Defender vs Stranger Things 2 Part 3: Parsing Plots

If you think filler in your lunch meat is bad, wait until you see it in your story!

The last two weeks we’ve covered here how The Defenders failed as a television series in visuals and in developing interesting characters or doing anything with those characters – even though it had a head start in using some characters who had already been interesting in other series. We also covered how Stranger Things 2 did both things much better. There were three things in that list, though, and The Defenders has one more way to be a complete disappointment.

SPOILERS follow for The Defenders through its first season and Stranger Things through it’s second.

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If you’ll recall, the first priority of story telling is that the story must make sense. The thing about that statement is it is far more complicated than that single, simple sentence. Different stories have different rules for what makes sense. Nowhere is this more true than in fantasy and science fiction settings. Some people have argued that because those settings make allowances for things that don’t exist in the real world that anything could happen, but it’s actually even more important for those settings to establish and follow rules for their plots to make sense. For example, in a Star Trek story it makes complete sense for characters to teleport from a spaceship to another planet in the blink of an eye. That sort of thing would make far less sense in Lord of the Rings for obvious reasons.

The reason it’s important to follow these rules goes back to the stakes of the story,  a.k.a. the reason anyone cares about it; no stakes means no audience interest means no money for the creators. If anything can happen at any time then there can be no stakes. This is why I railed so hard against the penultimate episode of season 7 of Game of Thrones. Their refusal to obey the rules of the universe as they had been established removed all stakes from what should have been incredibly tense final moments in that episode.

This is actually even more complicated for a comic book story. Comic book stories exist in a universe that includes both fantasy and science fiction where Thor is an example of fantasy – he has magic powers because he’s magic – and Spiderman is an example of science fiction – he has powers given to him by advanced scientific studies which theoretically have some basis in science. Fortunately The Defenders manages to avoid the level of disaster that was that GoT episode. It does have an example of a similar issue on a much lower level in the inexplicable moment in the middle of the final episode of the season where the good guys surprise attack the bad guys in the mine. They use a previously unseen power of Iron Fist’s to knock down everyone but the worst part is that they stand around posing until the bad guys can stand up and charge them again. The only thing worse than introducing a new, inexplicable power at the end of a story is then rendering the entire thing completely pointless. The reason this faux pas is less egregious than the ones we discussed in Game of Thrones is because it has a much smaller impact on the story. If you remove that moment from the story very, very little changes about what happens next whereas everything that happens in the GoT episode relies on breaking the rules it does.

The real problem with The Defenders is – believe it or not – how generic the story is. Shocking after the revelation that the characters were generic and uninspired, right? The first chapter starts out well enough – each of the characters is living their lives when something weird happens and draws them to start investigating. But uh…the earthquake is never explained for the rest of the season. Alexandra acts as if this was the first step in some dastardly plan but it’s never made clear why that earthquake even happened. I’ve tried applying it to anything that happens to the rest of the series and while it might apply to any of them  (does it have to do with reviving Elektra, with breaking through the final layer to the entrance of the area that contains the Substance?) it’s actually just a secondary effect from whatever they’re trying to cause. What I mean is that they didn’t cause an earthquake to strike fear into people, it just resulted from some other plan. There was no real reason for Alexandra to strut around acting like she wanted to terrorize New York because everything that happens later dictates that they really didn’t care if New York even noticed, but less if the people were terrorized. Then, of course, from that point on it is a very straight forward story of villains who want to capture someone but spend very, very little time actively working toward their goal – remember the description of the Fingers from last week? For that matter the heroes actually spend the majority of the season arguing with each other over various and sundry issues instead of pursuing the villains, as well. Including several repeated arguments just to buy time until the next fight sequence.

If you think I take issue with characters having arguments in general, you’d be wrong. There are plenty of arguments to be had in Stranger Things season 2 as well. The difference is that the arguments come from characters and they lead somewhere. The arguments in Defenders don’t really seem to belong to the characters that have them and they certainly don’t lead anywhere.

The most egregious example of pointless bickering in The Defenders is probably the one the villains have shortly after Sowande is captured. All of the remaining Fingers agree that Alexandra has failed as their leader and decide to depose her but then…everything continues exactly as it had, before. None of them put any new plans into action, no one attempts to imprison or kill Alexandra, and she simply continues her plan. On the other hand, in Stranger Things 2, the four boys plus Max have an argument after Dustin introduces them all to D’artagnan. Dustin wants to keep the pet and accuses the other boys of just being jealous – something it makes sense for a kid his age to want and feel. The other three boys worry that this creature is actually an enemy – something that fits the information they have. The argument leads to division within the party and the boys all start making separate plans based on the information and feelings revealed during the course of it. Dustin plots to start hiding the existence of his pet, the divide appears to give Lucas more impetus to break party rules and ignore Dustin’s feelings for Max. It causes Mike to be even more sure that Max is ruining things which makes him lash out at Max even more than he had before. The plot branches from here with each of these characters following new threads based on this interaction. The argument drives the plot, increasing the stakes, and giving the audience a greater sense of satisfaction and fulfillment when those threads reach conclusions – especially including the later resolution of the tensions between party members so that they can once again join forces against The Upside Down.

The conflicts between The Fingers does make sense – of course all of them are self centered enough to believe that they have the best plan. But the conflict isn’t allowed to drive the plot; the plot completely ignores the conflict. The conflict loses any purpose for existing and the plot, without anything to drive it, loses any sense of direction or stakes it might have gained from the conflict. It all just ends up being filler and a waste. One of the worst things for any story is pointless filler. Every moment in a story should be doing something even if it isn’t advancing the plot. Flesh out the characters, the environment, or the rules of the universe. The argument between the Fingers does none of these things while the one between the boys fleshes out their characters, advances the plot, and gives us the information that Will has a special skill to identify the interdimensional monsters by the sounds they make.

So hopefully after you’ve read these three pieces you’ve got a better idea what kinds of things make for good story telling and what makes for bad. This isn’t, by the way, an attempt to tell you that you shouldn’t enjoy The Defenders. I personally enjoy plenty of bad stories. I watch Once Upon a Time and Ghosted. Heck, I even enjoyed Suicide Squad a little bit. A show doesn’t have to be good to be enjoyed and just because a show is well written, acted, directed, and everything else doesn’t mean you have to enjoy it. It’s just kind of nice to know the difference, sometimes.

 

The Defenders: Ashes, Ashes

Marvel and Netflix need to solve their villain problem.

SPOILERS for all the Marvel/Netflix collaborations up to The Defenders season 1 episode 6.

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Each Marvel show has featured a different group of writers and directors, to this point. Even so they seem to have an over-arching plan in place that let them all come together in this season. The other thing that over-arching plan seems to have done is guided the shows into gradually making worse and worse villains. They started off strong with Daredevil season 1 Wilson “Kingpin” Fisk and Killgrave, aka “The Man in Purple” in season 1 of Jessica Jones. After that Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes and his cousin Mariah Dillard made for interesting villains before Cornell was killed off and Mariah was shuffled into the background.

That’s when things really started to spiral out of control. Diamondback was a dull, prototypical crazy man out for revenge against the hero for something the hero neither remembered nor ever had any control over. Don’t forget that technically before Luke Cage we actually had Nobu pull off your bog standard comic book resurrections of a minor villain into a more powerful form. Finally Iron Fist went completely off the rails by not having a clear villain with a distinct plan for the first half of the show followed by two different villains, one with more unclear goals and the other insane.

