Meanwhile the Unsullied, some of the best warriors on the planet, lie dead in literal mounds around him. Yet we’re expected to believe that Sam has somehow managed to hold off the horde when the Unsullied couldn’t?
Not only is this ridiculous, pushing the suspension of disbelief to the breaking point, but it also robs Jon of a great character-building moment. Jon, like his (adoptive) father, always wants to do the honorable thing. Years ago when he and Qhorin Halfhand were trapped by Wildlings, Jon’s first instinct was for them both to die fighting rather than letting Qhorin sacrifice himself. The honorable thing to do, seeing Sam surrounded by white walkers, is to rush to his defense. Yet that’s not the correct thing to do, because if Jon stops to help, they all die and so Jon keeps going, leaving Sam to his fate. It could have been a powerful moment, but it was robbed of that power because Jon didn’t have to sacrifice anything, Sam didn’t end up dying.
At the end of the episode, when all seems lost, all of our major (and by no means coincidentally, fan favorite) characters are up against the wall, some of them literally. Jon, Daenerys, Brienne, Jaime, Tormund, Sam, Sansa, and Tyrion are all literally moments from death. Then Arya leaps in and kills the Night King and all the White Walkers die.
And everyone who’s not a named character seems dead. Seriously, the final scene shows us how utterly ridiculous it is as all our named characters are standing around in a sea of bodies. We could have, and should have, had far more casualties.
Brienne’s character arc was brought to a beautiful conclusion in episode 2, and in many ways Jaime’s was more or less complete too. And why couldn’t Sam die? Sam has served his purpose to the story, his plotlines resolved, his character arc complete. Allow them to die, let their deaths serve to give gravitas to this episode and allow it to become the apocalyptic struggle that was supposed to be.
It might have even helped give the battle a better narrative pacing.
The other problem with showing our characters constantly on the verge of death, is that it destroyed the narrative arc of the battle. A good battle scene operates like a story in itself, with a beginning, rising action, and climax. The battle of Winterfell has a beginning and a climax, but there is no rising action. It’s just a long marathon of chaotic, hopeless mayhem. The problem with this is that when Jon attempts to confront the night king, and the slow, mournful music kicks in, it doesn’t feel significantly different than what we’ve already seen. The Winterfell defense has been utterly screwed from the opening moments of the battle, and because it literally couldn’t get worse, there was no way to increase the drama for the climax.
This could have been fixed by having our characters use proper battle tactics, which would have allowed for an ebb and flow to the battle. Instead of blindly charging into an enemy you haven’t even seen yet, keep the cavalry in reserve. Instead of standing in front of the stake pits, have the Unsullied arrayed behind them in tight formation, allowing them to spear any of the undead attempting to force their way through. Have the artillery constantly bombarding the rear ranks of the White Walkers while archers whittle away their front ranks. And then as they all begin funneling their way through the barricades, have John and Dany swoop in for some air support. Then call in the Dothraki to hit the flanks and trap the undead between the calvary and the barricade, leaving a huge killing field for the dragons and the artillery.
We could have had a scene with the characters on the wall watching, who turn to each other as if to say “this isn’t so bad, we can win this.” Give the audience the false hope that maybe this won’t be as terrible as they feared.
And then rip the carpet out from under them. Have yet another wave of White Walkers charge in from the forests, outflanking the Dothraki and now they’re the ones trapped with no hope of escape. Have the Night King swoop in and destroy the front ranks of the Unsullied with his dragon, opening holes in their lines that the White Walkers begin to charge through. Have the Generals show up, cutting huge swathes through the Unsullied and leading the charge onto the walls where our heroes will have to fight them. Have Brienne and Jaime cut down one of the generals, and show his White Walkers fall to the ground, and again let us believe that maybe, just maybe, they can win.
And then have two more generals show up, and overwhelm the wounded Brienne and Jaime, because nothing can stop death. A slower escalation of the battle, starting off hopeful and then degrading to the point of hopelessness, would have provided the battle a narrative arc that would have led beautifully into the climax. Instead because the action maintained a flat trajectory the whole time, the drama necessary to properly deliver the crucial moment was never allowed to build up, and that’s why the Night King’s death feels unearned.
The Killing Blow Comes from Nowhere
First I should say that I love that it’s Arya, and not Jon, that kills the Night King. That’s the kind of unexpected twist, that makes sense in retrospect, that made Game of Thrones a cultural icon. However, the way it was shot and the decisions that brought about this shocking moment felt completely unearned.
She seemingly materializes out of thin air, somehow getting past thousands of White Walkers, the White Walker generals, and a fucking Dragon to land a killing blow on the Night King. This moment has been over a decade in the making, and it felt anticlimactic because there’s no attempt to show how Arya pulls off this incredible assassination.
What instead should have happened is to show Arya carefully getting into position, using all the skills she’d learned over the course of the show. In fact this could have been easily done by reediting the already existing scenes and maybe adding a couple new ones and some dialogue. During the battle, Arya is forced into Winterfell castle to escape the overwhelming number of White Walkers. Instead of that, have Arya choose to enter the castle because she’s knows where the best place to strike is and going through the castle is the only way to get there.
Let us see her sneaking through the shadows of the darkened halls of Winterfell, her intimate knowledge of the castle and her time as a blind person letting her navigate around the Walkers without having to see them. Then after a few successful evasions, she gets caught and we could still have that panicked dash through the castle, and the Hound and Beric arrive to save her. Now, instead of Beric being resurrected just to save Arya at some random moment, he was resurrected because he needed to be there at that precise moment to give her the time she need to reach the Night King. Then maybe add a scene of her running along rooftops to position herself for the killing blow. Have John see her sneaking along the roof, and have him intentionally distract the dragon to give Arya the window she needs to reach her target.
Had all, or at least some of that, been shown it would have established the overwhelming odds that Arya was up against. It have made the moment even more amazing because we would have seen the effort she went through to be at the right place, at the right time to save the world. Instead of Arya being there because the plot demanded she needed to be there, it would instead have been her choices and actions that led her there. The moment would have felt earned then, rather than literally coming out of thin air.
And now that Arya has literally saved the world, Game of Thrones has to answer a difficult question.
Where Does the Story Go From Here?
As I covered here and again in my Star Trek: Discovery article, apocalyptic plotlines are a double-edged sword. By literally putting the world’s survival at stake, you’re sacrificing the stakes in other plotlines. If you choose to threaten the characters with a world-ending cataclysm in your story, you better be damn sure that resolving that is the last part in the story.
To bring this back to basic storytelling elements, having the Night King defeated this early is going to throw off the rising action of this final season. The Battle of Winterfell dialed the action up to 11, it put everything at stake: not only were our favorite characters nearly killed, but the very setting itself, Westeros, was on the verge of annihilation. Even with all the storytelling missteps that this episode held, I was still on the edge of my seat and it was an emotionally exhausting episode.
And now I find myself curious: where does the story go from here? Maybe the show will surprise me, but I can’t help but feel that whatever grand battle occurs between John, Dany, and Cersei just won’t be able to reach the same heights. In fact it simply cannot reach those heights because who sits on the Iron Throne feels rather trivial when compared to the extinction of all life on Westeros.
Another problem I had was that the books were obviously heading in the direction of the White Walkers being the ultimate threat, but it seems the show has taken the opposite tack. By eliminating the White Walkers so easily (and yes it was easy because, despite losing their whole army, none of the main characters ever seemed in danger and Arya’s sudden appearance felt like a Deus ex Machina) the show has made it clear it wants to be done as quickly as possible and get back to who sits on the Iron Throne. Which is a shame, because the books made a great parallel to real life: that humanity worries about trivial things like power and politics, even in the face of extinction level events. One of the biggest themes that this story explores is how shortsighted humanity is; we focus on the wrong things, our ambitions and fears, which often blinds us to the larger problems we face.
