Tag Archives: Characters

Mass Effect Andromeda: The Pathfinder

One of the most jarring elements of Andromeda’s dialogue was how everyone called you Pathfinder all the time. It was ridiculous, as if they’d written the script before coming up with Ryder’s name, so they just used the title and never bothered to search-replace that shit afterward. This would have been halfway acceptable in the Dragon Age canon, because at least in the more rigid formality of a medieval caste system being referred to by title was more common. Yet even with a built in excuse, Dragon Age: Inquisition still didn’t refer to you as Inquisitor nearly as much as Mass Effect: Andromeda called you Pathfinder. It’s true that Shepard is called Commander, but that at least makes sense in the rigid hierarchy of the military and even then it’s not as overused as the Pathfinder moniker. So what the hell, guys? What’s with the title?

I admit I can’t even fathom why anyone thought this was a good idea, but I sure as hell can rip it apart and show you why it’s wrong.

The Pathfinder

Isn’t that god damn special…

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Being constantly referred to as “Pathfinder” was one of the most distracting elements of the game. For one the Andromeda Initiative is a civilian project, if there’s some kind of weird military hierarchy in place it’s never really elaborated on. Plus even if I could get past the idea that everyone in the Andromeda Initiative calls the Pathfinder by their title (which I can’t), I could never get past the fact that even the damn Angara refer to you by that title.

I think the new writing team behind Andromeda should have gone back and played Dragon Age: Origins before writing the dialogue. The character in Dragon Age: Origins has no name and yet the dialogue was written in such a way that it was never a problem. A few characters do refer to you as Warden, notably Loghain himself, but most of the time the dialogue simply finds a way around having to identify you by name.

Which is how conversations work, if you think about it. How often do people actually refer to you by your name when you’re talking to them? Unless you’re greeting or saying goodbye to someone, or trying to get someone’s attention, most of the time our names don’t come up in conversations we have with friends.

Unfortunately the writers of Mass Effect: Andromeda are apparently unfamiliar with how normal humans communicate with one another. Still, even if they couldn’t get around that, they could have at least used the very name they came up with: Ryder. There’s absolutely no excuse why I get referred to as Pathfinder more than Ryder.

Of course even worse than all of that, is how the Pathfinder is treated by the people he meets.

“Wait… you’re the pathfinder! Oh my god, I can’t believe it’s you!” – Pretty much everyone you meet.

Oh you can’t believe it’s me? Here, in the very outpost I founded by painstakingly making sure this planet is fit for human habitation? Really? What the hell is wrong with you?

The Best and Brightest
The best and the brightest of the Andromeda Initiative.

In the best case scenarios, the people you meet often treat you like a child meeting Mickey Mouse on their first trip to Disneyland. In the worst case scenarios, you’re treated like the second coming of Christ and the NPCs would fall to their knees in adoring rapture if someone at Bioware could have been bothered to animate that. Even Shepard, who legitimately saves the galaxy three god damn times in a row isn’t treated with the reverence the Pathfinder receives.

On the Nexus I ran into several “concerned citizens”, nameless NPCs that show up to complain about some decision you made in a threadbare attempt to make choices seem important. Instead of lively debates with these people, or being heckled and threatened by them if I disagreed, all these encounters ended with some variation of “well, you’re the pathfinder, you must know what you’re doing.”

Even worse is how much the administrative arm of the Andromeda Initiative defers to the Pathfinder. I realize that none of the characters were meant to be in charge of the Andromeda Initiative, and were elevated due to the deaths of their superiors, but come on, they’re not helpless either.

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Especially this guy.

Director Tann is clearly made out to be a stereotypical bureaucrat who, while wanting to do good, is also deeply concerned about retaining his influence and power. Then the moment you show up it’s WHOOP here’s a ship, a crew, and a blank check to do whatever the hell you want. Ostensibly the reasoning is that Ryder is at least willing to do “something” about the situation. I could have swallowed that excuse if the narrative had shown us even an inkling that Ryder was qualified to do anything.

At some point the narrative needed to specifically tell us why Ryder is so god damn special. The Pathfinders are supposed to be highly trained specialists, the best of the best. The Turian pathfinder is former Blackwatch and his replacement is an ex-Spectre, the Salarian Pathfinder is a Dalatrass, and the Asari Pathfinder is a Matriarch and her replacement a legendary Asari Commando. Even Alec Ryder was former N7, an alumnus of the same program that gave us Commander Shepard.

Ryder on the other hand… was a glorified toll booth operator. Seriously, the game actually goes out of its way to point this out by having Ryder tell several people all he did in the Milky Way was guard a Mass Effect Relay. Why on Earth is this guy responsible for the survival of the human race?

God save us
When the apocalypse comes, it will fall to this man’s grandchildren to lead us to a new home.

Turns out the only reason Ryder is even on the Pathfinder team at all is good old fashioned nepotism. Ryder has no special skills, no advanced training, not even any applicable life experience to justify Ryder becoming a Pathfinder or even being on the team. But Daddy apparently wanted his kids on board, so to hell with it, his favored child gets to inherit the Pathfinder title like we’re a space-borne feudal kingdom. There are tons of stories where the hero can be a Joe Everyman forced into a situation beyond his skill level.

Unfortunately the narrative isn’t telling one of those stories.

Had Mass Effect: Andromeda told the story an in over his head Ryder struggling to fill his father’s shoes, then many of these problems would be moot. In fact that could have been a fun story, and one that would have made far more sense. Suvi Anwar has dual doctorates in both astrophysics and molecular biology. Two skills that would actually be helpful in the search for a new home, and all she contributes to the narrative is being a love interest for female Ryders.

I think Kallo speaks for all of us.

Yet instead of having to rely on your incredibly credentialed crew, everyone relies on you instead: the new guy with no discernible skills, education, or personality…

Ryder succeeds because the plot demands he succeeds, and that’s why the hero worship he receives from everybody is totally unearned. That’s why being called the Pathfinder was so awful, because all it did was remind us about how the narrative failed to make Ryder a hero.

In short: The Pathfinder is a fraud and it sucks to be kept being reminded of that fact.

More on Mass Effect: Andromeda

All That Matters is the Ending: Mass Effect Andromeda

Mass Effect Andromeda: The Importance of Family

Wrex versus Drack: Nuanced versus Obvious Writing 

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Mass Effect Andromeda: The Importance of Family

I was intrigued about the idea of having a family join you in Andromeda, in fact it gave me hope for the game because I thought it was a borderline genius idea. What better way to ground the game’s stakes than to include a family? Ryder’s family could have been the motivation players needed to want to build a new home. Remember how much we all wanted Tali to build that house on her homeworld? We could not only have had that again, but we could have helped build it ourselves.

If Bioware had put even an iota of effort into making us care about our family. Unfortunately they didn’t, instead Bioware just took it for granted that we would care about these strangers because they told us to.

Spoiler alert: No one cared.

Mass Effect: Andromeda

The Importance of Family

Ryder's Father

“My father is dead, I’m the new Pathfinder.” That’s how Ryder announces his father’s death to the members of the Nexus when he first meets them. An almost completely flat affect to the voice and no mournful look crosses Ryder’s face [although given the horrible animations, its possible that I just didn’t recognize the emotion on it] when he says it. Ryder talks about the death of his father like he’s talking about a lost piece of equipment, and his father has been dead for all of about ten minutes. Okay, maybe you can chalk that up to trauma, but there are so few opportunities to see the emotional toll of that loss, that ultimately it feels like Ryder doesn’t care. And if the player character doesn’t care, why the hell should we?

The sad part is that Alec Ryder was an interesting character, I thought the efforts that this guy went through to save his wife were pretty romantic. It exposed that underneath the gruff warrior facade he wore, was a man that loved so deeply that its loss was unfathomable to him. Or maybe it exposed that underneath his aloofness, was simply a man terrified of being alone. There were so many directions that Bioware could have gone.

Unfortunately for any of those stories to be explored, Alec Ryder would have had to survive the first 30 minutes of the game.

You can’t retroactively manufacture grief over a character’s loss. Of Mice and Men doesn’t start with the death of Lenny, Final Fantasy 7 doesn’t start with Aeris dying, and Harry Potter doesn’t begin with like 75% of its characters already dead.

Harry Potter death of Cedric
Seriously, shit gets dark in Harry Potter.

The audience has to be allowed to get to know the character, to grow to love that character, for their death to have any impact. We never got a chance to know Alec Ryder, never got a chance to actually interact with him. He barely has any lines, and he falls over dead before we even get through the prologue. Even worse the poor bastard doesn’t even get a funeral, apparently they just left his body to rot on a hell-blasted alien world.

The writers lazily tried to circumvent this emotional disconnect by saying Ryder’s father was emotionally distant and couldn’t express his feelings.

Bullshit.

You know who else had an emotionally distant father who didn’t know how express his feelings?

Me.

Yet a year after his deathI’m still recovering  from the emotional trauma of that loss.

It would have been one thing if we’d been presented with a choice to play as an emotionally detached sociopath, you want to roleplay that, roll with it. Problem is that we weren’t given a choice, Ryder doesn’t give a damn about his father dying no matter what dialogue option you choose. It’s impossible to make our Ryder break down in tears at his loss or rage at the unfairness of it all. He treats it with, well, the same casual indifference he treats his sister with.

Ryder's derp face
I don’t care how ugly she is, Ryder, she’s your sister and you’ll go back in there and talk with her damn it!

For the life of me I can’t even begin to understand the thought process that went into making a twin for Ryder. What was Bioware hoping to achieve here? Ryder’s twin has even less dialogue than Alec does, you only get two conversations with them, one of which while they’re still in a freaking coma. Then suddenly at the end of the game the twin is kidnapped, as if Bioware was hoping that would provide the stakes for the final battle. Unfortunately, since the twin is less characterized than most of the freaking NPCs you talk to, the danger of her being lobotomized by alien tech wasn’t all that motivating.

All I can do is theorize about what role the twin, and your family at large, were supposed to play in the game. Perhaps in the planning phases of Mass Effect: Andromeda the twin was supposed to play an integral role in the narrative, only for that role to be slashed down to insignificance due to budget and time constraints. For a while there I was expecting my Ryder to die a heroic death at the hands of the Kett, only to then take over the twin as my new character. On a narrative level that would have been bold, daring even, and could have done a lot for paving a new direction in the Mass Effect universe.

Obviously on a game play level it would probably suck, since I know I didn’t bother customizing my Ryder’s twin and would have been stuck with the default. Not to mention what to do with the skills you’ve earned.

Otherwise they could have at least made the twin a part of your crew, so that you could actually talk with them and learn who they are. Maybe then when the twin is abducted we’d actually give a damn that they’re in danger of dying. It would have been far better to cut all of the family stuff if Bioware wasn’t going to put any effort into it, because as it stands now it only highlights the failings of the writers.

We all have families, and even people who aren’t writers can tell the most weird, wonderful, and disturbing tales about their families. The fact that Mass Effect: Andromeda‘s writing team couldn’t even write a decent story about one of the most fundamental building blocks of human existence is, frankly, shocking. It’s as if this entire section of the game was written by aliens with no concept of family.

Family is an important part of everyone’s life. Even orphans who grew up alone will eventually find someone they call family, even if it’s not by blood. Including Ryder’s family, only to then pretend they don’t exist for most of the narrative, is inexcusable. If you’re a human living on Earth, I guarantee you have at least one good story about your family, and if you have that you have your foundation for telling fictional stories about family.

