All That Matters is the Ending: Game of Thrones

Well, here we are again. I keep saying I’m going to stop writing these articles, and yet stories keep screwing up their most crucial element, pulling me right back in again.

I want to make it absolutely clear who I’m laying the blame on. It’s not the actors, nor the production team, nor any of the support staff who put in a mindboggling amount of work into this show. No, the blame lies squarely on the shoulders of Weiss and Benioff. Had HBO come to them and said “this show is too expensive, wrap it up in 13 episodes,” I would have understood this season. Under such tight time constraints, this is perhaps the best we could have hoped for. That’s not what happened.

HBO would have loved to have kept this show going. This wasn’t going to be a case of a show going longer than it should have, there was still story to be told. But the showrunners Weiss and Benioff told HBO they wanted to end their show in 13 episodes. And as we’ve just seen, that was a woefully inadequate time frame to tell this story. So much went so wrong, so quickly, and the question that will be asked for years to come is this:

What was the rush?

All That Matters is the Ending:

Game of Thrones

As I rewatched this season of Game of Thrones, four things struck me as having gone wrong. First and most strikingly, there was absolutely no consistency in the writing. Then there was the fact that characters began acting completely contrary to their established character. Piled on top of that was the dialogue this season, which was almost nonexistent when compared to earlier seasons, and what little there was mostly expository. And finally, most critically, the finale failed to emotionally resonate with the audience because in the end, there was no point to this story.

Any one of these faults the show could have overcome by the sheer quality of its pedigree, but all four together managed to destroy one of the greatest TV shows ever made.

Inconsistent Storytelling Led to a Lack of Drama

I still can’t believe that somehow, in this scene, there are tens of thousands of soldiers still alive and in fighting condition.

Game of Thrones spent the last 8 years building one of the most elaborately detailed fantasy worlds ever seen in a TV show. From the rich history of Westeros to the brutally realistic political system that controlled it, everything felt real. It felt realistic, even though it featured dragons and zombies, because it paid such close attention to detail. Distance, time, and most importantly, the consequences of character’s actions, were treated with respect. Nothing was treated with respect this season. People and armies appeared where they needed to with no explanation, and the story would contradict itself in the course of single episode. It completely shattered the audience’s suspension of disbelief, the very foundation of a good story.

And the thing is, I can forgive a lot. I can forgive inconsistent writing if it’s accidental, attention to detail in in world-building is a learned skill like any other and inexperienced writers can make mistakes; hell, even the most experienced writers will occasionally slip and contradict themselves.

But that’s not what happened this season.

These were not simple mistakes like forgetting a coffee cup on a table or a water bottle on the ground, these were conscious decisions. Weiss and Benioff made a choice to have Daenerys’ army respawn like video game characters after the Battle of Winterfell. They chose to make the scorpions supersonic, laser-guided super weapons and then immediately render them useless the following episode. They wanted their story to have certain scenes and hit specific plot points, but didn’t want to take the time to get there properly. They wanted to get to the end as quickly as possible and the story suffered for it. Was even destroyed by it.

“No time to finish telling the story, we want to make Star Wars!”

Thing is, the characters overcoming these challenges would have made for a great story. With most of Daenerys’ army dead, how would she fight Cersei? We could have had an episode or two of Daenerys forging alliances with the kingdom of Dorne, while Sansa rallied the armies of The Vale. We could have Yara return with troops from the Iron Islands, and had a great scene of her mourning her brother while also celebrating his glorious death and redemption. Finally Daenerys could march on King’s Landing at the head of a true coaltion, united in their single aim of destroying Cersei.

When the battle came, instead of Drogon managing to destroy all the scorpions due to convenient scene cuts and a fundamental shift in how they operated for no reason, let the scorpions continue to be a threat. Give us a daring siege where the first objective of the battle are disabling the scorpions on the walls. Show us Greyworm and Jon fighting on the walls, and after hours of intense fighting, lighting fire to the scorpions. Show us their retreat from the wall as dusk falls, and Drogon swoops in to light the walls, and its defenders, on fire. Then cut to that night with a scene of Davos Seaworth smuggling in a handful of Daenerys’ best warriors, led by Arya, to infiltrate the city and eliminate the remaining scorpions guarding the palace. And after they’ve succeeded, show us Arya sneaking into the Red Keep, her objective certain… and then roll credits.

Instead of any of that, the plot decided to simply hand Daenerys back her army and rendered the scorpions useless. In doing so, these scenes were robbed of the conflict that was badly needed to hit the emotional high notes they were aiming for.

How do the characters overcome the obstacles standing in their way? That’s the fundamental question a writer has to answer in a story to create conflict and drama. If the writers answer that question with “because they’re the heroes,” then the story is robbed of its emotional core. There was no emotional response (aside from anger and disappointment) to the last season precisely for this reason. There was no sense of danger, no challenge to the characters, and no opportunity for growth. Without that conflict there is no story.

I never thought I would be bored watching a dragon burn a city.

It was not only damaging to the story, it was disrespectful to the audience. Any storyteller should treat their audience with at least a modicum of respect, after all they’re investing their time and emotions in your story.

Showing an entire ceiling caving in on Jaime and Cersei, and then revealing the next episode that it was only a couple of loose bricks coming down, is not respecting your audience. That’s treating your audience like complete fucking idiots. It’s the equivalent of a magician trying to make an elephant disappear not through smoke and mirrors, but by saying “the elephant is now gone.” And then blaming the audience when it gets mad that they can see the elephant is still there.

The entire room, including most of the supporting archways, collapsing.
Tyrion unearths them by moving seven bricks. Literally, that’s not sarcasm, I counted.

Game of Thrones was the show that built itself on respecting the consequences of a character’s actions, regardless of the outcome. People talk about all the shocking and unexpected deaths: Ned, Robb, Catelyn, Tywin, etc. But in reality you could see these deaths coming from a mile away, these weren’t M Night Shyamalan-esque twists, they were the natural result of the character’s actions. The only shocking thing about their deaths was that they were allowed to die. Plot armor had become so ubiquitous in fantasy stories that suddenly experiencing one where our favorite characters were vulnerable to dying was a shock to the system.

This season the characters had plot armor so thick it shattered our suspension of disbelief. Or characters died because the plot demanded they die, rather that it being a result of their actions. How the hell did Missandei get captured when all the characters were on the same boat and the rest washed up on shore? Greyworm does tell her to “get to the skiff” but how does that lead to her capture exactly? You’d think on a boat she’d have been the only one able to escape, and everyone else gets captured.

Yet the plot demanded that Missandei die to give Daenerys’ descent into madness a veneer of credibility, and so she died. Even though Cersei, a devious plotter who tried to plan for every contingency, would likely have kept Missandei alive as a human shield and bargaining chip should she lose the battle. Which leads nicely into my next point.

The Characters Became Strangers

Tyrion end of Season 8 of Game of Thrones.
I don’t recognize Tyrion in this scene, and it’s not because of the (immaculately groomed despite weeks of captivity) beard.

The characters we met this season may have had the same names, and the same actors playing them, but they were not the characters we’d grown to love. Everyone acted completely out of character, doing things this season that they would never have done in previous ones.

There is one scene that encapsulates this problem perfectly: the negotiation with Cersei, when Tyrion is trying to convince her to surrender. This scene plays out in exact opposition to every character’s established traits.

The old, better written Tyrion would never have suggested this stupid plan. In fact if someone else had, he would have called them a fucking idiot. Based on everything he knows about Cersei, her ruthless desire for power and her obsession with her children, the old Tyrion would know that Cersei would never surrender. He would also have known that standing in front of the walls of King’s Landing would have resulted in all of them dying, Cersei doesn’t give a shit about the rules of war. She would have killed them all.

Cersei doesn’t, which is completely out of character. Cersei wants to protect her child at any cost and retain the Iron Throne she’s fought so hard to sit upon. She’s never cared about the etiquette of chivalrous warfare, she wouldn’t care that Daenerys was there under a flag of truce. Her greatest rival, her advisers, including the hated brother she’s wanted to kill for so long, and Drogon are within range of her scorpions and probably her archers as well. This was the perfect opportunity to end the war in a single blow with no risk to her own troops, and Cersei of all people, would take it.

Then there’s Daenerys, she gives people only one chance. The Masters of Meereen, the Khals of the Dothraki, the Tarlys: She offered them all one chance to surrender and serve her, and when they refused she killed them. Daenerys gave Cersei her one and only chance last season, to swear a truce until the Night King is dealt with, and Cersei broke her agreement. Even if Cersei had surrendered in this scene, Daenerys would never have accepted. So her even agreeing to this charade is out of character. And as for “let the people see I tried to stop this,” reasoning, who the hell was going to see this meeting except soldiers? It’s not like this was televised on Westeros CNN.

Seriously guys, just open fire on Drogon, and let your archers take out the others. War over.

Of course the character that was least recognizable this season was Jaime Lannister. He was easily one of the most nuanced characters in both the books and the show. I started off hating Jaime, his smug arrogant air of superiority just pissed me off. Add to that the fact that he killed the former king so that his father Tywin could take the city? He was despicable.

And then I found out the real reason he killed The Mad King. The king was about to burn the entire city to the ground rather than let his enemies take it, and Jaime did exactly what a knight is supposed to do: he picked up his sword and protected the innocent. And for this act of heroism, he was shamed. “Kingslayer” was his title now. His arrogance and aloofness was the armor he wore to protect himself from the judgement of his peers, so he could pretend it didn’t wound him to his core.

And then he was captured, and Catelyn Stark gave him the one thing he’d always wanted: a noble quest. Find two innocent girls in the middle of a war and return them safely to their mother. Brienne went with him and in her he found something he’d never found before: someone who would listen to him.

You think the “honorable” Ned Stark wanted to hear my side? He judged me guilty the moment he set eyes on me.

– Jaime Lannister to Brienne

All Jaime wanted was for someone, anyone to listen to his side of the story. To not dismiss him as a monster because he killed the man he was sworn to protect, but to listen to why he had to do it and how hard it was for him, despite everything The Mad King had done. To listen to how much it still haunted him.

It was painful going back to this incredibly powerful scene in “Kissed by Fire” in season 3, because it made me realize how truly awful season 8 is by comparison.

“Help! The Kingslayer!”

– Brienne of Tarth

“Jaime…my name is Jaime.”

Jaime Lannister

Thanks to Brienne, Jaime was able to start seeing himself for who he was, rather than how the world saw him. It was a beautiful arc of redemption and personal growth. Now that’s not to say that Jaime couldn’t have ended up back with Cersei. He loved Cersei, for better or worse, and under the right circumstances I could see him going back to her.

Maybe he would go back to convince her to surrender peacefully, as he’d tried to convince the Mad King before her. To sail away with him into exile and let Daenerys have the seven kingdoms, that nothing else mattered as long as they were together. That’s not the story the show was telling us though.

She’s hateful… and so am I.

– Jaime Lannister

That’s his whole justification for going back to her. Multiple seasons of Jaime becoming a better person, washed away by that single line. I had hoped that maybe this was a “throwing stones at a dog so it runs away” scene, that he was just saying something awful so Brienne wouldn’t follow him. But no, he seems to believe it, and it’s made even worse with this line:

When have I been able to convince Cersei of anything?

– Jaime Lannister

Try. If not for yourself, if not for her, then for any one of the million people in that city. Innocent or otherwise.

-Tyrion Lannister

To be honest, I never really cared much for them.

-Jaime Lannister

Never cared much for them? Interesting considering the core of his character’s trauma and dramatic arc has revolved around breaking his oath to protect his king, in order to protect those very people. Compare that line to episode 7 in season 3, when he tells Qyburn, with pride, how he saved the city:

And how many people have you saved?

– Qyburn

Half a million. The population of King’s Landing.

– Jaime Lannister

Now it could be that Jaime is simply reassuming his arrogant and aloof attitude to once again protect himself emotionally… but it was up to the writers to show that happening. But they didn’t give themselves time to show the degradation of his character to this extent, so none of this made sense. Though even if they’d given themselves the time, it likely wouldn’t have helped since, as you may have noticed…

The Dialogue Was Awful

My face every time a character spoke.

Even more so than the amazing world-building, Game of Thrones made its mark with the complex and riveting dialogue it created. It used the dialogue to not only give depth to its characters but also to create the conflict in the story. Most of the running time of Game of Thrones has been spent showing people talking to each other, and that story was all the richer for it.

This season the dialogue is shockingly sparse, and what little there is of it, is expository. Most of the lines of season 8 are wasted either explaining the plot or a character’s motivations to the audience. Now obviously dialogue is supposed to reveal a character’s motivations, but by showing the audience, not telling them.