My hope for the ending was that I would see the most fundamental fantasy trope turned on its head: the heroes lose and the villain wins. That they would lose the battle of Winterfell, and that perhaps Jon and Dany and a handful of others manage to escape on dragons, but the rest perish. Maybe then they to plead with Cersei to fight the dead, and Cersei ends up executing both of them to secure her throne and in doing so, dooms the world. The final episode culminating in the dead overrunning King’s Landing, and the Night King assuming the throne, the Wight versions of all of our main characters taking their place by his side. The story has told us repeatedly: fight together or die alone. Well, they didn’t fight together, Cersei betrayed them… so let them now die alone.
Maybe the final three episodes will prove me wrong, and if so, I’ll be back here writing about what an amazing achievement they’ve made. Only time will tell.
Three years ago a friend of mine invited me to come play Dungeons & Dragons. It’s been an incredible experience. I’d heard of D&D, and having played Baldur’s Gate and D&D-like games such as Dragon Age: Origins I was familiar with some of the mechanics of it. Yet I never realized the potential storytelling abilities of the game.
Much like D&D based video games, our dungeon master (the guy telling the story), created the world our party lives in and there’s a one big objective we’re trying to achieve. However, unlike in video games, where the scope of the story and a character’s possible actions are limited, in table top the character can do anything. Or perhaps more accurately, at least attempt to do anything.
Our DM comes up with an outline of what he expects us to do, but there have been times our party has gone in completely different directions to what was expected. What this has allowed for is collaborative storytelling. Every player is telling a story from their character’s perspective, and the DM weaves it together into a coherent narrative. It’s truly remarkable how well developed our story has become.
Now I know my experience won’t be universal because I lucked out and rolled a natural 20 on my D&D group. We’re all actors, writers, and musicians; we’re all storytellers. So when you get a bunch of storytellers in a D&D game, it’s magic, because we’re all dedicated to telling a compelling and emotional story. If my first D&D game had been with a bunch of gamers, people more interested in gaming the mechanics to make the most powerful character and hunting for epic loot, I would not have continued playing. Not because that’s not a legitimate way to play the game, but simply because that’s not what interests me. So if have one piece of advice to give, it’s this: if you want to play D&D, play it with a group that shares your interests.
Over the course of these past three years, playing this game has taught me more about storytelling, characters, and narrative pacing than I would have thought possible outside a classroom.
Here’s how Dungeons & Dragons has made me a better writer.
I’ve Learned How to See Things From My Character’s Perspective
So let me introduce you to my character Krael, a human Dragon Shaman. Due to some unfortunate dice rolls when generating my stats, he ended up with 7 wisdom; whenever I have to roll for something that uses Wisdom (to notice important details, for instance), I have to subtract 2 from whatever I roll. Worse than that though, is the Krael is Chaotic Good.
Without going too much in the mechanics of D&D, Chaotic Good means that Krael is driven by a desire to do good but he hates following the rules. If he has to break the law to help someone, he’s perfectly okay with that; in fact, if he has to break a law to do it, so much the better. If he has to murder someone for the greater good, that’s fine too. With his low wisdom, I decided Krael would probably always decide he knew what was best, and almost always be wrong. Being the disciple of a dragon, whom he viewed as a god, would also make Krael arrogant and convinced that no matter what he did, he was fulfilling the divine will of his master.
This is all to say that Krael is just a huge dick.
As my friends have pointed out, that’s a complete opposite of who I am (for which I’m quite grateful). I’ve been writing all my life, and I always thought I did a good job writing the characters as they would actually act. Which I did, but here’s the thing: they were all just me in a fictional world. Mary Sue is the term for this and no, it’s not just a derogatory word for a female character you don’t like. It’s the author inserting themselves as a character, knowingly or not. So of course I was great at writing characters before, they were all just me, so I knew exactly how I would act.
Coming at things from Krael’s perspective, however, has meant I often end up doing things I don’t want to do but Krael must do. For instance one time Krael and the rest of the party were trapped in a hallway with only one way out, and an unseen foe was hurling fireballs down the hallway at us. Now me, the constantly worried John who hates taking any kind of risks, wanted to hunker down and wait for one of the other characters to do something. Our party had an archer that could shift into the ethereal plane, who could probably take the attacker out at range or at the very least shift into the ethereal to avoid detection and flank the attacker.
But then I thought about Krael: a man who possesses that special arrogance of youth that makes us think we’re invincible combined with a self-righteousness and desire to protect his friends. So headstrong and arrogant that he believes he’s the only capable fighter in the group, and it’s his responsibility to act. Which meant there was only one, inevitable conclusion to this scenario:
“I charge down the hallway at the enemy.” I told our DM, facepalming so hard I left a handprint on my face. To my surprise Krael did actually make it out of the hallway, but only just. As he stepped across the threshold into the chamber beyond the hall, a fireball hit him square in the chest, exploding with enough force to slam him into the wall. I can’t remember the exact amount of damage it did, but Krael was barely alive following that. Yet that was the inevitable conclusion of Krael’s actions, and he couldn’t have done anything else because that’s simply who he is.
I don’t always succeed at this however. There was one night it was late, it had been a long day at work, and Krael was trapped in the middle of a fire. He was low on health, and he could either retreat to the other side of it, to keep it between him and his enemies, or charge through it to attack them. I knew what Krael would do, but for some reason decided that I had to save Krael from himself on this day. Yet I instantly regretted it, because I knew that isn’t what Krael would have done. Yet that failure to consider Krael’s character was one of my greatest learning experiences.
Now when I’m writing, and a scene doesn’t feel right, I go back and think: are the characters acting true to themselves, or am I forcing them to act the way I want for the sake of the plot? Or worse yet, afraid of what the consequences for the character might be? 90% of the time, if the scene doesn’t feel right it’s because I made the characters act in a way contrary to their nature.
Yet I’ve also learned that sometimes there’s a rare occasion, that you do have to bend your character’s to your will to keep a story on track.
I’ve Learned Your Character Can’t Direct Everything
There was a moment when our main quest was going to take us off course for rescuing Krael’s dragon, who’s been missing the majority of the game. This was an interesting dilemma for me. On the one hand, in-character, Krael’s most important goal is to locate his dragon and would not brook any interruption to that quest. After all, as a Dragon Shaman, so for Krael his dragon is literally a god in his eyes and inspires the same fanaticism as any other zealot.
On the other hand, out-of-character, I didn’t want to break up the party. For one, I didn’t want to put our DM through that, making him write a seperate story for me. And secondly, half the fun is the interactions with the other characters, a solo D&D story just wouldn’t be as much fun. My friend BJ was able to jump in and give my character an out with a convincing argument that Krael couldn’t rescue his dragon alone. Did Krael capitulate a little too easily? Maybe, but that’s also a small price to pay for the story staying on track.
If you write a story to be entirely character-driven then you can derail your own story. If you have a character like Krael, given to impulsiveness and recklessness, you can’t always stay true to the character, or the story might go off on a tangent. Game of Thrones has a good example of this in the Dorne plot. Is it in character that the Dornish would seek to avenge Oberon’s death at the hands of the Mountain, and seek revenge on the Lannisters? It absolutely is. Did it completely screw up the pacing of A Feast for Crows and a couple of the later seasons of Game of Thrones? Yes it did, and thus should have been left on the cutting room floor for the good of the story.