“Well, the story isn’t about Ryder’s family!” I can hear someone saying. Okay, fair enough, but just one question:

Then why are they in the story at all?

Ryder’s family doesn’t have any impact on the narrative. Ryder certainly doesn’t care about them. The only thing the twin contributes to the plot is to become a painfully contrived method for the Archon to actually use Remnant tech. You could replace that character with literally anybody else and nothing would change.

I don’t understand how this content managed to stay in, Bioware could easily have cut it out. Just make Alec the original Pathfinder, you’d barely have to touch any of his dialogue to pull it off either since the only time he acknowledges that you’re family is just before the shuttle ride. His secret diaries, the murder mystery of Garson, it would all still work fine with just minor tweaking. The family in Mass Effect: Andromeda just exposes how inept the writing is by its utter failure to tell a convincing story about family, and Bioware could have at least saved a little face by removing the half-assed attempt.

Still, I suppose there’s no undoing it now. Here’s hoping in the next installment, if there is one, that Ryder’s twin and mother have a bit more to do in the story than just lay there unconscious for 90% of it.

 

Westworld: A Storyteller’s Story

Normally I hold off on TV show reviews until its had a full season so I can review the entire season’s arc, but I’ve been enjoying Westworld so much that I just had to write something up about it. It has so many aspects to talk about. There are parallels between Westworld and video games, fascinating explorations about the nature of identity and consciousness, the difference between natural and artificial life… is there a difference at all? The list goes on. I might talk about all of them eventually, but the one thing I want to focus on is how Westworld tells such an amazing story while at the same time explaining exactly how they’re telling you the story.

Honestly, if you want to learn how to tell a good story, just listen to Anthony Hopkin’s talk about his characters and world. They should show this in creative writing 101. It’s exciting to see the mundane world of writing presented in such a unique way, and that’s why I’m going to spend the next 1500 words rambling on about how awesome it is.

I’ve tried to keep spoilers to a bare minimum, but there are still a couple, so reader beware. If you haven’t seen Westworld, I highly recommend it if you enjoy Scifi, Westerns, or just plain old good writing no matter what the genre.

Westworld:

A Storyteller’s Story

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Westworld is a futuristic theme park unlike any that’s ever existed, one filled with artificial people that have been programmed to live out hundreds of branching storylines to create the illusion of a living world. It’s like a video game on a massive scale and taking place in real life (or at least that’s how it’s presented, though I have my doubts as to what’s really happening.) It’s a writer’s dream job, and yet a writer’s nightmare at the same time, given the level of complexity involved.

Unfortunately the lead writer of the Westworld narrative is an idiot; that is the narrative within the show’s setting and not the actual scriptwriters for the show, who I am convinced are probably geniuses. The head writer of the Westworld themepark wants to create a new story and how he pitches the story to Anthony Hopkins tells you exactly what kind of story it is.

“I have vivisection, self-cannabalism[…] this is the apex of what the park can provide. Horror, romance, titillation[…]”

His story has only one goal: to shock. He doesn’t talk about the characters, who they are or what their goals are, or the plot of his story beyond kill, kill, kill…and maybe some sex along the way.

The head writer of the narrative is what I imagine most screenwriters in Hollywood are like: he equates action, shock, violence, and gore with good writing. These are the people that write the sometimes entertaining, but often terrible and utterly forgettable crap that comes out: Independence Day Resurgence, every Terminator sequel after 2, every movie based on a board game, and all of Michael Bay’s movies. They write every game with a tacked-on single player, such as Call of Duty and Battlefront.

No.png
“No.” – Anthony Hopkins’ response to the new story. And my response to pretty much every story these days.

Yet, stories can be so much more. As Ed Harris’s Man in Black so eloquently put:

“…I think there’s deeper meaning, something hidden under all that, something the person who created it wanted to express. Something true.”

Those are the authors who create A Tale Of Two Cities, War and Peace, Of Mice and Men. The screenwriter who writes Schindler’s ListInside Out, Gladiator. The screenwriters behind TV shows like Breaking Bad, Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and now Westworld. 

These are the writers who understand that blood, guts, sex, and violence are spices to be used in a story and not the story itself. They’re the writers who can write a great story without ever using any of those spices. Who, like Anthony Hopkins, yearn to create something truly alive whether it be through a book, movie, or video game.

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Or possibly sentient artificial life.

“Do you know why your backstory is so mysterious? Because we never bothered to give you one.” – Anthony Hopkins to Teddy

When the show begins Teddy is a cipher of a character in the Westworld theme park, as far as characterization is concerned Teddy might as well be a two-by-four on legs.

Sadly this is true in most shows, secondary characters like Teddy are glossed over with no thought given to their backstory. They lack depth, and because they lack depth they’re not so much characters as simply part of the environment; something for the main characters to interact with. I didn’t feel it was any kind of tragedy when Teddy died the first time, he had no backstory. I didn’t know him. It’s why in the theme park no one cared enough to follow his storyline.

Yet when Anthony Hopkins gives him a backstory, suddenly Teddy becomes alive, and the patrons who once ignored him completely now feel compelled to follow him. They want to hear his story, experience it. That’s what a good backstory can do for a character.

This is exactly what I was talking about in my review of Luke Cage. I never felt like Diamondback had a backstory. Sure, he tells us the cliched story of his father leaving the bastard for the true born son, but that’s pretty much it. Where was he during all those intervening years? How did he come to possess the Judas Bullets? How did he become a criminal kingpin? Why does he quote bible verses when his father the preacher betrayed him, why didn’t that make him reject religion entirely?

We had the same problem with Corypheus in Dragon Age: Inquisition. Who was Corypheus before he stepped into the Golden City? Did he have a wife and children? Was he always a cruel manipulator? What was life like for him before his fall? As far as the audience is concerned, Corypheus simply popped into existence for the sake of the story.

Corypheus_Closeup
Apparently one of the most power magisters in the Tevinter Imperium has no historical record.

The problem is not that the writers never spelled out these characters’ histories for the audience, the problem is that I don’t believe even the writers knew their backstory. They simply came up with a name, personality, and loosely defined motive for their character and let them loose in the story. If they’d known their own character’s history, then elements of their backstory would have naturally crept into the story. A good writer will have all their major characters have their own personal history.

It doesn’t have to be a meticulous history stretching from birth to current events. It just has to be enough to convince the audience that the character has been living in this world, and didn’t just pop into existence for the sake of the story. Teddy’s backstory is a great example, he doesn’t start his monologue talking about life as a little boy, he keeps to the important parts. He was once a soldier, he fought Indians (perhaps reluctantly), he had a superior officer who disappeared and went nuts, and he had a near death experience with that same officer.

Boom, suddenly Teddy has dimension to him. A past who shaped the person he’s become. Think about any great character that you’ve loved, and you’ll find that you know a lot about who that character was before the story began:

  • Walter White’s job as a chemistry teacher and the missed opportunity of starting a conglomerate.
  • Han Solo’s career as a smuggler, recently with a price on his head.
  • Captain America’s life as a scrawny kid who wanted to help people but couldn’t.

In every case there was always a backstory, a history that showed our favorite characters had lives before the story began, something to suggest these characters were more than they appeared. Without that, we’re left with hollow characters that don’t operate so much as people in a story than mere window dressing for the setting and plot.

cottonmouth
Annoying, laughing window dressing.

It’s that kind of background, that character building, that leads to genuine moments like this:

“Are we very old friends?” Dolores to Anthony Hopkins

Now I’ve seen and read so many stories that when I hear this line, my mind immediately begins filling in the response. You know the ones:

“Yes, very old friends.”
“We were once.”
“A long time ago.”

Those, and variations on those, are the expected responses. And yet Anthony Hopkins’ response was completely unexpected.

“No, Dolores, I wouldn’t say friends. I wouldn’t say friends at all.” Anthony Hopkins to Dolores

I was grinning like an idiot during that entire exchange for a couple of reasons. First of all because it deepens the mystery surrounding Dolores, Anthony Hopkins, and Arnold. Secondly because it suddenly makes Dolores and Anthony Hopkins’ relationship more complex. It was also the incredible way in which the great Anthony Hopkins delivers the line, a truly masterful performance by one of the best actors in the world.

I wouldn't say that at all Anthony Hopkins Westworld.png
My God man, he has so much talent it’s pouring out of his eyes!

But mostly, I was grinning because it surprised me. It took an old, tired line and gave it a new shine, and more than anything else, that’s what makes this a storyteller’s story. It shows you that even the most well-worn and tired stories can be told in new and exciting ways.

As much as I remind myself that there is nothing new under the sun, and that every story has been told, I still find myself struggling on occasion with worrying if a story is worth telling. Westworld is a reminder that every story may have been told, but originality and enjoyment doesn’t come from the story itself, it comes from the person telling the story. The unique perspective of the writer, or writers, is everything. Everything can been new when you see it through someone else’s eyes.

“I imagined a story where I didn’t have to be the damsel.”

A girl not wanting to be the damsel is almost as old as the damsel in distress itself, but seeing it through Westworld’s eyes makes it feel brand new. It makes me feel like I’ve never seen anything like this before. Everything in this artificial world filled with both science fiction and western tropes as old as the genres themselves, feels brand new.

westworld2.png
“Look back and smile at perils past.” – Walter Scott, a 300-year-old Scottish novelist made to sound brand new from the mouth of Anthony Hopkins.

If you haven’t seen Westworld and you want to write a story, you should watch it. If you haven’t seen Westworld and you enjoy good stories, you should watch it. If you enjoy reading my blog, you should watch it since I have a feeling I’m going to spend quite a bit of time talking about it.  This is a story that’s taking us somewhere and, as Anthony Hopkins might put it:

“They’re here because they want a glimpse of who they could be.”

I’m sticking around to see if I get a glimpse of who I could be as writer, but this show is so good that I might see a glimpse of something even more profound. I hope you’ll join me in taking that glimpse.

 

3 Things the Next Star Wars Movie Can’t Do

So I loved the new Star Wars. A lot of people didn’t, however. I understand why, and honestly I gave The Force Awakens a pass on several flaws simply because it was well-paced adventure story that recaptured the magic of Star Wars. That said, I am going to be expecting more from the second film in the new trilogy, because as popular as A New Hope was, it was The Empire Strikes Back that cemented Star Wars’ position as a cultural icon.

If the next movie wants to succeed, here’s three thing it can’t do.

(Note: Spoilers for The Force Awakens to follow, and this article is referring to Episode VIII not the Rogue One spin-off.)

3. Load the Movie with Cameos

Plot Armor Bounty Hunter
That armor is a neon sign screaming “BOSS FIGHT”… and yet we never actually get to see her in action.

I mentioned that the monster VS bounty hunter chase scene in The Force Awakens seemed completely out of place. Well I recently found out that one of the Bounty Hunter teams that shows up hunting Han Solo were from the cast of The Raid. That’s when I realized there are way too many cameos in this movie. I have no problem with a cameo so long as it blends seamlessly with the rest of the film, but most of the cameos in The Force Awakens don’t. There are seams. Big, ugly, rippable seams.

The Raid was a terrific movie, I loved it, but that doesn’t mean you can just throw the actors from that into Star Wars and somehow expect it to improve the film. If the scene had incorporated the actor’s amazing talents, like having the bounty hunters be incredibly good at close-quarters combat, then maybe it could have worked because at least then you could introduce them again in the next movie. As it is though, they show up, have like two lines of dialogue, and then run from the giant monsters. Then they report Han Solo has the droid to the First Order, but that information didn’t need to be conveyed because we later see spies at Maz’s tavern relay the same information. As it is, the scene only served to slow down the film.