If you go back and examine all of these villains a pattern begins to emerge of what kinds of characteristics resulted in interesting villains versus boring ones that kill the momentum of their show:

  1. The villain should have a clear goal and the smaller the scope, the better. Good examples: Fisk wants to have complete control of Hell’s Kitchen so he can make it “better”. Killgrave wants to control the only person who has ever escaped his control. Cottonmouth wants to make money and improve his status.  Bad examples: Diamondback’s desire to kill Luke is both specific and small in scope, but the aims of the methods he used were frequently so obscure that it ballooned on itself – he also swapped plans and desires frequently based on the needs of the show rather than because it made sense for the character. The Iron Fist villains never had a clear plan other than to prevent Danny from becoming involved in whatever it was they were doing. Nobu wants Elektra in Daredevil season 2 so he can turn her into The Black Sky, but never tells us what that means or why he would want it. This plot twist also comes halfway into a season that had been about Daredevil vs The Punisher.
  2. The villain should always be working to further their plan. Good examples: Fisk never stops planning and plotting his domination of Hell’s Kitchen. Killgrave works everything around toward figuring out how to control Jessica. Cottonmouth is always manipulating, dealing, and working toward his goal of dominating Harlem and making himself untouchable. Bad examples: Daredevil season 2 flips between plot threads too often to further any plan very well for long. Iron Fist doesn’t have a villain for too long and it’s unclear what Bakuto actually wants to accomplish when he’s finally introduced. Diamondback takes frequent breaks to do things that make no sense with no explanation.
  3. The villain is better if they have a personal connection to the hero. Good examples: Fisk and Matt battle because they both deeply care about Hell’s Kitchen. Killgrave has known Jessica and wants to personally control her, again. Bad examples: Danny barely knows the villains from his show, Matt barely takes the time to get to know Frank Castle, does not know or understand Nobu.
  4. Based on Daredevil S2, Iron Fist, and Luke Cage we can see that a plan to change the villain partway through always results in a muddied and uninteresting story as well. It should be avoided.

That brings us all the way up to The Defenders. The advertised big villain for this show was Sigourney Weaver’s Alexandra. Fairly early in the process we discovered that she was one of five fingers of The Hand along with previously introduced villains Madame Gao and a resurrected Bakuto. We are also shortly introduced to African Warlord Sowande and a Japanese hunter named Murakami – both of whom honestly seem far more interesting and dangerous than the first three but which are given very little backstory. Still, there was some interesting potential here, that’s a very diverse group of people. Let’s plug them into our formula and see how it works out:

  1. At first blush their goal appears clear, they want to go back to K’un-Lun in order to get more substance so they can prolong their lives. Upon further review it’s a bit more obscure than that. If they can’t get to K’un-Lun then who destroyed the city so that Danny could find it that way at the end of Iron Fist? If they can get back to the city but they need Danny’s fist to unlock some secret room or treasure trove or whatever then why don’t they say that instead of “get back to the city”? Also it’s unclear what this magical substance is, how it works, and why they haven’t made any attempt to return to retrieve it until now when they are completely out. If they’ve been so close to running out for a while now why have they been sharing it with people like Nobu and Harold Meachum?
    The real problem, however, is the lack of clarity in their planned methodology. Alexandra is convinced that having five immortal, deadly martial artists each of whom lead massive armies, corporations, and perhaps whole countries is not enough to capture Danny Rand. They need The Black Sky to handle it. Everyone else disagrees with her, but they still allow her to use the last of “the substance” the resurrect Elektra into this form and then Elektra just runs around attacking things. Why is this the best method? Why was this ever an option at all?
    Also, remember the earthquake from the end of episode one? That was the entire motivating force for our heroes to believe that all of New York was in danger and absolutely nothing has come of that for more than half the season as the heroes and villains have bickered mostly among themselves.
  2. If none of them think they should/need to use The Black Sky there is absolutely nothing stopping them from just collecting their armies and attacking our heroes on their own. Even one of those armies should be enough to defeat 5 people. Eventually they’ll get tired and members of The Hand have never shown any hesitance in sending others to die. Instead they all stand around and insist that Alexandra is wrong and that she shouldn’t be their leader anymore. But then, despite all being in agreement and ostensibly individually equal in power to her, they do absolutely nothing. Inevitably the next time we see them is when they go to argue that she shouldn’t be leading them again.
  3. The only one of the villains with anything resembling a true personal connection to any of the heroes is Bakuto but that’s much more true with Colleen, currently sitting on the sidelines. Madame Gao has always been a background piece and the other three are all new to this series. None of them do anything to particularly make the conflict personal with our heroes or humanize themselves. Even Elektra as a bad guy doesn’t work because she’s actually The Black Sky, an entirely new being.
  4. They immediately started out with five villains, which muddies the waters even if they don’t switch things. Then Sowande was killed off unceremoniously without ever having a clear purpose or character. And finally, at the end of this episode, Elektra goes crazy – crazy villains are also boring unless they’re in strict control of themselves like Wilson Fisk – and kills Alexandra. At this point we realize that we never really understood much about her or her motivations, either. So now we are left with three backup villains and a new crazy lady.

This move might have been aimed at making the conflict more personal between Elektra and Daredevil, but even if that works – and I am guessing it won’t – it is a bad choice. For starters it leaves out our other three heroes. The other problem is that for as dull as Alexandra has been as the villain she was working on a secret plan this entire season. Killing her means that all the anticipation viewers have had as they awaited her denouement goes to waste. In fact, it signals to the viewers that they never should have bothered being worried about that at all. Foreshadowing is a terrific literary device used to set up a plot point and knock it down later in a way that satisfies reader interest and pays them off for reading or watching your story. They spent an awful lot of time doing little things with Alexandra that everyone hoped were foreshadowing something interesting. It wasn’t. So why should we care about anything that comes next?

They may have thought that they were doing something really interesting with a group of immortal villains who hate each other almost as much the heroes but mostly what it has led to is, as previously noted, a lot of internal bickering among the two teams which is honestly just not very interesting. It’s all well and good to watch Iron Fist and Luke Cage duke it out, but after a certain amount of time they need to put that aside so they can deal with the real threat. It still hasn’t happened three-quarters of the way through the series. There are two episodes remaining for the villains to give us a reason to actually fear or loathe them. Two more episodes for the heroes to give us a reason to cheer for them. Two more episodes for New York to actually be in danger. Here’s hoping those last two episodes are much more interesting than the first six.

Game of Thrones Season 7 Character Arcs Part 2

That should be everyone

Just as I promised, here are the rest of the character arcs from season 7 of Game of Thrones! SPOILERS follow!

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Daenerys Targaryen

At the beginning: Leader of 4 armies, the largest fleet on the sea, and 3 dragons with no allies and a desire to take what she believes is hers by killing as few people as possible.

At the end: Leader of 3 armies – 2 old ones and 1 new, approximately 4 ships, 2 dragons, 1 ally, 1 alleged ally who plans to stab her in the back ASAP, and a desire to avenge the death of her dragon against the white walkers. Also in love with her nephew.

Dany takes a very strong stance at the beginning of the season that she will go about her campaign in the way that will hurt the fewest people. Somehow this involves laying siege to King’s Landing instead of just attacking the castle – guaranteed to cause the poor people to starve first – and assaulting a strategically unimportant castle to…rile up her enemy? Her poor planning – both as described so far and in choosing to sail past Dorne and Highgarden without collecting her forces there on her way to Dragonstone – causes her to lose a good portion of her force, access to most of what remains, and to remember that she used to have a very bad temper and a cruel streak.

With her temper restored she completely decimated an army and destroyed valuable food stores, then threatened all of the gathered helpless survivors and with being burned alive if they won’t bend the knee. Most of them do. Her bloodlust sated for the moment, she returned to her castle and contemplated how best to woo her rival/near-ally/nephew. She decided if you love someone you must set them free so Jon is allowed to enact his very stupid plan. She flew in to rescue him and complete the wooing but she lost a dragon and the writers lost a lot of audience good will. She was so grief struck that she promised to put off conquering the kingdom and help him, instead.

You might think her arc goes from “nice” to “evil” to “ready to help” but the gleam in her eye when Jon finally bends the knee tells you that she still fully plans to be queen and nothing is going to stand in her way. Possibly not even her nephew. The walkers are just a slight delay. Her character arc this season paints a wildly unstable woman who may very well still turn mad queen before a redemptive sacrifice to allow the Westerosi people to survive.

Tormund Giantsbane

At the beginning: In love with Brienne, leader of the free-folk.

At the end: He’s not dead, probably still in love with Brienne.

No, seriously, he’s not dead. He didn’t survive a much more potentially interesting and powerful death north of the wall to simply die off-screen under tons of ice. Besides, someone needs to warn Jon that the walkers have broken through.