Character driven stories are great, but you have to have some limitations on that or risk your story becoming unmanageable. It’s also important to make sure that your main character doesn’t overshadow everyone else.
I’ve Learned Every Character Has To Be Allowed to Experience Their Story
You have to let other people experience their own character’s stories. Not only is this the polite thing to do when you’re playing a group, but also improves the story by allowing complex characterization. Just recently our party returned to the home of our dwarf paladin character, and he had his own storylines to pursue about reuniting with his family. All of our characters had their own adventures while we were there of course, but this was Ivan’s story, and even though I had so many ideas for how Krael could get into trouble in this city, it was important to let Ivan (and more importantly, the man playing him) to have his moment. In doing so, we had a better idea of where Ivan had come from and the events that had shaped who he’d become.
This is important, and something you’ll find in every good story. The Harry Potter series is obviously centered on Harry Potter, but it also allows its other characters their moment to shine. If Harry was the only one allowed to shine, it wouldn’t have survived that first book; it was Hermione, Ron, Dumbledore, Snape, Hagrid and countless others that brought that book to life. You can’t have Harry Potter without everyone else.
I give our DM a lot of credit, because he’s given every character in our party their chance to shine. We all have our own personal quests, something at stake for all of our characters, and most importantly, the possibility of failure looming over us. In fact in the coming weeks, it may be Krael’s turn again as his dragon dies from an incurable disease and only a crazy magical experiment might save her. There’s a good chance that both Krael and his dragon die in the attempt.
In which case, I’ll be back with a new character and a new opportunity to learn how to see things from a different character’s perspective. Who knows, I might even learn new things about myself as well.
Unexpectedly, I Learned To Be A Better Person
Where did Krael come from?
That’s what my friend BJ asked a couple days ago. After all, he’s the polar opposite of who I am.
Krael came from the parts of my personality that I was terrified to express. The man who leaps first and asks questions later, always up for adventure, who says yes to even the craziest ideas no matter the danger. Krael is the adventurer, the warrior, that I’d carefully hidden away from the world. Krael was a dick, because that’s how I was afraid the world would perceive me if I ever let that warrior out.
And this how D&D made me a better person: it was therapeutic. It gave me a safe place to express parts of my personality that I was afraid to show.
When I finally decided to try ballroom dancing, I was terrified, but I was able to say to myself “this is no where near as stupid as charging into a dragon’s lair.” When I decided to ask a girl out on a date, as much as I feared I would come across as pushy and threatening, I reminded myself that Krael is a far bigger dick than I am.
Maybe this won’t make sense to anyone else, after all it’s just a game, obviously the consequences for Krael aren’t real. The possible consequences for me are. Yet because the consequences for Krael aren’t real, it allowed me to practice. Being confident, I’ve learned, is a skill like any other. I’m still learning, and still practicing. Now my practice extends to doing ballroom dance competitions, going on international trips with my best friend, and even attempting to date again after three years of hiding.
Yet none of that would have been possible without that first tiny step of pretending to be Krael once a week. It’s the small steps I’ve learned, that lead to the biggest changes.
So after the first four episodes of Star Trek: Discovery made such a great impression on me, I was happy with the way this season was shaping up. I’m… less so now. As the season has progressed the show has begun slipping back into bad habits, once again emphasizing plot development over character growth. It’s not as bad as it was last season, but it’s getting distracting enough to the point where my excitement for where the season was heading is severely diminished.
So let’s talk about some of the problems that have cropped up this season.
Star Trek: Discovery
I’m Starting to Forget What’s Happening
The Problem with Time Travel
Spore drives and time travel; Klingons and AI. Star Trek: Discovery has a bad habit of coming up with overly complicated and unnecessarily dire situations to drive its plot.
The trouble started when Tyler speculates that the Red Angel is a time traveller, because there seemed to be no evidence of that being the case yet. My initial thought was that the Red Angel would turn out to be some kind of lifeform, perhaps a unique entity, that was driven by an overwhelming compassion. Instead, Tyler and Section 31’s out-of-left-field assumption turns out to be 100% true. That’s a problem for two reasons, the first being that it’s a major retcon of Star Trek canon.
Now I don’t care about how much more advanced the Discovery is when compared to the Enterprise. It’s true the original series Enterprise didn’t have anything remotely as advanced as the holographic displays on Discovery; Star Trek had a special effects budget of “whatever loose change the cast and crew could find in their couches” and it was made in the 1960’s, when seatbelts in cars was considered a radical new invention. It’s important to take into account the real world conditions that led to the design decisions of the day, had Gene Roddenberry had access to today’s technology (and budget), the Enterprise would likely have looked far different.
However, introducing Time Travel as a 23rd century ability seems like a huge retcon to make for no good reason. The other shows have obviously had time travel in them, sometimes to almost absurd degree, but it was always due to some spacial anamoly or from advanced Starfleet ships travelling back from the 29th century. Also time crystals? I’ll admit, Star Trek is far more fantasy than it is science. For every real scientific idea, like Matter/Anti-matter reactions to generate power, you’ll have two heisenberg compensators and inertial dampeners.
But at least when Star Trek delves into fantasy, they at least dress it up with fancy lingo. Time crystal… it’s like they’re not even trying.
The biggest problem with this time travel plot is that it feels like such an artificial way to create danger. As much as I disliked the Klingon War in the first season, at least the Klingons had understandable motivations and were a known quantity in the universe. By contrast Star Trek: Discovery has had to do some significant storytelling gymnastics in order to make Control a credible threat. First of all, they had to introduce the idea that Starfleet uses “Control” as an AI assistant that helps them make decisions. Then they had to introduce a strange sphere with vast knowledge to justify Control becoming sentient. Then there had to be a time travelling suit to jump forward in time to see Control’s destruction of all sentient life, so then it could jump back in time to stop it.
There had to have been easier way to introduce the threat for this season. In fact, why did it have to be such a huge threat? By threatening to extinguish all life in the galaxy, Star Trek: Discovery is going to have to answer a difficult question next season.
Where Does Discovery Go From Here?
In the second out of two seasons, Star Trek Discovery features yet another world ending catacylsm that only our intrepid heroes can prevent. Last season it was humanity and Earth at stake, this time it’s literally all sentient life in the galaxy. They have dialed the threat up to 11 in their second season, all but gauranteeing that season three’s stakes simply won’t be able to live up to that. What else can you possibly threaten when you’ve literally threatened everything.
I talked about this in my article You Don’t Have to Save the World, but constantly relying on cataclysmic events to build tension for your story is ultimately self-defeating. You can get away with it in movies or books, where it’s a one-off story. Game of Thrones and The Witcher 3 show how you can slow-cook the cataclysm, building it up gradually while focusing on smaller subplots and character development. If Star Trek: Discovery wants to run for 5-7 years like its predecessors, then it can’t keep relying on end of the world scenarios to drive its plots because it’s already getting old. It would be like if Game of Thrones first season had ended with Jon Snow defeating the white walkers, and then to come back in season 2 with him defeating Sand Walkers from the south. And then the Water Walkers.
I wrote in my initial article, that I was afraid that the signals would end up being a warning of impending galactic destruction, and was happy that wasn’t the case. Boy, I guess that’ll teach me about speaking too soon, because it ends up that’s exactly what they are. This season of Star Trek: Discovery is now looking identical to the plot of Mass Effect; a strange, almost incomprehensible warning about the destruction of all sentient life spurs a starship crew to stop it before it’s too late. Except Control isn’t nearly as interesting as the Reapers.