However the prize for worst cameo is a tie, and it goes to these two:

These two appear as Admiral Statura and the stupidly named Snap Wexley. Now they’ve both worked with J.J. Abrams before, and they’re both good actors. But I felt they just didn’t fit into the scene they were shoehorned into.

I mean Admiral “IT’S A TRAP!” Ackbar was in the room, the most badass piece of calamari to ever escape a sushi restaurant, and they didn’t let him deliver the briefing? Instead they let these two do some technobabble that builds absolutely no excitement for the coming battle. Admiral Ackbar’s solemn voice added weight to the briefing about the second Death Star, something that would have been gladly received in the briefing for Starkiller.

Now I get it, it’s Star Wars. If J.J. Abrams was a personal friend of mine, I’d be begging him to give me a bit part in the new movie. Hell, if I had the necessary guile and insanity, I’d kidnap his family to be a small part of the next Star Wars movie. But as the director helming the new Star Wars, J.J. Abrams needs to say no to these people. He needs to let me murder his family rather than give me a role in the next movie.

Film Review Taken 2
Or he could send Liam Neeson after me. I’m good with either scenario. (AP Photo/20th Century Fox, Magali Bragard)

That said, I hope JB-007 makes another appearance.

2. Skip over the details

StarkillerBase_0

I touched on the fact that The Force Awakens often glazes over the details, and how that was fine because it was a callback to the original movie. However if Disney wants to create the same incredible universe that the original universe did, they’re going to have to do what Empire did:  flesh out the mythos and lore of the universe. Honestly I don’t care if the next movie explains how the First Order built Starkiller base, and actually I hope they don’t because any explanation will probably sound stupid. I do, however, want to know more about the First Order, why there is (or rather was) a peace treaty between them and the Republic, and how much space they control.

The Empire Strikes Back conveys a ton of information about the Star Wars universe without ever having to stop to explain it in a long drawn out expositional conversation. The Executor Super Star Destroyer as Vader’s command ship, cements the technological superiority of the Empire over the Rebellion, as do their AT-AT walkers. The probe droids sent out at the beginning of the film give the audience a grasp of how vast the universe is, and the difficulty of locating the rebels. Admiral Ozzel tries to convince Vader that the base on Hoth might be pirates or smugglers, subconsciously letting the the audience know that this universe is teeming with life beyond just the Rebellion and the Empire.

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And some of that life is just ugly as sin.

Then of course there’s the bounty hunters, which introduced us to Boba Fett. He was hilariously inept as a bounty hunter, but the way he was introduced sold him as a capable and dangerous villain. The hierarchy of the Empire is also revealed, whereas in A New Hope it was kind of nebulous. In the original movie Darth Vader seemed subordinate to Grand Moff Tarkin. The Empire Strikes Back reveals him to be the highest ranking person, second only to the Emperor. And when the Emperor commands Vader to communicate with him, Vader immediately obeys; abandoning his dogged pursuit of the Millennium Falcon. Vader’s demeanor, and the Emperor’s dialogue about disturbances in the Force, reveal the Emperor to be a powerful enemy.

Point is, a lot of small details were sprinkled throughout the film, ultimately helping to cement Star Wars in the public consciousness and sparking people’s imagination. It’s that kind of detail that needs to be liberally sprinkled across the next movie. Let us learn through osmosis how this new universe works, how powerful the New Republic is compared to the First Order. What is Leia’s position in the Republic? Where did Snoke come from, and what are his abilities?

If the next movie keeps the details as nebulous and vague as The Force Awakens did, then   I can’t see them sustaining an interesting world in the long-term. Note: I’m not saying to go crazy like The Extended Universe eventually did. Just some background to flesh out this new universe.

 

1. Make it all about Skywalker(s)

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Now I know Luke’s lineage was a huge factor in the original trilogy, but if Disney wants to make Star Wars movies from here to eternity, it’s going to need to leave behind the whole ‘chosen lineage’ aspect behind. There’s a lot of speculation around Rey’s lineage, but I’m really, really hoping she doesn’t turn out to be a Skywalker.

Why?

Because it’s boring. It’s been done before, and nothing in the story requires her to be a Skywalker. If Rey ends up being yet another Skywalker, then basically we’re saying that the entire universe revolves around one family and that will kill Star Wars faster than a vengeful George Lucas reacquiring the rights. If it continues down that road, eventually Star Wars is going to end up looking like World War I, in that all the leaders are related to each other.

I’m not saying Luke can’t play a part, obviously. He needs to train Rey and I’m looking forward to seeing him actually do something in the next film. I’m not saying that the Skywalkers can’t still play important roles in the universe.

I’m just saying they can’t be the only thing holding the universe together.

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They’ve already killed off the one non-Skywalker character that affected the story, the last thing we need is more Skywalkers Skywalkering it up in here.

Yes, I admit it could be an incredibly poignant story if Rey ends up being a long lost sister or cousin to Kylo Ren. But at the same time, come on… we can craft an amazing story without having to rely on the family angle again. We really don’t need to go down this road again.

Game of Thrones: The Red Woman Review

So the first episode of Game of Throne’s sixth season aired on Sunday, and I’m sure you probably noticed that… not a lot happened. It was mostly playing catch-up and the story only advanced by inches.

This seems like a good time to talk about momentum in storytelling, because that’s one of the things Game of Thrones is struggling with. A good story is a lot like a train; starting off slow, but building up momentum until it can plow through anything, slowing down only when going uphill (building tension) or around a sharp corner (plot twists).

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Or when it goes hurtling off the rails.

Game of Thrones‘s train has now slowed to a crawl and it has nothing but straight, flat track all the way to the ending. While it’s tempting to blame this all on the fact that Game of Thrones running out of book to use, this was actually a problem in the book series too. I even touched on this briefly years back when I read book 4, A Feast for Crows. At the time I thought maybe it was the killing of Cate Stark that made A Feast for Crows such a difficult slog to get through, but I realize now I was wrong. The real problem was the introduction of the Dorne plot, and every subsequent plot that followed.

Part of the genius of Game of Thrones, and its biggest draw, was George R. R. Martin’s use of the political stage of Westeros to create compelling drama. The first three books, and a majority of the show’s seasons, all centered around who would sit upon the Iron Throne. However, who sat on the Iron Throne was ultimately all just a subplot, a meticulously constructed distraction created to hold our attention while George R. R. Martin slowly built up the threat of the White Walkers. How humanity will stop them has always been the primary plot of the books, even though George R. R. Martin cleverly made it look like a low-key adventure subplot. Who ultimately gains the throne needs to be resolved for the audience to have satisfaction, there’s no doubt about that. Even subplots need resolution, but it’s never been the important question.

However, with the Hardhome episode, Game of Thrones needed to start quickly resolving things and ramping up the excitement for the final confrontation between the living and the dead. And so far, it’s not doing it. With the Dorne plot and the Iron Islands plot expected to be added this season, I can only see this getting worse.

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Though at least Ian McShane will make it one hell of a ride.

Have you noticed how most of our characters have all suffered major setbacks that pretty much reset their stories?

Daenarys is once again a slave of the Dothraki.

Arya is blind and is going to have to learn to fight again.

Sansa is once again homeless and on the run with a few allies.

Queen Cersei, and the monarchy itself, is helpless in the face of the religious extremists.

I don’t even know where Jaime’s storyline is going now, he seems to have hit a dead end.

Jon Snow is dead and we’re all waiting around to see if he’s resurrected by the Red Woman or as a White Walker general.

And Tyrion is just kind of dicking around in Meereen, waiting for Daenarys to come back.

Essentially any progress we’ve made through the series has been reversed or paused in it’s tracks, and you can feel that while watching the show… there’s no sense of urgency in any of the characters. The White Walkers are now half-a-million strong at the very least, so what are they waiting for exactly?

Well they’re waiting for the same thing we are: for all the now pointless subplots to be resolved.

The existential threat to all life on Westeros has been revealed, the Hardhome episode revealed to the audience the true extent of the danger. And with half-a-million strong White Walker army ready to attack The Wall, it’s hard to care about Daenerys being kidnapped (as if we don’t all know that she’ll be rescued eventually, probably after taking over the entire Dothraki horde) or some Cersei wannabe at the ass end of the kingdom.

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And why did Drogon save her from one group of maniacs, only to let her be captured by another?

In order for the newest season to succeed it’s going to need to start consolidating everything. It should be working towards bringing Daenerys to Westeros, reintroducing us to Bran, and getting rid of the extraneous subplots like Dorne and Meereen. It has to start building the momentum and then keep that momentum going forward, instead of grinding the plot to a halt by throwing more contrived obstacles in the way of our characters.

All that said, I’m still looking forward to this season and I hope this season of Game of Thrones proves me wrong. All that said, let’s review what happened in the first episode.

Dorne: Home of the Teleporting Sand Teens

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“Just like last season, I suspect nothing despite your obvious intent to kill me.”

As I pointed out last season, the Dornish plot was the worst of the bunch (which was true of the books as well) and it’s only gotten worse this time around.

The death of Prince Trystane continues the infamous legacy of everything Dorne being the single worst part of Game of Thrones, and the prince’s death takes it to a whole new low. First of all it shows us a tragic waste of Alexander Siddig’s talents by killing off his character in a way that makes absolutely no sense (not to mention lacking any dramatic value). How did she manage to convince the palace guards to betray their king? Secondly, how the hell did the Sand Teens get aboard the ship Trystane was on?

When we left them last season, Myrcella, Trystane, Jaime, and Bron (where did he vanish to, anyway?) were all sailing home for King’s Landing. The Sand Teens [I know they’re the Sand Snakes, but honestly they’re so fucking annoying that Teens is way more appropriate] and their mother were standing on the docks watching them sail away. And then suddenly they’re on Trystane’s ship and kill him. How did they manage that, exactly? I know Game of Thrones has always played fast and loose in terms of geography and time, but that sudden jump in locations was ridiculous.

I’m hoping the sloppiness of the prince’s death is a sign that the writers of Game of Thrones now realize Dorne is just a quagmire of awfulness that’s bogging down the plot, and they’re trying to resolve it as quickly as possible so they can be done with it. Otherwise I’m afraid it’s a sign that they simply have no idea what to do now that they’ve run out of book to use as a template.

Theon’s Rebirth

Theon and Sansa cross the river.

Theon’s slow transformation into Reek was one of the most powerful, and disturbing, parts of the show. However, once he became Reek, watching him continue to suffer got to be a bit redundant. Yes, we all understand that Ramsay Bolton is a monster, I think we got that message two seasons back. That’s why I had such a problem with Sansa’s Wedding, watching her and Reek continue to suffer offered nothing new to their characters or the plot at large.

However, I enjoyed watching Reek slowly regaining his sanity as Theon and his selfless ploy to try and protect Sansa. Of course the plan might have been slightly more effective had he lured the guards in a different direction several miles away rather than fifteen feet. That said, watching Podrick kick ass was one of the best parts of this episode. I’ve honestly grown a bit tired of Brienne at this point, where once she was a fascinating character (a female knight in a male dominated world), her character hasn’t really progressed or changed at all since she first took her oath to Catelyn Stark.

