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…

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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.

Star Trek Discovery: I Finally Know What’s Happening

So thanks to Washington’s latest bout of Snowmageddon, my 6-day work weeks have had an unexpected break. So with some free time on my hands, I decided to try watching Star Trek: Discovery after a friend recommended I give it a second chance. I was skeptical, figured I’d give the first episode 30 minutes and then turn it off, because I have so limited leisure time nowadays I can’t afford to waste it.

Four hours later I found myself absolutely devastated that I had to wait another week to get a new episode of Discovery. Now I’ve seen shows get better with every season, many of the Star Trek series follow that curve, but never have I experienced such a drastic improvement in my viewing experience. I was one of Discovery‘s harshest critics last season, and now I can barely believe that this is the same show.

So what’s changed to so radically alter my experience with the show? Well, for one, I think I finally understand what’s happening.

Star Trek: Discovery

I Finally Know What’s Happening

Saru's Death

The sheer amount of improvement that I’ve seen just in the first four episodes of Discovery almost defy belief. I now feel bad about how hard I was on it last season, because now I feel like the production problems that plagued the show’s first season were probably to blame. There are still problems with the show (namely it’s only available on a streaming service no one wants), but every show has problems, and at least now I actually understand what’s happening.

Star Trek: Discovery is Now About Exploration

Discovery and the Asteroid.png

Now that the Klingon War is over the show can focus on exploration and struggling against the harsh realities of space again. No longer hamstringed by breakneck plot pacing and exhausting battle sequences, Star Trek: Discovery now has time for the careful, considered brainstorming that made Star Trek such a joy to watch.

Right off the bat, the crew of Discovery has to figure out how to land on a strange asteroid whose gravitational forces exceed what its mass alone would create. What this allows for is actual teamwork, rather than just sitting around waiting for Captain Lorca to tell everyone the plan on how to blow up Klingons. After coming out of warp, Saru identifies it as an interstellar asteroid, Michael gives its approximate mass and that it has an atmosphere, and Detmer reports that there’s intense gravity distortions.

Captain Pike says one of the best lines of the episode:

“I want to know what’s down there. Suggestions?”

Captain Pike in the Captain's Chair.png
Finally a captain who knows what it is to command.

This is something Captain Picard asked all the time, because he realized that it was his crew, and not the ship itself, that was the true resource. Captain Pike needs ideas, and Michael provides one: telescopic cameras that would allow them to see what’s on the asteroid. The picture reveals a crashed Federation medical frigate but Michael can’t read the registry number, but Saru has better eyesight, so she asks him to read it. Later, during an attempt to land on the asteroid, Pike’s landing pod is damaged. Michael comes up with a way to save him, but she has to rely on Owo and Detmer to help her do it. Watching a team work together to come up with solutions to impossible problems, that’s what Star Trek is all about; how amazing mankind can be when it works together for a common cause.

In the next episode, Discovery has to save a colony of pre-warp humans from an impending disaster. Ensign Tilly comes up with the solution, but it takes Detmer’s piloting skills and Stamets use of the Spore Drive to make it work. The following episode has Tilly struggling with what she believes is a hallucination, but Michael figures out that it might be an alien presence, and Stamets who eventually removes it. No one person is ever able to save the day themselves, it relies on the crew working together.

Tilly and Detmer.png
Also, because she’s now part of the team rather than just an extra on the set, I now know the helmsman is named Detmer.

Yet most heartening of all, is that while the crew is exploring space, the show is using that setting to explore ideas. Star Trek has always been about exploring ideas: scientific, spiritual, and personal. Yet all I really ever got out of the first season of Discovery was the exploration of war, which has been done better by countless other stories, including Deep Space 9. Now though, free of the “war is hell, and everything is awful” message that they kept hammering home last season, Discovery is free to, well, discover new ideas. And explore them.

When I saw the previews for the second season, I thought that the strange signals would inevitably be some dire threat; I was almost expecting a Mass Effect storyline where the signals would be warnings of a coming apocalypse. Instead I’ve been pleasantly surprised to find that these signals are warning of a different kind, an indicator that someone needs help. It’s while following the first of these signals that Discovery comes across the asteroid, and the trapped Federation crew below. The next signal leads them to a group of pre-warp humans who had been seemingly rescued by an alien entity from the ravages of the 3rd World War, but who were now in danger of dying from falling radioactive debris.

The mysterious Red Angel figure behind all of this appears to be guiding Discovery to missions of mercy. Yet what this plotline is allowing the show to explore is the idea of divine intervention, and the idea of god itself. How would humanity react to the idea that what religion thinks of as a god, could in fact just be an alien intelligence? Would that distinction matter? Personally I find the exploration this idea fascinating, but then I’m coming at it from an agnostic’s point of view whose never given idea much thought.

Beyond that idea though, each episode has explored its own ideas; the first episode explored ideas of sacrifice and altruism; the second ideas of religious belief; the third explored ideas of self-identity and personal loss; and the fourth explored the idea of death, and our reaction to it, beautifully.

And these explorations have led to Discovery’s crew becoming believable, relatable characters…

Star Trek: Discovery Has More Characterization

The Conference Room on Discovery.png
I’m so happy to see the conference room again.

One of the biggest flaws in the first season was how little time was spent fleshing out the characters. It was so determined to squeeze as much action into the Klingon War as it could that it often left the more interesting characterization on the back burner. The shift to struggling against space itself, and having to brainstorm solutions to problems as a group, has naturally allowed the characters to interact with each other more often and more naturally. Really that’s one of the most basic, and important, ways to characterize: simply allow your characters to interact and play off each other.

I realized how different the storytelling was this season based on a great interaction between Pike and the crew of Discovery in the first episode. Pike wants to rescue any survivors from the crashed medical frigate, and Saru brings up a valid point: that risking their own crew to investigate the remote possibility of survivors bears careful consideration. Pike argues that even if the chances are remote, if there are survivors, he can’t in good conscience leave them behind. Michael then begins verbally brainstorming, as she usually does. It’s at this point that Pike gets angry, interrupting her because he thinks she’s just rattling off a list of reasons why it’s impossible. And here’s why I love that:

It’s a misunderstanding, and a believable one. Pike has only been on the ship for a couple hours at this point, he doesn’t know Michael or the rest of the crew. And if you don’t know Michael, her verbal brainstorming does sound like just a list of “here’s why I can’t do it” excuses. But Michael stands her ground, and firmly, but respectfully, tells Captain Pike that no one would abandon a fellow Starfleet brother or sister, and that she was attempting to provide him a solution. Again, this is an excellent example of how simply allowing characters to interact help characterize them. I learned more about Pike through this brief interaction than I ever managed to learn about Lorca. And for that matter, I learned more about Michael than I did the entire first season.

Punchy McPunchface
Smugface McPunchable has become Hugface McLoveable thanks to some great characterization this season. 