Since the show tries to use Daenerys’s crucifixion of The Masters to justify her later burning of King’s Landing, let’s use that as a good example of dialogue.

Truly one of the most disturbing moments in the show.

Daenerys finds these children crucified as she marches on Meereen, as a warning from The Masters. Here’s how the scene plays out:

There’s one on every mile marker between here and Meereen.

– Ser Jorah Mormont

How many miles are there between here and Meereen.

-Daenerys Stormborn

One-hundred-and-sixty-three, your grace.

– Ser Jorah

I’ll have our men to ride ahead and bury them. You don’t need to see this.

-Ser Barristan Selmy

You will do no such thing. I will see each and every one of their faces. Remove that collar before you bury her.

-Daenerys Stormborn

This is such a short exchange, but it conveys everything we as the audience needs to know about Daenerys’ state of mind. She’s calm and controlled in this scene, there is no crying or screaming, but you can feel the seething rage. There was never any doubt about what was going to happen to The Masters when she finally took the city.

Remind me, Ser Jorah, how many children did The Masters nail to mile posts?

-Daenerys Stormborn

Daenerys asks this question already knowing the answer, it’s rhetorical, even though Jorah does answer her.

One-hundred-sixty-three, Khaleesi.

– Ser Jorah Mormont

She didn’t want to hear the answer, she wanted to revel in the schadenfreude of the justice she was about to inflict upon The Masters. She wanted to take a moment to remember the face of every single one of those 163 children, so she could fully appreciate the satisfaction of watching 163 masters suffer the same fate. And because the dialogue is so effective at conveying Daenerys’ state of mind, we find ourselves reveling in watching The Masters crucified as well. It was this kind of dialogue that foreshadowed her eventual fall.

Now let’s look at Daenery’s dialogue when she decides to burn King’s Landing.

Oh that’s right… there isn’t any.

We don’t get any insight into Daenery’s state of mind, because she doesn’t get any dialogue to convey it. Instead what we get gems like these:

I worry about her state of mind.

-Varys

She hasn’t seen anyone since we returned. Hasn’t left her chambers, hasn’t accept any food. […] We both know what she’s about to do.

-Varys

We get other characters telegraphing (not foreshadowing, that’s more a subtle art) Daenery’s fall into madness. We never get to hear from what is arguably the most important character in the entire series. The closest we get is when she confront Tyrion about Varys knowing about Jon’s true heritage, and again it’s 90% expository, simply recounting what we already know.

Someone has betrayed me.

-Daenerys

Yes.

-Tyrion Lannister

Jon Snow.

-Daenerys

You know what, I’m not even going to bother transcribing the rest; she just recounts everything that happened in the previous episode, they should have just made it a narration for the “last time on Game of Thrones” recap. It conveys nothing about her character, doesn’t give us the slightest inkling that she’s about to level an entire city. More than anything else, it’s that lack of insight into Daenerys’ thinking that made the destruction of King’s Landing feel like such a whiplash inducing twist in the narrative.

And somehow, that isn’t even the worst example. Let’s look at at Jon and Tyrion talking about what Daenery’s did to King’s Landing in episode 6.

It was vanity to think I could guide her. Our Queen’s nature is fire and blood.

– Tyrion Lannister

You think our house words are stamped on our bodies when we’re born and that’s who we are?

– Jon Snow

First of all, I just want to point out that this line of dialogue is way too long. “You think our house words are stamped on our bodies” that’s all you need here, the rest is unnecessary, but I don’t want to get into the minutiae of dialogue construction. Secondly, for the sweet love of the Old Gods and the New, Jon, she literally just took the city with fire and blood. This part of the conversation would only make sense if it happened before she set an entire city on fire. Just a few sentences before this exchange, Jon says he won’t try to justify what happened. This is him immediately trying to justify it:

Cersei left her no choice. She saw her friend beheaded. She saw her dragon shot out of the sky.

– Jon Snow

And here’s is why this whole scene is nothing but expository dialogue: the writers are trying to justify Daenery’s actions to the audience (almost as if they knew the previous episode wouldn’t be well received). It’s so badly written it almost breaks the fourth wall. Tyrion’s job in this scene is to emphasize the horror of what Daenerys did last episode, and Jon’s job is to defend her actions and make them seem reasonable. That’s it. This scene does nothing to build any kind of drama, there’s no characterization going on, in fact it once again makes Jon act out of character.

I really wish Jon had just died here, rather than having to watch the slow, fading death of his character.

Jon, like Ned, is an honorable man. Now I thought his character arc was building towards being an honorable man, while also having the pragmatism to do bad things for a greater good when it was called for (IE abandoning Sam in the battle of Winterfell.) That ultimately doesn’t go anywhere, which I’ll come to in a moment, but Jon is still an honorable man.

After Jon joins the Night’s Watch and they first visit Craster’s Keep, Jon stands up to Craster for abusing his daughter-wives, and is angry at Mormont for allowing these abuses to continue. Later when Mance Rayder is captured, he tries to convince him to surrender and bend the knee to Stannis, so that his people can live. And finally, at Hardhome, he risks everything to save an enemy he’s been taught to hate.

There’s nothing in his character that would let him look at Daenerys burning an entire city to the ground, likely killing hundreds of thousands of people, and saying “yeah, they had it coming.” The only way this could work is if Jon were so madly in love with Daenerys that he was blinded by it. Yet all we were ever shown of their romance was a single night together at the end of last season, and then some romantic dragon flights. There wasn’t enough time to devoted to their relationship to justify this kind of devotion, especially since most of the season was dedicated to Jon looking uncomfortable after finding out she was his aunt.

It’s easy to judge when you’re standing far from the battlefield.

– Jon Snow
I wonder if the entirety of Jon’s script for this scene was just a sticky note that said “look bewildered.”

Jon was looking just as horrified as Tyrion as they watched the city burn, he tried to hold back his own soldiers to stop them participating in the slaughter.

When she murdered the the slavers of Astapor, no one but the slavers complained, after all they were evil men. When she crucified hundreds of Meerenese nobles, who could argue, they were evil men. The Dothraki Khals she burned alive, they would have done worse to her. Everywhere she goes, evil men die and we cheer her for it. And she grows more powerful and more sure that she is good and right.

Tyrion Lannister

And here is the cardinal sin of this scene: it’s useless. We shouldn’t need the show to recount all the things Daenery’s has done to justify the previous episode. If this season had been better written, Daenery’s turn to madness would have made sense, and this scene would be unnecessary. As it is, it’s a pitiful attempt to explain away Daenery’s sharp and unjustified turn into a madwoman, and it fails to do even that.

Again, any one of these problems, perhaps the show could have overcome by the sheer strength of quality that had come before. Yet when you combine these things with its biggest problem, that ultimately Game of Thrones isn’t about anything, we’re truly left with an ending worse than anyone could have imagined.

In the End, Game of Thrones Wasn’t About Anything

I wasn’t expecting Game of Thrones to get a happily ever after… and yet here we are.

After the final episode aired, I was browsing twitter when I saw someone post this article, which had a rather shocking quote from Benioff and Weiss.

When I asked Benioff and Weiss if it was possible to infer any overall intentionality to the upcoming 10 episodes, they sneered. “Themes are for eighth-grade book reports,” Benioff told me.

Andy Greenwald, http://grantland.com/features/the-return-hbo-game-thrones/

No, they’re not Benioff, the theme is what makes your story mean something. It’s true that the majority of people don’t consciously think about the theme, unless they’re writing a book report, but nonetheless it’s the theme that makes a story resonate emotionally with the audience. Few people came out of reading/watching the Harry Potter series thinking “gee, I really liked the themes about family and home.” Yet it was those themes that made people bond with the story.

One of the core themes of Harry Potter is about finding home. That a home isn’t a building or a location, like Harry’s house with the Dursley’s, but that special place that we find where we truly belong. How precious it is when we truly find a home, as Harry does at Hogwarts. This theme resonated so powerfully that people still talk about which House the Sorting Hat would put them in, because whether or not they’re aware of it, Hogwarts represents the ideal of home in their minds.

I hope no one thought of King’s Landing as home because… damn.

The fact that there is apparently no theme to Game of Thrones is both shocking, and a big chunk of why the ending falls totally flat. The tragedy is that this show started off with profound themes; it unflinchingly explored the ugly parts of the human psyche. It explored how we’re so obsessed about who gets to rule the imaginary social constructs we call countries, that we ignore threats to our very existence.

The Night King was supposed to embody that existential threat, the eternal winter he was bringing was going to wipe out all life on Westeros, and quite possibly the planet. Yet in the end, despite all the buildup and power at his command, he not only failed to kill Bran but his army didn’t even inflict more than 50% casualties on Daenery’s army. If he couldn’t even defeat a conventional army on the field, he wasn’t exactly an existential threat was he? Which undermines the whole theme of the show.

Fortunately that’s not the only theme! The other strong theme that’s run throughout the show has been about family. And it was a unique take at that, while most books explore finding your chosen family, Game of Thrones explored how we survive the family we’re born into. Among the Starks, Targaryens, Lannisters, and even the Tarlys, not a single family is what I would call well adjusted. The show and books explored how do we, as people, react to a bad family situation: do we let it define us, and repeat the same mistakes, or do we learn and move beyond it.

Which is why Jaime and Tyrion were two of my favorite characters, because they were both exploring what it was to move beyond the trauma their father inflicted on them. Jaime had to learn to move past his father’s expectations that he inherit Casterly Rock, and to pursue his own path. And Tyrion had to learn how to survive a family that hated him for merely existing. And the one good scene in this whole debacle is Tyrion’s goodbye to Jaime.

“You were all I had.” Finally, a good piece of dialogue.

That’s the only emotional payoff I got out of this whole series. Whether it’s a book, TV show, movie or video game, when the audience has reached the end of the journey there needs to be some kind of emotional payoff. It can be sadness, joy, grief, or ideally a truly great story will have us feeling the full gamut of emotions. Watching Tyrion crying in his brother’s arms made me sad that Jaime was all Tyrion had, and yet overjoyed that at least he had his brother.

Now let me ask you: what did you feel when the credits rolled on the final episode of Game of Thrones?

I didn’t feel anything except a mild annoyance. In fact I was getting bored by the end, Daenerys dies 30 minutes into the episode, and then it’s just a long slog of increasingly nonsensical scenes until it finally ends. The Starks, whose whole journey has more or less focused on finding their way back to each other, go their separate ways for some reason; brutally murdering the only theme left in this show.

But let’s back up, and look at the absolute worst scene in this whole mess of an ending: choosing the new king.

Seriously? After all the plots, all the secrecy, all the backstabbing, and everyone is just cool with handing the Starks literally everything in Westeros?

All of the problems I’ve gone over, that plagued this season, merged into a perfect storm that absolutely annihilated this scene and by extension, the entire series. First of all, there’s no consistency in how this scene plays out. Tyrion is a prisoner, there as a bargaining chip to be negotiated over. More than that, he’s the the imp, the show has established repeatedly that everyone hates him because he’s a dwarf. That’s why he’s had to work behind the scenes, but now everyone is willing to just listen to him fundamentally change the system of government in Westeros?

Then there’s the fact that Greyworm is acting way out of character here, with Missandei dead, the only thing left to him was his utter devotion to Daenerys. Yet somehow we’re expected to believe that when Jon went to Greyworm and admitted his crime, he wasn’t immediately executed? And they go even further, expecting us to believe that Greyworm would agree to let whoever is elected the new ruler decide the punishment? And as if that wasn’t far enough to push our disbelief, they also expect us to believe that Greyworm would accept Jon’s half-brother handing down the verdict, as if that wasn’t a massive conflict of interest?

And Bran!? Seriously? The absolute nothing of a character, the void into which all interesting personality is sucked in and destroyed? That’s who they pick to sit on the Iron Throne?

Seriously, I feel myself becoming more boring just looking at him.

Leaving aside how he absolutely does not have the best story, this should have been a huge point of contention among the lords assembled. Again this show is called Game of Thrones and yet here, at the end, with the Throne literally at stake, all the great houses just say: “yeah, okay, Bran can have it.”

I would imagine the North’s armies are depleted, though given the lack of consistency in this area they might have the largest army in the world at this point. Bran has absolutely no ability to back up his claim with military might, which was critical during this period in history. No one in this council knows him aside from his siblings, he’s forged no alliances, made no promises. And then to compound the error that is this ending, Sansa just decides to declare independence and no one bats so much as an eyelash at it.