Also, what happened to the hounds during the battle? Must have teleported away using the same technology as the Sand Teens.

Daredevil Arya

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Arya has had one of the most satisfying character arcs in the entire series, going from a helpless little girl to a badass assassin in training. I think we were all looking forward to watching her return to Westeros and start killing off everyone we hated: Cersei, the Boltons, the Freys, and so on. To see the culmination of all her pain and suffering, her return to the Game of Thrones as one of the most powerful pieces on the board.

And then in the closing of last season, they made her go blind and reset her back to a helpless girl. This episode we see her begging on the steps and then get her ass kicked. So what?

I think we all know how this ends. She ends up learning to fight better blind than she ever did with sight, and whether she ends up regaining that sight or not is ultimately irrelevant. Basically she pulls a Daredevil, and while I love Netflix’s Daredevil, I ultimately find this subplot utterly stupid. We don’t need to see Arya helpless and crying again, we’ve already been through that. This sudden blindness isn’t going to result in anything other than time being wasted.

We’ve already seen Arya as a helpless street urchin trying to earn her way into the ranks of the Faceless Assassins. She’s already learned to go unnoticed, to listen to people on the street to learn vital information, and assume other identities. All of that training went into her assassination of the King’s Guard Meryn and it was awesome.

Now we all just have to wait for the training montage so Arya can get back to where she already was.

Daenerys Déjà Vu

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And speaking of taking all our powerful female characters and turning them back into helpless victims, Daenery’s was taken from Queen of Meereen and The First Men back into a Dothraki slave. So we’re apparently back in the first season again. Admittedly instead of being raped this time, she manages to get them to back down and instead send her to some spinster’s home in Dothraki territory, but really…

I honestly don’t understand why this is even in the story, what purpose does it serve other than waste everyone’s time? She still has Meereen to pacify or abandon in favor of an invasion of Westeros. There was plenty of opportunity for good stories to pass the time while we’re waiting for the other plotlines to resolve. The only good reason I can think of is that Daenery’s will need additional manpower to handle the White Walkers, but then why burn her ships? She’d need even more to take the Dothraki.

So yeah, I’m thinking this is all a colossal waste of time. The only brightside might be watching Tyrion and Varys work their magic and pacify Meereen.

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The Bitch’in’est Duo in the East.

Castle Black: The Last Hope for Westeros

(In more ways than one)

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The scenes at Castle Black are easily the best in the entire episode, because they’re the only ones where anything actually happens. Until Bran returns to the story, the events at Castle black are the only storyline capable of moving the plot forward. Yet these scenes are kept infuriatingly short, but I’m really looking forward to seeing what happens as the Night’s Watch prepares to descend into civil war. I also love the lingering shots on Jon’s body because there’s now this amazing sense of dread over seeing his dead body.

Because while on one hand Melisandre might be able to resurrect him, the longer time drags on, the more likely it becomes that Jon will rise to become one of the most powerful generals of the White Walker army.

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To replace the one he struck down last season…

 

Life is a Strange Journey

Life is Strange is an amazing story that I recently got to experience thanks to the generosity of one of my readers, Martin, who gifted me the game on Steam. The only catch? To do a review of it.

Which wasn’t much a catch, because Life is Strange is an amazing story filled with memorable characters and a unique time traveling mechanic that requires you to think outside the box to solve most of the puzzles. It’s also a game that explores important themes and shows you that life is a strange journey for all us, and sometimes we all need a little help to get through it.

Life is Strange:

A Storytelling Review 

Life is Strange Logo

Life is Strange is the story Max Caulfield as she returns to her hometown of Arcadia Bay, Oregon to attend the prestigious Blackwell Academy. It’s a game that fills its cast with typical trope characters: the bitchy popular girls, the fat loner, the crazy rich kid, and every other character you can think of. It’s beginning is a giant cliche as Max walks down a long hallway filled with students while monologuing about her life to an admittedly great song.

It lures you into making assumptions about characters and let’s you think you know where this story is heading… and then completely challenges all your expectations and turns the tropes on their head. In most adventure games, you have to explore your environment to find the solutions to the puzzles. In Life is Strange you have to explore the characters around you, talk to them, in order to find many of the solutions. It’s a game that rewards you for interacting with its NPCs, something more games need to do. And most importantly, it’s a story that makes you examine yourself just as much as the characters you meet.

I fell in love with this game less than twenty minutes in when we’re introduced to the Blackwell’s groundskeeper, Samuel. Max’s internal monologue states right up front that people find him creepy, and Max tells us that he isn’t stalker creepy, but more X-Files creepy.

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His spirit animal is a squirrel guys… this is seriously the nicest guy in the game.

Yet despite Max’s reassurances, as soon as Samuel spoke I said to myself, “oh yeah, he’s creepy as fuck.” And I hate that that was my gut reaction to him, because it says something horrible about me. It says I’m willing to judge a person based on his appearance and voice, and I don’t like that one bit. I think of myself as a tolerant and nonjudgmental person, but when confronted with someone who doesn’t conform to societal norms… I acted like a total Trump. The groundskeeper ends up being one the kindest and quite possibly wisest character in the game.

That’s when I fell in love with this game, because I think the best stories are the ones that make us look at ourselves and consider how we might act. Games have the unique advantage of actually putting us into those situations and seeing how we act. Life is Strange held a mirror up and I didn’t like what I saw in the reflection, and it made me want to change that about myself. So now when I meet someone in real life that acts or sounds like Samuel, I hope I remember the monster I saw in that reflection and treat them like Max treats Samuel; with dignity and kindness.

Which is really the theme and message of the entire game; treat everyone you meet with dignity, respect, and with the understanding that they’re all facing struggles of their own.

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Shockingly, treating people like crap doesn’t pay off for anybody.

One of the most shocking moments in the game comes when a viral video of Kate Marsh hits the internet. Kate is one of Max’s classmates, and she’s incredibly sweet. She’s a shy girl that keeps to herself, to an even greater extent than Max, and she’s very religious. As a shy person in school myself, I can attest to the fact that often times shyness is taken for arrogance. People assume you don’t hang out with them because you think you’re better than them, when in fact you don’t hang out with them because you’re afraid they don’t want you to. Combined with the fact that Kate is very religious and the rest of the students at Blackwell assume she’s an arrogant, holier-than-thou stuck up bitch.

So when a viral video pops up of Kate making out with several boys at a party, everyone is quick to pile onto the poor girl. Because now they can label Kate a hypocrite, and there’s no worse kind of bullying then self-righteous bullying. People wrote horrible messages on her dorm room panel [Will Fuck 4 Jesus being one that stuck out in my mind as being thoroughly disgusting] and posted links to the viral video everywhere they could. As Max, I did my best to erase these disgusting remarks and links, and helped Kate when I could.

But no… that’s not entirely true. One morning things were clearly coming to a head for poor Kate, she ran crying out of Mark Jefferson’s class after he refused to help her and she was keeping to herself far more than usual. Earlier that day using my time bending powers, I’d explored her room and seen terrible messages from her family about how she had disgraced them and shamed herself. I knew she was in pain, I knew she needed help.

But I was with Chloe at the time, playing with my time powers.

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Her mind went to exactly the same idea mine would if I had time powers…

So when Kate called while I was with Chloe, I chose to ignore it. After all, it’s a video game, what’s the worse that can happen?

Kate Marsh Jumps
OH
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MY
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GOD

 

This is one of the most powerful scenes in the game and an unfortunately accurate portrayal of what leads people to suicide. When Max sees Kate leap off the roof, her sudden burst of emotions freezes time its tracks, giving her enough time to reach the roof and try to talk Kate down.

I tried to reach her, I really did. Unfortunately I tend to get tunnel vision playing through a good game and rush towards resolving the main plot, skipping a lot of the optional stuff so I honestly didn’t know Kate very well when I tried talking her off that ledge. And because of that, I ended up metaphorically pushing her off that ledge. Kate felt utterly alone and because I didn’t know her well enough, I couldn’t provide the human connection she desperately needed.

And she jumped.

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I’m so sorry Kate.

What I absolutely love about this game is that it’s entirely possible to save Kate, and you don’t have to find some secret McGuffin or complete some sidequest to do it. All you have to do is invest a little time into talking with Kate and get to know her, so that when you are on the roof with her, you can show her she’s not alone. Having metaphorically been on that roof a few times in my life, I know that the most important thing in those moments is knowing someone out there cares.

And if you do manage to save Kate you meet her at the hospital, where she’s already feeling much better. Because suicide is always a spontaneous decision (with the exception of end-of-life euthanasia that is) and the reality is, the desire to die never lasts very long. It’s one of the most sensitive and accurate portrayals of suicide I’ve ever seen, and the first one I’ve seen in a video game (at least the first one that didn’t involve a zombie bite.) The game is worth it just for this sequence alone.

I found myself so invested in the characters and their relationships, I actually found the mystery plot surrounding it to be almost dull by comparison. The mystery revolves around the disappearance of Rachel Amber and the Vortex Club, where girls are getting drugged and abused (including poor Kate, which leads to the viral video). Max is also haunted by visions of a massive tornado destroying the entire town of Arcadia Bay. Honestly I think the game should have spent just a little more time on these plots, because they feel almost like afterthoughts compared to experiencing the interpersonal relationships between the characters.

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The big reveal at the end of the mystery is that Mark Jefferson, the famous photographer turned teacher, the reason Max came to Blackwell, is actually the serial killer she’s been hunting. This was a brilliant twist because it makes complete sense in hindsight. Mark Jefferson’s creepy fixation with Max’s entering his contest, the weird photographs he was famous for that were plastered across the campus, and even his personalty: his Ted Bundy like charm designed to make someone lower their guard.

Max manages to stop Mark Jefferson, but only by doing multiple warps through time and space, and by the end time itself begins to unravel. The huge tornado that Max had seen tearing through Arcadia Bay is the result of Max’s continuing use of her powers. Leading to one tragic, but ultimately inevitable decision.

Max has to return to the moment it all started… and let Chloe die, rather than change history.

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Two moons is nature’s way of saying you’ve really fucked something up.

Or you can choose to sacrifice Arcadia Bay and kill thousands, get a 30 second clip of Chloe and Max driving through town, and roll credits. I honestly have no idea why this ending is in the game, clearly the team didn’t like it since they put no effort into making it emotionally fulfilling or offering any sense of closure. Maybe this was a decision by some soulless corporate suit that wanted to appeal to a wider audience or something, I don’t know. The fact this crappy ending is in the game is almost insulting, and tarnishes an otherwise shining jewel of storytelling.

The confusing thing about Life is Strange‘s two endings is that it really didn’t need it. I hold up the first season of Telltale’s The Walking Dead as one of the finest storytelling experiences in gaming, and it didn’t need two endings. Instead Life is Strange should have done something similar to the Walking  Dead: offer a single ending but with two small but still incredibly emotional choices. The Walking Dead let you choose to let Lee turn into a zombie or have Clementine mercy kill him. Life is Strange should have had the same kind of choice, and I’m honestly surprised they didn’t offer it. It should have offered us the choice of sacrificing Chloe, which they gave us…

Or sacrificing Max.

I was expecting this option to appear and was rather shocked when it didn’t. Nathan was already so keyed up that all Max would really have to do is jump out from behind her cover and scream at him, and he would have shot her on instinct. Yes she would be changing the timeline one last time, but Max would also die, and with her, the power that was destroying time.