The next great scene came just a few moments later as Michael is launching in one of the landing pods: as her pod begins to accelerate out of the launch bay, you can actually see the excitement washing over Michael’s face. Watching her reaction made me feel like I was on a rollercoaster just as it was about to crest that first rise. The fact that I could share her excitement made the following scene all the more enjoyable, and even though it was a CGI heavy action scene, it meant something because there was emotional context to it.

Which brings me to the most important part.

I Understand The Emotions of Star Trek: Discovery

Saru's Death

More than anything else in the first season of Star Trek: Discovery, what made it so difficult for me to watch was that I didn’t understand what I was supposed to be feeling. None of the episodes had any emotional resonance with me, I didn’t even have a rough idea what emotions they were hoping to evoke. Whether it’s a book, film, TV show, or video game, I need stories to move me emotionally. If it doesn’t… then what was the point?

That’s the most important thing that’s changed in season 2 of Star Trek: Discovery, I find myself being moved. I’ve been laughing at Tilly’s jokes, felt fear as the crew struggles against impossible odds, and been overjoyed when they succeed. Most importantly, the fourth episode I was genuinely moved by Star Trek: Discovery‘s exploration of the importance of communication, trust, and even death.

The Discovery is pulled out of warp by a huge, and rather ominous looking, sphere. Their trapped, can’t raise their shields, and a computer virus begins ravaging Discovery, taking one system after another offline. Worse yet, Saru begins experiencing his species death process. All of this taken together, it would not be unreasonable to assume that these are the acts of a hostile entity.

Discovery and the Sphere.png
I mean look at it, it even looks evil.

What this episode explores, is the idea that assumption leads to misunderstanding. Discovery and her crew assume its intentions are hostile, when it’s true intention is communication; the Sphere is dying, and all it wants in its final moments is to be understood, to tell its story. Which is what we all want, to know we’ve been seen, to know we’ve been heard. And once it’s done that, the Sphere saves them from its impending death, throwing them clear of the explosion.

This moment is only topped only by Saru’s dying moments (or at least, presumed dying) with Michael. It’s a tragic, beautiful moment that brought up so many memories for me of my own father’s death, because this was the kind of moment I wanted. To talk to him about his life, his regrets, his fears, but was too afraid to pursue it. Like the Discovery, I kept my shields up, and his life passed, perhaps not unremembered, but not as well understood as I would have wanted. I cried during this scene.

Saru and Michael Holding Hands.png
Intimate moments like this are what build amazing stories.

And that’s all I want from stories, to be moved emotionally. That’s why we tell stories, to laugh and cry. Without that, I can’t understand the story.

I’m incredibly happy to report that, for the first time, I understand Star Trek: Discovery. I’d encourage anyone who lost faith last season, to give it another try, because it is a totally different show now.

The Problem with You

This will probably end up being one of my more controversial articles, and I debated even writing it, but Lifetime/Netflix’s thriller You is such a problematic story that I have to talk about it. On the one hand, it was an entertaining show, I ended up watching the whole thing and even though it dragged it places, it had that “just one more episode” draw to it. Yet on the other, it has presented a problematic narrative whose message is so easily misinterpreted that one questions if this story really needed to be told.

You tries to tell the story of a serial killer. This is not a romantic story, this is the story of how a deranged killer stalks and manipulates a woman, only to then kill her when she fails to live up to his unrealistic expectations. Yet because of the way it’s presented, people are genuinely thinking this is a romance and falling in love with Joe. To the point where the actor who plays Joe took to twitter to remind these people that Joe is a deranged killer.

Even scarier, if you go read some of the user reviews of this show, you’ll see men posting about how much they relate with Joe because they dated toxic girls too. I don’t want to link to it here, but if you go read the Google user reviews for this show, you’ll know exactly which one I’m talking about. If a significant portion of the audience is coming away thinking this is a romantic story and if they think Joe is the hero of the story, then You has a made massive mistake.

Obviously you can’t control people who willfully misinterpret your work to suit their own world view, but You is written and presented in such a way that it would be incredibly easy for people to misunderstand it. Watching this show, I could see how people can come away thinking this is a romantic story of doomed lovers like Romeo and Juilette. That’s absolutely not the intent behind it, but that doesn’t matter. Point is, people are falling in love with Joe, and even scarier, relating with Joe (and not seeing that as a problem.)

(Spoilers ahead)

The Problem With You

Joe is Shown in the Best Possible Light

If I were a serial killer on trial, whoever made You is the person I’d want as my lawyer, because they make Joe like a poor maligned kid rather than the pyschopath he is. His every positive attribute is focused on obsessively, while his deranged behavior is often glossed over or played off as cute.

An inordinate, and quite frankly boring, amount of time is spent showing just how doting a partner Joe is: he makes her breakfast, he helps comfort her when she’s sad, he does everything he can to make her happy. Then a lot of screen time is spent trying to turn Joe into a hero by showcasing how he helps Paco. Meanwhile his stalkerish behavior isn’t treated with gravitas it should be, and sometimes is even played for laughs.

Early on in the show, Joe is spying on Beck through her window and masturbates as he imagines having sex with her. This should be an eerie, disturbing scene as we watch this maniac masturbating outside an unknowing woman’s apartment. Instead, it’s played up for laughs as an old woman walks out of the building behind him and interrupts. Of course the old woman is totally oblivious, and Joe becomes the chivalrous gentleman helping her out with her bags.

I half-expected a laugh track to kick in based on how this scene was shot.

What should have happened is Joe to get caught and have to run for his life as the old woman starts screaming and calling 911. Remind the audience what it is that we’re watching: this is not cute, it is not funny, it is not romantic, it’s a crime.

You also focuses on how intelligent, charming, and witty Joe is without also highlighting the anger and cruelty that would have to be part of a serial killer’s nature. I’ve not done exhaustive research into serial killers, but I can’t imagine that there was ever one as nice and compassionate as Joe is. It never shows Joe getting angry or lashing out in rage. Even when we see him murder people, he does it while looking almost confused, like he’s bewildered that it’s come to this.

I would think that to be a serial killer you have to possess a sense of cruelty, harbor some deep-seated rage, or be detached from your emotions entirely. Joe doesn’t display any of that. He’s the friendliest, most affable serial killer you’ll ever meet.

Much like another famous serial killer…

In many ways Joe is like Ted Bundy; he’s so sweet, charming, and pleasant looking that you wouldn’t believe he’s a serial killer. If you’ve never read The Stranger Beside Me by Anne Rule, which I highly recommend, there’s a part she talks about how some of his victims, who had escaped from him, looked at Ted in the courtroom and weren’t sure that this was the man who almost killed them.

Until the day Ted got angry in court. The mask he’d so carefully worn broke, and the moment was caught on film. When those victims saw the picture of Ted angry… they finally recognized him, because that was the Ted they saw the day they almost died: the angry, violent predator.

This was the man behind the smile.