Beric Dondarrion

At the beginning: Leading a band of men north of the wall, functionally immortal.

At the end: The only remaining member of his band, functionally mortal. Not dead.

Same as Tormund, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see him finally shuffle off this mortal coil fighting a rearguard action to give Tormund a chance to escape.

Randyll Tarly

At the beginning: Loyal vassal of the Tyrell family.

At the end: Crispy.

Randyll didn’t have much of an arc, but he did have a tiny one. He was always ruthless and demanding. He allowed himself to get greedy and it cost him his opportunity to continue as he had before. He then chose to allow himself to be cooked in dragonfire rather than surrender to a foreign invader.

Dickon Tarly

At the beginning: Untried warrior and heir to house Tarly.

At the end: Crispy

Dickon wasn’t there to have character, he existed so Bron could make jokes about him.

Sand Snakes

At the beginning: Useless and pointless.

At the end: Dead

You don’t even remember their names, do you? They didn’t have characters to grow.

Olenna Tyrell

At the beginning: Full of vengeful feelings.

At the end: Breathless.

Olenna didn’t grow, but she didn’t need to. Much like Cersei she had already reached her ultimate form. She had always been willing to do anything to protect her house but by the time this season starts she wanted only to have revenge on Cersei because none of her scheming had been sufficient to save them from themselves. She ultimately got some of that vengeance, at least; telling Jaime that Tyrion was innocent of murdering Joffrey was a brick in the wall that eventually separated him from Cersei. I can’t imagine anything that would hurt her more than that.

Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish

At the beginning: One of the smoothest talker in all of Westeros, able to tell lies out of both sides of his mouth simultaneously.

At the end: Two mouths and he can’t speak out of either.

In the beginning Littlefinger was one of the best manipulators in Westeros. He even got the best of or worked around other heavyweights like Cersei, Tyrion, Tywin, and Varys. Once he became Lord of the Vale his decisions largely stopped making sense but ultimately it was Bran’s ability to see the past whenever it was convenient that did him in despite his terrible and far too obvious plan to separate the Stark sisters for reasons that will never become clear, now.

It’s truly unfortunate because he began the series as a very interesting villain and to see him scheming incomprehensibly before finally being killed large by a plot device was not as much as he deserved. It would have been nice to see him out-maneuvered instead of to see him beaten by undefined magic.

Grey Worm

At the beginning: Soldier silently in love with Missandei

At the end: Soldier openly in love with Missandei.

He was only really part of the first 3 episodes of the season. After being waylaid at Casterly Rock he wasn’t able to rejoin the rest of the cast until the final episode of the season. He has no dialog in that final episode.

Missandei

At the beginning: Silently in love with Grey Worm.

At the end: Openly in love with Grey Worm.

After Grey Worm leaves she has a conversation with Jon about why they love Dany and later half of a conversation with Dany about Grey Worm. She doesn’t speak after the third episode.

Samwell Tarley

At the beginning: Wants to be a maester.

At the end: Off to be a hero.

Sam starts of dutifully, if unhappily, doing what is necessary to attempt to join the ranks of the maesters. He quickly grows impatient with how slow the process is going when people need that knowledge and begins breaking rules. Once he realizes that the maesters will cling to any excuse no matter how thin to ignore the coming danger he steals all the books he can carry and flees to try to be more helpful, elsewhere.

Samwell is getting pretty good at stealing useful artifacts and bolting.

Euron Greyjoy

At the beginning: Commander of a hidden fleet, wishes to marry Cersei.

At the end: Might actually get his shot in the near future now that Jaime has run away.

Euron is an entertaining but one-dimensional villain. He has no character to grow and probably won’t last terribly long into the next season.

Gendry

At the beginning: Anonymously smithing for the Lannister’s in King’s Landing.

At the end: Unclear?

Ser Davos Seaworth finds him and gives him a way out of the safe place/trap Gendry has been living in for years. Gendry immediately gives up smithing in a desire to wield a battle hammer in battle with Jon. He never gets that opportunity and the last we saw of him he had collapsed outside Eastwatch after running there to get help. It seems unlikely that he is dead but it’s unclear where where he actually is.

Maybe instead of rowing endlessly he has taken up running endlessly. Can’t skip leg day.

Thoros of Myr

At the beginning: Drunken priest

At the end: Frozen solid

Thoros didn’t grow much, but he was always a means to an end. He was the first sign that perhaps the red god did have some pull in this world and that perhaps his prophecies meant something. He was the most useless of the named characters to the plot as Jon’s team went north of the wall so it wasn’t surprising when he was the only one not to return.

Melisandre

At the beginning: Running to Dragonstone to set up the Dany/Jon tryst.

At the end: ???

Melisandre was barely in this season. Mostly she was plot ammunition; she convinced Dany to have a meeting with Jon and informed Varys that he and she would both die before the series ended.

Brienne of Tarth

At the beginning: Loyal bodyguard to Sansa Stark.

At the end: Erstwhile pointless diplomat.

She didn’t get to do much, this season. She was a foil for a fun moment with Podrick when he tried to give her credit for both Stark girls being alive and together once more in Winterfell. Later she had another fun moment telling The Hound that Arya was still alive and deadlier than both of them put together. Finally she told Jaime to stop worrying about honor and start worrying about survival. It may be that the writers want us to think of this impassioned sentence/speech as another nail in the coffin that is Jaime’s relationship with Cersei but they were pretty well headed that direction without her help.

None of these moments, however, strongly contributed to her character, anyone else’s character, or the overall plot. Especially puzzling are the latter two which only occurred because the writers had to add a lot of pretzel logic to give her a reason to be at the dragon pit in the first place. A very mild payoff for so much effort.

Podrick Payne

At the beginning: Hapless sidekick to Brienne,  butt of many jokes.

At the end: Hapless sidekick to Brienne, butt of many jokes.

Nothing to see here.

Bronn of the Blackwater

At the beginning: Wisecracking side kick to Jaime.

At the end: ???

If he’s still in King’s Landing he better get out soon; without Jaime to protect him he’ll be toast as soon as Cersei can find him. He continued his game of complaining about gold but then doing things that need doing even when they might get him in trouble with the people in power or even killed.

Varys

At the beginning: Advisor to Daenerys

At the end: Advisor to Daenerys

The Spider didn’t get to do much, this season, except find out he was going to die. Poor Varys.

Sandor “The Hound” Clegane

At the beginning: Marching north with the Brotherhood Without Banners.

At the end: Sailing north – from a further south starting point – with Jon, Dany, and friends.

Clegane maybe didn’t grow much this season but the first episode gave us a payoff for previous growth. He accidentally returns to the cottage where several years ago he had murdered to peasants in order to take their food and gold because he assumed they would die when winter came but thought he might have a chance with their resources. He seemed, at the time, to feel no regret for his ruthless actions.

This time he sees their corpses and what his actions caused to happen to them and he does feel remorse, to the point that he digs them a grave in frozen ground. We also learn he has an ability to see visions in the flames much like red priests and that he is ready to wreak some vengeance on his undead brother.

So that’s everyone, I think. If I missed someone do please let me know in the comments. As you can see there were still some great character moments, even for characters who didn’t necessarily grow through the course of the season. There were also some rather large missteps. Littlefinger was my greatest disappointment with this season. Here’s hoping we get more of the former and fewer of the latter whenever the final season of Game of Thrones airs, next.

 

Game of Thrones Season 7 Character Arcs Part 1

How did our beloved remaining Thrones’ characters grow and change, this season?

As always, SPOILERS for Game of Thrones through the end of season seven are present in the following.

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The first thing to remember before you read this is that Game of Thrones is a serial, to the point that it has been compared to soap operas. As such it differs from other kinds of shows in how one should anticipate character arcs to progress. In an episodic show one would expect characters to generally have small arcs throughout the course of an episode. Nowhere was this more apparent than the family situational comedies of the 1990’s such as Full House or Family Matters. In those shows one would primarily see small character arcs with moral tales that hit you over the head with a 2×4 to make sure you were listening. Occasionally there would be longer arcs, but those were usually the culmination of several smaller character arcs coalescing to a natural conclusion.