Another thing I loved about those first four episodes was that they explored different ideas about faith, death, friendship, and sacrifice; they were actually about things. Some of the episodes kept up with that, most notably Saints of Imperfection and Through the Valley of Shadows, but the “Red Angel” storyline began steamrolling anything in its way. Which would be fine if that storyline had anything interesting to say, but unfortunately it doesn’t.
A sentient machine bent on the destruction of all life is something that both Terminator 2 and Mass Effect explored with far more nuance. Star Trek: Discovery is desperately pushing that narrative, but it also refuses to say anything about it. The only motivation they can come up with for Control is a single line about it being the purest (or one could say, perfect) form of life in the galaxy. Why does it believe that? Why does that necessitate the extermination of all other life?
The show’s response is to say “Who cares? Let’s just get on with the explodey bits.” Ironic, considering that when it’s not rushing to play up the threat posed by Control, it’s overplaying its hand with the emotions of the show.
Wasting Emotional Scenes
The emotions of Discovery have gotten a little repetitive. I still understand them at least, but they’re losing their power. Last season Michael was difficult to relate to because she acted too Vulcan, almost completely detached emotionally. This season Michael has swung too far in the opposite direction, there were three or four episodes in a row where Michael has had long crying scenes. There’s nothing wrong with that per se, aside from the fact it’s happening too frequently.
Just as excessive action scenes can exhaust and bore an audience, so can too many emotional scenes, especially if it’s always the same emotion. Michael with dying Saru; Michael reconciling with Spock; Michael reuniting with her mother. They all feature her crying, and while she’s a good actress who carries the scenes well, it’s felt like one after another with no opportunity to show other emotions.
Which is why I wish Jett Reno was a central character rather than a recurring character, because I adore her dry, sarcastic wit. Her conversation with Hugh in Through the Valley of Shadows, where she reveals that her wife was killed in the war, felt all the more powerful because that was the first time we’d seen her vulnerable like that.
This is well illustrated with Pike as well when he’s about to obtain the time crystal. I’ve watched Pike all season, seeing him as a confident commander and a positive, idealistic man who encourages his crew to be the best they can by setting himself as an example. When we see him confronted with his future, of being horrifically maimed and forever crippled, he’s terrified. Not only that, but you see him grieve for the future he thought he had. It’s a powerful scene, and ultimately one of my favorites that the show has created so far. Had we been treated to five scenes of Pike crying and being terrified before this one, it would have been far less powerful.
Meanwhile Discovery is burning through its emotional highpoints way too quickly with Michael. Seeing Michael’s lose her mother a second time should have been a heartbreaking scene, an emotional crescendo leading into the final act of the season. Yet I didn’t feel much of anything because I felt like I’d seen this all before with Michael and Saru, and then again with Michael and Airiam.
Now I thought the show did a good job at making Airiam into an actual character, considering in season one she was just a weird background detail. The funeral was quite touching as well. Again, however, you can only use these scenes so many times, and what Star Trek: Discovery has essentially does is waste a well done funeral scene on a bit character. If a main character does eventually die, then the show is almost obligated to either match or exceed the expectation this scene sets. Why set yourself up for failure like that?
Overall I’m still liking this season way more than last, and I do want to go into more detail about what this season has done right. However, the mistakes that keep cropping up speak to a fundamental problem with the storytelling philosophy that guides the show. If Star Trek: Discovery wants to survive long-term, and I desperately want it to, it’ll need to change how it tells its story in the coming seasons. Relying on extinction level events to build its stakes, creating convoluted plotlines driven by time travel and spore drives, cannot be sustained in the long term.
We’ll see what Star Trek: Discovery manages to pull out of its hat in the final two episodes of the season. I’m rooting for it, I want this show to succeed, but I’m no longer as confident as I was when I saw those first four episodes.
It’s now been about 15 months since I started working 6-days a week, and I’m relieved to report that there’s finally light at the end of the tunnel; I’ll soon be switching to only four and a half days a week, cutting my overtime from 12-16 hours per week down to about 3 or 4. I desperately need that because this has easily been the most mentally exhausting year of my adult life.
Unfortunately that will come at the cost of being less financially stable, but I think I’ll be able to compensate now that I’ll have the time and mental resources to write again. Despite last year being the absolute worst year in terms of my number of posts written and published, I’m still getting 50 to 100 views a day here. So clearly you guys want more content here, and like what I’ve written, so I’ll be redoubling my efforts to create more content here.
I’ve said that before, many times, and not followed through, but this past year has seen a tremendous about of personal growth for me. Something I’ll save for a future post, but it’s been tremendously exciting. I also have new directions I want to go with my blog, which is something I’ve struggled with in the past; feeling like I’m retreading old ground.
Thanks to the insane hours I’ve been working, I haven’t played a video game in well over a year at this point. The time I would have once spent on video games has been spent ballroom dancing, playing the tabletop Dungeons & Dragons, going a personal trainer, and generally just going out and being social. My love of video games came from their ability to transport me away this world; the only reason I survived my teenage years was playing video games, and finding belonging and purpose there. It’s exciting that I no longer need that escape to survive and feel happy.
I still love video games though and the potential they have for telling stories. Even though the industry is going through a lot of upheaval and turmoil at the moment, would still love to eventually write for a video game. So I’m going to transition away from my All that Matter is the Ending format of reviews and more specialized, detailed looks at the scripts, direction, and narrative design behind video games. It will take time, but it’ll be coming soon.
In the mean time though, just to get the ball rolling again, let’s start with something easy. I just saw the preview for Borderlands 3 and I’m excited for it because Borderlands 2 remains the only “Looter-Shooter” genre game I’ve ever enjoyed.
Let’s talk about Handsome Jack. (Note: I have never played The Pre-Sequel and so the following won’t include anything that might have been added to Handsome Jack’s story in that game.)
The Great Villain of Borderlands 2:
The “Looter-Shooter” is a genre where you kill enemies to obtain powerful weapons/equipment so that you can kill enemies to get even more powerful loot to kill increasingly powerful enemies. This is the core mechanic in a lot of games, but Looter-Shooters take it to its furthest extreme. What makes the Borderlands series unique is that it wove that game mechanic into the story itself. The game gives us a comical perspective on what a society driven by the desire for better loot might look like.
The player character, known as a Vault Hunter, comes to Pandora looking for loot. The “Vault” they’re looking for is alien, but an entire industry of weapons manufacturers have arisen to provide the most power and exotic ways to main and kill. The people that have come to Pandora to search for the vault are insane, driven only by the desire to kill and loot. Yet despite a setting that would lend itself to a “grim-dark” story of suffering and woe, Gearbox chose a weird and humorous tone instead that paired perfectly with the art direction. The first Borderlands was disappointing precisely because it didn’t have a story beyond the unique setting. Yet it was the unique setting that made me interested enough to buy the next game, Borderlands 2.
It’s of course in Borderlands 2 that we meet Handsome Jack, who is a well written character for a few reasons. The first being that he fits in perfectly with the setting Gearbox created in the first game; there’s always the temptation to make the villain a scary badass, like Darth Vader or Sauron, but that would have fallen absolutely flat in this universe. Instead Handsome Jack operates as a foil for the player character; he’s a vicious smartass who thinks he’s the good guy.
When I first began playing, I thought it was laughable that Jack would think himself the hero of the story. I mean one of the first audio logs you can find in the game is of Handsome Jack laughing hysterically as he blows a woman’s brains out. No one this evil thinks he’s the good guy, right? Wrong. For one pretty much every mass-murdering dictator out there thought himself the good guy. And two, I realized Jack thought he was the hero for exactly the same reasons I did.