This should have spun the realm into yet another civil war, because why didn’t every other kingdom say “fuck this, we’re independent too” upon seeing Bran just agree to it. There’s reason some of the bloodiest, most vicious wars in history were civil wars, because there was the fear of those in power that if you let one region peacefully secede, others would follow in droves. Game of Thrones used the cutthroat politics of feudal governance as a backdrop to tell amazing stories, and in the final indignity, even that was finally abandoned.

At least Ghost finally got some chin scritches!

Then of course, to put the final nail in the coffin, was the god awful dialogue in this scene. Tyrion goes into a long, drawn out, fourth-wall breaking monologue about the importance of storytellers. It was so indulgent that I don’t even want to transcribe it here… and yet I must, because like a train wreck, it demands to be seen.

What unites people? Armies? Gold? Flags? Stories. There’s nothing in the world more powerful than a good story. Nothing can stop it. No enemy can defeat it. And who has a better story than Bran the Broken. The boy who fell from a high tower and lived. He knew he’d never walk again, so he learned to fly. He crossed beyond the wall, a crippled boy, and became the Three-Eyed Raven. He is our memory. The keeper of all our stories; the wars, weddings, births, massacres, famines, our triumphs, our defeats… our past. Who better to lead us into the future.

-Tyrion Lannister, having totally lost his god damn mind.

The sad thing about this is… I agree with everything he says here. I think stories do have power, and I think the right stories can shape our society for the better. But why is Tyrion saying this? He’s not a storyteller, and to my knowledge has never once voiced these beliefs before. More to the point though, this whole scene comes across as Benioff and Weiss talking to us directly, as if applauding their own accomplishments. And boys… you misread the room if you thought this was a good time for a curtain call.

Meme I stole off the internet, if you know who to credit, let me know in the comments.

And then, after that awkward and painful scene… it’s over. Arya heads west because she asked what was west of Westeros that one time, Sansa becomes Queen in the North, and Jon resumes his command at the Night’s Watch… even though there’s no longer a Night King to watch against. Then Jon heads beyond the wall with the Wildlings, either to become a new King-Beyond-the-Wall like Mance, or just to escort them home. I don’t know, the story didn’t tell me.

That’s it, eight years, 80+ hours, hundreds of millions of dollars… all to tell a story that ultimately went nowhere. And the sad thing is that this ending isn’t just disappointing, if it simply failed to live up to expectations, that would be one thing. No, this is a bad ending, destructive even.

Just before the first episode of this season aired, the friends I watched this show with were talking about watching the whole thing in a giant marathon after the final season was over. We’re no longer talking about that. What would be the point, when we know there’s no pay off to that kind of time commitment?

I’m glad the show existed, because it was shared cultural phenomenon. It was cool to go to work and talk to coworkers about the latest episode, and it was great excuse to get together with my friends every Sunday. Yet people who watch this in the future, won’t have that experience… all they’ll have is this story.

If someone came up to me in five years and asked if they should watch Game of Thrones… I honestly don’t know what I’d say. I would have to ask them what they’re looking for: if you just want to see some great acting and spectacular battles, then absolutely watch it. If you want a good story that means something?

Look elsewhere, because this ending destroyed the story.

And that’s why all that matters is the ending…

Advertisements

Game of Thrones: Battle of King’s Landing

Here were my responses to episode 5 of Game of Thrones season 8:

“Wait, but just last episode…”

“What? How did that happen?”

“What the hell is going on?”

And laughter, full on laughter in moments that were definitely not aiming for humor.

This is going to be quick and dirty, just sharing how horribly disappointed I am by this latest episode. Rest assured though, one of my patented All That Matters is the Ending articles is coming. In fact I’ll start working on it tomorrow because nothing that can happen in the final 80 minutes will fix the disaster that has become Game of Thrones.

Game of Thrones:

The Battle of King’s Landing

What the Hell Was That!?

I barely even know where to start with this. Are David Benioff and DB Weiss doing this kind of damage to the story intentionally? I can’t imagine the sheer incompetence necessary to completely nosedive a story into the ground this quickly. Let’s take it step by step.

The Writers Aren’t Even Pretending to Care About Consistency

So last episode, Rhaegal got taken down by Qyburn’s scorpions. The fact they seemed laser guided and armor piercing was a bit ridiculous, but it’s a fantasy story so I was willing to let this play out. Obviously the writers wanted to establish what a threat the scorpions were to Drogon in the final battle. It was sloppily done, but if that’s what they need to set up a reason why Drogon couldn’t simply destroy the city’s defenses, so be it.

Then in the very next episode Drogon destroys the city’s defenses. By himself.

If you were watching episodes 4 and 5 back to back like a movie, just 40 minutes earlier you would have seen these scorpions tear through Rhaegal like butter, and then reload almost instantly to destroy Daenerys’ fleet. And now suddenly they can only get a few shots off on Drogon, the projectiles are slower, and their slow to reload. There’s absolutely no reason given for why the scorpions fundamentally change.

The scorpion bolt fired in this scene travels at about 1/10th the speed of the one in the previous episode? Why?

Game of Thrones later seasons have been plagued by inconsistent storytelling, fundamentally changing how the world works. These changes have been gradual, however, and that made it easier to swallow. I wrote about those changes at the end of last season. This season however, all pretense of consistency has been unceremoniously burned along with the rest of King’s Landing.

The whiplash inducing change of fantastical supersonic, rapid firing scorpions to a more historical model is the most egregious example, but it’s not the only one. Remember at the end of The Long Night how everyone except our main characters seemed dead? Because Game of Thrones sure doesn’t remember.

Somewhere in this picture, are thousands of Unsullied, Wildlings, Dothraki, and Northmen still alive. Somehow.

All those dead soldiers apparently respawned in time for the battle of King’s Landing. There’s not even an attempt to explain away this inconsistency. They could have had a line in episode 2 about how only part of the army had arrived, and the rest were still a couple days away. It would have been lazy, but also believable, moving gigantic medieval armies was a massive undertaking. No, the writer’s don’t even care enough to make an attempt.

Good stories rely on things being consistent in the details, without that there’s nothing to ground the audience, no context for them to understand what’s happening. As sloppy as Rhaegal’s death was, at least it would have served to give us a good reason that Drogon couldn’t do exactly what he did in this episode. And maybe then, we could have had an actual battle for King’s Landing.

The Pacing was Terrible. Again.

“Huh, I wonder if I should look behind me? Nah, it’s not like they have a dragon or anything.”

Here we have the exact opposite problem of episode 3. As I wrote before, because the Winterfell defense was so utterly screwed from the opening moments of battle, there was no way to create the rising action necessary for a good battle scene. Now, Drogon is so damn efficient at destroying the defenses of King’s Landing, that the battle is over before it even begins. There’s absolutely no tension to these battle scenes because we know there’s no conceivable way they can lose at this point. This “battle” is even worse than the battle of Winterfell because at least there, at the start, we thought our main characters might be in real danger of dying. Here, there’s absolutely no sense of danger.

Without that fear of losing our beloved characters, there’s no emotional context for the scene. The fact that Daenerys’ army wins so quickly and so overwhelmingly means there absolutely no dramatic weight to these scenes: they mean nothing. It’s purely spectacle for the sake of it.

Also, where the hell did you all come from? I could have sworn you all died in episode 3.

If this had been a real battle, and the Lannisters and Golden Company had put up an actual fight, maybe that would have led into how Daenery’s goes full mad queen. Show us vicious street to street fighting, with Dany watching her army paying in blood for every block they seize. Having some sense of loss, or frustration, or anger at how the battle was proceeding might have led more organically into Daenery’s turning into the story’s final, and most destructive, villain.

The Mad Queen

The books and the show have been foreshadowing Daenerys becoming the Mad Queen since she was first introduced. However, the way in which this plot point came to fruition was so inelegant, so forced, that it made it seem like it came out of nowhere.

Dany has done some terrible things in this show, we’ve seen her wrath before; crucifying the Masters in Meereen, and burning the Tarly’s alive for refusing to bend the knee. These were cruel acts of retribution that for Dany seemed like justice, and it was that warped sense of justice that foreshadowed her turning into the Mad Queen.

However, it’s a huge fucking leap to go from those examples, to literally killing hundreds of thousands of innocent people. There simply wasn’t enough time given to Dany’s descent into madness to make this feel real. I could almost have seen this working had, at the very least, Dany attacked the Red Keep first.

Which I thought she was doing. It’s right there Dany, why the detour?

Instead, Dany attacks King’s Landing first, leveling the city block by block and building by building. Which doesn’t make any sense given what the writer’s have shown us. Ostensibly, according to the writers, it’s Cersei’s betrayal of their truce and the execution of Missandei that drives her to this act of fury. So why attack King’s Landing? Dany knows where Cersei is, she’s staring directly at the Red Keep when she loses her mind, and Cersei should be her first target.

By destroying the city first, Dany was giving Cersei a golden opportunity to flee. Cersei probably would have had a good chance of making it too, had she not stood there like an idiot the entire time watching it happen. You can’t convince me that someone given to this kind of rage would take the risk of allowing the object of her fury to escape her wrath.

This scene would have operated much better had Dany started with destroying the Red Keep. Then show us a reaction shot of Dany surveying the wreckage, her face still twisted with rage; killing Cersei didn’t quench her thirst for revenge. Then she loses control and destroys the city entirely. It wouldn’t have been perfect but I could have suspended my disbelief for that at least.

Seriously Dany? Overreact much?

What would have been even better, would be for this massacre to happen after the battle. If the showrunners had taken HBO up on their offer and used 10 episodes instead 6, we could have had a proper battle for King’s Landing and then an episode of Dany trying to control the city.

Undoubtedly the people of King’s Landing would be afraid of Dany, but I also think they’d be angry: a foreign (at least to the peasants) queen with an army of foreigners conquered their home. Hell, the Dothraki probably started doing their rape and pillage thing when the city fell. And (since the show apparently forgot) winter has arrived, maybe there’s a food shortage as well. Egged on by Lannister loyalists still left alive, or better yet, a still alive Varys hoping to generate support for Jon, the city breaks into riots. Dany sends the Unsullied to put them down, and some lucky bastard manages to kill Greyworm (a la the same thing that happened to Barristan Selmy.)

And that’s when Dany snaps; the people she came to save don’t see her as a liberator, they hate her. They could never love her. And fueled by rumors of growing support for Jon’s claim to the throne, Dany decides that the only way to rule the seven kingdoms is through fear. And the destruction of King’s Landing is the perfect demonstration of her power.

Think of how much more chilling this scene would have been had it made sense.

This would have seemed far more oraganic and true to her character. It makes no sense that Dany would slaughter a population that had already surrendered to her. However, if the people had rejected her claim to the throne, and murdered her last remaining loyal servant, that would have fed directly into Dany’s twisted sense of justice. They won’t bend the knee, and they murdered the only man she could still trust, so now they’ll burn for it. And the rest of the Seven Kingdoms will finally know who is queen.

Unfortunately we didn’t get any of that. Instead we witnessed the death of a story, the utter destruction of everything that made this show great. Now all that’s left is to watch the final episode and see what meaning we can sift from the ashes of this disastrous finale.

The Battle of Winterfell

Since spoilers are a tricky subject on the internet these days, here be your first and last warning: 

Spoilers abound below, obviously. Read at your own risk. 

 

The Battle of Winterfell

The Battle of Winterfell has come and gone, and the White Walkers are gone not so much with a bang, but a whimper. Oh the battle was spectacular, the action intense, but the plot and character decisions that strung it all together? It was quite easily one of the worst written episodes of Game of Thrones we’ve seen.

The ridiculous plot armor, the pacing of the battle, Arya’s saving throw, and the overall plot of this season all suffered for the bad writing. Let’s take these in order and I’ll show you how: 

The Plot Armor

Plot Armor: that special armor possessed by main characters that protects them from all danger. I’ve said it before, suspension of disbelief is a magic trick; to maintain it, the writer has to distract the audience from the unbelievable parts of the narrative. Plot armor is no different. The first part of the magic trick is usually giving the character’s amazing combat abilities, magical powers, or, as in the case of Frodo, literal armor that protects them. The second part is to put the characters in danger carefully and strategically, so that it never occurs to the audience how ridiculous these moments are. Frodo’s mythril chain only comes into play once (at least in the films, it’s been year since reading the book, so don’t remember if it shows up again) and in most action films, major injuries (ex. gunshot wounds to the shoulder) are saved until the climax.