That’s the moment You needed. We needed Joe’s carefully constructed mask to break and see the angry, violent predator within. Unfortunately we never get to see that. I spent the entire run of the show watching your friendly neighborhood murderer. Joe is so pleasant that he makes Superman look like a cynical antihero.

To make matters even worse, when Joe does murder people, you end up feeling like he’s justified in doing so. Largely because…

Joe’s Victims Are Undercharacterized

The antagonists in the story, Peach, Benji, and to a certain extent even Beck, are written in such a way as to amplify their negative traits. It reminds me of how antagonists are written in stories like Taken, The Equalizer, and other revenge stories: the villains are so over-the-top that when our heroes set about sadistically killing them, we’re euphoric about it.

Yet none of the characters in You rise to the level where any of them deserve Joe killing them. All the characters are just deeply wounded souls dealing with their own traumas as best they can, and who, coincidentally, didn’t turn into fucking serial killers. What we needed was to have these victims better characterized, so that when their end came, we felt sadness, grief, and even a sense of loss. Instead we got a bunch of walking caricatures that, when they died, brought only satisfaction.

Part of the problem is that we see everything from Joe’s point of view, aside from one half of one episode where we get Beck’s. They try to play Joe up as an unreliable narrator, but forget the “unreliable” part, the part where his assumptions are proven false.

This show fails the Bechdel test hard.

Joe makes snap judgements about all of Beck’s friends. Peach is vindictive and controlling, who secretly wants to make Beck fall in love with her. Benji, Beck’s old boyfriend, is a rich douchebag with a drug habit who doesn’t care about Beck. And all of Beck’s other friends are brainless, self-obsessed millenials who do nothing but talk about sex and boys.

What we needed was to have these assumptions proven false, or at least more complicated than meets the eye. Peach, even though she can be vindictive and controlling, could also be an amazing friend capable of compassion and empathy. In the show, Peach sabotages Beck’s writing career, hoping that the setback would cause Beck to move to Paris with her. Instead they should have shown her being a good friend to Beck while also trying to manipulate her into moving to Paris. Add a little nuance to these stories.

Go ahead and have Benji be the classic dudebro stereotype, but then show us the insecurities that made him that way: is he trying to live up to his highpowered father’s expectations? Does he have self-esteem issues and he’s overcompensating?

How come only Joe gets a past to explain his actions?

What about Beck’s other friends? Why are they only ever talking about men and sex? Surely they must have other common interests, if only to ask how each other’s days are going?

We needed Joe’s assumptions to be challenged, turned on their head. He can still believe all the things he’s saying, obviously, but we as the audience need to see that the reality is different. Instead all of his assumptions about Beck’s friends turn out to be true:

Benji really is just a drug-addicted douchebag who is dedicated to hedonistic pleasure. Peach really is in love with Beck and attempting to manipulate her into loving her too (gee that sounds familiar). Beck’s secondary cast of friends really are all vapid, sex-crazed idiots with no personality or ambitions. And finally, even his assumptions about Beck are proven correct as well: she’s got daddy issues, self-esteem problems, and even that she cheats on him with her therapist.

Seriously, would it kill you guys to make Joe be wrong just once?

You want to know something terrible? I felt a certain smug satisfaction when Peach died. She was a collection of every toxic and negative female stereotype rolled into a walking caricature, and that’s why I felt good when she died. It sparked that primal feeling of schadenfreude, taking pleasure in seeing someone suffer, especially if we think they deserve it. And that’s coming from someone who was actively analyzing the story and understood the mistakes it was making, and I still fell into that trap. The showrunners tapped into that primal sense of righteous satisfaction over a death that makes revenge stories so popular, and they did it exceptionally well. Too well.

Now imagine you’re a man who knows a woman in his life that he thinks is just like Peach, maybe an ex-girlfriend or annoying coworker; You has now given them a story that makes them feel justified in those feelings, you’ve given them vindication. Normalized it. The showrunners need to ask themselves whether that’s really the story they want to be telling.

And while they’re at it, maybe they should remind themselves what this story is actually about.

The Show About a Serial Killer Forgot to Show Joe Being a Serial Killer

Seriously guys? That’s the last we see of her?

The first murder in the show is so quick and clean that you’ll hardly even realized it’s happened. Benji reveals in the course of his captivity that he’s allergic to peanuts, and so when Joe finally decides to kill him, he doses Benji’s coffee with peanut oil.

Benji just collapses to the ground and dies in about 5 seconds flat. Benji should have been writhing around on the floor, clawing at his own throat, the capillaries in his eyes bursting, and his tongue bursting from his mouth purple and swollen. This death should have been ugly, vicious. You should have told the audience what a truly horrific death that would have been, and focus on our attention on the man who caused it.

Meanwhile Peach’s end isn’t even shown on camera. Last we see is Peach struggling on the ground trying to get the gun away from Joe… and then the camera cuts away and we hear a gunshot. What we should have had was Peach begging for her life, sobbing uncontrollably, and saw the sky reflecting off her lifeless eyes afterwards.

This should have been a pivotal scene, the moment we see what Joe is truly capable of. Instead we get to look at clouds.

Then there’s the worst of the bunch: Beck’s death. This was the worst part of the show. After making the same cliche mistake as every serial killing victim, not killing the killer when you had the chance, Beck is murdered by Joe. Again, it happens off screen. If you want to tell this story then you need to commit and show Joe killing Beck.

How he does it isn’t as important as how he acts. Is he crying while he does it because he “loves” her? Or is he screaming in rage because she didn’t live up to his expectations?

This is important for three reasons:

For one, it helps characterize Joe, how he kills the woman he loves would reveal important information about how he compartmentalizes his violent nature with his delusions of being a romantic.

Two, it gives us closure. If you’re sane and paying attention, you’ve been rooting for Beck to outwit and escape Joe. Having her die off camera is anticlimactic, I wanted to watch her giving the good fight until the very end, not go quietly into the night.

And third, we need to feel this death. By having her die off camera, you rob the scene of the emotional context it so badly needed. That’s the unifying problem with all the murders on this show, they fail to evoke any emotional response.

If I went back and looked at screen time and scripts, I think Robb Stark actually has less screen time and dialogue than Beck in You. Yet Beck’s death has no emotional impact.

There doesn’t need to be gratuitous violence, we don’t need to see entrails and brains, but the audience does need to feel their deaths. I should have been feeling sick and mournful at watching Beck die, to be filled with regret. To be seething with anger at Joe. To feel the same rollercoaster of emotions that Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad created for its audiences. Hell even Law and Order makes you feel bad for the victims, why can’t You?

If you’re not willing to make your audience uncomfortable, to feel negative emotions, then you should not be telling a story about a serial killer. Otherwise you get the situation we’re in now: that people think that Joe’s actions are justified and that he’s somehow a romantic figure.