When I looked at the story from the outside, rather than from the perspective of my vault hunter, I realized the two characters are essentially the same. Jack achieves his ends by violently murdering anyone who gets in his way. Meanwhile I, the heroic Vault Hunter… did exactly the same thing. Jack is irreverent in his murdering, cracking jokes and laughing as he kills. So does the Vault Hunter.
Jack continually brought up how he was trying to bring peace to Pandora by killing all the criminals that inhabited the planet. Of course to me, the people in Sanctuary aren’t criminals and murderers, but only because I like (most of) them. The truth is though there isn’t a single innocent civilian on the entire planet, everyone from Roland down to the lowliest midget shotgunner is an insane criminal who has undoubtedly murdered someone.
Jack reveals that Angel, the entity that has been guiding you the whole time, works for him and uses her to bring down Sanctuary’s shields. My first time playing there was definitely some mild panic and a sense of horror watching Jack bombard the city from orbit. In a sense that’s a testament to how well the game is written, because if you look at it objectively, bombing Sanctuary isn’t as heinous as act as it first appears. This isn’t just a city, it’s a city on Pandora, which means it’s filled with people who, even at the best of times, could only be described as criminally insane. So really, the worst thing you can level at Jack for this attack is that it’s just unsportsmanlike. It’s after this attack on Sanctuary, however, that the game goes from an okay story to an outstanding story.
Angel doesn’t just work for Jack, she’s his daughter. Jack has essentially imprisoned her, and while he’s obviously using her to further his own ends, you can still tell he loves her. From Jack’s warped perspective, you can see how imprisoning Angel might seem to him like protecting her; they both exist in a world where violence is not only a means, but an end unto itself. Angel is tired, however, and perhaps even heartbroken over what she’s seen her father become. She guides you through Jack’s defenses and tells you how to kill her, both to frustrate Jack’s plans and to end a life of slavery.
And when you’re in that room, about to kill her, Jack pleads with you not to do it. I want to give some serious props to Dameon Clarke, the voice actor behind Handsome Jack, because he sells these lines. He’s so convincing that, no matter how many times I replay the game, I always feel regret over killing Angel. His desperation and fear, his pain, feels so authentic.
Don’t you know what you’re DOING?! Who cares about the goddamn key — you’re gonna end the life of an innocent girl!
Handsome Jack to the Vault Hunter
That line always makes me pause and in my first playthrough I even searched the room, looking for some secret easter egg that would allow me to both save Angel’s life and set her free. But it’s not there, there’s only one way her story ends.
These events significantly shift Jack’s character, as well they should. One of the first times Jack calls you, he’s munching on popcorn and telling you he named his fancy new space horse “Butt-Stallion” in your honor. That wise-cracking, irreverent character dies the same moment Angel does. In his place comes a Jack driven by a cold fury so chilling that it still gives me goosebumps to think about. Jack’s penchant for elaborate traps and creatively sadistic methods of killing is replaced by a single-mided determination to kill the Vault hunter.
Angel…I’m sorry I couldn’t protect you.
Jack was abusive, his love for his daughter twisted by a desire to possess and harness her powers, but from his perspective you murdered his daughter. In reality her death was just an elaborate method of assisted suicide, but all Jack sees is that you pulled the trigger. His motivations for wantting you dead are understandable, and even relateable.
And at the end of the day, that’s all I want from characters: relateable, human motivations that drive their actions. That’s exactly what I got from Handsome Jack, and that’s why he was the Great Villain of Borderlands 2.
No, no, no… I can’t die like this… not when I’m so close… and not at the hands of a filthy bandit! I could’ve saved this planet! I could have actually restored order! I wasn’t supposed to die by the hands of a child-killing psychopath! You’re a savage! You’re a maniac! You are a bandit AND I AM THE GODDAMN HERO!
So thanks to Washington’s latest bout of Snowmageddon, my 6-day work weeks have had an unexpected break. So with some free time on my hands, I decided to try watching Star Trek: Discovery after a friend recommended I give it a second chance. I was skeptical, figured I’d give the first episode 30 minutes and then turn it off, because I have so limited leisure time nowadays I can’t afford to waste it.
Four hours later I found myself absolutely devastated that I had to wait another week to get a new episode of Discovery. Now I’ve seen shows get better with every season, many of the Star Trek series follow that curve, but never have I experienced such a drastic improvement in my viewing experience. I was one of Discovery‘s harshest criticslast season, and now I can barely believe that this is the same show.
So what’s changed to so radically alter my experience with the show? Well, for one, I think I finally understand what’s happening.
Star Trek: Discovery
I Finally Know What’s Happening
The sheer amount of improvement that I’ve seen just in the first four episodes of Discovery almost defy belief. I now feel bad about how hard I was on it last season, because now I feel like the production problems that plagued the show’s first season were probably to blame. There are still problems with the show (namely it’s only available on a streaming service no one wants), but every show has problems, and at least now I actually understand what’s happening.
Star Trek: Discovery is Now About Exploration
Now that the Klingon War is over the show can focus on exploration and struggling against the harsh realities of space again. No longer hamstringed by breakneck plot pacing and exhausting battle sequences, Star Trek: Discovery now has time for the careful, considered brainstorming that made Star Trek such a joy to watch.
Right off the bat, the crew of Discovery has to figure out how to land on a strange asteroid whose gravitational forces exceed what its mass alone would create. What this allows for is actual teamwork, rather than just sitting around waiting for Captain Lorca to tell everyone the plan on how to blow up Klingons. After coming out of warp, Saru identifies it as an interstellar asteroid, Michael gives its approximate mass and that it has an atmosphere, and Detmer reports that there’s intense gravity distortions.
Captain Pike says one of the best lines of the episode:
“I want to know what’s down there. Suggestions?”
This is something Captain Picard asked all the time, because he realized that it was his crew, and not the ship itself, that was the true resource. Captain Pike needs ideas, and Michael provides one: telescopic cameras that would allow them to see what’s on the asteroid. The picture reveals a crashed Federation medical frigate but Michael can’t read the registry number, but Saru has better eyesight, so she asks him to read it. Later, during an attempt to land on the asteroid, Pike’s landing pod is damaged. Michael comes up with a way to save him, but she has to rely on Owo and Detmer to help her do it. Watching a team work together to come up with solutions to impossible problems, that’s what Star Trek is all about; how amazing mankind can be when it works together for a common cause.
In the next episode, Discovery has to save a colony of pre-warp humans from an impending disaster. Ensign Tilly comes up with the solution, but it takes Detmer’s piloting skills and Stamets use of the Spore Drive to make it work. The following episode has Tilly struggling with what she believes is a hallucination, but Michael figures out that it might be an alien presence, and Stamets who eventually removes it. No one person is ever able to save the day themselves, it relies on the crew working together.
Yet most heartening of all, is that while the crew is exploring space, the show is using that setting to explore ideas. Star Trek has always been about exploring ideas: scientific, spiritual, and personal. Yet all I really ever got out of the first season of Discovery was the exploration of war, which has been done better by countless other stories, including Deep Space 9. Now though, free of the “war is hell, and everything is awful” message that they kept hammering home last season, Discovery is free to, well, discover new ideas. And explore them.
When I saw the previews for the second season, I thought that the strange signals would inevitably be some dire threat; I was almost expecting a Mass Effect storyline where the signals would be warnings of a coming apocalypse. Instead I’ve been pleasantly surprised to find that these signals are warning of a different kind, an indicator that someone needs help. It’s while following the first of these signals that Discovery comes across the asteroid, and the trapped Federation crew below. The next signal leads them to a group of pre-warp humans who had been seemingly rescued by an alien entity from the ravages of the 3rd World War, but who were now in danger of dying from falling radioactive debris.