In a show like Game of Thrones the arcs are almost never going to happen from episode to episode. For example, in The Battle of the Bastards from last year, had the show been more episodic Jon Snow probably would have learned a moral tale about paying attention to his sister when she tells him not to allow himself to be goaded into doing something stupid. It wasn’t, though; characters in GoT grow more slowly and subtly than that.

All this to point out that just because there is no discernible character arc from the beginning to end of the season, or that an arc doesn’t conclude, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Character arcs aren’t supposed to work that way in this show. However, for as much fun as the spectacle can be, the show is still at it’s best when the characters are developing and interacting through means other than giant battles with massive amounts of CGI.

And now, finally, I present to you – in no particular order – the visible character arcs present in season seven of Game of Thrones.

Jon Snow

At the beginning of the season: King in the North, unsure how to defend it against the White Walker threat, very single.

At the end of the season: Not King in the North, thinks he’s convinced everyone to help him fight the White Walkers, making love to his aunt.

Jon is one of the lucky characters that got something of an arc, it just doesn’t really make much sense. Part of that is how the length of the season forced things to happen more quickly and with less explanation but a larger part was because the arc really didn’t have any logic to it.

Jon, desperate to secure any kind of aid whatsoever, heeds a summons to Dragonstone to meet the would-be queen of Westeros. While there he falls in love but refuses to bend the knee because he knows his people will never stand for it. After he goes to hunt wights north of the wall he allows Tormund Giantsbane to convince him to bend the knee and does so at his very next opportunity.

The thing is that Tormund tells Jon to stop being prideful and bend the knee, but pride has nothing to do with Jon’s very logical reason for not bending the knee – again, that reason is that his people are unlikely support a decision to follow the leadership of a southern/foreign woman they’ve never met.

He also has a moment to break the Stark mold of telling the truth when it will get you killed, he doesn’t do so. A lot of writers and fans are blasting him for it and they have a point, but that part actually makes a great deal of sense. It was a moment of character cementing if not growth for him – he intends to hold on to his Stark heritage with both hands. That is guaranteed to become very important next season when he learns he’s actually a Targaryen.

Bran Stark

At the beginning: All-Seeing Three-Eyed Raven, no longer human.

At the end: Mostly-Seeing Three-Eyed Raven, no longer human.

Bran spent an entire season in a root-filled, musty cocoon to complete his transformation from whiny boy character into completely inhuman plot-driving machine. That’s where he’s been since the end of last season and nothing has changed here. This is one of those places where a lack of arc is a bad thing; characters should have character and Bran no longer has any.

He’s only getting worse as time goes on and I place the blame for this fully on the writers, not the actor. He solves Sansa’s and Arya’s problems by telling them of Littlefinger’s betrayal. He discovers with the help of Samwell Tarly that Jon is a Targaryen. There is nothing in there to allow him to do anything, merely to pass along information – and in the second case that information is mostly passed on to the audience.

Meera Reed

At the beginning: Thanklessly dragging Bran’s butt back to Winterfell.

At the end: Back home with her family, preparing to fight the walkers.

Poor Meera, couldn’t even get a thank you from the man who literally killed everyone else who helped him become the plot device he is today. There may have once been a chance for love between them but it seems likely she grew out of that long before they reached the wall as he continued to be pointlessly mysterious and unhelpful while waiting for his cue to explain everything to everyone.

Sansa Stark

At the beginning: Advisor and half-sister to the King in the North, presumed only living Stark.

At the end: Lady of Winterfell and Regent of the North, oldest of three living Starks.

Setting aside the idiocy that was the majority of the Winterfell plotline for the moment, Sansa actually managed to use it as an opportunity to grow as a character. She spent so much time in the early seasons having things done to her and now that she’s finally regained a position of power she plans to put it to it’s best use. People mocked the scene where she wandered around the castle making small decisions but those moments showed more than Sansa ruling and knowing more about armor and food than the people who have presumably done those things their entire lives.

They showed Sansa ruling in a way we haven’t seen anyone do this entire series – with an eye on making sure her people are actually cared for. It’s been a long time since Winter arrived this badly, and the blacksmith may very well be undertrained due to all the death that has visited Westeros the past few years. She took enough notice to be sure that the armor would be more than a stopgap measure. When told that there was enough food to feed the people inside Winterfell for a year she made plans to ensure everyone was fed for longer. Can you imagine Cersei doing that? Or even Daenerys? Cersei wouldn’t care and Dany wouldn’t think of it.

Furthermore when it comes time to finally issue her ruling on Littlefinger she does so regally, thoughtfully, and decisively. She isn’t the queen Westeros deserves, but she might be the one it needs.

Jorah Mormont

At the beginning: Covered in Greyscale, wondering how long he should wait before he ends his life.

At the end: Has re-entered the service of the queen he’s in love with.

Jorah’s character doesn’t do much, this season. He starts off convinced he will have to kill himself but after being cured he has a joyful reunion with his queen. Shortly after that he appears to – if you dig relatively deep into the subtext of his words and manner – offer Jon his blessing in wooing Dany. Whether or not he does, Jon takes him up on it.

Jorah seems much more relaxed and ready to face whatever danger is necessary than he has at any point since maybe the first season. Then again. what’s there to brood about, for him, anymore? He thought he was going to be separated from his queen and then he thought he was going to die but now he has everything he wants. It makes sense that he’s happy and relaxed.

It wass kind of odd how easily that Greyscale was cleared up, though. It will be interesting to see if it makes a return and forces a heroic sacrifice on him, next season.

Tyrion Lannister

At the beginning: Hand of the Queen, trusted advisor, the man with the plan.

At the end: Whipping boy of the Queen, considered treacherous, everyone ignores his plans so he’s stopped making them.

Tyrion got an excellent moment with Cersei in the final episode where he was finally able to express his sorrow for the death of her children. Unfortunately also during that moment he was being duped yet again. On the one hand, I’ve repeatedly criticized Daenerys for accusing Tyrion of treachery but keeping him in his position of power and influence, on the other hand if we didn’t know any better it might seem like Tyrion was a traitor given how badly he planned things and how badly those plans went.

Beyond all that, however, Tyrion didn’t do much. He grew more concerned about Dany’s behavior but that has more to do with how she changed – or reverted, as the case may be – than it does him. Hopefully he’ll recover his brilliance and grow as a person, next season.

Arya Stark

At the beginning: Deadly assassin making a good start on her to-do list.

At the end: Completely hoodwinked spy who serves as the House Stark executioner.

Arya’s lack of character growth is another example of the series’ failing, this season. Given an opportunity to rejoin her siblings she mostly wandered around acting creepy, judgemental, and incompetent. While Sansa was able to grow despite the obnoxious storyline she was saddled with that was pretty much all we got of Arya. She used to want to be a knight, now she’s just a weirdo with a fancy knife.

Cersei Lannister

At the beginning: Nominal Queen of Westeros, finally able to openly admit her love for her brother, terrific schemer

At the end: Nominal Queen of Westeros, lost her brother, terrific schemer.

Cersei’s character didn’t grow this season but that’s largely because she has already become the ultimate form of herself through the trials she faced and the decisions she made in earlier seasons. She was always vengeful, petty, and smart enough to usually manipulate people into doing what she wanted. Now she’s all of those things turned up to 11 and with a crown that says everyone has to do what she says even if she can’t or won’t manipulate them. Her biggest weakness was that other people were always in a position to overrule her if they wanted to: Robert Baratheon, Tywin, Joffrey, even Margaery was able to use her link to Tommen to overrule Cersei at times.

Cersei masterfully manipulated a character who is supposed to be among the most cunning in the series and made it look easy. In all her joy over finally being out from under the thumb of anyone else she forgot to remain loyal to her brother and his ideals, or to even pay attention to them. This cost her his love, loyalty, and presence. She’s bound to be even more vengeful and psychotic, next season.

Qyburn

At the beginning: Hand of the Nominal Queen

At the end: Hand of the Nominal Queen and aware that somebody else knows how to make zombies now, too.

We barely saw him. This isn’t really surprising as he serves as more of a tool for Cersei than a character.