The only thing You made me feel was angry, and not angry at Joe for killing an innocent woman which is what I should have been feeling, no I’m angry with the show itself. I’m angry that it made a deranged serial killer look like a poor misunderstood boy looking for love. I’m frustrated that in attempting to highlight the dangerous signs of stalking and abusive behavior, it instead reveled in those behaviors and made them seem acceptable and even romantic. And most of all, I’m just bewildered that no one making this show stopped to ask a very important question:

What is this for?

No, seriously, what is this for!?

What are you hoping to make the audience feel? What should they be thinking? If you answered horrified and thinking how awful Joe is, you need to go back and examine why so many people aren’t getting that. More importantly though, why should they continue watching this show?

I will not be tuning in for season 2, because this is how TV works: the show keeps going for as long as its profitable. My only incentive for watching would be to see Joe brought to justice, but I know that won’t happen until the viewership numbers hit low enough that Netflix decides to pull the plug. That might take years, and why would I want to continue watching this man kill innocent people, getting increasingly frustrated every time he escapes justice? What else am I supposed to be getting out of this show, because I honestly have no idea.

If you need someone to consult on the script… I know a guy.

So what does everyone else think? Am I blowing this out of proportion? Or is You as problematic as I fear?

My Favorite Scenes: Part 1

So while I’m working on some short stories to post, here’s a new series I’m going to start. Analysis of series-wide plot and character arcs takes a long time to write, but what I can do is post about some of my favorite scenes and why they work. These scenes are going to be presented in no particular order, just as I either see them or think of them.

So without further ado:

My Favorite Scenes, Part 1

Attack on Titan:

The Death of Eren’s Mother

Attack on Titan.png

I may do a whole article on Attack on Titan at some point, just because it’s a fascinating story (that totally goes off the rails in Season 2 unfortunately.) Regardless though, Attack on Titan begins with the titular Titans attacking Eren, our main character’s, home. In the chaos a giant boulder lands on his house, crushing his mother’s legs and pinning her in the wreckage. Eren tries to move the wreckage and free her but he lacks the strength, and his mother screams at him to run. Eventually a soldier comes and whisks him and his adoptive sister to safety, leaving his mother to die.

While the entire scene is well done, what I want to talk about is one line in particular.

Eren's Mother.png

Eren’s mother says these words as she watches the soldier fleeing with her children, but she also covers her mouth while she says them, so that Eren and Mikasa won’t hear her. This is an incredibly powerful moment because of how honestly it portrays her fear. Logically she knows that she can’t escape, and that Eren can’t save her, so she does what she has to and tells them to flee. But after she’s done so, she’s left alone with her own terror.

In so many stories, after a character makes a heroic sacrifice like this, they stoically accept their fate. Yet it was this scene from Attack on Titan that struck me as a far more truthful, and therefore more emotionally resonant. Because even if you make that sacrifice, you’re still going to be afraid.

Eren’s mother is so afraid that she cries out to them not to go, but she also covers her mouth so they can’t hear her; she knows that if they hear her, they’ll come back and they’ll all die. It’s the ultimate expression of love and it’s made all the more powerful by the fact that Eren’s mother is still afraid to die, but makes the sacrifice anyway.

Mass Effect:

Ashley or Kaidan’s Death

Ashley or Kaidan.png

This remains one of my favorite gaming moments. In most games, the choices you are able to make are minor ones, mere flavor added to the overall story of the game. Sometimes that flavor is damned good, so good that you could almost mistake it for the meat of the game, but it’s not. Side with that group against another, or take this route instead of that one, in the end it’s all just a sideshow to the main story. This moment from Mass Effect though is different.

For one, you lose the character you sacrifice forever. No heroic rescue at the last minute, no crazy story of resurrection or near-death survival, just dead. You never see that character again. Their voice is forever silenced. It took guts to write that scene, and it took an incredible amount of effort to make it work. For the next two games Bioware had to hire both voice actors back again, write different dialogue for them, and keep them in arms reach of the story. Admittedly it wasn’t perfect, given that they only get a cameo appearance in Mass Effect 2 and are downed for half the game in Mass Effect 3, but I still appreciate the effort.

Ashley Williams

The second, and most important reason, that I love this scene though… is that you lose no matter what decision you make. You can’t save both of them, no matter how hard you try or how well you did on the mission. It’s that simple, inevitable choice that elevates the game to a whole new level, because it’s speaks a fundamental truth that is incredibly hard to accept: you can’t save everyone.

Though most games set their stakes based on the deaths of their characters, at some level we all know that those characters can’t die, and if they do it means game over and restart. Having a character actually die, and forcing you to choose which one, truly made Mass Effect a unique experience.

 

Bojack Horseman: Why Are Your Sleeves Rolled Up?

Todd Dweeb.png

I could, and probably should, do a whole article on how amazing Bojack Horseman is, but let’s start with one of my favorite scenes. In Season 2 of Bojack Horseman, Todd, Bojack’s roommate, laments how awkward and clumsy he is. Well Todd is overheard by the stereotypical wise janitor, who points him to a machine that will make him cool. Of course the machine doesn’t do anything, but Todd is just naive and innocent enough to believe that it works, and of course immediately begins acting cool because his confidence is up. At one point he even kisses a biker’s girl, steals his bike, and the biker isn’t even mad because that dude is just so cool.

Todd is Too Cool.png

And then, of course, he meets with Bojack again, who upon seeing him says:

“Why are your sleeves rolled up like that? It makes  you look weird.”

Todd’s confidence turns to dust and blows away in an instant. What I love about this scene, and it’s something that Bojack Horseman does exceptionally well, is that is shows how easy it is to hurt someone. There are other scenes that do this of course, Bojack Horseman is essentially built on them, but I like the simplicity of this one. Bojack Horseman says some awful shit, where he’s intentionally trying to injure people, but what I like is that this isn’t one of those times. Bojack isn’t being intentionally cruel, to him it was just an observation he was making, he saw something about Todd had changed and so of course he looked “weird” to Bojack.

What this illustrates though, is that Bojack still hurt Todd, and Bojack should have kept his mouth shut. It’s a simple retelling of that old adage “If you can’t say something nice, say nothing at all.” Yet it’s something that I think our society needs to be told more often, because I’ve been Todd so many times. Days where I’ve been feeling great, or even just decent enough to not feel worthless, and then suddenly someone makes an offhand comment.

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I’ve been this, and said this, too many times to count.

A friend of mine once told me I reminded her of a family member, who used to make her cry as a kid because his facial hair scared her. It wasn’t meant to be cruel, she was relaying what was probably a very funny memory to her about her childhood. But to me? It hurt to hear, and to this day I wonder if my facial hair is making me look creepy.

Part of me wishes I was more vocal, that I didn’t spend as much as time as I do worrying about how I word things. Yet at the same time, I’m careful with my words precisely because I know that kind of damage they can do.

Star Wars Rebels Perfected the Lightsaber Duel

Let’s talk about lightsaber fights.