Instead of doing any of that, this episode instead chose to focus our attention on the unbelievable survival of every single character. We see Brienne get dragged down screaming, and suffer multiple wounds, in the first few minutes of the battle. And then we see it again later. And then again. And by the end, when she’s up against a wall surrounded by walkers, all the tension of the scene is lost because we know that nothing is going to happen. We saw this same thing with almost every other major character, not once, not twice, but often three, four, or even five times. Yet it was Sam that was the most egregious.

Here’s a character with almost no combat ability on the frontline of the most horrific battle of all time. Ed manages to save him once but dies doing it. Then over the course of the episode we see Sam multiple times on the verge of being overwhelmed by White Walkers. At the end of the episode we see him one last time, on the ground, bleeding from multiple wounds, crying out as White Walkers surround him. Meanwhile the Unsullied, some of the best warriors on the planet, lie dead in literal mounds around him. Yet we’re expected to believe that Sam has somehow managed to hold off the horde when the Unsullied couldn’t?

Seriously Sam? I love you man, but how are you still alive?

Not only is this ridiculous, pushing the suspension of disbelief to the breaking point, but it also robs Jon of a great character-building moment. Jon, like his (adoptive) father, always wants to do the honorable thing. Years ago when he and Qhorin Halfhand were trapped by Wildlings, Jon’s first instinct was for them both to die fighting rather than letting Qhorin sacrifice himself. The honorable thing to do, seeing Sam surrounded by white walkers, is to rush to his defense. Yet that’s not the correct thing to do, because if Jon stops to help, they all die and so Jon keeps going, leaving Sam to his fate. It could have been a powerful moment, but it was robbed of that power because Jon didn’t have to sacrifice anything, Sam didn’t end up dying.

At the end of the episode, when all seems lost, all of our major (and by no means coincidentally, fan favorite) characters are up against the wall, some of them literally. Jon, Daenerys, Brienne, Jaime, Tormund, Sam, Sansa, and Tyrion are all literally moments from death. Then Arya leaps in and kills the Night King and all the White Walkers die.

And everyone who’s not a named character seems dead. Seriously, the final scene shows us how utterly ridiculous it is as all our named characters are standing around in a sea of bodies. We could have, and should have, had far more casualties.

Three out of the five characters here are all named characters. Hell, all five of them might be named, it’s just too dark for me to identify the two on the left.

Brienne’s character arc was brought to a beautiful conclusion in episode 2, and in many ways Jaime’s was more or less complete too. And why couldn’t Sam die? Sam has served his purpose to the story, his plotlines resolved, his character arc complete. Allow them to die, let their deaths serve to give gravitas to this episode and allow it to become the apocalyptic struggle that was supposed to be.

It might have even helped give the battle a better narrative pacing.

The Pacing

Alternate title for the episode? How not to use your cavalry.

The other problem with showing our characters constantly on the verge of death, is that it destroyed the narrative arc of the battle. A good battle scene operates like a story in itself, with a beginning, rising action, and climax. The battle of Winterfell has a beginning and a climax, but there is no rising action. It’s just a long marathon of chaotic, hopeless mayhem. The problem with this is that when Jon attempts to confront the night king, and the slow, mournful music kicks in, it doesn’t feel significantly different than what we’ve already seen. The Winterfell defense has been utterly screwed from the opening moments of the battle, and because it literally couldn’t get worse, there was no way to increase the drama for the climax.

This could have been fixed by having our characters use proper battle tactics, which would have allowed for an ebb and flow to the battle. Instead of blindly charging into an enemy you haven’t even seen yet, keep the cavalry in reserve. Instead of standing in front of the stake pits, have the Unsullied arrayed behind them in tight formation, allowing them to spear any of the undead attempting to force their way through. Have the artillery constantly bombarding the rear ranks of the White Walkers while archers whittle away their front ranks. And then as they all begin funneling their way through the barricades, have John and Dany swoop in for some air support. Then call in the Dothraki to hit the flanks and trap the undead between the calvary and the barricade, leaving a huge killing field for the dragons and the artillery.

We could have had a scene with the characters on the wall watching, who turn to each other as if to say “this isn’t so bad, we can win this.” Give the audience the false hope that maybe this won’t be as terrible as they feared.

Then maybe I’d have been halfway surprised when the Giant broke down the gate.

And then rip the carpet out from under them. Have yet another wave of White Walkers charge in from the forests, outflanking the Dothraki and now they’re the ones trapped with no hope of escape. Have the Night King swoop in and destroy the front ranks of the Unsullied with his dragon, opening holes in their lines that the White Walkers begin to charge through. Have the Generals show up, cutting huge swathes through the Unsullied and leading the charge onto the walls where our heroes will have to fight them. Have Brienne and Jaime cut down one of the generals, and show his White Walkers fall to the ground, and again let us believe that maybe, just maybe, they can win.

And then have two more generals show up, and overwhelm the wounded Brienne and Jaime, because nothing can stop death. A slower escalation of the battle, starting off hopeful and then degrading to the point of hopelessness, would have provided the battle a narrative arc that would have led beautifully into the climax. Instead because the action maintained a flat trajectory the whole time, the drama necessary to properly deliver the crucial moment was never allowed to build up, and that’s why the Night King’s death feels unearned.

The Killing Blow Comes from Nowhere

First I should say that I love that it’s Arya, and not Jon, that kills the Night King. That’s the kind of unexpected twist, that makes sense in retrospect, that made Game of Thrones a cultural icon. However, the way it was shot and the decisions that brought about this shocking moment felt completely unearned.

She seemingly materializes out of thin air, somehow getting past thousands of White Walkers, the White Walker generals, and a fucking Dragon to land a killing blow on the Night King. This moment has been over a decade in the making, and it felt anticlimactic because there’s no attempt to show how Arya pulls off this incredible assassination.

What instead should have happened is to show Arya carefully getting into position, using all the skills she’d learned over the course of the show. In fact this could have been easily done by reediting the already existing scenes and maybe adding a couple new ones and some dialogue. During the battle, Arya is forced into Winterfell castle to escape the overwhelming number of White Walkers. Instead of that, have Arya choose to enter the castle because she’s knows where the best place to strike is and going through the castle is the only way to get there.

Let us see her sneaking through the shadows of the darkened halls of Winterfell, her intimate knowledge of the castle and her time as a blind person letting her navigate around the Walkers without having to see them. Then after a few successful evasions, she gets caught and we could still have that panicked dash through the castle, and the Hound and Beric arrive to save her. Now, instead of Beric being resurrected just to save Arya at some random moment, he was resurrected because he needed to be there at that precise moment to give her the time she need to reach the Night King. Then maybe add a scene of her running along rooftops to position herself for the killing blow. Have John see her sneaking along the roof, and have him intentionally distract the dragon to give Arya the window she needs to reach her target.

A moment here, with Arya on the roof and Jon making eye contact with her, would have been all that was needed.

Had all, or at least some of that, been shown it would have established the overwhelming odds that Arya was up against. It have made the moment even more amazing because we would have seen the effort she went through to be at the right place, at the right time to save the world. Instead of Arya being there because the plot demanded she needed to be there, it would instead have been her choices and actions that led her there. The moment would have felt earned then, rather than literally coming out of thin air.

And now that Arya has literally saved the world, Game of Thrones has to answer a difficult question.

Where Does the Story Go From Here?

As I covered here and again in my Star Trek: Discovery article, apocalyptic plotlines are a double-edged sword. By literally putting the world’s survival at stake, you’re sacrificing the stakes in other plotlines. If you choose to threaten the characters with a world-ending cataclysm in your story, you better be damn sure that resolving that is the last part in the story.

To bring this back to basic storytelling elements, having the Night King defeated this early is going to throw off the rising action of this final season. The Battle of Winterfell dialed the action up to 11, it put everything at stake: not only were our favorite characters nearly killed, but the very setting itself, Westeros, was on the verge of annihilation. Even with all the storytelling missteps that this episode held, I was still on the edge of my seat and it was an emotionally exhausting episode.

And now I find myself curious: where does the story go from here? Maybe the show will surprise me, but I can’t help but feel that whatever grand battle occurs between John, Dany, and Cersei just won’t be able to reach the same heights. In fact it simply cannot reach those heights because who sits on the Iron Throne feels rather trivial when compared to the extinction of all life on Westeros.

Nothing Cersei throws at the characters will ever come close to this kind of power.

Another problem I had was that the books were obviously heading in the direction of the White Walkers being the ultimate threat, but it seems the show has taken the opposite tack. By eliminating the White Walkers so easily (and yes it was easy because, despite losing their whole army, none of the main characters ever seemed in danger and Arya’s sudden appearance felt like a Deus ex Machina) the show has made it clear it wants to be done as quickly as possible and get back to who sits on the Iron Throne. Which is a shame, because the books made a great parallel to real life: that humanity worries about trivial things like power and politics, even in the face of extinction level events. One of the biggest themes that this story explores is how shortsighted humanity is; we focus on the wrong things, our ambitions and fears, which often blinds us to the larger problems we face.

My hope for the ending was that I would see the most fundamental fantasy trope turned on its head: the heroes lose and the villain wins. That they would lose the battle of Winterfell, and that perhaps Jon and Dany and a handful of others manage to escape on dragons, but the rest perish. Maybe then they to plead with Cersei to fight the dead, and Cersei ends up executing both of them to secure her throne and in doing so, dooms the world. The final episode culminating in the dead overrunning King’s Landing, and the Night King assuming the throne, the Wight versions of all of our main characters taking their place by his side. The story has told us repeatedly: fight together or die alone. Well, they didn’t fight together, Cersei betrayed them… so let them now die alone.

Though they wouldn’t have been alone for long…

Maybe the final three episodes will prove me wrong, and if so, I’ll be back here writing about what an amazing achievement they’ve made. Only time will tell.

Star Trek Discovery: I’m Starting to Forget What’s Happening

So after the first four episodes of Star Trek: Discovery made such a great impression on me, I was happy with the way this season was shaping up. I’m… less so now. As the season has progressed the show has begun slipping back into bad habits, once again emphasizing plot development over character growth. It’s not as bad as it was last season, but it’s getting distracting enough to the point where my excitement for where the season was heading is severely diminished.

So let’s talk about some of the problems that have cropped up this season.

Star Trek: Discovery

I’m Starting to Forget What’s Happening

The Problem with Time Travel

Spore drives and time travel; Klingons and AI. Star Trek: Discovery has a bad habit of coming up with overly complicated and unnecessarily dire situations to drive its plot.

The trouble started when Tyler speculates that the Red Angel is a time traveller, because there seemed to be no evidence of that being the case yet. My initial thought was that the Red Angel would turn out to be some kind of lifeform, perhaps a unique entity, that was driven by an overwhelming compassion. Instead, Tyler and Section 31’s out-of-left-field assumption turns out to be 100% true. That’s a problem for two reasons, the first being that it’s a major retcon of Star Trek canon.

Now I don’t care about how much more advanced the Discovery is when compared to the Enterprise. It’s true the original series Enterprise didn’t have anything remotely as advanced as the holographic displays on Discovery; Star Trek had a special effects budget of “whatever loose change the cast and crew could find in their couches” and it was made in the 1960’s, when seatbelts in cars was considered a radical new invention. It’s important to take into account the real world conditions that led to the design decisions of the day, had Gene Roddenberry had access to today’s technology (and budget), the Enterprise would likely have looked far different.

However, introducing Time Travel as a 23rd century ability seems like a huge retcon to make for no good reason. The other shows have obviously had time travel in them, sometimes to almost absurd degree, but it was always due to some spacial anamoly or from advanced Starfleet ships travelling back from the 29th century. Also time crystals? I’ll admit, Star Trek is far more fantasy than it is science. For every real scientific idea, like Matter/Anti-matter reactions to generate power, you’ll have two heisenberg compensators and inertial dampeners.

But at least when Star Trek delves into fantasy, they at least dress it up with fancy lingo. Time crystal… it’s like they’re not even trying.

I do absolutely love this scene though.

The biggest problem with this time travel plot is that it feels like such an artificial way to create danger. As much as I disliked the Klingon War in the first season, at least the Klingons had understandable motivations and were a known quantity in the universe. By contrast Star Trek: Discovery has had to do some significant storytelling gymnastics in order to make Control a credible threat. First of all, they had to introduce the idea that Starfleet uses “Control” as an AI assistant that helps them make decisions. Then they had to introduce a strange sphere with vast knowledge to justify Control becoming sentient. Then there had to be a time travelling suit to jump forward in time to see Control’s destruction of all sentient life, so then it could jump back in time to stop it.

There had to have been easier way to introduce the threat for this season. In fact, why did it have to be such a huge threat? By threatening to extinguish all life in the galaxy, Star Trek: Discovery is going to have to answer a difficult question next season.