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Honestly I think sacrificing Max would have been the more tragic and emotional ending. Not to mention making more sense. After all I don’t think trying to save Chloe was the reason time began unraveling and created a huge tornado. It was Max’s continuing use of her powers and ripping time a new space-hole in the process. And while Chloe was indirectly the cause by forcing Max to continue saving her, Max is the real problem. Even with Chloe dead now, how long until Max uses her power again?

At several points in the storyline, Max uses her power instinctually to protect herself or others. What’s preventing that from happening again?

Still all that said, as long as you pick Sacrifice Chloe as your ending, the final act of Life is Strange is still emotionally satisfying. Would I have preferred something a bit less conventional and less of carbon copy of The Butterfly Effect? Of course. An ending that challenged my expectations just as much as the early chapters did would have made Life is Strange a narrative on par with the Telltale’s The Walking Dead, but as it is, it falls short.

Yet I have to admit that the final scenes of Life is Strange hit all the right emotional notes and provided closure to the series, which is all I really look for from an ending.

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I’ll admit, the appearance of the blue butterfly brought a few tears to my eyes…

The ending isn’t what I would have liked to see, but Life is Strange is still an amazing game filled with memorable characters and a great message we should all take to heart:

Life is a strange journey for all of us and we should all try to help each other through it as best we can. Because one day we’ll all find ourselves staring out into an unstoppable storm and when we do, we should have someone at our side…

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Even if it’s just to hold us until the very end…

 

Jessica Jones: Marvel’s Darkest Side

It’s no secret (or perhaps it is since I never got around to doing a review,) that I love Daredevil. It was the first Marvel franchise where I was actually on the edge of my seat during the fight sequences because, unlike the immortal demigods of the Avengers, Daredevil could be injured. Horribly, horribly injured. I think half of the show’s budget was used on practical effects to simulate all the compound fractures they kept showing on screen. It was brutal and visceral, and featured a hallway fight sequence that may be one of the greatest martial arts fighting scenes I’ve ever seen.

More than that, Daredevil understood the gravity of the situations he was in. Gone was the sarcastic quipping of the Avengers as collateral damage and civilian casualties are occurring all around them.  Daredevil painstakingly prevented civilian casualties, and when civilians were killed by his enemies, he was genuinely enraged. This was a Marvel franchise that actually got me emotionally involved in the characters, it told a story that fascinated me, rather than just distracted me on a hot summer day.

Jessica Jones is not Daredevil. Jessica Jones isn’t even Marvel, at least not in the way we’ve come to know it. This is a different, darker Marvel. Jessica Jones is far less physically violent than Daredevil, but that violence is replaced by a far more disturbing kind of mental and emotional violence. It’s a story that shows us an abusive relationship in excruciating detail, it will make you uncomfortable and it will make you want to take a shower at some point. But if you’re ready to explore the darkest depths of human depravity, Jessica Jones is all too ready to take you there.

Netflix’s Jessica Jones

A Storytelling Review

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Jessica Jones is easily Marvel’s most powerful and darkest installment in its cinematic universe. And while I’d love to recommend it to everyone, the simple fact of the matter is that not everyone is going to like it. It’s a great show, but if you come in expecting a typical superhero show, you will be bitterly disappointed.

For one, this isn’t a superhero show. This is a personal revenge story and gender-reversed noir detective story that just happens to have superheroes in it. Unlike every other franchise in the Marvel Universe, New York City isn’t in mortal peril. No one wants to destroy the world. No one is looking for infinity stones or the secret of immortality. It’s just Jessica Jones trying to survive after an unthinkable trauma, and her quest to hunt down the man responsible.

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This bastard right here.

When I said this is a gender-reversed noir detective story, I fucking meant it. The hard-boiled private detective is Jessica Jones, the reporter looking for a scoop is Trish Walker, and the unscrupulous defense attorney cheating on their spouse is Jeri Hogarth. Fifty years ago, all those roles would have been male. And as for the “Femme Fatal,” the alluring seductress who is either involved with or is in herself the inciting incident that puts the story in motion?

That’s played by none other than David Tennant (pictured above.)

A standard femme fatal uses her sex appeal to lure the protagonist into his own downfall, much like the Sirens of Greek myth. Kilgrave’s power isn’t sex appeal, though he does have that in spades, but instead he’s a superpowered um… Menne Matal? No… that can’t be right. Anyway, he controls people’s thoughts. But not just their thoughts, their desires. How Jessica describes her experience with Kilgrave is absolutely chilling. Unlike say, Borg mind control, you’re not simply compelled to do something against your will.

You’re compelled to want to do whatever Kilgrave wants. His desire becomes your desire. I can’t think of an idea more repugnant than that.

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Well, except for the real world equivalent. Speaking of which, everyone should watch The Hunting Grounds because it’s fucking horrifying and we need to do better as a society. 

So now not only are you acting against your will, but when you’re finally free of Kilgrave’s influence, you’re left to deal with the horrific guilt. Because you wanted it. He compelled you to want it, but the desire was still there.

That’s the villain Jessica Jones is up against and with the power to command whomever he chooses, he’s not easy to take down. Again though, Jessica Jones doesn’t follow the usual superhero structure. There is no escalating sequence of battles culminating in a climactic fight here, instead the entire season is a game of cat and mouse. Or perhaps cat and cat might be a better analogy since Jessica Jones and Kilgrave circle each other, probing each other’s weaknesses and waiting for the right moment to strike.

If you’ve ever seen any old detective movies you’ll feel right at home. First there’s the investigation, painstakingly hunting for clues and last known whereabouts of Kilgrave. This is by far the best part of the show, and takes up a fair amount of the show’s run time. I found Kilgrave to completely and utterly terrifying. His calm but cold voice, the manner in which he held himself, the calculating and meticulous planning he relied on. You barely even see him at first, just in the flashes of memory that Jessica suffers from.

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Watching Kilgrave get repeatedly bitch slapped by a bus is pretty satisfying.

Though just as brilliant as his ominous introduction, is his clever deconstruction as we get to know the character. Kilgrave seems to be so powerful at first and so incredibly intelligent, the kind of cold calculating sociopath you’d expect. But when Jessica is forced to move in with Kilgrave, you get a glimpse at just how insecure and immature this man is. It’s a credit to David Tennant’s acting ability that he can go from confident and utterly terrifying mind-controlling pyschopath, to a cringe worthy man-child that throws a tantrum when things don’t go his way. Which is exactly what he is.

Kilgrave is revealed to be nothing more than a twelve-year-old boy who never had to grow up because his ability to command people meant he could do whatever he wanted. He’s also the stereotypical abusive boyfriend/spouse, if something bad happens to his partner (in this case Jessica) well she secretly wanted it! Or she did something to deserve it! Or she doesn’t know what she wants! Any excuse will do, as long as he doesn’t have to admit that he’s brutalizing people.

But the fact of the matter is that Kilgrave is just a troubled human being. I began to pity the man after a while, despite his horrible actions, because he was just so overwhelmingly insecure and afraid. As Jessica continues to press him and defy his control, Kilgrave’s suave, confident facade cracks and falls away to reveal the trembling, scared little boy he’s always been.

Kilgrave loves his Mum
Kilgrave just wants his mommy!

It’s the exploration of Kilgrave’s character, the ramifications of his actions, that truly separates this show from typical superhero stories. Unlike Tony Stark’s crises of faith he has in every Marvel film he’s in, all of the traumatized characters in Jessica Jones experience their trauma in a realistic and authentic ways. The violation they feel and the different ways they deal with it all feel real; guilt, shame, rage, insecurity, fear. Well, they feel real aside from one stupid part at the end when they all form a lynch mob for a horribly contrived reason.

As much as I love this show, it’s not without its problems. One problem is when the show tries to use Simpson as some kind of alternate villain. It’s not that I mind that Simpson ends up being a superhero/villain, this is the Marvel Universe, every other person you meet probably has some kind of weird ability.

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Even if that ability is being the world’s unluckiest nurse. 

No the problem wasn’t so much that he was revealed to be a superhero so much as he was boring and contributed nothing to the story. His power is dull; he’s like an even less interesting version of Bane, his only ability is getting ramped up on a super steroid. He takes a few too many of Underdog’s pills and goes berserk. It’s boring. Combined with the fact that Simpson’s character was so two-dimensional he was basically just a line segment in some scenes, and this new threat just fell utterly flat.

Compared to the incredibly complex character of Kilgrave (and the incredible gravitas of David Tennant), Simpson was utterly anemic as a threat. I didn’t feel an ounce of tension during his fight with Jessica and Trish, instead I just got extremely impatient waiting for them to deal with this incredibly dull diversion so we could get back to the actual story of the show: stopping Kilgrave.

Simpson needed a much more realized backstory.
I’m sorry, but no amount of “slowly walking away from a cool fire without looking” can make him interesting.

And I know, he’ll be back in the next season of either Jessica Jones or Daredevil, and then they’ll probably give us a proper background on him, give him actual motivations beyond ‘roid rage, and he’ll probably make a cool bad guy. But Marvel, you don’t have to shoehorn upcoming characters into every franchise you own, we all know you have a cool cinematic universe where everything is connected. We don’t need to be constantly reminded of that by forcing future villains into shows and movies at the expense of pacing and story. I thought he was properly foreshadowed as a future villain even before he started popping pills.

There was an intensity to him that seemed off even at the start, he revealed he had been a black-ops interrogator at some point, and he had both the expertise and the recklessness disregard for human life to want to use a bomb in a residential neighborhood to kill one man. That was all he needed, his eventual return as a villain was already foreshadowed. But instead of stopping there, they introduced the mystery doctor and his red/white/blue pills (real subtle with the imagery there guys.) And he mucked up the first season by needlessly slowing it down for a completely needless and drawn out fight sequence.

Now when he inevitably returns, I won’t be thinking “yes, I fucking called it!” and be excited to see how his character evolves. When I see him again I’ll just groan and say “oh god, not this douchebag again.” Which is a shame because he does have the potential to be interesting, but you ruined it by awkwardly forcing him into a story where he didn’t belong. He can probably be used again at some point, but when he reappears he’ll have to work twice as hard to make the audience think of him as anything other than that annoying guy from the first season of Jessica Jones.

Disappear him here.png
They should have just disappeared Simpson into a black van at the end of this scene and left his disappearance a mystery.

The other main problem was that, as much as I enjoyed how dark Jessica Jones was, it may have been a bit too dark. Daredevil had both an incredibly endearing romance plot between his law partner and secretary, plus several incredibly funny scenes, to counterbalance the ultraviolent tone. Jessica Jones doesn’t have that, Jessica’s life is ripped apart so utterly and so completely, that by the end you’re just kind of numb to it. Hope killing herself should have been an emotional climax, a heart-wrenching death that should have put fury in my heart, but honestly I barely blinked an eye. By that point Kilgrave had amassed such a body count and Jessica Jones had been through so much trauma, Hope’s death barely even registered with me.

Even at the end, with Kilgrave finally dead and her free of him, the show doesn’t let up in its dark, gritty tone for even a single moment. The final shot is of her back to drinking alone in her office while she desperately tries to ignore the people calling her for help. She could have at least cracked a smile at some point, or ended it with her moving back in with Trish for some semblance of human connection. Anything but a return to the status quo that left her just as miserable as she was to begin with.

Visual Metaphor
Though I did like the visual metaphor of the broken window.