Jaime Lannister

At the beginning: Captain of the Queen’s Guard, foremost general, consort of the queen.

At the end: Riding north alone with only his strangely bouyant armor, gold hand, a valyrian steel sword, and his horse for company.

Jaime didn’t have a ton of screen time this season but he did everything he could with what he had. He was unsure how to deal with the loss of all of his children and the realization that his sister/lover was going off the deep end. He probably spent a lot of off-screen time convincing himself that she knew what she was doing and everything was fine. He put up with insult after insult from both her and Euron Greyjoy but at the end of the season he finally developed a spine and made possibly the first decision that wasn’t dictated by one of his family members in his entire life. He left Cersei and decided to forge his own path; to regain his honor and try to save the world.

Yara Greyjoy

At the beginning: Captain of the Largest Fleet on the Sea

At the end: Prisoner of Euron

She wasn’t around enough to do any developing. When we see her next season she may have a better grasp of the kinds of things Theon went through and a greater appreciation for him.

Ellara Sand

At the beginning: Ruler of Dorne

At the end: Chained in a cell watching her only remaining daughter die.

Also not around much. She had a moment to display that she truly did care for her daughters. Which is more things than I think most of us realized she cared about, before.

Theon Greyjoy

At the beginning: Scared and relying on his sister for bravery.

At the end: Found his backbone and honor again.

Theon had a very interesting if spartan character arc. He started the season still relying on his sister to keep him moving and living. When she was captured by Euron it was as if he were Samson and his hair had been cut. He lost all bravery and willingness to fight. He fled like a coward and remained timid and terrified for the majority of the season.

In the final episode, however, it became apparent he’d been doing plenty of soul-searching during the events that happened around him. He grew brave enough to ask Jon for advice, and then brave enough to demand the men who should have been obeying him from the start help him to save his sister. The fact that he found the final bit of courage he needed by being kneed in the groin is a bit weird for a variety of reasons, but the power of this redemption is enough to overlook it.

That’ll be it for today, obviously this is missing a lot of characters but the second half of this should go up by the middle of next week. So what did you think? Am I way off-base, did I miss some great moments? Let me know in the comments below.

Beyond the Wall: Beyond Belief

No one is perfect, but this episode was bad.

SPOILER ALERT: Spoilers follow, as usual, for every episode of Game of Thrones up to and including Beyond the Wall, the sixth episode of the seventh season.

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Beyond the Wall had some really great moments in it. Almost every line of dialog between Jon’s crew in the titular location was pure gold. The final reveal at the end of the episode was devastating, exhilarating, and terrifying all at once. But everything that came in between was such a godawful mess that it really ruined those moments for many viewers. If you still enjoyed it anyway, that’s great!  There’s nothing wrong or bad with you at all. But that doesn’t make the writing and decision-making that went into episode any less poor.

I, personally, was so distracted by the flaws in the episode that they’re all I’ve been able to think about all week and a quick search of the internet shows I’m not alone. So here I have decided to rate from 1-4 every flaw I could identify in the episode. 1 will be a flaw that is extremely nitpicky to the point that even people like me would be willing to overlook it most of the time, 2 is annoying but not ultimately a big deal, 3 is pretty glaring problem but not quite the end of the world, and 4 is a storytelling flaw so deep that it never should have made it out of the first draft.

Prior to even the beginning of this episode the first flaw is Jon’s entire plan. We’re now nearly two weeks since this plan was introduced so plenty of digital ink has already been spilled about the issues here already so I’ll only touch on them briefly:

  • How exactly did Jon and company expect to find the enemy? Bran’s letter said the dead were marching on East Watch but there’s still at least a 90 degree radius and an undisclosed distance to search.
  • Why on earth does anyone think Cersei isn’t going to kill them the moment they show their faces in or near King’s Landing?
  • Similarly, why does anyone think that Cersei will help or at least not hinder them even if she believes the evidence they bring her and she doesn’t immediately kill them?
  • Was their plan really just to hope to stumble across a small enough band of wights that they could separate their target or kill the rest and make off with it? There is no way their plan would have worked if they had bumped into the main force first, instead.

There is never at any point any reason to believe that any part of this plan is feasible or possible. The planning that goes into it is so slipshod that when they miraculously succeed in separating a single wight from the enemy they take their sweet time in binding and silencing it ultimately leading to all the trouble that follows. ****

Remember when I said almost every word of dialog north of the wall was amazing? Tormund’s little speech to Jon about Mance Rayder was inane and misses the point entirely. Mance’s story is actually a huge divergence point for the TV series and books, but they both start in the same place: Mance can’t bend the knee even if he wanted to because his people wouldn’t stand for it, would probably disavow him as their leader, and might even kill him. In the books Stannis Baratheon sees this conundrum and works around it. In the TV series he simply, ruthlessly murders Mance for it. Something similar is true of Jon, but we’ll come back to this later. You can make an argument that maybe Tormund doesn’t understand the reality of Mance’s or Jon’s situations, but he has been a leader among the Wild Folk for a long time and has also had plenty of time to see how the northerners do things as well, by now. **

And now we get to Winterfell. Again, we have to take a step back to a prior episode to fully expand upon what’s wrong here. Arya spent years training to become a deadly assassin and master of deception. She got so good at it that she was able to defeat and evade others who had received identical training and had been practicing it for much longer. Yet somehow she gets back to Winterfell and apparently starts losing her edge. Time for another list!

  • Arya spies on Littlefinger so poorly that he is able to catch her at it.
  • Arya finds the note and instead of wondering why Littlefinger wanted it – if he wants it to protect Sansa then it would have made more sense to destroy it than to hide it under his bed – she starts wondering why Sansa wants it hidden.
  • Arya confronts Sansa with the letter, listens to her perfectly reasonable explanations and dismisses them.
  • Arya accuses Sansa of doing nothing to stop their father’s execution, but Arya didn’t do anything either. When Sansa points this out Arya’s only defense is, “Well, I wanted to.” Arya was there and she did see Sansa. They both were prevented from helping Ned because someone else held them back. This is a stupid argument.
  • Sansa responds to this argument by reminding Arya that they wouldn’t be in Winterfell right now if it wasn’t for her. This is true! But it also has no bearing on what Arya is saying or doing right now.
  • Littlefinger started this entire plot but his only contribution when Sansa comes to him for advice is to suggest that Sansa go to Brienne for protection. This continues his recent trend of making senseless decisions for no discernible gain. Why did he want the sisters fighting? What does he gain by inserting Brienne in the middle of it? It’s not like Brienne will take sides, she will try to mediate since she is pledged to protect them both. The best outcome from his point of view is that she does it so poorly that Arya attacks and Brienne is forced to kill her or is killed by Arya. But that seems overly complicated and unlikely to succeed.

The problem with this entire sequence is that there is obviously plotting and planning going on but there are no obvious goals for any of the participants – not even any red herring goals. It’s strife with no discernible goal or purpose other than to allow the writers to include those characters in the show while they wait for events to get back to them. ***

Daenerys continues to accuse Tyrion of treason every single time he says something she doesn’t like. This makes sense if they’re foreshadowing a paranoia which will lead her to become the Mad Queen, but I’m still not convinced they want to go there even though I’ve already detailed a mountain of evidence as to how she appears to be headed there anyway. Dany seems to have two different personalities – the kind Mother who wants to save all the little people by destroying the wheel and the paranoid, cruel Queen who is more than happy to burn everything to the ground to get her way, even if that means threatening and killing the very people she claims to want to save. The problem is that while both of these personalities are on display there seems to be little rhyme or reason as to which one will be at the forefront at any given time and there also appears to be no internal conflict whatsoever between these two sides. We need better writing or better acting to help us understand what’s happening with her and at this point I’m not sure which. ***

During his argument with Daenerys, Tyrion accuses her of both having a temper and being impulsive. He’s not wrong, both traits are display in this very episode when she immediately gets angry at him and later impulsively flies off on a reckless rescue mission. The example he uses, however, is not a good way to demonstrate either of those tendencies. The burning of the Tarleys both appeared to be planned out and done very calmly. Was it cruel and unnecessary? Probably. Did it show her temper or impulsiveness? Not really. *