Where Does Discovery Go From Here?

How many times are we going to blow up Earth?

In the second out of two seasons, Star Trek Discovery features yet another world ending catacylsm that only our intrepid heroes can prevent. Last season it was humanity and Earth at stake, this time it’s literally all sentient life in the galaxy. They have dialed the threat up to 11 in their second season, all but gauranteeing that season three’s stakes simply won’t be able to live up to that. What else can you possibly threaten when you’ve literally threatened everything.

I talked about this in my article You Don’t Have to Save the World, but constantly relying on cataclysmic events to build tension for your story is ultimately self-defeating. You can get away with it in movies or books, where it’s a one-off story. Game of Thrones and The Witcher 3 show how you can slow-cook the cataclysm, building it up gradually while focusing on smaller subplots and character development. If Star Trek: Discovery wants to run for 5-7 years like its predecessors, then it can’t keep relying on end of the world scenarios to drive its plots because it’s already getting old. It would be like if Game of Thrones first season had ended with Jon Snow defeating the white walkers, and then to come back in season 2 with him defeating Sand Walkers from the south. And then the Water Walkers.

And that’s how you end up with Waterworld. Is that what you want, Discovery? Hasn’t the world suffered enough?

I wrote in my initial article, that I was afraid that the signals would end up being a warning of impending galactic destruction, and was happy that wasn’t the case. Boy, I guess that’ll teach me about speaking too soon, because it ends up that’s exactly what they are. This season of Star Trek: Discovery is now looking identical to the plot of Mass Effect; a strange, almost incomprehensible warning about the destruction of all sentient life spurs a starship crew to stop it before it’s too late. Except Control isn’t nearly as interesting as the Reapers.

Another thing I loved about those first four episodes was that they explored different ideas about faith, death, friendship, and sacrifice; they were actually about things. Some of the episodes kept up with that, most notably Saints of Imperfection and Through the Valley of Shadows, but the “Red Angel” storyline began steamrolling anything in its way. Which would be fine if that storyline had anything interesting to say, but unfortunately it doesn’t.

I keep expecting this guy to show up.

A sentient machine bent on the destruction of all life is something that both Terminator 2 and Mass Effect explored with far more nuance. Star Trek: Discovery is desperately pushing that narrative, but it also refuses to say anything about it. The only motivation they can come up with for Control is a single line about it being the purest (or one could say, perfect) form of life in the galaxy. Why does it believe that? Why does that necessitate the extermination of all other life?

The show’s response is to say “Who cares? Let’s just get on with the explodey bits.” Ironic, considering that when it’s not rushing to play up the threat posed by Control, it’s overplaying its hand with the emotions of the show.

Wasting Emotional Scenes


The emotions of Discovery have gotten a little repetitive. I still understand them at least, but they’re losing their power. Last season Michael was difficult to relate to because she acted too Vulcan, almost completely detached emotionally. This season Michael has swung too far in the opposite direction, there were three or four episodes in a row where Michael has had long crying scenes. There’s nothing wrong with that per se, aside from the fact it’s happening too frequently.

Just as excessive action scenes can exhaust and bore an audience, so can too many emotional scenes, especially if it’s always the same emotion. Michael with dying Saru; Michael reconciling with Spock; Michael reuniting with her mother. They all feature her crying, and while she’s a good actress who carries the scenes well, it’s felt like one after another with no opportunity to show other emotions.

Which is why I wish Jett Reno was a central character rather than a recurring character, because I adore her dry, sarcastic wit. Her conversation with Hugh in Through the Valley of Shadows, where she reveals that her wife was killed in the war, felt all the more powerful because that was the first time we’d seen her vulnerable like that.

Since we never see Discovery’s chief engineer, can I humbly submit that you just give Jett Reno the job?

This is well illustrated with Pike as well when he’s about to obtain the time crystal. I’ve watched Pike all season, seeing him as a confident commander and a positive, idealistic man who encourages his crew to be the best they can by setting himself as an example. When we see him confronted with his future, of being horrifically maimed and forever crippled, he’s terrified. Not only that, but you see him grieve for the future he thought he had. It’s a powerful scene, and ultimately one of my favorites that the show has created so far. Had we been treated to five scenes of Pike crying and being terrified before this one, it would have been far less powerful.

Meanwhile Discovery is burning through its emotional highpoints way too quickly with Michael. Seeing Michael’s lose her mother a second time should have been a heartbreaking scene, an emotional crescendo leading into the final act of the season. Yet I didn’t feel much of anything because I felt like I’d seen this all before with Michael and Saru, and then again with Michael and Airiam.


Such a grand funeral shouldn’t have been wasted on a tertiary character.

Now I thought the show did a good job at making Airiam into an actual character, considering in season one she was just a weird background detail. The funeral was quite touching as well. Again, however, you can only use these scenes so many times, and what Star Trek: Discovery has essentially does is waste a well done funeral scene on a bit character. If a main character does eventually die, then the show is almost obligated to either match or exceed the expectation this scene sets. Why set yourself up for failure like that?

Overall I’m still liking this season way more than last, and I do want to go into more detail about what this season has done right. However, the mistakes that keep cropping up speak to a fundamental problem with the storytelling philosophy that guides the show. If Star Trek: Discovery wants to survive long-term, and I desperately want it to, it’ll need to change how it tells its story in the coming seasons. Relying on extinction level events to build its stakes, creating convoluted plotlines driven by time travel and spore drives, cannot be sustained in the long term.

We’ll see what Star Trek: Discovery manages to pull out of its hat in the final two episodes of the season. I’m rooting for it, I want this show to succeed, but I’m no longer as confident as I was when I saw those first four episodes.

You Don’t Have to Save the World

I used to binge watch all the time, plowing through entire shows in days sometimes. I kind of miss doing that, especially since so much of the pacing behind many streaming shows now relies heavily on being able to binge them. All that said, I finally finished the third (and it turns out final) season of Daredevil on Netflix.

I was a huge fan of Daredevil when it first came out, and though Jessica Jones first season had some problems, I was still incredibly pretty pleased with it. Then I started losing interest. I enjoyed season 2 of Daredevil but it just didn’t feel as compelling as the first season, and I never made it past the first episode of Jessica Jones‘s second season. I manage to get through the first season of The Punisher, but only just, same with The Defenders.

Let’s not even talk about this disaster.

There are a lot of reasons these later seasons failed to grab me, but today I want to talk about one reason in particular.

You Don’t Have to Save the World:

Epic Plots in Storytelling

Daredevil wasn’t trying to save the world in the first season, he was just trying to improve the lives of the people living in his tiny corner of it. Same with Jessica Jones, Kilgrave was never out to destroy the world, but he still needed to be stopped. These were very personal stories, pitting two characters against each other, making the stories character driven. Fisk and Daredevil were struggling to make Hell’s Kitchen a better place but in radically different ways. Jessica Jones and Kilgrave were in an even more intimate struggle of retribution and justice.

Unfortunately the delusions of grandeur that would eventually sink both these shows was introduced in their first seasons. Daredevil goes off on a tangent to hunt “Black Sky,” and Jessica Jone’s first season has a stupid conspiracy theory about some evil company turning people into superheroes. And unfortunately in the second season of both shows they focus on these plots to the detriment of everything else. Basically the stakes of both shows go from personal struggles to trying to save the world. Taken in a vacuum that might be okay, but this is Marvel.

Marvel already has an exhausting schedule of movie releases where various heroes try to save the world, and the main problem is that the TV shows can’t compete with the movies in terms of stakes. Daredevil’s second season tries to sell the audience on Black Sky being some potentially world-ending weapon, even though it never specifically tells us what the hell it can do. Meanwhile less than a year before that season aired, we got Avengers: Age of Ultron and the incredibly vague threat of Black Sky doesn’t really compare with Ultron’s plan of human extinction. And now these shows have to compete with Thanos’s plan of wiping out half of all life in the universe, and they simply cannot compete with something like that. And they shouldn’t be trying to.

I honestly don’t even know where the Marvei films can go after defeating this threat.

Not every story has to be about saving the world and that’s something season 3 of Daredevil proves beautifully. The stakes are considerably smaller in scope, once again pitting Daredevil against a resurgent Wilson Fisk, yet it felt so much more important at the same time. I couldn’t bring myself to care about Black Sky or whatever the hell she was going to do in The Defenders, but I was at the edge of my seat wondering if Daredevil would actually kill Fisk. That personal drama, the struggle between those two characters, was more powerful than anything the ridiculous ninja clan plot managed to produce. To be fair though, this is hardly a new problem, and not one limited to Marvel.

One of the most disappointing examples of this is in Fantastic Beasts. Here was a story that could have been absolutely wonderful, following a bumbling but good natured magical zoologist on his adventures. This film started out so promising, and I went in thinking that returning the thunderbird to its natural habitat would form the core of the plot. With the bureaucracy of the magical government serving as the antagonist, this story had everything it needed. Ten minutes in I already had an image of the ending in my head, as the thunderbird was released into the Arizona wilds as an exhausted but euphoric Newt looking on while the music swells.

I wanted to see the Thunderbird flying through the Grand Canyon.

And then it all went wrong. There was a conspiracy of dark wizards, some dude name Grindlewald who is basically Voldemort version 1.0, and a plan to enslave all the muggles or something, I don’t even remember. As a result the fun adventure story we could have had, watching Newt bumbling his way across the world on his way to release a rehabilitated Thunderbird, was lost in exchange for a run-of-the-mill Evil Wizard Does Evil Things Because He’s Evil. The fantastic visuals we could have had, Newt exploring forests, swamps, and deserts, replaced with the oppressively gray and black London. And the Thunderbird, who’s return home should have formed the emotional core of the film, is reduced to a simple plot device; a lazy way for the writers to justify the amount of destruction they inflict on London for their flashy over-the-top battle scene.

Commercially I know why this was done, Warner Brothers wanted another set of films to capitalize on The Harry Potter franchise. And in typical corporate thinking, they twisted a fun adventure story into an almost dystopian story of evil, cliched wizards. The shame is that they could have still had their cinematic universe, they were just in too much of a rush to get there. Ironically Marvel did this exceptionally well, they didn’t start their franchise with Thanos trying to wipe out half of all life, they didn’t even start with the Avengers. They started with Iron Man, and slowly built up from there, spent an entire decade building the foundations for Avengers: Infinity War.

The first Iron Man remains one of my favorite in the MCU.

Not every story has to be about saving the world, and that’s a trap a lot of science fiction and fantasy falls into. The whole world doesn’t have to be at stake to make an exciting story, just put the character’s world at stake and you’ll have my undivided attention. Or if you absolutely have to have a world-ending threat on the horizon, keep it in the background.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt succeeded because the whole “save the world” storyline took a backseat to the more interesting personal drama. Geralt spends most of that game simply looking for Ciri and wanting to keep her safe, that’s all he cares about. The world-ending danger of the White Frost was more Ciri’s story than Geralt’s (more on that in a future update), and since it was Ciri’s job to save the world, it allowed Geralt’s story to be more character driven. Geralt indirectly saves the world by saving Ciri, but I never felt like that was the main narrative drive, the real goal was to save the girl that Geralt thought of as a daughter. I keep coming back to something a friend of mine told me years ago:

People don’t care about events. How do those events affect the people they care about, that’s the question.

-My good friend BJ.

It’s absolutely true, both in fact and fiction. You can have the most cataclysmic event you can think of on the horizon, but unless you make me care about the characters and what affect it will have on them, I won’t care. There simply has to be more at stake than “the world will end if we don’t succeed,” and again Marvel’s films do this well. Infinity War had so much more going on than Thanos’s plans for galactic genocide; Scarlet Witch being forced to kill Vision, Thanos reluctantly killing Gamorra, Thor’s quest for vengeance. It didn’t rely solely on the threat Thanos posed to the galaxy, if it had, it would have been a far less powerful film.

Easily one of the most heartbreaking moments in the film.

You don’t have to save the world to tell a story; just save the character’s world, even if that means simply saving their friends.

You Want to be Fooled: Suspension of Disbelief

Before I begin this week’s blog post, a few updates about the Breaking Bad situation. First of all I’ll be continuing to cover Breaking Bad, but from now on these posts will be password protected so that people who aren’t caught up on the show won’t run into spoilers by accident. I’ve already gone back and password protected the other two posts as well. If you want to read these posts, the password is “spoilers” without quotations marks obviously. The following post, however, has nothing to do with Breaking Bad so every should read on without fear!

 

The suspension of disbelief is the foundation upon which good stories are built and yet there are a lot of misconceptions about it, the biggest being that the suspension of disbelief relies entirely on the audience. “It’s just a movie/book/game” is the phrase a lot of people trot out when mistakes in the story are pointed out.