Of course another significant part of why the emotional impact fell off towards the end is that there just wasn’t enough story to stretch out over 13 hours. Jessica almost catches Kilgrave about a half-dozen times over 13 episodes and while some of these near misses are great at building the tension, after a while it becomes clear it’s just needless padding. The worst example of this is when Kilgrave manages to escape again when a lynch mob tries to kill Jessica thanks to the deranged ravings of a crazy woman. It felt contrived and unnecessary.

Despite these problems, Jessica Jones is still an amazing show and it’s worth a watch for David Tennant’s amazing performance if nothing else. Still, this is not a Marvel series for everybody. If you like the cartoony, lighthearted action of the movies and want more of that, this is not the series for you. If you find implied rape, mental and physical torture, and gruesome deaths too horrifying to contemplate – DO NOT WATCH THIS SHOW! 

Marvel’s Jessica Jones takes us into the very darkest corners of the human psyche; mankind’s predatory instinct to conquer and dominate everything around it. It explores in detail what happens when people are able to bend others to their will, the trauma caused when people are mentally and physically violated, and the sick motivations of the people willing to inflict that on their victims.

 

True Detective Season 2: What The Hell Went Wrong

True Detective’s second season finally came to an end on Sunday, brutally killing not only several characters but also any hope we had that the show would somehow redeem itself in the finale. While I didn’t quite get the transcendental experience others seemed to get watching the original season of True Detective, I still thought it was a great show with some amazing performances by McConaughey and Harrelson. So what the hell went wrong with this season?

Well let me lay out for you the mistakes that made this season of True Detective one of the most bizarre experiences in recent memory.

[Obviously spoilers are to follow, but quite frankly if you haven’t seen it, you might save yourself 8.5 hours of your time and just read this review instead.]

4. The Dialogue Was Awful

Wait...what?
Wait…what?

That up there is the closed captioning for the finale of Season 2, I turned it on specifically to make sure I was hearing what I thought I heard. Those words are spoken by Generic Russian Mob Boss #3209, A.K.A. Ossip, as Frank and Velcoro sneak up on cash exchange between Catalast [that’s not a typo by the way, that’s how it was actually spelled in the show] and the Russians, and it serves as a perfect example of how messed up the dialogue is.

What does that sentence even mean? Everything you start is unfinished, that’s why you’re starting it. The strange dialogue of season two was both a blatant attempt to recapture the magic of Rust’s poetic philosophizing and a great demonstration of how the show misunderstood its own popularity. There were several reasons why Rust’s dialogue worked in the first season, reasons that are completely absent from this season.

First of all, the dialogue was appropriate to Rust’s character, he was the perpetual outsider. The pariah who had trouble connecting with people on even the most basic level. That’s why he spoke the way he did, why he waxed philosophical at every opportunity, because it was representative of his inability to communicate with other people. To put it simply, Rust earned the right to speak like he did because it was a core part of his character.

The second reason Rust’s dialogue worked was that it was counterbalanced by Hart’s dialogue. Whenever Rust would get particularly insufferable in his nihilistic preaching, Hart would jump in with a well-timed “shut the fuck up.” Hart grounded the dialogue by not taking what Rust was saying seriously. Rust was using big words and complicated philosophies to cover the fact that he has utterly miserable and pretending that misery made him special.

Rust from True Detective
Shockingly, this is not a mentally stable person.

And the most important reason that Rust’s dialogue worked was this:

Rust was the only one who spoke like that. 

Everyone else in the first season of True Detective spoke like a normal human being, with the exception of The Yellow King, who was the foil of Rust’s character. The Yellow King was basically the Anti-Rust, an insufferable philosopher driven by faith rather than nihilism. So again, both their respective dialogues made sense in context.

In this season of True Detective, everyone is now talking like Rust and the people listening to it are taking it dead seriously, despite the fact this season features some of the goofiest lines ever spoken in a crime drama. I do not know how Vince Vaughn said “blue-balls of the heart” with a straight fucking face, but he deserves some kind of award for that. It’s sad that Vince Vaughn got saddled with a disproportionate amount of strange dialogue, because his character is the last person who should be speaking like that. Frank is a gangster who runs a bunch of casinos and whose primary duties are interacting with other people, and getting them to give him their money. He’s a people person, a negotiator. He’s not a loner or a reader of philosophy, there’s not a single thing about this character that justifies him talking like this:

WTF IS THIS NOISE
You can see more of these gems right here.

Look at that fucking sentence up there. Herman Melville would look at that sentence and say, “Dude, no. Just no.” Even the Borg speak more organically than that. Was McConaughey adlibbing all his lines last season or did True Detective simply fire the editor in charge of proofreading this crap?

Whatever the case, the only time anyone spoke like a normal human being was when the characters sat down to spew out expository dialogue in a futile attempt to help the audience make heads or tails of the plot…

3. The Plot Was Buried in Subplots

Blue Diamonds True Detective

The main plot revolved around the blue diamonds stolen by corrupt cops in 1992, in which the jewelers were brutally executed during the heist. The orphans of those jewelers then kidnapped Caspere some twenty-odd years later, originally planning to interrogate him and find out who else was responsible, before the crazy brother ended up killing him in a fit of rage.

This is not a complicated plot. Any other police procedural would have been able to tell this story in a 42 minute episode. So why the hell did we all spend two months in a near constant state of confusion over what the fuck was happening in this show?

Stan Dead...who is he again?
I still don’t know who the fuck Stan was…

Well because the plot so was simple that an episode of Castle could have covered it, True Detective season 2 needed something else to make it interesting. There were several ways to do this:

A) They could have setup some character-driven subplots, a la the first season’s subplot about Hart’s constant infidelity and the tense relationship between Hart and Rust. 

B) Solve the main mystery quickly, but that in turn leads to the uncovering of the larger criminal conspiracy at work in Vinci, and the detectives have to protect the former orphans while collecting evidence about the conspiracy. 

C) Create a few carefully crafted subplots and use them to spice up the main storyline. :

D) Take the plot of every noir crime story ever made, make them their own dedicated subplots, and throw them all into a big bowl. Mix until plot is totally incomprehensible. 

Unfortunately for us all, they chose D.

The largest and most pointless subplot was the Railway Corridor, which ended up taking approximately all of the show’s running time. Seriously, more time and effort was spent trying to uncover the mysteries of this stupid land deal than was spent on telling the actual story of the show. The worst part is that the Railway Corridor was only ever tangentially connected with the main story, the corrupt cops were hoping to use their share of the diamond heist to buy their way into the land deal. If Velcoro, Bezzerides and Woodrugh stuck with actually investigating the diamond heist, instead of wasting their time looking into the land deal, they probably would have all lived happily ever after.

Seriously guys, you had ONE job.
Seriously guys, you had ONE job.

If the story had stuck to telling us about the diamond heist and then led us into the deeper conspiracy surrounding the rail corridor, then yes, this could have worked. But instead of doing that, True Detective apparently got bored and wandered off to tell us a dozen different stories all happening at the same time.

We had a bunch of pointless scenes with Frank attempting to retain control of his clubs, even though roughly 100% of the audience didn’t have a single fuck to give about the intricacies of Frank’s operations. We even got a pointless fist fight between Frank and a fat dude with gold teeth, for reasons I still don’t understand.

We had even more scenes with Frank trying to have a baby with his wife and complaining about how hard his life as an orphan was.

Bezzerides took more than one trip to see her father, who knew some of the older conspirators in passing but the connection is ultimately meaningless.

Essentially 99% of the subplots in this season were pointless. Not only did they not advance the story, they actively held it back. The Russian mobster taking over the underworld? Pointless. He shows up three or four times, vaguely threatens Frank and then promptly dies at the end.

Wait, I'm too vital to the plot to die! *Dies* Oh, I guess not.
Wait, I’m too inconsequential to the plot to die!

The strange Mexican duo that looked like they stepped out of the 80’s? Nothing more than ethnic Deus Ex Machinas to make sure Frank died tragically. They literally only show up to advance the story (helping Frank find the Mexican prostitute), throw up obstacles (then killing the Mexican prostitute), and then putting the main character in arbitrary danger. Their presence was never explained.

Then there was the Black Mountain security company, which was alluded to throughout the season but ultimately contributed nothing but a couple of goons for the main characters to shoot at.

There was also a really strange, creepy fixation on the character’s sex lives. I understand the main theme of this season was sex (it wasn’t exactly subtle about it), but the show also doesn’t go anywhere with this. The first time we meet Bezzerides she’s having an argument with her boyfriend over her BDSM fetish, but the scene is ultimately irrelevant to the story. In fact the BDSM thing is never mentioned again.

Okay we get it, True Detective, she's kinky. Is there any point to knowing that though?
This scene is also another example of bad dialogue. “Are you into that?” Her boyfriend asks as she stands in front of her wall of BDSM sex-toys…

So instead of using this scene to give us a glimpse at her character, the whole scene just comes across as weirdly voyeuristic. The only point of this glimpse at her collection of paddles and straps is to titillate the audience. It did nothing to characterize her to the audience.

In fact there was very little characterization at all because…

2. The Characters Were Ignored

You know, I don't think all four of these actors ever ended up on the screen together at the same time.
The main characters spend so much time apart, there’s not even a photo of them in the same room together.

The main appeal of True Detective was that it was essentially an extended buddy-cop movie where the buddies actually kind of hate each other, but not really, it’s just complicated. The incredible performances of Harrelson and McConaughey combined with the unique narrative design of the flashback sequences and taped interviews with unreliable narrators made for a compelling show. The two main characters spent the entire season together, playing off each other and revealing more about their characters with every interaction.

Now compare that to season 2 where all of the main characters spend most of their time completely isolated from one another. In the start of the second episode, the state sets up a special investigative team and throws Velcoro, Bezzerides and Woodrugh together. They meet in some crappy warehouse for a couple of minutes, and then split up, never to be in the same room again until pretty much the tail-end of the show. We get some shots of Velcoro and Bezzerides driving around together, and these scenes are good. The two definitely had some chemistry together, but then the show inexplicably separates them again.

So instead of watching these characters interact and learning who they are from those interactions, we instead get to watch each character deal with their own personal issues separately. Frank dealt with his crumbling empire and his impotent balls, Velcoro was in a custody battle for his son, and Paul was desperately trying to catch a case of the Not-Gays. Bezzerides spent the first four episodes dealing with a pair of scorned lovers at work and then the last four episodes dealing with her childhood rape.

Gee, another strong female character defined by her rape story. Yeah, that never gets old.
Gee, another strong female character defined by her rape story. Yeah, that never gets old.

Even when the characters are together, they spend so much time delivering clumsy exposition that we never get any of the incredible character interactions that made the first season so memorable. When Woodrugh dies, in a goofy assassination scene straight out of a Victorian play, Velcoro and Bezzerides spend about two minutes mourning his loss before delving right back into expository dialogue about how to find the orphaned brother.

No one’s character ever experienced any kind of dramatic arc, or changed in any way, and without strongly written characters, the performances of the actors were severely ham-stringed. If they’d had a script that allowed them to act out their characters more often, rather than idly standing around explaining the plot of their show to the audience, they might have given us performances on par with Harrelson and McConaughey.

Ultimately though, they wasted most of their time explaining the show because…

1. Nothing About Anything Made Sense

Wait, why is this guy mayor? Did he like inherit it from his father?
Wait, why is this guy mayor? Did he inherit it from his father?

When you look at most of the events that occurred in this season of True Detective, you’ll come to one inescapable conclusion.

Nothing about anything ever made sense. 