Back past the wall, the crew encounters an undead bear. This is really cool scene and actually important to the story beyond being cool because it foreshadows that humans are not the only possible form of wights. However, Beric and Thoros wait until two men had been murdered by the bear to bother to light their swords. Everyone is standing there waiting to fight but it’s not until the second man is killed that they light their swords and retake a ready stance. Waiting until a choreographed death to perform your choreographed sword lighting is a good way to draw attention to the fact that it has all been choreographed. *

Later in the same fight Thoros grabs his flaming sword by the blade. That seems like a better way to burn your own hand and cut it off than it does to hold off a super-strong undead bear intent on devouring your insides. *

They go through all the trouble of having Thoros immediately survive the bear mauling long enough to have his wounds cauterized – a process that stops the bleeding but ordinarily still leaves the “patient” weak and severely injured. Later, more trouble was then taken to show that he’s still capable or marching, fighting, and running for his life which all seem like questionable propositions after being mauled by an undead bear. He then freezes to death in his sleep without contributing again to the mission. The only thing worse than a person surviving what should have been a sure death is when they don’t even use their respite to contribute to the story.  **

To this point none of Jon and his crew know how dead people are turned to wights. Jon is the only one who has experienced walkers turning. Back in the first season some black cloaks died north of the wall but didn’t turn until they were brought back to the Black Castle and interred. So after the bear kills two of their crew why don’t they just wait to see if those guys will turn into wights and hope to drag them back without having to continue their march looking for an entire undead army? **

Sansa makes a point of noting that Jon hasn’t written to her since he left for Dragonstone. Why on earth hasn’t he written her? It would be kind of important to reassure her and the rest of the north that he isn’t dead and that they should both keep following his commands and not try to name a successor. If he’s worried that she won’t approve of his plans that’s one of the great advantages of non-supersonic ravens over cell phones: she can’t argue back. ***

The convenience of Jon and company finding a small band including only one walker and a handful of wights is absolutely dwarfed by the fact that only one wight survive’s Jon killing the walker. Great, the writer’s wanted to convey the important info that killing walkers will kill the wights bound to them. Either kill all the wights and force Jon’s team to try again or leave a handful alive so that the hand of the writers is slightly less visible. If you think an Ed Sheeran cameo is distracting it’s nothing like being reminded that this has all been intentionally written to happen the way it is happening. ***

At absolutely no point in this entire series has anyone ever mentioned that Gendry is fast. If you’re going to make a big deal of Gendry being their only hope of getting help in time because he’s fast then viewers really needed to know about him being faster than everyone else before that moment and with something better than a throw-away line. *

Even more important than informing your audience that Gendry is fast is the need to explain how a man with no knowledge of the north is able to run and find his way back to the wall on his own. It’s also important to detail how he could expected to arrive there while carrying no supplies and wielding no weapon in enemy territory. **

Might as well go ahead and dig into the time problems now. The various cuts to tell other stories as the crew is marching up north make it feel as if 3-4 days pass as they search for the army of the dead. The cuts after that make it seem as if Gendry gets to back to Eastwatch in a single afternoon and the ravens get to Dany the next morning. She appears to arrive where Jon’s team are fighting for their lives later that same day. The distance between her and Jon is more than 1000 miles, this doesn’t seem possible.

Some people argue that more time passed than appeared to pass. If we accept that then we’re still left with some bad editing to leave viewers with the wrong impression of passing time. We’re also left with how long it should have taken and what should have been possible. Let’s say they walk out to a certain point and then wandered in a kind of arc to patrol for walkers, never getting very far from the castle. That would allow for Gendry to run back in a day, though it makes it even more likely he’d get lost. Based on this math from a dedicated Redditor it should take about 6 days for the raven to get to Dany and for her to get back. So that means Jon’s friends were hanging out on a rock in the middle of a frozen lake for a week with no food, no water, and no shelter. The shelter is a huge deal; being exposed on a rock in the middle of a frozen lake during incredibly cold temperatures with lots of wind and occasional blizzards is a good way to freeze to death. But no only do they not freeze, starve, or die of thirst but they are all able to fight a pitched battle at the end of that week and appear to be at full strength while doing so.

Also it seems unlikely that the Night King would have just stood around for a week watching them sleep and complain. At one point they all appeared to wake up at the same time which means they were all asleep at the same time. Even if only a day passed the Night King should have taken that opportunity to kill them all with his magic spears or send a couple of walkers or even wights across the ice to stab them all in their sleep.

No matter how you slice it, it doesn’t seem possible for Jon and his friends to be rescued in the manner depicted by the show. ****

Back to Winterfell. Sansa receives an invitation from Cersei to come down for the meeting about the wight. It’s confusing that Cersei would think to invite Sansa to a meeting that Jon was already supposed to be attending. There is no reason for Sansa to send anyone to this meeting, but she chooses to send Brienne and Podric.

Back in the day there was a real-time strategy game called Rebellion based on Star Wars. It featured many of the characters that could be found in the movies and books and they could be sent on various missions. If you played it you would quickly learn that you don’t send Mon Mothma on a spy mission because she’s a diplomat with no skills as a spy to speak of. Similarly you don’t send Han Solo on a diplomatic mission; he’s a smuggler. The point is that Sansa would be bad at this game; Brienne is not a diplomat, she’s a bodyguard. Removing her from a task she’s good at to send her on a mission she’s wholly unsuited for is a terrible idea. Even if she wasn’t worried about Arya or Little Finger or someone else attacking her – which she very much should be. This is pretty clearly only done so that Brienne has a reason to be at King’s Landing in the season finale. ****

Returning north of the wall, Jon and company are still surrounded. The Hound is angry, scared, and bored so he starts throwing rocks at the walkers. One of these rocks lands on the ice and doesn’t break it. This somehow tips off the undead army that it’s safe to march across the ice now. Last time I checked a rock the size of a fist weighs less than a person, much less an army. In fact, moments later as the attack begins the Hound smashes the ice with Gendry’s warhammer and shatters it. Where he does so it appears to be no thicker than it was when they first ran across it to safety. Those wights should all be breaking through the ice to swim in the icy water, again. If you want to argue that the ice at that thickness can support the weight of the army, it was only because it was weakened before I’d remind you that it was actually weakened by a handful of people standing on it to begin with and that The Hound’s hammer blow definitely should have weakened the ice in that area and caused a chain reaction of more breaking ice the same as before. **

As Dany lands Drogon to rescue everyone Jon finds himself still fighting off zombies in order to allow his friends to board the dragon. The thing is, he is intentionally moving further and further away from the dragon for no discernible reason. Had he stayed nearer to Drogon during his defense and obeyed the call to retreat instead of pressing even further forward it’s possible no one important would have had to die. This would be a one-star if it didn’t result in the second most impactful death of the series. ***

Moments later Jon falls into the lake with two ice zombies wrapped around him. He drops his sword. There is no reasonable logic that would allow an unarmed man heavily laden with sodden furs and leather armor to escape the grasp of a pair of ice zombies under a frozen lake and return to the surface. At least when Bronn pulled Jaime from the water they acted like it was a big deal. *

Beyond that, the entire falling into the lake sequence causes a ton of problems for not nearly enough payoff. At least when ravens fly at supersonic speeds it allows one hero to save another in a situation that has been brewing for a considerable period of time and results in some brilliant spectacle. In this case we get Jon escaping an underwater attack somehow, we get Benjen Stark coming out of nowhere, and we get a hypothermic and probably frostbitten Jon somehow surviving the entire ride back to Eastwatch – which is at least 1 day and possibly as many as 3. A little bit of research indicates that a person can survive in 41 degree Fahrenheit water for as many as 20 minutes. He’s not underwater for that long but after emerging he’s still in soaking wet clothes in presumably well below freezing above ground weather.