Of course the audience does have to play its part. Whenever we turn on a movie, pick up a book or play a video game we’re asking the creators to fool us. To trick us with sweet, sweet lies and take us into another world, or show us our own world from a different point of view. So of course we, as the audience, have to take that first step and accept that we’re being fooled. That doesn’t let the writer off the hook though and, in fact, the audience’s ability to suspend its disbelief relies almost entirely on the writer.

The suspension of disbelief is a magic trick and like any magic trick, its success largely comes down to how much showmanship and theatricality the magician puts into the trick. The writer has to distract, dazzle and misdirect the audience so that the splendid and unbelievable things happening in the story don’t hamper our ability to enjoy it.

There’s a great line from the movie The Prestige that sums up the suspension of disbelief beautifully:

(Huge Spoiler. If you haven’t seen this movie, what the hell is wrong with you? It has Batman vs Wolverine! If you haven’t seen it, there’s a spoiler free quote from the movie below.)

Now you’re looking for the secret [of the magic trick], but you won’t find it…because of course, you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to work it out…you want to be fooled.

A magician works by concealing and misdirecting you from the ordinary, mundane objects that make the trick possible: the wires, pulleys and mirrors. A writer’s magic trick works by plugging or hiding plot holes and drawing the audience’s attention away from the staggering coincidences and unbelievable elements that all stories rely on. So how does this work in practice?

Well the first and easiest part of the magic trick that is the suspension of disbelief is simply properly labeling your story. Aliens showing up in a historical fiction story is a great way to make your reader put down the book, but having aliens show up in a science fiction story is a great way to make the story more interesting. If you’re writing a realistic drama you’re going to have a hard time getting away with the larger-than-life action scenes where the hero takes out an entire terrorist cell, but if you’re writing about Jack Bauer or anything with Bruce Willis in it then your audience would be disappointed if they didn’t get an absurd fight scene. Our willingness to ignore or overlook plot holes and improbable coincidences depends largely on the genre the story falls into.

For instance, the most famous plot hole you probably all know is the “Eagle Flight” from Lord of the Rings: why did Frodo and Sam go through all the trouble of walking when they could have flown instead?

In retrospect, this does seem much easier than walking.
Reason: Gandalf had the required frequent flier miles.

Despite this being a rather large plot hole, most people are okay with it because it’s a fantasy story. We’re already in a story where a giant disembodied eyeball is conquering a world containing elves, dwarves and hobbits so not riding the giant eagles into Mordor to end the story in five minutes doesn’t really ruffle our feathers (I’m so sorry) which leads us to step 2 of the trick: don’t point out your mistakes to the reader.

Do you want to know the reason why Tolkien never went into why they couldn’t just fly into Mordor? Because doing so would draw your attention to the fact that they could even do that, he ignored it for the same reason a magician doesn’t tell the audience why the levitating woman isn’t held up by wires: you don’t want the audience looking for the wires. The moment you tell them to look for the secret to the trick you’re reminding them that they’re watching a trick, and that sense of magical wonder is lost. The sad fact of the matter is that plot holes happen, there’s no writer so talented as to make a completely airtight world free of holes, but when a writer comes across a plot hole that can’t be fixed then its up to him to redirect the audience’s attention elsewhere.

Now imagine for a moment that Tolkien did decide to try and tackle this plot hole in the book. What kind of excuse should he use and what excuse would the reader accept? Eagles don’t like the warmth of volcanoes? Sauron emits an Anti-Eagle field around his domain? The Naz’gul patrol the area constantly even though they should be looking for the ring? No matter what excuse he made, it would seem flimsy to us because suddenly we’d realize “yeah, flying the ring to Mount Doom would be a lot easier.” He would have shown us the wires; he would have ruined the trick for us. So instead of telling us why the Eagles couldn’t fly to Mordor, he instead spent his time redirecting our attention to other things: Frodo and Sam’s survival, Gondor’s stand against the hordes of Mordor, and the final heroic fight at the Black Gate. Using high tension and emotional involvement in the characters it the best way to keep the audience from noticing a plot hole because we’ll be much more invested in a character than a plot.

What? Did you expect me to use a bathroom or something to change?
And just using the character’s body to cover up a plot hole isn’t good enough.

The Dark Knight Rises for instance featured a lot of rather inexcusable plot holes and unexplained elements, and yet it’s fucking Batman and we would have been willing to excuse any or all of them if they’d put more effort into redirecting our attention. I’m currently working on an article covering Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, but let me just pick on one prime example: Bane’s discovery of Batman’s secret arsenal.

This is a major story point in the movie because it’s Batman’s arsenal that gives Bane the ability to take over the city, but how Bane located it is never explained and then instead of trying to distract us from this gaping plot hole they just keep going like they hoped we wouldn’t notice. Honestly only a few lines of dialogue were needed here, just a little extra effort that would let me go on fooling myself into accepting this extremely convenient discovery and if they’d really wanted to go all out they would have simply dragged that whiny little accountant from The Dark Knight on screen to explain how Bane found out.  Apparently Rises was too busy with time-compressing montages and miraculous punch cures for broken backs to bother trying to disguise its mistakes.

Come at me Bro, I already punched a huge hole in the story and now I'm ready to add one to your face.
Come at me Bro, I already punched a huge hole in the story and now I’m ready to add one to your face.

The rest of the magic trick can’t be easily described unfortunately because it all comes down to the skill of the writer. Keeping a consistent tone, remaining true to the themes of your story, and making interesting characters are crucially important in making sure the audience can suspend its disbelief. If any one of those elements fail, then so does the trick.

The reason we accept Arya just happening to rescue a shapeshifting assassin but scoff at Jeff Goldblum hacking an alien mothership with his 1996 laptop all comes down to the writer’s talent and ability to keep us distracted. They’re both equally absurd if you think about it, but because Arya is such an amazing character and A Song of Ice and Fire is so well written the staggering coincidences don’t seem all that strange.

All of this said though, this doesn’t lets you off the hook because in the end its still your disbelief that you need to suspend. No writer is so good as to completely fool you into believing everything they write, so you need to meet us halfway. You have to be willing to let yourself be fooled, because otherwise you’re just that one asshole in the theater that came to the magic show just to yell out “It’s a trick!”

Yes, we know its a trick. That’s why we came. The real question is, why did you?

Hey, you didn't saw that woman in half at all!
Hey, you didn’t saw that woman in half at all!

Plot vs Character: Terminator

Sorry for the late arrival of this post, I meant to try and get this up by Saturday but last Friday I launched my new website. I was then immediately inundated with a thousand different scammers all telling me to use their service, guaranteeing me wealth and women for the rest of my days. Of course there was also a few legitimate offers in there as well, so I had to go through it all with a fine tooth comb to pick out the real from the fake.

Which is kind of like trying to find a real hair on Donald Trump’s head.

Better late then never though, right?

So after a few weeks of wrestling with various books, movies and games, ranging from Gone with the Wind and Tom Sawyer to Gladiator and Dragon Age, I realized that diving right into the deep end of the pool might not be the best idea. So let’s kiss, shall we?

Awwww yeeaaahhhh

I mean keep it simple of course. When it comes to illustrating the differences between plot and character driven stories, it doesn’t get much simpler than the Terminator series. Okay, the actual plot of these movies involves time travel and paradoxes on such a massive scale that canon’s overarching plot is kind of a clusterfuck to navigate, but the plot of each individual movie taken on it’s own merits is rather simple: escape the giant, possibly Austrian, Kill-Bot.

The characters are all rather simple as well, though as you’ll see, some are more compelling than others. Terminator is, if I know my audience, a movie we’ve all probably seen. It’s also a series noted for the massive chasm separating the most excellent Terminator and Terminator 2 from the atrocious sequels of Terminator 3 and Terminator Salvation. The chasm that separates them represents a lot of things; directing and acting talent, special effects quality and usage, etc. However, a huge part of the chasm is the steep dip in writing quality for the latest two movies as opposed to the originals. You see, on one side of the chasm are the Character-Driven stories: Terminators 1 and 2. On the other, Plot-Driven stories: T3 and TS.

Character Driven: Terminator

Terminator is an excellent example of a character-driven narrative. Sure it’s not exactly Shakespeare, but its nonetheless  a well written story.

So we start off with two naked men, which usually means I’ve made a wrong turn in my porn surfing, but in this case we’re seeing the call to arms or inciting incident. This is out of the main character’s, Sarah Connor’s, control. After this, however, every turn the story takes will come as a direct result of Sarah Connor’s actions, which in turn are an extension of her character and represent the evolution of her character.

So assuming you all know how this story goes, I’m going to dive right into it.

So after some excellent desperate housewife murdering on the part of Governor Kill-Bot, we finally find Kyle Reese just barely managing to save Sarah Connor from the hot, steely embrace of 150 rounds per second.

Though if I were in a filthy 80’s nightclub, the bullets might be preferable.

This takes us to our first story point. [In this case I’m using term to refer to a point where the story is being moved forward, either by the plot itself or a character’s actions]

Story Point 1: Go with Kyle or Not?

Okay, easy choice here for Sarah Connor. Go with Kyle or end up as a white-chalk outline on the pavement. Now obviously this isn’t much a choice, but it is still a choice. If Terminator 1 were plot driven, Kyle would either just stuff Sarah into the back of a car or the two would end up in the same building by pure coincidence.

Story Point 2: He Be Crazy

So after finally escaping the clutches of the Terminator, Kyle Reese tells Sarah his story. In a less well written story, we’d probably get the much hated line “I don’t know why, but I believe you” or even worse the “I’m an inferior female and I immediately trust your big manly manself”. Luckily this wasn’t made in the 1950s, and Sarah acts like Kyle Reese is a deranged psychopath, like any other normal human being would. The audience knows Kyle’s telling the truth because we’re seeing the whole picture, but from Sarah’s point of view, all she knows is someone is trying to kill her and Kyle’s story makes him sound like an escaped lunatic.

So Sarah makes her choice and flings herself into the arms of police the minute she gets the chance. That’s believable, plausible and completely in keeping with her character. She made a choice and the story moves forward.

Story Point 3: Making a Savior

So after watching an entire police precinct get slaughtered, Sarah is understandably a bit more receptive to Kyle’s story. Even better, we get to know Kyle a bit as he describes his love for Sarah, showing us that inside the grizzled war veteran is basically a love-struck teenager. The two take one for the collective team and have hot, steamy sex in order to create John Connor and save humanity. (I’ll have to try that excuse on my next date)

The whole scene in the motel is quite well done in terms of character building, it lets us get to know the characters better without going so deep as to bore us to death. Enter: Terminator.

Story Point 4: You’re Terminated

So Kyle is mortally wounded, but manages to blow the terminator in half…but that doesn’t stop it. So now Sarah is left with one last choice. The Terminator can only move as fast as it can crawl, which isn’t fast at all. A lesser action movie would probably just show Sarah dash outside where police miraculously appear and are finally able to kill the Terminator, followed by a tragic scene of Kyle’s body being taken away. Luckily for us Terminator isn’t a lesser action movie, and Sarah takes option 2:

She goes full badass.

See, now that’s an excellent final act for the movie because it completes Sarah’s character arc. She started out as a frazzled waitress too frightened to do anything but let others protect her, but by the end of the film she finds the courage within herself to crush the Terminator like a tin can. Sarah changed and evolved during the movie, and that’s what made it good.

Plot Driven: Terminator 3

Oh boy, here we go. Okay, let’s just get this over with.

Right off the bat we know we have a problem when our character manages to severely injure himself on a motorcycle. Why is this a problem? Because it’s such a clumsy and artificial way to get John Connor to the Veterinary Hospital. If anything they should have just made John Connor suffer from a crippling opiate addiction, because at least then we a plausible reason for why he’s there. A reason directly related to the character itself. I mean, as it stands now, you remove the deer from the equation and suddenly the whole plot of the movie is gone: no deer, no crash, no crash no going to the vet clinic. No vet clinic, he’s not there when Fembot and Kill-Bot show up. Bam, we spend the rest of the movie watching John go from one construction job to another. If your entire story hinges upon a deer in the road, you need to rewrite the script.

Ugh…moving on.

Story Point 1: The Weapon’s Cache

So after a half hour of steamrolling action scenes, we finally arrive at a meaningful choice for John Connor and Kate from the vet hospital. The Terminator has taken them to a mausoleum where Sarah Connor stored a weapon cache inside a coffin.

Totally how I want my funeral to look.