The events of this show didn’t follow any kind of logic, except maybe some kind of internal logic of the writer that is incomprehensible to mere human minds. Instead, things happened because the plot demanded they happen. It was cheap and succeeded only in wasting everybody’s time.

One the most glaring examples of this plot contrivance is the raid on the sex party about midway through the season. Bezzerides has used her sister’s porn connections to get her into one of the sex parties that Caspere was such a fan of. Masquerading as a prostitute, Bezzerides gets drugged and stumbles her way through the party, eventually finding a missing girl who knew Caspere. Meanwhile Velcoro and Woodrugh are going full Splinter Cell, sneaking around the house and taking out guards. Eventually they stumble upon the architects of the rail corridor going over some documents. They steal the documents, save the girl and flee into the night.

Stunning Police Powers
Showcasing Woodrugh’s powers of deduction…

Now let’s rewind and ask ourselves one very important question:

What was the plan here? 

Seriously, I’m asking, what was the group’s plan?

What was the reason? What were they looking for? Finding the missing girl and retrieving the documents were all purely happenstance, so what was the original objective? What was Bezzerides there to find out? Was she going to ask the other prostitutes who Caspere hung out with? Gather evidence of who was attending these parties?

Why was Woodrugh choking out guards and stealing documents? Shouldn’t he have been waiting as backup in the woods? Why risk discovery?

The answer to all the above is simple: the plot demanded that the characters be in a certain place at a certain time, and so they were. Now tons of stories rely on coincidences to drive their story forward, but most stories give their characters some reason for being at the right place at the right time. John McClane is in that building because he was attending a Christmas party at his wife’s work. Darth Vader’s Star Destroyer intercepts the Blockade Runner at Tatooine because that’s where Princess Leia was heading there to contact Obi-wan. Point is, most stories make an attempt to create a plausible reason for things to happen, even if that reason is paper thin it gives the audience a foundation for their suspended disbelief.

This season’s True Detective didn’t even bother giving us that foundation. I want you to look at something.

Dry Street

This is Velcoro getting out his car to say goodbye to his son after his successful heist of the Russian/Catalast money exchange. Notice that the street is as dry as only a never-ending California drought can make it.

This is what Velcoro finds when he comes back to the car.

“Later today there will be a highly concentrated rain storm under one man’s car.” – Plot Contrivance News, Weather Report

There’s a pool of water under Velcoro’s car. At first I thought the gas tank had been punctured and that’s what I was supposed to be seeing, but he drives away just fine. No, it’s just ordinary water and it appears spontaneously so that Velcoro can see a reflection of the red light on a tracking device in the water. This is just so lazy that I can’t even believe I’m seeing it in what must have been a multi-million dollar HBO production.

They could have put an extra out on the street watering his lawn. Boom, a reason for the water pooling under his car, see how easy and painless that was. That’s all it would have taken, it still would have been incredibly lazy but it would have been something at least.

And on that I rest my case, because if you can’t even move your plot along without a car peeing itself, then you have officially failed to tell a good story.

Inside Out: There Will Be Tears

Pixar has once again shown the world why it’s the single greatest storytelling company in the world. After watching Brave I was afraid that Disney’s corrupting influence might have undermined Pixar’s ability to tell amazing stories. As I wrote in my review of Brave, while it was still a great movie that made me cry, the story lacked the cohesion I’ve come to expect from Pixar. I speculated that perhaps the corporate bigwigs at Disney were exerting too much control over Pixar in an attempt to sell  merchandise. I’m glad to say that, though I’m sure Disney is still as evil as ever, the crew at Pixar are still amazing storytellers.

This has all the hallmarks of an amazing Pixar movie; great characters, a captivating story, and laughs and tears in equal measure. Yet it was also more than that, because Inside Out is truly special; it’s one of the best and most accessible explanations of the human psyche I’ve ever seen. I think they should show this movie in elementary schools every year, because I can’t tell you how helpful it would have been to see this movie when I was that age.

If you want to understand how the human mind works forget reading the works of Freud, Jung, Skinner, or Pavlov. Just watch Inside Out. It shows just how amazingly complex the human mind is, and does it in a way that makes us all just a little more aware of the struggle all of our fellow humans are going through. And it did all of that while still creating an amazing story.

A story about being human.

Inside Out made me cry, and not just a single manly tear either. So be warned,  if you go to this new Pixar movie…

There. Will. Be. Tears. 

Pixar’s Inside Out

A Storytelling Review

The story follows an eleven year old girl named Riley who is forced to move from her home in Minnesota to the hellish dystopian nightmare of California. Thankfully its only San Francisco and not Los Angeles or this would have been a far darker movie…

San Francisco isn’t the setting though, and Riley isn’t the main character. Instead Joy, Sadness, and the other emotions that govern human behavior are our cast. And the setting is the inside of Riley’s mind, featuring islands of personality and glowing orbs that represent memories each colored by the emotion that defined them. Thanks to main character Joy, most of these memories glow a brilliant gold like tiny little stars.

Joy is voiced by Amy Poehler and I just want to point out what an amazing casting choice this was because holy shit, if anyone could personify joy it’s Amy Poehler.

Someone remind me to do a review of Parks and Recreation, because that's an amazing show.
Someone remind me to do a review of Parks and Recreation, because that was an amazing show.

The other character is Sadness who immediately starts screwing up Joy’s plans to keep Riley happy.  At first she seems utterly useless, even destructive, as she begins tainting Riley’s memories and turning them from brilliant gold into somber blue as they joy is washed out of the memory. Watching Sadness was like watching my younger self, a sad bumbling oaf that can’t do anything right. Which kind of ticked me off.

Great, I thought, another movie about how we need to ignore our negative feelings. Don’t get me wrong, I think we should all endeavor to be happy when we can but there’s just something… wrong about our society’s current trend of doing nothing but trying to ignore sadness and pain. If you have Facebook (and if you don’t, welcome to the internet new person, I’m touched I was the first web page you chose to visit) then you probably have someone or several someones posting nothing but a constant stream of image macros about being happy. You know what, sometimes sadness is the appropriate response to a situation.

And fortunately Pixar understands that.

This is Pixar, they're better than you're annoying facebook friends.
This is Pixar, they’re better than your annoying Facebook friends.

Joy ends up becoming a microcosm of that sickly, fake positivity that drives me crazy. When Riley is forced to move, Joy is determined to keep everyone happy at any cost. Joy spends the first act of the movie trying to contain and diminish Sadness.  Sadness, however, is compelled to try and touch all of Riley’s memories which irritates Joy to no end. Joy, like a lot of people out there, never really questions why sadness exists. Joy sees her as a threat to Riley’s happiness, especially after Riley’s mother makes the worst request a parent can make of a child.

“We need our happy girl.” Riley’s mother said, and Joy is just all too happy to try and fulfill that request. Even at the expense of Riley.

After an embarrassing incident at school, Riley starts shutting down emotionally. The islands of personality, once bright and humming with life, turn dark and crumble away. To Joy’s horror a new Core Memory, a memory that helps define Riley’s identity, appears. Unlike the other five core memories though, this one is blue. A sad memory, and Joy goes insane trying to keep it from becoming integrated with Riley’s personality.

And ends up breaking the whole thing, getting sucked away from Headquarters (I’m embarrassed to admit I didn’t actually get this pun until I wrote it out)  and into the sprawling vastness of the human mind.

inside-out-personality-islands
There goes the neighborhood.

Now it’s just Anger, Disgust and Fear running Riley’s brain. This is the best allegory for the depressed brain I’ve ever seen, because that’s exactly what it feels like to be depressed. Those who haven’t been depressed assume that it must be like Sadness taking over and Joy being missing, but its not. It’s both Joy and Sadness gone, and you’re left feeling numb. Anger, Disgust and Fear are all you have left and they only draw out a reaction in extreme situations. As you can probably guess, this doesn’t turn out well for Riley.

And while the others are screwing up, Joy and Sadness try to return to Headquarters with Riley’s core memories. It’s while wandering the halls of Long Term Memory that Joy and Sadness run into Bing Bong, Riley’s old imaginary friend.

Bing Bong - Riley's Imaginary FriendBing Bong has been nearly forgotten and now he wanders around the halls of Long Term Memory collecting memories of when Riley and he used to play together. That alone almost made me cry, especially when he begins recalling their magic flying rocket that was powered by music, they’re dream was to fly to the moon. But now all he can do is remember, and hope that one day he’ll be remembered too.

Joy’s first instinct is to try and cheer Bing Bong up, promising him that she’ll make Riley remember him when they get back to Headquarters. However she’s not the one that makes him feel better, it’s Sadness. Giving the audience the first glimpse at Sadness’s importance to the story, she doesn’t tell Bing Bong to be happy. She listens.

Because Sadness is Empathy: our ability to relate to another person’s suffering.

Empathy is why this scene was so hard to watch. (And why it was so damn familiar.)
Empathy is why this scene was so hard to watch. (And why it was so damn familiar.)

Sadness gets Bing Bong back on his feet and he leads them into the depths of Riley’s mind where they can catch the Train of Thought back to the Headquarters.

Unfortunately before they can arrive, our trio of bumbling emotions have managed to make the worst decision they can: They’ve decided to make Riley run away. The plan is to return to Minnesota to create new Core Memories for Riley, which is a charmingly 11-year-old idea. Pixar’s ability to realistically step into the shoes of their younger selves never ceases to amaze me. The emotional turmoil of this decision derails the Train of Thought and sends Joy and Bing Bong plummeting into the Memory Dump where old memories disintegrate into nothing (like the memory of where you put your car keys).

It’s here that Joy finally makes an important discovery while examining one of Riley’s Core Memories, a memory that both Joy and Sadness remember fondly: Riley’s championship hockey game. Joy remembers it as a joyous occasion when all of Riley’s friends came to celebrate with her and Sadness remembered it as the time Riley missed the final shot that could have won the game.

As Joy rewinds the memory she realizes that the only reason she remembered that hockey game as a time of joy, is because Sadness brought others to help Riley. Her friends came because she was sad, they came to help.

Life isn't happy or sad, it's happy, sad and everything in between.
Life isn’t happy or sad. It’s happy, sad and everything in between.

Sadness is a critical part of Riley’s personality, as it is in all of us. Sadness is what allows us to appreciate Joy, because without the contrast between the two than neither one would mean anything. It’s why Riley became depressed when they were lost, because Anger nor Disgust nor Fear can define our lives like Joy and Sadness can together.

With new found understanding of Sadness’s importance, Joy tries escaping the Memory Dump with Bing Bong using his old magic rocket powered by singing. This is the part where I cried so many tears, because they just can’t escape…

Until Bing Bong stays behind.

I was crying not only because of how emotional this scene was, but because I couldn’t remember any of my imaginary friends either. I started actively trying to think of them, I must have had some, but I couldn’t remember a single one.  I was crying because it was a great thought to think that this is how they were forgotten, because that was what was needed to help me grow as a person.

bingbongstill

“Take her to the Moon for me.”

After a tearful goodbye to Bing Bong, Joy rescues Sadness and returns to Headquarters. Joy tells Sadness to take over, and it’s the sadness that makes Riley realize what a bad idea running away is. It’s also Sadness that guides Riley to confessing to her parents just how unhappy she’s been. My eyes were sore from the tears at this point, but that didn’t prevent me from understanding the great message Pixar was sending me.

It’s okay to be sad. 