One of the big problems with the Star Wars prequels was the lightsaber duels. I’ll be the first to admit that the choreography for those fights was amazingly complex and, most of the time, looked great. However that complexity was a double-edged sword; it was often so complex, and so fast, that it felt like the actors were struggling to keep up with the movements. The lightsabers sometimes barely even made contact before they were rushing into the next movement. Compare that to the final battle between Luke and Darth Vader, where you can feel the anger in Luke’s blows as he just wails on Darth Vader like a maniac.

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You could feel the emotion in each blow of Luke’s lightsaber and that’s what helped carry the scene. Revenge of the SIth had a few moments where you could feel the emotion of the battle, such as when Anakin chokes Obi-wan, but for every moment like that you had ten ridiculous moments like this:

 

4thrz

 

Star Wars Rebels helped rehabilitate lightsaber duels, and it did so by working its way through a lot of the bad habits the Prequels set into motion. For instance I hated the Inquisitor’s lightsaber, turning such a cool weapon into a glorified fan blade not only looked ridiculous, but again also robbed fights of their emotional storytelling. The helicopter escapes were especially stupid. However you can also see that the Inquisitor’s lightsaber was just a natural extension of the increasingly gimmicky fights that plagued the Prequel trilogy. To a certain extent even the new trilogy still suffers from this, as demonstrated by Kylo Ren’s bizarre cross guard.

Star Wars Rebels moved past this bad habit of adding more elaborate moves and exotic weapons by remembering that these battles are supposed to tell a story. When they started focusing on that, they perfected the lightsaber duel.

 

How Star Wars Rebels Perfected the Lightsaber Duel

 

The lightsaber fights in season 1 of Rebels weren’t bad by any means, but it’s not until the close of season 2 that Star Wars Rebels hits its stride. The ridiculous Inquisitors are dispatched permanently by someone who finally knows how to use a lightsaber properly, and then of course there’s the duel between Ahsoka and Darth Vader. This was the first fight in Rebels that actually gave me goosebumps.

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Actually landing a blow against Vader? That’s some impressive skill right there.

There were a few moments I could have done without, such as Ahsoka turning her back to Vader to block an attack which didn’t seem to be an advantageous move on her part. However, this is the scene where Star Wars Rebels hit a new level of storytelling. Just as Ezra is older when we meet him again in Season 3, so too was the storytelling more mature and nuanced.

The next great lightsaber fight wasn’t even a fight at all, but sparring practice between Kanan and Sabine as he trains her to use the Darksaber. Sabine is holding herself back, and not because she’s afraid of hurting Kanan, but because she’s afraid of confronting the painful emotions she’s kept buried. Those emotions, her fear and anger, are exposed not just through the impassioned monologue she gives but also in how she fights.

Her thrusts are clumsy and savage, allowing Kanan to easily deflect and evade them. Her fear and frustration make her an easy opponent, and Kanan even turns off his lightsaber, simply shoving her away. However as she grows angrier, she becomes more focused, she attacks faster and with purpose. And finally she even manages to gain the upper hand.

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Easily one of my favorite scenes in the series.

This scene is great because it helps tell the story of Sabine, deepening our understanding of her character and propelling her story forward. That’s what a good fight scene does: whether its a full fledged battle, a tiny skirmish, or just a duel between two people, it’s important that it propel the story forward. If all a battle does is look good, then it has failed. Which is why so many prequel fights fell flat, but Star War Rebels has one of the best duels in Star Wars history: the final fight between Obi-wan Kenobi and Darth Maul.

The duel between Obi-Wan and Maul is the perfect counter-point to the insane lightsaber ballet between Anakin and Obi-Wan in Episode 3. This fight lasts less than 30 seconds and yet it’s easily one of the best storytelling moments in the entire Star Wars canon. From the opening standoff to the final moments, everything tells a story.

One of the best parts is at the beginning, in the moment that Obi-wan decides he has to kill Maul: when Maul realizes he’s there to protect someone. Up until that moment, Obi-wan might have tried to reason with Maul or simply disarm him, but that knowledge made Maul too dangerous to allow to live.

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Deep down, I think he knew this was how it had to end.

Maul killed his master, Qui-gon, and then he killed Countess Setine, the woman he loved. Yet even in the face of all of that, despite having every reason and justification to hate Maul… he doesn’t. He can’t bring himself to hate this man, because standing right in front of him is the evidence of what that hate would bring: nothing but pain and loneliness. He doesn’t hate Maul, he pities him.

“If you define yourself by your power to take life, your desire to dominate, to possess, then you have nothing.”  – Obi-wan to Maul

I want to take a moment and praise this smack-talk from Obi-wan here. Notoriously quick with a verbal barb in Star Wars Clone Wars, it was great to see this evolution of his humor and wit, and it meshes perfectly with the kind of dialogue Alec Guinness delivered in A New Hope. It’s a perfect blend of wisdom and cutting insult.

Basically Obi-wan is saying “You’ve dedicated your life to gaining the power to destroy others, but now you’ve come to kill an old hermit…and you’re not even going to be able to do that. You truly have nothing.” It’s no wonder Maul gets so pissed off.

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Battles don’t have to be long to be amazing and in fact the brief nature of this fight itself only heightens the emotional impact of the scene. The calm and resolute Obi-Wan versus an angry and broken Maul was brilliant because it juxtaposed their two philosophies so well.

Obi-wan and Maul had a lot in common, they were both old men who had seen their worlds destroyed by the Sith. Maul had been corrupted, used, and then discarded by his Sith masters. Obi-wan watched the Sith turn his best friend into a monster, and then had to watch that monster destroy everyone and everything he loved. Yet they both handled these tragedies differently.

Obi-wan chose a thankless life of loneliness and anonymity, he gave up everything for the slim hope of seeing Luke become a Jedi and redeeming all of them. Maul chose revenge, to destroy everyone and everything that he felt had wronged him, to burn the world down around him if necessary. This is reflected in their fighting style.

Maul launches an angry, reckless attack. He puts all his hate and anger into every blow. But Obi-wan calmly deflects Maul’s attacks, absorbing the blows and letting Maul’s anger burn itself out against his blade. Obi-wan’s patience and deliberate defense allow him to quickly strike a killing blow against Maul after he leaves himself vulnerable.

Obi-wan vs Maul
He blocks twice and then finishes Maul. Sublime.

Obi-wan would have been totally justified letting Maul land face first in the dirt and leaving his body to rot. Yet instead he holds his old nemesis in his arms, and even gives him a measure of peace in the knowledge of Luke’s existence. Maul lived a life of profound loneliness, marred by pain and loss. Thanks to Obi-wan’s compassion though Maul, in his final moments, was no longer alone.

More than anything else that’s why this scene is such a perfect example of a lightsaber duel: it told an emotionally rich story in such a pitch perfect way that, instead of feeling smug satisfaction at this old villains death, I felt a profound fulfillment at the knowledge that Maul found his peace. This less than 5-minute long scene brings closure to the long story of Obi-wan and Maul, it heightens our understanding of both characters, and gave us a profoundly emotional ending to an old saga.