The mysterious Red Angel figure behind all of this appears to be guiding Discovery to missions of mercy. Yet what this plotline is allowing the show to explore is the idea of divine intervention, and the idea of god itself. How would humanity react to the idea that what religion thinks of as a god, could in fact just be an alien intelligence? Would that distinction matter? Personally I find the exploration this idea fascinating, but then I’m coming at it from an agnostic’s point of view whose never given idea much thought.
Beyond that idea though, each episode has explored its own ideas; the first episode explored ideas of sacrifice and altruism; the second ideas of religious belief; the third explored ideas of self-identity and personal loss; and the fourth explored the idea of death, and our reaction to it, beautifully.
And these explorations have led to Discovery’s crew becoming believable, relatable characters…
Star Trek: Discovery Has More Characterization
One of the biggest flaws in the first season was how little time was spent fleshing out the characters. It was so determined to squeeze as much action into the Klingon War as it could that it often left the more interesting characterization on the back burner. The shift to struggling against space itself, and having to brainstorm solutions to problems as a group, has naturally allowed the characters to interact with each other more often and more naturally. Really that’s one of the most basic, and important, ways to characterize: simply allow your characters to interact and play off each other.
I realized how different the storytelling was this season based on a great interaction between Pike and the crew of Discovery in the first episode. Pike wants to rescue any survivors from the crashed medical frigate, and Saru brings up a valid point: that risking their own crew to investigate the remote possibility of survivors bears careful consideration. Pike argues that even if the chances are remote, if there are survivors, he can’t in good conscience leave them behind. Michael then begins verbally brainstorming, as she usually does. It’s at this point that Pike gets angry, interrupting her because he thinks she’s just rattling off a list of reasons why it’s impossible. And here’s why I love that:
It’s a misunderstanding, and a believable one. Pike has only been on the ship for a couple hours at this point, he doesn’t know Michael or the rest of the crew. And if you don’t know Michael, her verbal brainstorming does sound like just a list of “here’s why I can’t do it” excuses. But Michael stands her ground, and firmly, but respectfully, tells Captain Pike that no one would abandon a fellow Starfleet brother or sister, and that she was attempting to provide him a solution. Again, this is an excellent example of how simply allowing characters to interact help characterize them. I learned more about Pike through this brief interaction than I ever managed to learn about Lorca. And for that matter, I learned more about Michael than I did the entire first season.
Smugface McPunchable has become Hugface McLoveable thanks to some great characterization this season.
The next great scene came just a few moments later as Michael is launching in one of the landing pods: as her pod begins to accelerate out of the launch bay, you can actually see the excitement washing over Michael’s face. Watching her reaction made me feel like I was on a rollercoaster just as it was about to crest that first rise. The fact that I could share her excitement made the following scene all the more enjoyable, and even though it was a CGI heavy action scene, it meant something because there was emotional context to it.
Which brings me to the most important part.
I Understand The Emotions of Star Trek: Discovery
More than anything else in the first season of Star Trek: Discovery, what made it so difficult for me to watch was that I didn’t understand what I was supposed to be feeling. None of the episodes had any emotional resonance with me, I didn’t even have a rough idea what emotions they were hoping to evoke. Whether it’s a book, film, TV show, or video game, I need stories to move me emotionally. If it doesn’t… then what was the point?
That’s the most important thing that’s changed in season 2 of Star Trek: Discovery, I find myself being moved. I’ve been laughing at Tilly’s jokes, felt fear as the crew struggles against impossible odds, and been overjoyed when they succeed. Most importantly, the fourth episode I was genuinely moved by Star Trek: Discovery‘s exploration of the importance of communication, trust, and even death.
The Discovery is pulled out of warp by a huge, and rather ominous looking, sphere. Their trapped, can’t raise their shields, and a computer virus begins ravaging Discovery, taking one system after another offline. Worse yet, Saru begins experiencing his species death process. All of this taken together, it would not be unreasonable to assume that these are the acts of a hostile entity.
What this episode explores, is the idea that assumption leads to misunderstanding. Discovery and her crew assume its intentions are hostile, when it’s true intention is communication; the Sphere is dying, and all it wants in its final moments is to be understood, to tell its story. Which is what we all want, to know we’ve been seen, to know we’ve been heard. And once it’s done that, the Sphere saves them from its impending death, throwing them clear of the explosion.
This moment is only topped only by Saru’s dying moments (or at least, presumed dying) with Michael. It’s a tragic, beautiful moment that brought up so many memories for me of my own father’s death, because this was the kind of moment I wanted. To talk to him about his life, his regrets, his fears, but was too afraid to pursue it. Like the Discovery, I kept my shields up, and his life passed, perhaps not unremembered, but not as well understood as I would have wanted. I cried during this scene.
And that’s all I want from stories, to be moved emotionally. That’s why we tell stories, to laugh and cry. Without that, I can’t understand the story.
I’m incredibly happy to report that, for the first time, I understand Star Trek: Discovery. I’d encourage anyone who lost faith last season, to give it another try, because it is a totally different show now.
This will probably end up being one of my more controversial articles, and I debated even writing it, but Lifetime/Netflix’s thriller You is such a problematic story that I have to talk about it. On the one hand, it was an entertaining show, I ended up watching the whole thing and even though it dragged it places, it had that “just one more episode” draw to it. Yet on the other, it has presented a problematic narrative whose message is so easily misinterpreted that one questions if this story really needed to be told.
You tries to tell the story of a serial killer. This is not a romantic story, this is the story of how a deranged killer stalks and manipulates a woman, only to then kill her when she fails to live up to his unrealistic expectations. Yet because of the way it’s presented, people are genuinely thinking this is a romance and falling in love with Joe. To the point where the actor who plays Joe took to twitter to remind these people that Joe is a deranged killer.
Even scarier, if you go read some of the user reviews of this show, you’ll see men posting about how much they relate with Joe because they dated toxic girls too. I don’t want to link to it here, but if you go read the Google user reviews for this show, you’ll know exactly which one I’m talking about. If a significant portion of the audience is coming away thinking this is a romantic story and if they think Joe is the hero of the story, then You has a made massive mistake.
Obviously you can’t control people who willfully misinterpret your work to suit their own world view, but You is written and presented in such a way that it would be incredibly easy for people to misunderstand it. Watching this show, I could see how people can come away thinking this is a romantic story of doomed lovers like Romeo and Juilette. That’s absolutely not the intent behind it, but that doesn’t matter. Point is, people are falling in love with Joe, and even scarier, relating with Joe (and not seeing that as a problem.)
The Problem With You
Joe is Shown in the Best Possible Light
If I were a serial killer on trial, whoever made You is the person I’d want as my lawyer, because they make Joe like a poor maligned kid rather than the pyschopath he is. His every positive attribute is focused on obsessively, while his deranged behavior is often glossed over or played off as cute.
An inordinate, and quite frankly boring, amount of time is spent showing just how doting a partner Joe is: he makes her breakfast, he helps comfort her when she’s sad, he does everything he can to make her happy. Then a lot of screen time is spent trying to turn Joe into a hero by showcasing how he helps Paco. Meanwhile his stalkerish behavior isn’t treated with gravitas it should be, and sometimes is even played for laughs.
Early on in the show, Joe is spying on Beck through her window and masturbates as he imagines having sex with her. This should be an eerie, disturbing scene as we watch this maniac masturbating outside an unknowing woman’s apartment. Instead, it’s played up for laughs as an old woman walks out of the building behind him and interrupts. Of course the old woman is totally oblivious, and Joe becomes the chivalrous gentleman helping her out with her bags.