There has got to be a less disastrous way to achieve those goals. If you wanted Benjen to die you could have had him join up with Jon’s party earlier and he could have died helping defend the rock. If Jon needed to have his shirt removed then simply have Daenerys accidentally walk in on him while he’s changing back at Eastwatch before they head out to the meeting with Cersei. **

Daenerys literally tells Jon that she’s happy he went north and got her child killed because now she understands the reality of the threat. You can admit the benefit of understanding the threat without speaking words that seem to celebrate the death of your child. *

And now we finally return to Jon bending his knee. As noted earlier, Jon’s problem is a lot like Mance’s. He’s less likely to be killed for his choice, but there’s no reason to think the northerners will respect this him or obey this decision. He’s been missing for probably weeks with no word to his allies and he thinks he can return to his group of hard-bitten warriors in the north and tell them that now they’ll follow some woman who isn’t even from Westeros and think they’ll be OK with that? Based on the way we’ve seen them act the most likely outcome would seem to be that they would decide he’d been coerced into it, name Sansa Queen in the North and ask her to lead them into battle against Daenerys to avenge the loss of their latest king. That’s setting aside the fact that he doesn’t even have any benefit from bending the knee anymore; she’s already agreed to help him which is all he ever needed anyway. I’ve seen men do stupid things before but giving away your entire kingdom and responsibility to your people in order to impress your aunt has got to take the prize. ***

Game of Thrones made its bones by willingly killing the man who most closely resembled its protagonist in the first book of the series while the plot seemed to point toward his being a vital part of it for books/episodes to come. It is no longer willing to kill main characters, which makes sense as we’re nearing the end of the story and there are many fewer main characters to kill and who all still have roles to play. It is still, however, a distinctly bad idea to draw attention to this fact. As each unnamed party member fell during Jon’s trip north it emphasized just how many named characters weren’t dying. And it does so in a way that nameless mooks dying in large swaths just can’t do. Tormund almost dying for the second time in two seasons – and in a way that was reminiscent of how one of the nameless Brothers died just minutes earlier – makes this infinitely worse. **

Now that we’ve listed all the flaws but before you start arguing: yes, it is important for mundane things to make sense even in a fantasy setting. If anything can happen at any time because it’s a fantasy story with no rhyme or reason then there can be no dramatic tension. For example, how would you have felt if Jon and company, after being trapped on the rock in the middle of the frozen lake for a short time, just teleported back to King’s Landing. No explanation provided, nor even any acknowledgement that this was a tiny bit out of the ordinary. Not even a brief shot of Captain Kirk smiling from the bridge of the USS Enterprise. How would that make you feel? Would you have enjoyed the drama of the moment?

A near-earth fantasy setting still relies on audience familiarity with mundane things. So do the more outlandish stories, but that’s irrelevant to the discussion at hand. Humans still eat, breathe, and defecate. Birds still fly. Horses still carry riders from place to place. Doors still lead from one area to the next. In a fantasy setting it’s possible to break any of those rules, but you have to establish somehow that those rules can and should be broken.

The reason fans are willing to accept dragons is because they have been long established in the setting. Characters talked about them, saw their skulls, described their abilities and characteristics. For that matter, the particulars of these dragons rely a lot on the existing common perception of dragons at large. They are giant lizards that can fly and breathe fire. That’s a basic definition of very nearly every dragon ever written about. If you want your audience to accept that ravens in Game of Thrones can fly at supersonic speeds, that’s fine!  But you have to establish it as a possibility somehow. Instead, up until this point, Game of Thrones ravens have appeared to be identical to real ravens – the common perception of ravens – in every way. Breaking the rules of reality is fine, but it must be done intentionally and you must define the new set of rules for your audience; if you simply ignore this world altering ability it becomes a plot hole. Any story worth reading, watching, or otherwise consuming has to have rules that define the possible and impossible; break those rules too many times and the story can become meaningless and unsatisfying.

Game of Thrones: Eastwatch gave us a Heist Squad

There are plenty of movies Jon’s team reminds us of; one stands out to me.

SPOILERS for Game of Thrones through season 7 episode 5 follow.

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Last week’s episode of Game of Thrones, Eastwatch, was awesome! It had terrific moments from the call-out to the “Gendry is still rowing” fan theory all the way up to the moment when Jon shuts down the bickering of his would-be allies by telling them, “We’re all on the same side… We’re all breathing.” Those last scenes in Eastwatch sparked many imaginations beyond that line, though.

Many people are drawing comparisons between this crew and the Suicide Squad which makes sense because both stories feature the sudden mashing together of storylines and characters which have always existed in the same universe but never really seemed all that connected to each other. They’ve also all been set on a mission none of them want to perform which will likely lead to their death. The even spent time revisiting years-old wounds inflicted by some party members on others which does a great job both entertaining the viewers and reminding them that though recently we’ve viewed all of these men as “good guys” that has not always been the case.

It was a great moment not just for setting up the personality clashes but for how it was done. It is always terrific to see the writers show you that they haven’t forgotten what came before and they do it in spades here. You’d be forgiven if you had forgotten that Gendry was only at Dragonstone to be rescued because the Brotherhood Without Banners sent him there. While it shouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone to see Jorah compared to his father for the third time in recent weeks, the way in which Tormund did it may have been. From a viewer perspective Jeor Mormont was a tough, smart, and honorable leader who only wanted to protect the seven kingdoms; but from the Wildling perspective he was a cruel oppressor and murderer. All the pieces were there to be added together but many probably hadn’t done so because Jeor was so focused on the white walker threat by the time viewers met him that there was no time to stop and consider that he was the guy in charge while the Night’s Watch was building or maintaining the hatred of the Wildlings that eventually led to Jon’s death and resurrection, last season.

In fact The writers did such a good job bringing up old conflicts that it could seem a little surprising that Jorah hasn’t figured out that Jon’s sword – Longclaw – used to belong to the Mormont family. This would have been another contention point for them to play off during this scene as family heirlooms are important and Jorah used to wield that sword before he was exiled and it was given back to his father. However, it does make sense that Jorah doesn’t immediately recognize the sword – Jeor replaced the bear pommel with a direwolf pommel when he gave it to Jon, after all.This also opens the opportunity for Jorah and Jon to have a bit more conflict in the next episode which may very well be an important moment

All that said, a group of specialists working together for the first time toward a common goal through and despite numerous personal conflicts is a staple trope of the heist genre. So while everyone else pictured team-up movies like Suicide Squad and The Expendables I was first struck by the similarities to Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn: The Final Empire, TNTs’ Leverage, and Ocean’s 11 starring George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon and a host of other recognizable actors.

To that end I thought it might be kind of fun to compare the Game of Thrones characters with the Ocean’s 11 team and see if I could find any similarities:

Jon Snow – Danny Ocean – Leader

Jon and Danny are both the guy’s with the plan, the leaders of their gangs, and they both did time – Danny in federal prison and Jon as part of the Night’s Watch at The Wall. They’re tall, dark, and handsome and while their ultimate goal is to steal something precious from their enemy neither one of them would be upset if their deeds managed to impress a certain blonde lady involved in the whole affair.

Tormund Giantsbane – Rusty Ryan – Right-Hand Man

Tormund and Rusty both serve as competent advisors to the Leader. They don’t do the overall scheming but they know how to help their guy build his crew and to fill in the gaps in his plan. They both have interesting personality tics, as well. Rusty was always eating on screen while Tormund seems to be obsessed with somehow wooing Brienne of Tarth.

Gendry – Linus Caldwell – Inexperienced Idealist

Gendry and Linus are both young guys who idolize and despise their fathers. They also really want Jon/Danny to teach them. They have a lot of promise in the same arts as their leader – conning and thieving for Linus, fighting for Gendry – but very little practical experience compared to many in the crew. They’re both earnest and they talk sometimes when maybe they oughtn’t.

Thoros of Myr – Virgil Malloy – Bickering Brother 1
Sandor “The Hound” Clegane – Turk Malloy – Bickering Brother 2

While the Game of Thrones counterparts aren’t actually related the characters are constantly bickering with each other similar to how the Malloy brothers argue in Ocean’s 11. The Malloy brothers share also a talent for mechanical work and driving while the two Brothers Without Banners share a talent for killing people and special relationships with fire.

Ser Davos Seaworth – Saul Bloom – Old Conmen

Davos and Saul are talented actors and can deceive law enforcement at will. They also both feel like they’re far too old for this crap.