And that’s why this was the perfect duel.

Maul finds Peace

Star Wars Rebels

Star Wars Rebels came to an end a few weeks ago, and so I wanted to write about how amazing this show was. If you haven’t seen it, you absolutely need to, and here’s why:

3 Reasons Why You Should Watch Star Wars Rebels

The Characters

The Specter Team

Like any good story Star Wars Rebels finds its greatest strength in the characters it brings to life. The members of Specter team are just as memorable and lovable as any of the characters from the film; from Jedi Knight Kanan Jarrus right down to Chopper, my absolute favorite droid of all time (and my second-favorite AP-5).

The nature of Rebels 20-minute episodes means that a lot of the characterization comes hard and fast, and yes, sometimes that makes it feel unearned. I thought Ezra’s flirtation with the Dark Side should have been more of a slow-burn, rather than being explored and then immediately wrapped up in the Season 3 premier. However, by and large, Rebels succeeds in creating some of the most complex and lovable characters that Star Wars has ever seen.

We got to see Hera Syndulla confront her father, and in one incredibly memorable scene, reassume her Twi’lek accent as she passionately makes her case for joining the Rebellion. I also loved Zeb’s arc of coming to peace with the destruction of his homeworld, even helping the survivors find their original homeworld. Sebine confronting her past while training with the Dark Saber was an incredibly emotional episode. Then there was the incredibly poignant final lesson that Kanan teaches Ezra: that it’s important to make peace with the fact that people die, and while we can mourn for them, it’s important to let them go. A lesson that Darth Vader didn’t learn until the very end.

 

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Grief, and how we deal with it, has been a central theme in most Star Wars stories and Star Wars Rebels handled that theme beautifully. Yet perhaps my favorite character arc of the series was that of Kallus, the Imperial Agent who tracks the Rebels in seasons 1 and 2.

Kallus has some of the most subtle and deep characterization of the series. On my first viewing of Star Wars Rebels I thought Kallus’ conversion from Imperial hardliner to Rebel spy was a little quick. But on subsequent viewings I caught all the subtle changes in Kallus’s personality and environment that, almost inevitably, led him to betray the Empire. You can see his shock at seeing two imperial officers murdered by the Inquisitor in season 1; his growing respect for Zeb as a warrior; his chafing against the constant ridicule and chastisement he receives from his superiors; and finally he begins to take smug satisfaction from seeing the Rebels succeeding against his fellow officers (most notably at Ezra destroying the Interdictor cruiser).

All the groundwork for his betrayal was laid by the Empire’s treatment of Kallus and when Zeb shows him genuine compassion and understanding, he sees the Empire as it truly is: an organization that breeds fear, mistrust, and isolation to control not only its subjects but it’s own military. Kallus arriving back on his Star Destroyer, with no one to greet him and no one to care that he’s injured, and sitting alone in his quarters is one the most powerful scenes in the show.

My only disappointment with the characters is how so many of the main cast end up being some form of royalty. Zeb turns out to be the leader his people’s honor guard, Hera is the daughter of a famous resistance fighter, and Sebine is the daughter of a ruling clan on Mandalore. Part of the appeal of Rebels, for me at least, was seeing how ordinary people were driven to rebel against the oppressive rule of the Empire. That is undermined when the ordinary people end up being from famous lineages, and it just reinforces Star Wars somewhat worrying fixation on the idea that exceptional people come from exceptional bloodlines. Still, I’m at least glad that neither Kanan nor Ezra ended up having a famous Jedi ancestor.

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I’m also a little disappointed that Kallus didn’t get to play a larger role in the final season.

 

 

The Enriching of Star Wars Canon

Do You know What I've Become
“Do you know what I’ve become?” – Anakin to Ahsoka

Star Wars Rebels not only adds its own stories to the Star Wars universe, but  also helps to deepen those already told. For instance, consider this line from Princess Leia:

“The more you tighten your grip, the more systems will slip through your fingers.” – Princess Leia to Grand Moff Tarkin.

In Star Wars Rebels we watch the Empire tighten its grip, and as Leia says, the rebellion that grows in response. At the start of the series, the titular rebels are basically a bunch of thieves and arsonists, a minor nuisance to the Empire. Yet as the Empire employs increasingly brutal tactics in their attempts to suppress the small band of rebels, more people begin joining. What begins as a minor imperial garrison becomes a major imperial occupation as multiple Star Destroyers are brought in, slowly choking the planet as the Empire struggles to maintain control. Meanwhile the Rebellion grows from scattered bands of resistance to a unified revolutionary movement.

I never read much of the Extended Universe, but one of the book series I absolutely loved was Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn trilogy. I was only 3 when these books were published, but I fell in love with Thrawn while playing Tie-Fighter as a kid, so when I saw a whole trilogy about Thrawn in a used book store I immediately made my parents buy them for me. So suffice to say I was impressed by how on point Rebels depiction of Grand Admiral Thrawn was. Everything from his shrewd tactical and strategic acumen to his love of art,  and using that art to understand his enemies, was translated brilliantly to this show.

And of course, as a huge fan of Tie Fighter, I was totally enraptured by the Tie Defender. The construction of the Tie Defender, and the technological arms race that ensues, was pretty much the entire plot of Tie Defender, so I was giddy to see it return.

Tie Defender
Hello my old friend, it’s good to see you again. Now can we PLEASE get another Tie Fighter game?

However the most important way that Star Wars Rebels enriches the canon is that it gives us some much needed closure to Clone Wars. I was a huge fan of  that show, and I desperately needed some closure after its run was cut short. We got to see Ahsoka confront her old master, and friend, Anakin.

Season 4 of Clone Wars:

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“I don’t know who to trust!” – Ahsoka

“I’d never let anyone you hurt you Ahsoka…never.” – Anakin

Season 2 of Rebels:

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“I won’t leave you. Not this time.” – Ahsoka

“Then you will die.” – Darth Vader

We were reunited with Rex and a couple of his clone friends, and in the epilogue were even treated to the fact that Rex fought at Endor, meaning he lived long enough to see the death of the Empire that betrayed him. We even got to see an end to Darth Maul’s story.

I admit I was never a huge fan of Darth Maul, especially in Clones Wars when he just kept coming back over and over again. However his final end at the hands of Obi-Wan Kenobi, and the incredible duel they have, made it all worthwhile. Especially the final moments, when Kenobi shows Darth Maul compassion and kindness even in the face of the enemy that killed his master.

Adding to the legacy of Obi-wan Kenobi, the greatest Jedi in Star Wars, is no easy feat. Yet Star Wars Rebels did it, and it’s those kinds of incredible details that make it a show worth watching.