So both John and Kate have the option here of bailing out and running. They also have the option of staying, perhaps a scene of John trying to convince Kate of the importance of staying with them, or maybe even make John the one who wants to bolt. After all, he says he doesn’t want to be a hero.

Oops, too late. Apparently the LAPD, despite a complete collapse of the virtual information network our society relies on, manages to track Kate to this remote cemetery. Oh, and apparently its standard operating procedure for police detectives to drive the family members of hostages to the actual crime scene where a violent gun battle could erupt at any moment. You learn something new everyday.

This is a result of the plot moving the story forward; an event totally out of the character’s control occurs and forces the characters to remain on a single static path. They’re on a roller coaster and the track doesn’t change.

Story Point 2: Saving the General

So after escaping the hot, sexy T-X, our characters decide to move on to saving Kate’s dad from imminent death.

Of course on the eve of nuclear holocaust, imminent death is a relative term.

Now I want to take a moment here to point out that putting Kate’s Dad on the hit-list is a terrible idea from Skynet’s perspective. As the movie shows us, Kate’s Dad is the guy holding Skynet’s leash here and its only by his actions that Skynet is able to fully assume control of the United States Military. So if the T-X hadn’t been delayed by trying to kill John Connor, the T-X might have arrived and killed Kate’s Dad before he had a chance to finally unleash Skynet. So basically, Skynet almost killed itself.

That aside though, this again, was another opportunity to have some kind of moral/ethical dilemma or even just some barebones characterizing. Kate and John could be desperately trying to dissuade her dad from launching Skynet, we could have some scientist point out the ethical difficulties of killing a newly sentient creature, and maybe even try to talk to Skynet. I mean, as I understand it, Skynet only launched the nuclear missiles at Russia because the USA was desperately trying to “unplug” (ie kill) Skynet. It was defending itself. Maybe if we just stop trying to kill it, it would simply leave us alone. Hell a highly intelligent and adaptive AI could actually advance mankind immensely. Skynet could build robotic probes to send into space, invent new nanotechnology to help us fight disease…all kinds of possibilities.

It would also fit thematically with Terminator 2, a story where a young boy and a giant machine built specifically to kill humans, learn from each other. As the ending quote of T2 says: “If a machine can learn the value of human life, maybe we can to.” If a machine designed by Skynet can do that, why not Skynet itself?

Character Driven: Terminator 2

Yeah, switched to this topic like a ninja. (If you’re like me, you probably know this movie like the back of your hand so I’m going to keep this brief)

Terminator 2 is my personal favorite in the series. Arnold Schwarznegger got to show off his acting chops this time around, instead of just his massive pecs, and seeing a Sarah Connor continue to be a badass brought a warm glow to my heart. As the horrific TV series showed us, not allowing Sarah Connor to remain the strong and independent woman she became at the end of the original movie is a terrible idea. Turning Sarah Connor from hardened, gun-toting badass into a mother-earth, Family Ties-esque caricature is what killed that show. That’s all I have to say about that.

Story Point 1: Save Sarah Connor

So after escaping the T-1000, John Connor and the Terminator are in the parking lot of a gas station arguing about what to do next. I just want to say that this whole scene is 10 different kinds of awesome. I was too young to have seen T2 when it first came out, but when I did finally watch it I wasn’t much younger than John Connor in the movie. I can tell you that if I had a giant killer robot taking orders from me, I would have done the exact same thing as John. Except to hell with that no killing crap.

Hey, snap to it! This murder-list isn’t getting any shorter…

Anyway, this is another example of a character’s choice driving the story. John Connor is like 12-13 years old at this point, so naturally his first instinct is to try and save his mother. He clearly has issues with her, you know with the whole “my mom lives in a psychiatric institution” situation hanging over him, but saving Sarah was in keeping with his character. Who wouldn’t want to save their mother in this situation? (Besides me I mean, I’d be having way too much fun with my own personal kill-bot)

Story Point 2: Killing Miles Dyson

Another excellent story point because it relies entirely on the character in order to resolve itself. We get to see how the long-term psychological effects of Sarah’s encounter in T1 affects her today, going from cold-blooded assassin trying to kill a computer engineer to a weeping psychotic breakdown when she realizes what she’s about to do: kill a man for something he hasn’t even done yet.

Story Point 3: Blowing up Cyberdyne

So once again we get a character driven decision to hit Cyberdyne Systems to prevent Skynet from ever being invented. This could easily have been a plot driven idea as well, simply by making it part of the Terminators reprogramming. It would have been totally believable that John Connor Future-version would send back the reprogrammed T2 with a plan to destroy Skynet. It would have been the easy way out though, and making this a natural extension of Sarah Connor’s character gave this movie a much stronger story.

Story Point 4: Thumb’s Up

Best. Ending. Ever.

Okay, maybe a slight exaggeration, but I still think the conclusion of this movie is one of the best I’ve seen. It represents the conclusion to everyone’s character arcs in a single, emotional scene. John Connor , who’s come to love the Terminator like a bigger, more murdery version of a St. Bernard, learns to let go. Sarah Connor, originally mistrustful of the Terminator, comes to trust and respect him. And the Terminator himself completes his journey from unemotional automaton to an emotionally aware entity on the road to becoming an individual, and makes a very human self-sacrifice to make sure that his kind is never seen again.

Hang on, I’ve got something in my eye again…

Plot Driven: Terminator Salvation

I didn’t think they could possibly screw up this sequel up anymore than they did in Terminator 3. I mean, this one had fucking batman in it. How bad could it be!?

Uh oh…

After Terminator 3, the bar was set so low that even a single-celled organism couldn’t fit under it, and somehow, inexplicably, Terminator Salvation managed to tunnel underneath the bar. I don’t even know how that happened. I mean it’s like dividing by zero.

So we start off with John Connor attacking an installation we know nothing about, with a bunch of people we don’t care about, and setting off a giant explosive for reasons we also don’t care about. Great job everybody, we’re off to a great start.

Moving right along, we end up on a nuclear submarine commander by Michael Ironside playing Michael Ironside (because that’s all he ever plays). So apparently the Resistance intercepts a “kill-list”, listing John Connor and Kyle Reese as top-priority targets. Why a giant computer program would need to “send out” a “kill-list” is never really discussed. I mean if you think about it, Skynet should already know that John Connor and Kyle Reese are dangerous people that should be eliminated, kill them should be standing order #1 in all of its units. Shouldn’t that be built right into operating systems of these units? A Kill-List makes me envision terminators looking at leaflets posted on a wall with John Connor’s face on it like some kind of Western.

After some long, boring exposition, John returns home to mourn the dead.

Yes, I’m sure we’re all broken up about the death of some…guy we never met who was the brother of another guy we haven’t met. Yeah…

See this is an issue: you can’t just show us a mournful face and a manly-man shoulder slap and expect us to feel sympathy for someone we don’t know. That’s why we need characters, so we can relate with them and sympathize. These aren’t characters, they’re all rugged pieces of gun-toting meat with five o’clock shadows. But whatever, go ahead and do your bro-hugs…we’ll just stand here….waiting for an actual story to start…

Anytime now…

Even the characters are waiting for it to start.

Story Point 1: Kyle Reese, Star and the great Frisbee Disc of Death

It’s a bad sign when the first meaningful event for your characters occurs half-way through the damn story. Up until this point, this story has progressed with absolutely zero input from the characters. They’re just along for the ride. We might as well be watching Scooby-Doo and the gang fighting terminators since we’ve had no meaningful characterization at all during this movie. (Now that I think about it, that’s an awesome idea. I’m calling dibs to that idea right now, Scooby-Doo: Judgement Doo. Coming soon.)

So okay, Sam Worthington is looking to take a truck and leave LA. Now, here’s a potential spot where our characters can interact in a meaningful way. Sam can reveal his personality by either abandoning two children to their deaths or taking them with him, potentially risking all three lives in the process. Let’s see how this plays out.

Oh wait, we can’t because a giant robot shaped like a Frisbee shows up and forces our characters to flee, depriving them of any choice.

Story Point 2: Gas Station Mob

So we find our heroes, and I use the term as loosely as possible, arriving at a gas station in the middle of no where. Inside we find a gang of humans that have clearly been hiding here, struggling to survive. Unwilling to share their supplies, the gang threatens to kill Sam and company. Finally, a chance for some characterization. What will Sam Worthington do? Will he disarm these thugs and kill them all? Try to talk his way out of it? Will the old lady come to his assistance?

I can’t wait to see what –

Oh for fuck’s sake:

Do you MIND!? We’re trying to tell a story down here!

Once again we see the choice, and any chance to expand these characters, ripped away in favor of a comically over-sized terminator. See the plot decided this story was getting boring, so it threw in another giant CGI robot to spice things up and force the characters to just run. If we never get to see the characters make choices or even be able to react to situations in anyway besides run and blow stuff up, we never get to know them. I don’t know about the rest of you, but it’s been a while since I last had to blow up a giant mechanical hunchback bent on destruction, so I can’t really sympathize with these people.

Story Point 3: Sam I am Machine

This is probably the worst missed opportunity in the whole movie. Sam and a downed fighter pilot whose actress has the most badass name ever (Moon Bloodgood), arrive back at Resistance Headquarters. Now, if this were a character driven story, we might have some interesting opportunities here.  Sam’s internal programming could get set off, receiving subliminal messages telling him to kill John Connor. Or perhaps Sam could play Devil’s advocate, showing John and the audience, Skynet’s point of view: a sentient creature just trying to survive. We might even –

Or blow him up, whatever. Tamatoe, Tamatoh.

Yup, once again the plot just keeps steamrolling forward, flattening all the character’s into two dimensional ciphers and robbing the entire movie of any kind of depth or complexity.

Story Point 4: Take my Heart

No.

No, just shut up.

All of you.

Just shut the hell up.

Oh god, they’re really going to do this aren’t they?

Okay, ignoring for the moment the patently ridiculous idea that something as complex as heart transplant surgery could be successfully performed by a former veterinary technician in a field hospital lacking any of the proper equipment and support staff, this whole section is just stupid. Really. I mean…really? Do I even need to go over this? Sam Worthington was on screen with John Connor for all of ten minutes, why would he just give up his heart to him? I mean I’m quite attached to my heart. Last time these two met, John Connor was about to kill Sam. You know what, I give up.

You guys want a new terminator movie that is actually good? Petition them to hire me to write the script next time.

And I’ll make sure there are some god damn lasers this time.

Characters and Plot

When you break creative writing down to its most basic form, there are two kinds of story: plot driven and character driven. They both provide the framework to tell unique and compelling stories, and I wouldn’t say plot driven stories are inferior, but character driven stories do offer the reader a chance to connect personally with the story being told. First of all though, what’s the difference?

A plot driven story is one where circumstance and events are driving the story forward, like a rollercoaster, the characters are simply along for the ride. Good examples of plot driven stories are James Bond movies or the TV series 24. Whether its James Bond riding off into the sunset with another gorgeous blonde or Jack Bauer faking his own death (again), these characters leave the story more or less unchanged by the events that occurred during the story. When Jack Bauer is having to diffuse another terrorist bomb, he’s simply a victim of circumstance, nothing he does or doesn’t do really has any impact on how the plot flows. That’s why 24 is a series of tiny catastrophes strung together, even when Jack Bauer has diffused the bomb and killed the terrorist, the plot will pull out another event out to keep the story moving. Events are pushing the story forward and the characters simply follow those events, reacting as necessary.

On the other side of the coin, Character driven stories have the character’s actions drive the story forward. If you’ll remember back in my Mass Effect 3 post, I mentioned the inciting incident which starts the hero out on his journey. In a character driven plot, the inciting incident is the only event that the characters don’t directly influence. After that the story moves forward as a direct result of the actions of the characters. In Lord of the Rings, it’s Frodo saying “I will take the Ring to Mordor” that allows the story to continue on from Rivendel. The character was confronted with a situation and made a choice that was appropriate to the character’s personality.

Even if that character was a bit of whinging pain in the ass.

If Lord of the Rings were a plot driven story, Orcs would have attacked Rivendel and forced Frodo to flee with the Ring, depriving him of the choice. If James Bond were character driven, it would be James’s actions that would propel the story forward. For instance in Golden Eye, James Bond (Pierce Brosnan) is asked to surrender or have his partner (Sean Bean) die before his eyes. If this scene were driven by the characters, then James would either come out or, more likely, stay hidden and allow his partner to die. Instead we get what usually happens in plot driven stories: James Bond is just about to reveal himself but Sean Bean is killed before he can. The plot shot Sean Bean in the head and deprived James Bond’s character from making a choice himself.