What should have happened is Joe to get caught and have to run for his life as the old woman starts screaming and calling 911. Remind the audience what it is that we’re watching: this is not cute, it is not funny, it is not romantic, it’s a crime.
You also focuses on how intelligent, charming, and witty Joe is without also highlighting the anger and cruelty that would have to be part of a serial killer’s nature. I’ve not done exhaustive research into serial killers, but I can’t imagine that there was ever one as nice and compassionate as Joe is. It never shows Joe getting angry or lashing out in rage. Even when we see him murder people, he does it while looking almost confused, like he’s bewildered that it’s come to this.
I would think that to be a serial killer you have to possess a sense of cruelty, harbor some deep-seated rage, or be detached from your emotions entirely. Joe doesn’t display any of that. He’s the friendliest, most affable serial killer you’ll ever meet.
In many ways Joe is like Ted Bundy; he’s so sweet, charming, and pleasant looking that you wouldn’t believe he’s a serial killer. If you’ve never read The Stranger Beside Me by Anne Rule, which I highly recommend, there’s a part she talks about how some of his victims, who had escaped from him, looked at Ted in the courtroom and weren’t sure that this was the man who almost killed them.
Until the day Ted got angry in court. The mask he’d so carefully worn broke, and the moment was caught on film. When those victims saw the picture of Ted angry… they finally recognized him, because that was the Ted they saw the day they almost died: the angry, violent predator.
That’s the moment You needed. We needed Joe’s carefully constructed mask to break and see the angry, violent predator within. Unfortunately we never get to see that. I spent the entire run of the show watching your friendly neighborhood murderer. Joe is so pleasant that he makes Superman look like a cynical antihero.
To make matters even worse, when Joe does murder people, you end up feeling like he’s justified in doing so. Largely because…
Joe’s Victims Are Undercharacterized
The antagonists in the story, Peach, Benji, and to a certain extent even Beck, are written in such a way as to amplify their negative traits. It reminds me of how antagonists are written in stories like Taken, The Equalizer, and other revenge stories: the villains are so over-the-top that when our heroes set about sadistically killing them, we’re euphoric about it.
Yet none of the characters in You rise to the level where any of them deserve Joe killing them. All the characters are just deeply wounded souls dealing with their own traumas as best they can, and who, coincidentally, didn’t turn into fucking serial killers. What we needed was to have these victims better characterized, so that when their end came, we felt sadness, grief, and even a sense of loss. Instead we got a bunch of walking caricatures that, when they died, brought only satisfaction.
Part of the problem is that we see everything from Joe’s point of view, aside from one half of one episode where we get Beck’s. They try to play Joe up as an unreliable narrator, but forget the “unreliable” part, the part where his assumptions are proven false.
Joe makes snap judgements about all of Beck’s friends. Peach is vindictive and controlling, who secretly wants to make Beck fall in love with her. Benji, Beck’s old boyfriend, is a rich douchebag with a drug habit who doesn’t care about Beck. And all of Beck’s other friends are brainless, self-obsessed millenials who do nothing but talk about sex and boys.
What we needed was to have these assumptions proven false, or at least more complicated than meets the eye. Peach, even though she can be vindictive and controlling, could also be an amazing friend capable of compassion and empathy. In the show, Peach sabotages Beck’s writing career, hoping that the setback would cause Beck to move to Paris with her. Instead they should have shown her being a good friend to Beck while also trying to manipulate her into moving to Paris. Add a little nuance to these stories.
Go ahead and have Benji be the classic dudebro stereotype, but then show us the insecurities that made him that way: is he trying to live up to his highpowered father’s expectations? Does he have self-esteem issues and he’s overcompensating?
What about Beck’s other friends? Why are they only ever talking about men and sex? Surely they must have other common interests, if only to ask how each other’s days are going?
We needed Joe’s assumptions to be challenged, turned on their head. He can still believe all the things he’s saying, obviously, but we as the audience need to see that the reality is different. Instead all of his assumptions about Beck’s friends turn out to be true:
Benji really is just a drug-addicted douchebag who is dedicated to hedonistic pleasure. Peach really is in love with Beck and attempting to manipulate her into loving her too (gee that sounds familiar). Beck’s secondary cast of friends really are all vapid, sex-crazed idiots with no personality or ambitions. And finally, even his assumptions about Beck are proven correct as well: she’s got daddy issues, self-esteem problems, and even that she cheats on him with her therapist.
You want to know something terrible? I felt a certain smug satisfaction when Peach died. She was a collection of every toxic and negative female stereotype rolled into a walking caricature, and that’s why I felt good when she died. It sparked that primal feeling of schadenfreude, taking pleasure in seeing someone suffer, especially if we think they deserve it. And that’s coming from someone who was actively analyzing the story and understood the mistakes it was making, and I still fell into that trap. The showrunners tapped into that primal sense of righteous satisfaction over a death that makes revenge stories so popular, and they did it exceptionally well. Too well.
Now imagine you’re a man who knows a woman in his life that he thinks is just like Peach, maybe an ex-girlfriend or annoying coworker; You has now given them a story that makes them feel justified in those feelings, you’ve given them vindication. Normalized it. The showrunners need to ask themselves whether that’s really the story they want to be telling.
And while they’re at it, maybe they should remind themselves what this story is actually about.
The Show About a Serial Killer Forgot to Show Joe Being a Serial Killer
The first murder in the show is so quick and clean that you’ll hardly even realized it’s happened. Benji reveals in the course of his captivity that he’s allergic to peanuts, and so when Joe finally decides to kill him, he doses Benji’s coffee with peanut oil.
Benji just collapses to the ground and dies in about 5 seconds flat. Benji should have been writhing around on the floor, clawing at his own throat, the capillaries in his eyes bursting, and his tongue bursting from his mouth purple and swollen. This death should have been ugly, vicious. You should have told the audience what a truly horrific death that would have been, and focus on our attention on the man who caused it.
Meanwhile Peach’s end isn’t even shown on camera. Last we see is Peach struggling on the ground trying to get the gun away from Joe… and then the camera cuts away and we hear a gunshot. What we should have had was Peach begging for her life, sobbing uncontrollably, and saw the sky reflecting off her lifeless eyes afterwards.
Then there’s the worst of the bunch: Beck’s death. This was the worst part of the show. After making the same cliche mistake as every serial killing victim, not killing the killer when you had the chance, Beck is murdered by Joe. Again, it happens off screen. If you want to tell this story then you need to commit and show Joe killing Beck.
How he does it isn’t as important as how he acts. Is he crying while he does it because he “loves” her? Or is he screaming in rage because she didn’t live up to his expectations?
This is important for three reasons:
For one, it helps characterize Joe, how he kills the woman he loves would reveal important information about how he compartmentalizes his violent nature with his delusions of being a romantic.
Two, it gives us closure. If you’re sane and paying attention, you’ve been rooting for Beck to outwit and escape Joe. Having her die off camera is anticlimactic, I wanted to watch her giving the good fight until the very end, not go quietly into the night.
And third, we need to feel this death. By having her die off camera, you rob the scene of the emotional context it so badly needed. That’s the unifying problem with all the murders on this show, they fail to evoke any emotional response.
There doesn’t need to be gratuitous violence, we don’t need to see entrails and brains, but the audience does need to feel their deaths. I should have been feeling sick and mournful at watching Beck die, to be filled with regret. To be seething with anger at Joe. To feel the same rollercoaster of emotions that Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad created for its audiences. Hell even Law and Order makes you feel bad for the victims, why can’t You?