 

The Attention to Detail

The absolute best part of Star Wars Rebels is its amazing attention to detail, the writers of this series take the principle of Chekov’s Gun to heart. If something is introduced in Star Wars Rebels, you can bet that it’ll be important to the story later on. This might not seem like a big deal, but when a story focuses on the small details it makes the entire world come alive. Attention to detail can mean the difference between a world feeling real, and a world that feels completely hollow.

Ezra steals Kanan’s Jedi holocron in the very first episode, and in most shows that would be the end of it, a plot device to be discarded afterward. However, the holocron continues to play an important role in the show well into the third season. Later, in Season 2, Ezra recovers a Sith holocron, but this isn’t simply a McGuffin to be used to unlock the Sith Temple, as it also becomes an important temptation to the Dark side that Ezra must resist. And finally, both Holocrons are used in a ritual by Darth Maul to locate Obi-wan Kenobi. Everything flows from one element to another, weaving together these details into single story.

Meanwhile story elements are foreshadowed so masterfully, and so far in advance that it’s kind of shocking. For instance in season 2, Minister Tua wants to defect from the Empire and offers secret information in exchange for her safety. “The Emperor has plans for Lothal.” And yet it’s not until season 4, only a few episodes from the ending, that it’s revealed that the Emperor is excavating the Jedi temple in hopes of unlocking a portal in time and space.

And Grand Admiral Thrawn? He was told how he would be defeated by the Bendu in season 3.

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“I see your defeat, like many arms surrounding you in a cold embrace…” – The Bendu to Thrawn

And while normally I focus on the writing, I want to take a moment to acknowledge the amazing artists behind this shows who included so many details that helped bring the world to life.

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Ezra’s vision of Lothal in season 2.

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A free Lothal in the series finale.

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I love the excellent paralleling of this scene…

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With Obi-wan holding Darth Maul, the man cradling the enemy who killed his master.

Then there was Kanan and Dume the Lothwolf…

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The emblem on Kanan’s pauldron…

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Can be seen on Dume the Lothwolf in season 4.

The art, the music, everything helped bring this show to life. Even the Purrgil, which at first seem like a Deus Ex Machina at the end, were foreshadowed in the earlier seasons.

The Purgil ask for Ezra’s help in season 2, and when I first saw it I assume that request for help was just to regain access to the crater, but what if it’s more than that? What if the Purgil needed help for something else? Perhaps that’s why Ezra said he had to see it through to the end, because he promised to help the Purgil. And perhaps he needed his family to follow him so that he could do just that.

“Let us help you.” – Ezra to the Purrgil

Star Wars Rebels paid off, not only because it succeeded in telling an outstanding story, but because it helps setup its next story.

“When you get back, come and find me.” – Ezra Bridger to Ahsoka Tano.

Like the conversation with the Purgil, taken at face value Ezra is just telling Ahsoka to find him on Lothal. But Star Wars Rebels showed us that their writing can never be taken at face value. Their writing is like The Force itself, deeper than what can be seen on the surface, and more powerful than you can possibly imagine.

Whether or not Disney has the wisdom to greenlight a search for Ezra, I look forward to seeing whatever project comes next from this amazing team.

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I’m going to miss all of them.

The Goodness of the Good Place

The second season of The Good Place has come to an end and I want to, no I need, to write about how amazing this show is. Despite being only two seasons long so far The Good Place has become one of my absolute favorite shows and one that I know I’m going to watch over and over again until the day I die and probably go the The Bad Place. Most of my review will be spoiler heavy, like most of my reviews, but I want to start with a small non-spoiler review first:

The Good Place will make you feel amazing.

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It is, it really is.

It’s one of those shows that’s not just well written; it’s not just enjoyable; it’s good for the soul. It’s about people, and how even the worst of us can become better people, no matter how old and set in our ways we may be. Even in its darkest moments it will make you smile and leave a lingering sense of warmth and happiness long after you’ve watched it. It truly is one of the most remarkable shows I’ve ever watched.

You know that feeling you get when you see a picture of two otters holding hands? That’s how you’ll feel watching The Good Place.

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It’s like this, but somehow, even more amazing.

So what specifically makes The Good Place so good? Well I’m glad you asked.

The Goodness of The Good Place

A Storytelling Review

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I honestly have no idea how The Good Place came into existence. I mean imagine this pitch:

A woman dies and goes to heaven by mistake, but tries to fit in by taking ethics lessons from a professor of ethics and moral philosophy.

A show about ethics and moral philosophy? Marketed at the notoriously short attention spanned audience of television viewers? How did any shortsighted executive okay this? I would put it down to Fremulon probably having a better pitch than me (I’m notoriously bad at that) and the fact that they’ve had such a long history of amazing  shows.

Fremulon is the production company behind Parks and RecreationBrooklyn Nine-Nine, and now The Good Place which were/are absolutely amazing shows. Which makes me suspect that Michael Schur may be some kind of advanced alien life form come here to evolve humanity by giving us amazing television shows about how amazing humanity could be. You know, if we like, tried a little harder.

In the words of Eleanor, to our whole species, well:

Ya Basic

It’s A Story About People Improving

Eleanor is a self-centered and toxic person who, like most selfish people, doesn’t even realize how awful she is. When she arrives in The Good Place she doesn’t even realize she’s not supposed to be there until she sees the memories of the person who is supposed to be there. Stuck in a place where she doesn’t belong she turns to Chidi Anagonye, a professor of ethics and moral philosophy, to teach her to be a better person and earn her place.

The first season of The Good Place has so much potential and material that most  shows would have stretched it out over their entire run, milked it absolutely dry, but not this show. No, they keep the story going at a brisk pace, never allowing themselves to drag things out for the sake of padding the story. Every episode, every line of dialogue, and, somehow, even every joke propels the story forward. It’s a remarkable feat of just brilliant writing.

The reason the story of The Good Place never gets bogged down in its plot is because it’s an entirely character driven story. The entire plot is driven by the character’s actions and reactions to other character’s actions. From Michael’s elaborate deception to Chidi deciding to teach Eleanor ethics, every action has made the story move forward. Which makes perfect sense because The Good Place is a story about how people change, and it relies on the strength of its characters.

The best characters are the ones that change and evolve during the story, and the brilliance of The Good Place is that the characters are guaranteed to change because that’s the whole point of the show. The first season I watched Eleanor go from a profoundly selfish and destructive person to a self-aware and compassionate human being. And in the second season I watched Michael turn from evil demon determined to torture Eleanor and friends for all eternity to sacrificing himself to save them.

Trolley Problem
Take that you stupid philosophical thought experiment!

I will admit The Good Place isn’t perfect in this regard, Jason Mendoza is made out to be too stupid to improve as a person. Jason is great for comic relief, but it doesn’t feel like there’s anywhere to go with such a profoundly stupid character. Tahani also hasn’t made much progress in the past two seasons. She’s had some moments, my favorite being her confronting her parents in this latest season, but overall hasn’t enjoyed the same growth as Chidi, Eleanor, and Michael. Still we’re only in season 2 and given the quality of the rest of the writing, I have faith that The Good Place will address these problems in future seasons.