Sadness is an important part of our personalities, not just because it contrasts with Joy, but because sadness is how we let people know we need help. It’s not just some useless hanger-on that drags everyone down at a party, it’s a critical survival mechanism. It’s our distress signal to the world.

And more often than not, the world comes to help us.

Riley Family Hug

The other great thing about this ending is that Riley’s parents don’t tell her that she should be happy. They don’t offer useless platitudes on how her life is great compared to some poor child in Africa or some similar bullshit. Instead they do what everyone should do when trying to cheer someone up, they listen.

Because in the end expressing sadness is expressing our desire to be understood. 

Watch this movie people, just make sure you have plenty of tissues with you.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have something in my eye again…

Game of Thrones: An Ending Too Far

So once again, I loved this season’s Game of Thrones, even though this was undoubtedly the worst season we’ve had so far, it’s a great show. Still I’m nothing if not a picker of nits, so let me highlight why this season’s finale was lacking and should have run with the much better finale they already had.

The Battle of Winterfell Was Too Short (And Was Utterly Meaningless)

Battle of Winterfell Now I understand that battle scenes are a huge drain on the budget, but the “battle” at Winterfell was utterly pointless. I understand that Stannis was never going to win and I’m not saying they needed to spend an entire episode showing him fighting a losing battle. Still, the entire battle took literally three minutes, and that’s being generous by including every scene until Ramsey’s return to Winterfell. If we just include the scenes with actual fighting it’s only about sixty seconds long. Worse than that though, it skips the actually interesting parts of the battle. Yes seeing the battle from Sansa’s point of view is visually interesting, but we also get no frame of reference as to why we should care. So far the battles in Game of Thrones have been exhilarating because they always had a tight focus on one of our beloved characters: Tyrion at the Black Water and Jon Snow at Castle Black. Showing us the characters we love dealing with the chaos of battle is what gives the battle meaning and emotional weight. Here have no real reference as to why anyone should care: remember Stannis just burned his daughter alive, asking us to care without actually seeing him fighting is a big fucking ask.

The battle begins with Stannis is the middle of a snow covered field, and ends with him in a forest. There was at least a quarter-mile between him and that forest. I want to know how Stannis fought his way there, or how that final desperate defense in the woods must have played out to leave Stannis wounded and alone. There were a lot of interesting ways to play out this battle is my point, cutting the entire thing down to sixty seconds of CGI toy soldiers and two minutes of follow up wasn’t one of them. And speaking of follow up, who here thinks Stannis is really dead? Because I sure as hell don’t.

Just hurry up and kill him or get out of my way so I can kill him.
Just hurry up and kill him or get out of my way so I can kill him.

Again, like the rape of Sansa earlier this season, this is an example of lazy storytelling that we don’t expect from Game of Thrones. Cutting away just as she swings the sword is just boring and lazy, it doesn’t build suspense at all because we all know that if he didn’t die on camera, he’s still alive. So what’s the point of leaving this as any kind of cliff hanger? The better cliff hanger would have been to see Brienne falter in her duty and then march Stannis off into the woods, because that actually has some interesting ramifications for next season. And if it turns out that Stannis really is dead next season then that makes this scene even worse because there were people out there (namely me) who were looking forward to finally seeing him die.

Personally, after this scene, I was looking forward to Ramsey flaying Stannis alive.
Personally, after this scene, I was looking forward to Ramsey giving Stannis the full Reek treatment.

Myrcella’s Murder

thronesThis was undoubtedly the dumbest scene this season and that’s quite an achievement considering that the earlier rape scene with Sansa destroyed the character arcs of four characters in twenty seconds. It was stupid for a variety of reasons, first because it makes King Julian Bashir look like a fucking idiot. He’s already foiled an assassination attempt by his sister-in-law, he knows his brother loved using poison, and the three daughters all used poison weapons. And yet this happens only feet away from him:

Look at that death grip on her face? No one finds that suspicious?
Look at that death grip on her face! No one finds that suspicious?

Which brings me to my second point: it makes everyone look like an idiot, including the show’s creators. Let’s assume for the moment that everyone on that dock is suffering heat stroke and ignore the fact that each and every one of them should have found that final kiss alarming. It’s the middle ages, people were stupid, fine. But we’re not. 

Who staged this scene? I want to know and I want his resignation on my desk by end of business tomorrow because I really don’t know why this scene played out the way it did.

If they were hoping to surprise the audience with another shocking death, the possibility of surprise died when Ellaria latched onto Myrcella’s face like a fucking lamprey. If they had left it as Ellaria giving her a gentle peck on the lips and not played it up like Snow White getting that poisoned apple, there would have been some element of surprise.

Was it played out that way so the poisoning was obvious to the audience? If so, why? What possible purpose did that serve? It certainly didn’t make the melodramatic conversation between Jaime and Myrcella any more tolerable. Seriously, who came up with that scene?

I'm watching you, but not so closely that I'm going to notice you poison the girl in front me.
I’m watching you, but not so closely that I’m going to notice you poison the girl you’ve been trying to kill all season  in front me.

This was just a lazy, terrible scene in every respect. The only thing that could have saved it was if we’d seen Jaime’s reaction and end the scene with him sailing right back to Dorne to avenge his daughter. As it is, apparently Jaime is going to wait until he gets back to King’s Landing to file a formal complaint with the Dornish king who is apparently as blind as he paraplegic.

Queen of the Andals and the Idiots

Mother of Dragons Now I loved Daenerys escape last week and watching Drogon burn a bunch of people alive was well worth the wait. But this follow up scene was awful, mainly because it made Daenerys, one of the strongest female characters in the story seem like a whiny little brat.

“We have to go home.” – Daenerys says, suddenly developing a British accent.

That’s the first thing we hear her say to Drogon, not thank you for saving me from an otherwise fatal ambush or how are you feeling after taking two dozen javelin wounds. She spends the whole time sulking like a child and even tries to climb onto Drogon backwards for some reason I still don’t understand.

Drogon's mother: literally riding his ass.
Drogon’s mother: literally riding his ass.

Then she complains that Drogon is just sitting around instead of getting them supper. Oh, I’m sorry you’re hungry princess but were you not paying attention last week when Drogon took a dozen spear wounds to save your ass? Do you not see the holes torn through his wings?

You know what Drogon, just leave her.
You know what Drogon, just leave her.

Then she wanders off into the hills alone for some stupid reason and immediately gets captured. Seriously, is this the same team that gave us the past four seasons of greatness? I’m starting to suspect they’ve all been replaced by pod-people sent from NBC, ABC and FOX. If not for the amazing scene of Jon Snow’s reenactment of the Ides of March, I’d have called this finale a total disaster. Which is just infuriating considering they already had a much better finale.

The Finale That Already Was

Because THIS was finale material.
Because THIS was finale material.

Yes, the best episode this season is the one they should have ended on and not just because it was so well done, but because it would have given HBO and the writers more time to tell the stories. That was my main complaint this season, everything seemed to be moving too fast. Here’s everything that happened this season:

Tyrion goes from living in a box to being Ser Jorah’s captive to being a slaver’s captive to becoming the Queen’s adviser.

Jon Snow meets Stannis, becomes Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch and tries to save the Wildlings before pulling a Caesar and “dying”.  (In quotations because you know damn well that he’s going to be coming back in some form or another.)

Daenerys struggles to maintain control over the old slaver kingdoms and fails miserably.

Jaime is sent to Dorne to retrieve Myrcella.

And worst of all, Little Finger goes from a meticulous plotter to some kind of insane gibbering idiot in the span of two episodes. He delivers Sansa, the only person who can give him a legitimate claim to the North to the crazy ass Bolton’s and then immediately returns to King’s Landing, plotting to attack the Bolton’s after literally giving them the most valuable hostage in the seven kingdoms.

How about I give you a ride in my Benz and we call it even?
You know, I’m starting to think this was a bad idea…

You’ll notice that while some of the characters have a ton of things happen, others are left in a lurch of nothing happening at all. What this season needed was more time to tell the stories in a way that didn’t undercut the storylines of several important characters and allowed the events of the show to play out more naturally. By using Hardhome as the season finale Game of Thrones would have had more time to properly tell us the stories it needed to tell, to dedicate more time to the characters.

Jaime was perhaps the most underused character, almost criminally so because his was the one storyline from a Feast for Crows I wanted to see play out since it was the book where Jaime finally realizes what a bitch his sister is and burns the letter he receives from her.Of course instead of that happening this season, what we got instead was Jaime wandering around Dorne not really doing anything. Nothing happens in Dorne at all, it’s just a giant time sink. They could have used the time in Dorne to characterize Jaime and maybe lead up to his final abandoning of Cersei, but aside from him staring wistfully at Brienne’s homeland of Tarth, we get nothing.

And speaking of Tarth, the other problem with this season’s sprinting pace is the fact that it completely screws with our perception of time and space in Westeros. I already pointed this out in my earlier post on Sansa’s Wedding,  but it goes beyond Little Finger’s teleporting himself to King’s Landing. Journeys that took other characters entire seasons to complete now have bullet trains apparently. The opening scene of Game of Thrones always gives you that little pop-up map thing, and the world seems pretty big, but everyone seems to get where they’re going a little too fast this season. Take Tyrion for example: despite being abducted by both Jorah and slavers, attacked by Stone Men, and becoming a gladiator he still makes it to Queen Daenerys’ side in time for the Harpies to ambush them. Or Jaime for that matter, whose journey to Dorne took less time than the average ferry ride here in Seattle.

Maybe all these boats just have propellers we're not seeing...
Maybe all these boats just have propellers we’re not seeing…

Ending the season at Hardhome would have given the writers much more room to extend the storylines of various other characters and actually have them make sense. First of all Sansa’s storyline could have been given a lot more time and by extension maybe Little Finger’s plan wouldn’t look completely insane. The storyline in Dorne could have been given more time, allowing more time for Jaime to actually experience change in his character. And Tyrion and Daenerys’s storylines could have met without seeming like the laws of time and space were becoming warped. And perhaps most importantly, ending at Hardhome would have given the writers a more plausible reason for the Night’s Watch to kill Jon Snow.

Because THIS was finale material.
Oh wait, you can’t… you’re dead.

Don’t get me wrong, the scene with Jon Snow was amazing, but there was a niggling little voice in the back of my mind the entire time saying “this doesn’t really make sense.” This scene worked in the book because Hardhome doesn’t actually happen in the book, so the White Walkers are kind of like the climate change of our world. Yes, everyone sort of admits it’s there and it’s a threat, but everyone is also more obsessed about their own personal ambitions to really do anything about it. So when they kill Jon Snow, it make a certain amount of sense because to the other members of the Night’s Watch, the Wildlings are the real threat.

After Hardhome though? This whole “traitor” business is a bit harder to swallow. Eyewitness testimony to the rising of tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of corpses isn’t enough to vindicate Jon Snow’s decision? The other members of the Night’s Watch didn’t point out that maybe he was right? I mean I know the hundreds of crew members on Stannis’s fleet didn’t say anything, because they keep landing on the north side of The Wall for some strange reason, but there were a ton of people with Jon Snow. No one spoke up in his defense among all those Crows who stabbed him?

The kid's motivation is really the only that stands up.
The kid’s motivation is really the only one that stands up.

I mean stabbing Jon Snow at this junction would be like people denying climate change after thousands of deaths from heat waves, huge unprecedented storms, and unending droughts…

Huh… Touché, Game of Thrones, well played…