If you’re not willing to make your audience uncomfortable, to feel negative emotions, then you should not be telling a story about a serial killer. Otherwise you get the situation we’re in now: that people think that Joe’s actions are justified and that he’s somehow a romantic figure.
The only thing You made me feel was angry, and not angry at Joe for killing an innocent woman which is what I should have been feeling, no I’m angry with the show itself. I’m angry that it made a deranged serial killer look like a poor misunderstood boy looking for love. I’m frustrated that in attempting to highlight the dangerous signs of stalking and abusive behavior, it instead reveled in those behaviors and made them seem acceptable and even romantic. And most of all, I’m just bewildered that no one making this show stopped to ask a very important question:
What is this for?
What are you hoping to make the audience feel? What should they be thinking? If you answered horrified and thinking how awful Joe is, you need to go back and examine why so many people aren’t getting that. More importantly though, why should they continue watching this show?
I will not be tuning in for season 2, because this is how TV works: the show keeps going for as long as its profitable. My only incentive for watching would be to see Joe brought to justice, but I know that won’t happen until the viewership numbers hit low enough that Netflix decides to pull the plug. That might take years, and why would I want to continue watching this man kill innocent people, getting increasingly frustrated every time he escapes justice? What else am I supposed to be getting out of this show, because I honestly have no idea.
So what does everyone else think? Am I blowing this out of proportion? Or is You as problematic as I fear?
I used to binge watch all the time, plowing through entire shows in days sometimes. I kind of miss doing that, especially since so much of the pacing behind many streaming shows now relies heavily on being able to binge them. All that said, I finally finished the third (and it turns out final) season of Daredevil on Netflix.
I was a huge fan of Daredevil when it first came out, and though Jessica Jones first season had some problems, I was still incredibly pretty pleased with it. Then I started losing interest. I enjoyed season 2 of Daredevil but it just didn’t feel as compelling as the first season, and I never made it past the first episode of Jessica Jones‘s second season. I manage to get through the first season of The Punisher, but only just, same with The Defenders.
There are a lot of reasons these later seasons failed to grab me, but today I want to talk about one reason in particular.
You Don’t Have to Save the World:
Epic Plots in Storytelling
Daredevil wasn’t trying to save the world in the first season, he was just trying to improve the lives of the people living in his tiny corner of it. Same with Jessica Jones, Kilgrave was never out to destroy the world, but he still needed to be stopped. These were very personal stories, pitting two characters against each other, making the stories character driven. Fisk and Daredevil were struggling to make Hell’s Kitchen a better place but in radically different ways. Jessica Jones and Kilgrave were in an even more intimate struggle of retribution and justice.
Unfortunately the delusions of grandeur that would eventually sink both these shows was introduced in their first seasons. Daredevil goes off on a tangent to hunt “Black Sky,” and Jessica Jone’s first season has a stupid conspiracy theory about some evil company turning people into superheroes. And unfortunately in the second season of both shows they focus on these plots to the detriment of everything else. Basically the stakes of both shows go from personal struggles to trying to save the world. Taken in a vacuum that might be okay, but this is Marvel.
Marvel already has an exhausting schedule of movie releases where various heroes try to save the world, and the main problem is that the TV shows can’t compete with the movies in terms of stakes. Daredevil’s second season tries to sell the audience on Black Sky being some potentially world-ending weapon, even though it never specifically tells us what the hell it can do. Meanwhile less than a year before that season aired, we got Avengers: Age of Ultron and the incredibly vague threat of Black Sky doesn’t really compare with Ultron’s plan of human extinction. And now these shows have to compete with Thanos’s plan of wiping out half of all life in the universe, and they simply cannot compete with something like that. And they shouldn’t be trying to.
Not every story has to be about saving the world and that’s something season 3 of Daredevil proves beautifully. The stakes are considerably smaller in scope, once again pitting Daredevil against a resurgent Wilson Fisk, yet it felt so much more important at the same time. I couldn’t bring myself to care about Black Sky or whatever the hell she was going to do in The Defenders, but I was at the edge of my seat wondering if Daredevil would actually kill Fisk. That personal drama, the struggle between those two characters, was more powerful than anything the ridiculous ninja clan plot managed to produce. To be fair though, this is hardly a new problem, and not one limited to Marvel.
One of the most disappointing examples of this is in Fantastic Beasts. Here was a story that could have been absolutely wonderful, following a bumbling but good natured magical zoologist on his adventures. This film started out so promising, and I went in thinking that returning the thunderbird to its natural habitat would form the core of the plot. With the bureaucracy of the magical government serving as the antagonist, this story had everything it needed. Ten minutes in I already had an image of the ending in my head, as the thunderbird was released into the Arizona wilds as an exhausted but euphoric Newt looking on while the music swells.
And then it all went wrong. There was a conspiracy of dark wizards, some dude name Grindlewald who is basically Voldemort version 1.0, and a plan to enslave all the muggles or something, I don’t even remember. As a result the fun adventure story we could have had, watching Newt bumbling his way across the world on his way to release a rehabilitated Thunderbird, was lost in exchange for a run-of-the-mill Evil Wizard Does Evil Things Because He’s Evil. The fantastic visuals we could have had, Newt exploring forests, swamps, and deserts, replaced with the oppressively gray and black London. And the Thunderbird, who’s return home should have formed the emotional core of the film, is reduced to a simple plot device; a lazy way for the writers to justify the amount of destruction they inflict on London for their flashy over-the-top battle scene.
Commercially I know why this was done, Warner Brothers wanted another set of films to capitalize on The Harry Potter franchise. And in typical corporate thinking, they twisted a fun adventure story into an almost dystopian story of evil, cliched wizards. The shame is that they could have still had their cinematic universe, they were just in too much of a rush to get there. Ironically Marvel did this exceptionally well, they didn’t start their franchise with Thanos trying to wipe out half of all life, they didn’t even start with the Avengers. They started with Iron Man, and slowly built up from there, spent an entire decade building the foundations for Avengers: Infinity War.
Not every story has to be about saving the world, and that’s a trap a lot of science fiction and fantasy falls into. The whole world doesn’t have to be at stake to make an exciting story, just put the character’s world at stake and you’ll have my undivided attention. Or if you absolutely have to have a world-ending threat on the horizon, keep it in the background.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt succeeded because the whole “save the world” storyline took a backseat to the more interesting personal drama. Geralt spends most of that game simply looking for Ciri and wanting to keep her safe, that’s all he cares about. The world-ending danger of the White Frost was more Ciri’s story than Geralt’s (more on that in a future update), and since it was Ciri’s job to save the world, it allowed Geralt’s story to be more character driven. Geralt indirectly saves the world by saving Ciri, but I never felt like that was the main narrative drive, the real goal was to save the girl that Geralt thought of as a daughter. I keep coming back to something a friend of mine told me years ago:
People don’t care about events. How do those events affect the people they care about, that’s the question.
-My good friend BJ.
It’s absolutely true, both in fact and fiction. You can have the most cataclysmic event you can think of on the horizon, but unless you make me care about the characters and what affect it will have on them, I won’t care. There simply has to be more at stake than “the world will end if we don’t succeed,” and again Marvel’s films do this well. Infinity War had so much more going on than Thanos’s plans for galactic genocide; Scarlet Witch being forced to kill Vision, Thanos reluctantly killing Gamorra, Thor’s quest for vengeance. It didn’t rely solely on the threat Thanos posed to the galaxy, if it had, it would have been a far less powerful film.
You don’t have to save the world to tell a story; just save the character’s world, even if that means simply saving their friends.