I also have absolutely no idea what future seasons of The Good Place will bring because I can’t predict what crazy direction it will go next.

The Good Place is Never Predictable

This is the Bad Place

At the conclusion of the first season Eleanor figures out that they’re all really in The Bad Place. I admit, I suspected that something wasn’t right when Eleanor arrived. The unfair grading system used by the afterlife; the amount of things going wrong that Michael couldn’t explain; all the frozen yogurt that’s just ice cream but worse; it all pointed to something being terribly wrong.  By the end I was convinced, but I never expected them to reveal that in their first season! Most shows would have stretched that out over the entire run, or at least the first two or three seasons. The Good Place doesn’t waste time though, and more importantly, doesn’t cripple its character development by making the characters run through this hamster wheel of repetition that most shows do.

After Eleanor finds out his plan Michael decides to restart the experiment and literally resets the characters. They forget everything they’ve learned, all the wonderful character development that had made The Good Place such a treat to watch was gone in a moment. On the one hand, I loved this twist and how much sense it made, but on the other I was afraid it had blown all its good ideas in a single season.

Michael from the Good Place
I really feel like I should.

One of the traps that TV shows often fall into is resetting their story after each season only to repeat the same character arc each time. Years ago in a review of Breaking Bad I wrote about how House did this with its main character after a season of profound character development. The final season of House was a mess as a result of this reset, and after the first season of The Good Place I was afraid they were making the same mistake.

I’ve never been more wrong.

Instead Michael’s reset pushed the story forward in new and totally unexpected ways.The reset itself is dealt with in the first episode as Michael hilariously goes through 800+ variations of his neighborhood, but the characters always figure out they’re in the bad place, including, in what is without a doubt Michael’s worst failure, Jason. When one of Michael’s fellow demons blackmails him, threatening to tell Michael’s boss about his failures, the story takes on a whole new dimension as Michael allies himself with the very people he’s supposed to torture.

There were various ways for the story to progress, but I wouldn’t have anticipated this because it was such a risk. After all the obvious love and talent that went into designing The Good Place‘s set, they literally burn it all to the ground in order to move the story forward.

Shirt is Forked Up
Making the Good Place has to rate at least +1000000 points.

Yet the move in location was in keeping with the character’s actions. The Good Place manages to feel completely unpredictable while still feeling organic because every twist is a result of a character’s actions. So when Eleanor and her friends are sneaking through The Bad Place its a natural progression of events. Well, as natural as can be in a show set in the afterlife. In fact the main twist of the first season, that they’re actually in the bad place, comes about as a response to Chidi’s actions. Never in a thousand years, and I mean that quite literally, would Michael have assumed that Chidi’s lessons would actually work.

His entire reality is founded on the principle that people don’t change, that we can’t become better people. The fact that Eleanor learns from Chidi and eventually turns herself into Michael, volunteering to go to the bad place, is what upends his entire plan. It’s easily one of the most beautiful messages in The Good Place, it’s never too late to become a better person. It’s also this realization that drives Michael’s actions in the the second season, he’s seen that people can become better. The afterlife, The Good Place and the Bad Place, are all built on a faulty premise. This is the core argument of his case to the judge for allowing Eleanor and her friends to go to The Good Place.

Her rebuttal of course is… so what? Eleanor only began to improve as a person because she was terrified of going to The Bad Place. If the only reason you’re a good person is because you’re afraid of cosmic consequences… are you really a good person?

It’s So Good That You Don’t Realize It’s…Educational

Ethics 101

I took a philosophy class in college once and it was one of the most challenging and dense subjects I’ve ever encountered. Yet somehow The Good Place has taken this incredibly complex subject and made it accessible. Not just accessible, but hilariously entertaining. I didn’t even realize how much I was learning from The Good Place until I was watching it again to write this article. I didn’t even know who Emmanuel Kant was before (my class didn’t get beyond the basics) and now I want to go out and read his book.

Watching The Good Place the first time I didn’t even realize how much time is spent on just discussing philosophy. Chidi literally lectures on this subject multiple times, but it’s written in such a clever and entertaining way that I never realized they were lectures.  Like all the best teachers, The Good Place makes it so fun to learn that you don’t even realize you’re doing it. More than just teaching you the basics though, it also teaches you how to apply it.

It encourages you stop and think about your own actions and motivations. Am I really a good person? Or do I just pretend to be because I’m afraid some kind of cosmic karma system is grading me?

Ramsay Bolton Snow
Would I turn into Ramsey Bolton if I got even the tiniest taste of power?

Do people become bad because of how people perceive them? Or is that how they’re perceived because they do bad things?

A existentialist philosopher named Jean Paul Sartre wrote a play called No Exit about what is essentially the same premise as the first season of The Good Place. Three people end up in Hell, arguing among themselves as to why they arrived there and waiting for the torturer to arrive. At the close of the play, when they realize no one is coming to torture them because they themselves are doing it by simply being there together, one of the characters remarks:

Hell is other people.

– Jean Paul Sartre, No Exit

You’ve probably heard or seen this phrase a lot, it’s his most quotable line. It’s also his most misunderstood, it doesn’t mean that just being around people is hell (though for introverts like me it sometimes is) but that how people perceive us and the way that makes us feel can be hell. If you’re stuck in a room with someone who thinks you’re worthless, who hates you, who feels you’re a disappointment, or any of the petty judgments we make about people (often complete strangers)… you can’t help but take those observations onto yourself. Suddenly you feel that’s exactly what you are and that is indeed Hell.

Yet the other side of that coin, and the one The Good Place is exploring, is that heaven is other people too. When you’re around people that support you, believe in you, and love you… that’s heaven. For those who have been exceptionally lucky, we have special people in our lives that make us strive to be better people, for me it’s my best friend Hali, and for Eleanor it’s Chidi.

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Though truth be told, I was hoping their relationship would remain platonic, if only because I think we need more stories where (straight) men can be just friends with women without any sexual element.

We think of heaven, or The Good Place, as a place where we no longer have to work at being good. It’s our earned reward, we can relax now, but I think if there is a heaven… we will always have to work at becoming better. Nothing happens in a vacuum, even a star doesn’t shine until crushing gravitational forces have caused it to begin fusing its constituent elements. That’s what The Good Place encourages us to find, our drive to improve and grow as people.

I could go on and on about this show, but really the thing I keep coming back to is this: The Good Place just makes you feel good. It’s all at once whimsical, heartfelt, educational, well written, charming, and original. Yet the most valuable thing of all is just how much a positive impact is has on me personally, and hopefully many others. I smile from the beginning of The Good Place until the very end and leaves me feeling so good I sometimes wonder if The Good Place has addictive qualities.

Who cares though, because if I’m going to be addicted to a show, I’m glad it’s The Good Place. 

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Seriously, grind this show up and let me snort that shirt.