This isn’t unusual in stories like James Bond, where the hero is larger than life. After all, showing James Bond to be a calloused undercover agent by allowing Sean Bean to die would shatter most people’s perceptions of the heroic James Bond. The writers needed an easy way to make James Bond look heroic but still end up with a plausible way for him to escape.

What devilishly handsome spies…

I know a lot of writers and critics despise plot driven stories, but there’s a lot to be said for a plot driven narrative. I think a character driven 24 would actually have some pretty interesting stories to tell, but it simply wouldn’t allow for the same heart-pounding adrenaline rush that the plot driven episodes of 24 allow for. If you want to get really old school, take Armageddon and Deep Impact. Armageddon is fun, plot driven action flick featuring Steve Bucemi trying to ride a giant asteroid into the ocean. Deep Impact is a somber character driven story featuring characters trying to cope with the idea of the world ending.

They both have merit, and which one people enjoy is entirely based on their tastes. In fact, most people can actually enjoy both types of story. Personally I enjoyed both James Bond and Lord of the Rings. I liked both Armageddon and Deep Impact. You’ll also probably notice that in all of my above examples, both characters and plot are integral to the stories. One might be driving the story, but it can’t survive without the other.

Without the overarching plot of Lord of the Rings, would anyone really care what happens to Frodo? No, because without the plot of Sauron taking over the world, Frodo’s journey alone has no meaning. Would a James Bond movie be worth watching without the titular James Bond and all the other supporting characters? Would Armageddon be worth watching if it didn’t feature Steve Buscemi?

The answer to all of the above is No. Especially the last one.

Yes, a story is either driven by its characters or its plot, but both are always necessary to make the story work. The front wheel of a motorcycle might be the only one that turns, but the motorcycle isn’t going anywhere without the rear wheel. If you try to make a character driven story but ignore the plot, you end up with Battlestar Galactica. Try to make a plot driven story without characters and you end up with Far Cry 2.

In the coming weeks I’ll be dissecting two well known stories, one character driven and one plot driven, to better illustrate the differences but I thought this would be a good overview. See you all on wednesday, and please, if you have anymore requests for topics, feel free to write in!

Less than the Sum of its Parts: Battlestar Galactica

Battlestar Galactica is an interesting case. On paper, Battlestar Galactica should be a brilliant show, one of those rare gems that can be watched over and over again. It has great acting, great action sequences, great characters, and great writing…most of the time. Unfortunately, where the writing falls apart is in the plot. Now character-driven stories are always better than plot driven stories, but that doesn’t mean you can just completely half-ass the plot. Unfortunately that’s exactly what the writers of Battlestar Galactica did.

The mini-series that jump-started the series was absolutely terrific, featuring an amazing cast and a perfect feeling of doom. Even though we never get to see the twelve colonies in any real detail, when the Cylons begin incinerating them with massive nuclear attacks we can feel the dread of the characters. We feel their helplessness as they sit in their ships, only able to read reports of the devastation of their home worlds. One of the best scenes in this is when Laura Roslin, newly installed as president despite being 42nd in the line of succession, suggests surrendering to the Cylons. That’s when we find out that the Colonies offered their unconditional surrender when the nuclear bombardments began.

The cylons didn’t even respond.

That’s when we knew that this shit was real. This wasn’t just a war, this was genocide. The Cylons would settle for nothing less than the total annihilation of the human race. Gaius Baltar, the arrogant and sleazy genius that hands over the fate of humanity for some afternoon delight, survives when countless billions didn’t.

Though, looking at her now, I probably would have done the exact same thing.

As gorgeous as the Cylon female models are, it’s the introduction of these countless Cylon human models that totally screw the plot. Now, that’s not to say it couldn’t have been good and interesting, but unfortunately these Cylons begin mucking up the plot because of the whole “who are the final five!?” bullshit they were dedicated to pursuing. As the lead writer has himself admitted, they kind of made this up as they went along. Leading to a season three finale that reveals that, somehow, five long standing characters on the show end up being Cylons.

That’s not the kind of thing you can just make up, you need to be foreshadow that kind of twist otherwise you end up with…well:

Shut up, old man!

But they didn’t, and so to try and plug the enormous plot holes this revelation created, they decided to get even crazier. Like trying to plug holes in a leaking dike, however, the craziness only led to bigger plot holes until the plot was more holes than story. First off, the revelation of Earth being a nuclear wasteland was actually a really great twist. Unfortunately they then went ahead and ruined the whole thing by making the people on Earth Cylons. Yeah, thousands of years before the cylons even existed…they managed to blow themselves up. Oh, and even better, the human looking Cylons on this planet apparently developed their own mechanical Cylons, who then blew up the human Cylons…except somehow five of the human Cylons from this planet escaped. Oh and they escaped by using resurrection technology stolen from humans that was originally a “synaptic memory transfer.” Then they traveled at sublight speeds to the twelve Colonies, to warn the humans not to build Cylons. The mechanical variety, not the human looking ones. Confused yet? Good, because I sure as hell was.

Oh and to top it all off, the final five were too late and the twelve colonies are already embroiled in the first Cylon War. In exchange for the Cylons agreeing to a peace treaty, the final five gave the twelve colony Cylons (not the Cylons from their planet), the ability to make human-style Cylons.

You know, the same human cylons that eventually allow the twelve colony cylons to wipe out humanity. So yeah, great job there final five, mission accomplished.

All according to plan…

Yeah, that’s how fucked up the plot gets in this series. That’s without even going into the insane subplots like the Cylon civil war, Starbuck apparently dying and then being reincarnated (including her ship), or her finding a new Earth to colonize after hitting a bunch of random numbers during a jump. If this plot had been the maze that Theseus entered, that minotaur would still be alive today. Now I’m not suggesting that a plot has to be meticulously mapped out step by step, but you can’t just make up the whole thing as you go along. At least not with a story this massive in scope.

Another issue with a story made up on the fly is that the logic and rules of the universe are never clearly laid out.  Jumping, the faster than light travel in BSG, is never adequately fleshed out. How long does it take to jump? How many jumps can you make? How far can you go? These questions are all answered differently in each episode of the show, reducing the FTL drives to deus ex machinas. They’re there to help create tension by breaking down at inopportune moments, or to rescue the ship from impossible situations. In the mini-series, navigation officer Gata comments that no one has plotted an FTL jump that far (from current position to some anchorage where supplies are held). End of season 2? The Galactica, despite travelling away from the 12 colonies for nearly two years, apparently is able to jump back in a single jump and rescue survivors. That implies the jump drives have an unlimited range, which then begs the question why it takes them so long to make it to the nebula (with Gata at one point saying it would take 12-18 jumps). Why would it take that long when you can jump to anywhere?

How resurrection for human Cylons works is never clearly established. In fact every time the crew of the Galactica captures a Cylon, they always threaten them with “Maybe we’re too far away for you to resurrect! You’re scared aren’t you!?”. Yet we never really find out if this is true or not. The fact that all the Cylons look, talk and act the same means you can never tell if it’s the same one reappearing or not. I mean the only way I could tell Dr. Baltar’s girlfriend apart from the other cylons that looked like her, was the fact that she was a hallucination on Dr. Baltar’s part and showed up in plain view of other characters. The only way I could tell Boomer apart from Athena was by seeing which man they were currently sleeping with.

Which brings up another issue: Battlestar Galactica suffers from a bad case of Grey’s Nymphomania. What is Grey’s Nymphomania? I’m glad you asked. It’s a disease that afflicts most TV shows now, spreading faster than the STDs that the character’s in those shows are spreading. And patient zero was Grey’s Anatomy, hence the name.

The CDC classifies Grey’s Anatomy as a level 2 biohazard.

Practically every character in Grey’s Anatomy has slept with every other character. Most episodes feature the “Wall-Slam Sex Scene” at least twice, and the only episodes where sex isn’t implied or show are the ones where the cast get into a hilariously improbable crisis for their Sweeps episode. Characters have sex so often on the show that even rabbits stand up and say “come on, guys, no one has this much sex.” Now, Battlestar Galactica never got as bad as Grey’s Anatomy, but there was a gratuitous amount of partner swapping in the series. First Starbuck and Apollo, Starbuck and Baltar in a one night stand, Starbuck and Lance, Apollo with Dee, Starbuck and Apollo again, Apollo and Dee again. Then there’s the Chief having sex with Boomer, and then his wife, who then sleeps with another guy on the ship. Oh, and let’s not forget Tigh’s wife, who sleeps with several Cylons and humans alike. Heck, in the final season, Baltar has a literal harem of women at his beck and call as he becomes a kind of psuedo-Jesus for the fleet. And that’s on top of him having hallucinatory sex with his Cylon woman, even after she, you know, used him to wipe out billions of people. I don’t know about you, but I don’t usually sleep with genocidal maniacs or religious extremists (the Cylons are basically Space-Al Qaeda in BSG).

Or maybe Space-Nazis…

Taking each episode as an individual story, they’re great. The New Caprica episodes do a wonderful job of tackling tough issues like the efficacy and morality of suicide bombers, collaboration vs cooperation, and the horrors of   governments having absolute power: imprisonment without due process, cruel and unusual torture, etc. The problem with these episodes is just how little sense they make in the larger context of the story. I mean it has only been a year or so since the Cylons nearly caused the extinction of mankind, yet when the episode flashes foward a year, already people have completely let down their guard. Galactica and the Pegasus are practically garbage scows now, with only skeleton crews, commanded by an Adama with a fugly mustache and a Lee so fat he threatens to bring Pegasus down out of orbit. Really? I thought the trauma of having your entire species nuked into oblivion would warrant a more militant strategy for defending the planet. I know Baltar says he didn’t want high security measures taken, but since when has Adama listened to him? If Roslin had told Adama to strip the weapons from Galactica during their exodus, you think he would have obeyed?

Look at what happened in America after 9/11. Congress was rushing to sign the PATRIOT act into law, and even 10 years later I still have to take my shoes and belt off at airport security checkpoints. The TSA is still frisking three year olds, copping a feel with old women, and preventing people from getting onto planes with butter knives (even when it’s the pilot). [More hilarious TSA hijinks] I’m thinking that if we got nuked, it would take a hell of a lot more than two years before we started to relax. Still, like I said, if you don’t take into consideration the overarching plot, these episodes are awesome. Even when the series starts its spiral into madness during seasons 3 and 4, there’s still good stuff to be seen.

Toward the end of season 4 there’s a mutiny aboard Galactica, and it’s terrific. Great tension, great action, and even better acting (Gata’s actor in particular really shines). Alone, it’s stupendous. Taken in the larger context of the story though? It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. I know Gata is pissed about his leg getting blown off, but is that really enough to justify mutiny? Especially since he himself wasn’t all that opposed to human-cylon interaction prior to this incident. More to the point, the crew that has served under Adama for the entire show turn against Adama seemingly at the drop of a hat. What makes this episode even more confusing is the conclusion of the series. The mutiny is launched as a reaction to Adama’s use of Cylon technology on colonial ships. However, when they get to the Earth we know as Earth, they all seem way too eager to revert to a stone-age level of technology. There would be a massive riot across the world if the internet went down for more than an hour, could you imagine what would happen if suddenly we had to go back to using stone tools and collecting berries to survive? Most of us would die of pure incompetency. Why wasn’t there a mutiny over that? I know I would be dead inside a week.

I don’t understand, how do you turn it on?

Battlestar Galactica should have been a great show. All the pieces were there: top notch acting, good graphics, and a compelling premise. Like building an extremely detailed model, however, all these different pieces are meaningless until you glue them together. The plot is the glue in a story, it’s there to provide a framework and allow a story to progress naturally. Unfortunately the glue in the case of Battlestar Galactica was applied with the same grace as a four year old with a scale model of the Taj Mahal. It was just splattered all over the place, pieces of the model just randomly stuck into the field of glue until it more resembled a Picasso portrait than it did a model. BSG’s story is barely held together by a spattering of plot, so loose and ill applied, that much of the complicated overarching story is rendered completely moot in the confusion. Had the writers decided to dedicate a little more time into plotting out a coherent story, Battlestar Galactica would be one of my favorite science fiction shows. Instead, it’s simply okay, the terrible plot evened out by the acting and action so that the end result is a mediocre product. It should be seen for its great acting and action, but I certainly wouldn’t watch it a second time. It’s a show that is somehow less than the sum of its parts, and a good illustration of what happens to a story when the plot isn’t properly crafted.

Big thanks to commenter Cheriet79 for giving me the idea for this entry! If anyone else has any suggestions or requests for me to cover a specific topic, don’t hesitate to write in and let me know.