Jorah Mormont – Basher Tarr – Foreign Specialist

These two are the crew members from across the sea with unique talents and boundless egos. Basher has a thing with explosives while Jorah thinks, for some reason,  he could be the key to getting a “living” wight from north of The Wall all the way back to King’s Landing.

Cersei Lannister – Terry Benedict – The Mark

The Game of Thrones Crew isn’t trying to rob Cersei like the Ocean’s 11 crew wants to rob Terry. However the purpose of both crews is to do something that affects the Mark. In Game of Thrones they think they can convince Cersei to accept a temporary armistice so they can fight the undead army; in Ocean’s 11 they want to divest Mr. Benedict of both his cash and his girlfriend.

Daenerys Targaryen – Beatrice Ocean – Leader’s Love Interest

Dany and Beatrice are the love interests of the Leader but this is still a stretch of a comparison. Beatrice doesn’t really do much throughout the first movie and Dany at least has impetus of her own to affect the world around her other than just acting as a prize to be fought for by two men – though she seems primed to be that as well. They’re also both blonde but very different types of blonde.

Brienne of Tarth – Isabel Lahiri – Right Hand Man’s Love Interest

Not only do these two characters match up as love interests for Tormund/Rusty but they both prove resistant to their charms, at least to start. Even more important they’re both lawful good ladies in stories largely lacking those kinds of characters.

You’ll notice some people are missing. There were never going to be enough member’s of Jon’s crew to equal Ocean’s and some of the tasks for Ocean’s crew just can’t exist in Jon’s. Jon doesn’t need a computer hacker like Livingston Dell, a financial backer like Reuben Tishkoff, or a grifter like Frank Catton.

There’s also one man missing from Jon’s team: Ser Beric Dondarrion. The problem with Dondarrion is that his only real defining characteristics are that he leads the Brotherhood Without Banners and he has died multiple times and been resurrected by Thoros/The Lord of Light. Since their gang has been folded into Jon’s that first characteristic isn’t even all that interesting, right now. The closest comparison I could come up with for him was to The Amazing Yen; Yen is a contortionist and Dondarrion frequently sees his body do things that seem impossible as he’s killed time and time again.

There are comparisons in the plot, too; both stories feature incredibly stupid plans. In Ocean’s 11 the idea is to rip off Terry Benedict but for Danny Ocean to draw his attention and be obviously not the guy who stole the money. The problem is that it’s so obvious he couldn’t steal the money that he must have been part of the plan to make it happen. Sure it prevented Benedict from wielding the legal system against them, but it in no way prevented him from knowing who to leverage whatever extralegal resources he had. That’s part of what sets up Ocean’s 12 when Danny and his crew are forced to perform another heist to repay him.

In Game of Thrones Jon and company somehow think they’re going to be able to separate a single wight from the entire undead army without being noticed, take it not just back to the wall but all the way down to King’s Landing without it freeing itself and killing them, and then present to Cersei who will also, for some reason, not kill them but possibly believe in this threat and allow them to deal with it or even offer resources to help. None of those things seems likely on their own, much less together. It should still make for compelling TV, though. At least assuming you haven’t already watched the leaked episode and spoiled it for yourself!

Checking in on Daenerys Targaryen

Is she really ready to rule Westeros?

SPOILER WARNING!

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As per usual there will be spoilers in the following post for the events of the Game of Thrones TV series up to and including Season 7 Episode 4 – Spoils of War.

Wherever you look on the internet you can find people singing the Dragon Queen’s praises. She’s attractive, determined, fiery (in more ways than one), an idealist, and most everyone in-universe thinks she has the best claim to the Iron Throne. Dany has done a lot of growing throughout the series – she starts off as a meek girl who perceives herself to be sold into slavery to a cruel barbarian in order to purchase his help in securing the Iron Throne for her brother. Since then we’ve seen her gradually progress from this inauspicious beginning to leader of her dead husband’s Khalasar to a commander of vast armies to an empress over several city states.

While she has grown, her time in Mereen showed her to be naive and immature in many ways. Eventually she made her decisions stick and became a stronger person and ruler for her time there. Now that she has decided to return to Westeros and claim what is rightly hers she is ready to be the hero everyone has always known she would become.

Or is she?

She is obsessed with her own rights

The first time we see Daenerys Targaryen in this episode she follows Jon Snow into the cavern of dragonglass. While there, he shows her proof that the white walkers are real in the form of cave drawings that depict the first men and the children of the forest doing battle with the deadly enemy Jon has been trying to warn everyone about. How much “proof” this is is up for debate, but you can see in Dany’s eyes and manner that she believes Jon now. She promises to provide him aid – if he will bend the knee. She believes there is a threat coming that could wipe everyone out and she’s still focused on people giving her what’s she feels she deserves. Dany continually goes on about the indignities she’s endured and her own accomplishments while continually dismissing those of Jon.

This continues the theme from the week before when she allowed Missandei to detail her entire laundry list of titles and accomplishments in an attempt to browbeat Jon Snow into easy submission. She was then dismissive of Ser Davos Seaworth’s attempts to explain that Jon’s people love him very nearly as much as Dany’s love her, and for similar reasons. She also refuses to believe Jon’s wild tales of white walkers because everyone knows they are a fairy tale despite arriving in Westeros with three dragons even though everyone knows that dragons are extinct.

She is quick to turn on her allies

Her first example of turning on allies was when she first found out that Jorah Mormont was originally retained to spy on and potentially assassinate her, several seasons ago. The fact that he never actually did her any harm but repeatedly saved her life and offered her good counsel is only sufficient to see that he is not immediately executed but banished instead. She, as many children do once they finish their temper tantrum, later regrets this decision.

Earlier this season following a strategy meeting with all of her allies and advisors she suddenly and inexplicably turned on Varys and began interrogating him about his role in hiring assassins to kill her when she was just a girl. He gives a very inspirational speech about serving the people rather than blindly following any king or queen. She seems, at first, touched by it. She asks him to promise to confront her first if he ever believes she’s acting against the best interests of the people. Then she promises to burn him alive if he ever turns on her. Considering how she’s behaved in the past Varys would do well to believe her; and probably to turn on her without warning to protect himself should he see the time come.

Finally. in Spoils of War a few minutes after she and Jon exit the cave of dragonglass she’s greeted with some bad news. She immediately flies into a rage. She lashes out at her closest advisor, childishly insinuating that Tyrion Lannister is actually a traitor. This is childish because only children make accusations they know full well aren’t true. If she truly believed he was a traitor she would have him removed or executed. She certainly wouldn’t make her next plans in his presence, much less while still allowing him input – however quickly she dismisses it.

She makes ill-informed, snap decisions

At the start of the show Danaerys was a 14-year-old girl, so it was to be expected that she was perhaps a bit naive. In the first season she blindly trusted a woman she barely knew and paid the price in the blood of an ally who died when he tried to stop her, her son who was sacrificed for dark magic, and ultimately her husband who was not saved as Dany had hoped. That it works out to allowing her to gain leadership of the Khallasar and everything that came after has more to do with accidents of fate than it does her strong decision making ability.

She’s now several years older but it is this kind of willingness to trust people who act friendly without considering their motivations that may have caused her to finally listen to Olenna Tyrell’s advice from earlier this season, “You’re a dragon. Be a dragon!” One could argue that when Dany attacks the Lannister army she’s following that advice but if so she would have done better to consider the source. Yes, Olenna has shown herself to be a master Westerosi politician, but by this point her entire family has been killed. She has nothing left to live for except vengeance. It would serve her purposes just fine for the entire realm to be destroyed so long as Cersei also paid the ultimate price. Her advice should be tainted by that recognition.

Dany’s entire rule of the city states in Essos was marked by hasty decision making with little to no forethought followed by immediate disbelief whenever she discovered her hasty plans had failed. The first two cities she “freed” were very nearly immediately recaptured by slavers and a former slave who decides to set himself up as a despotic king. Even in Meereen it turned out that she failed to adequately plan for the repercussions of freeing all of the slaves. She thought far enough to provide them with roofs and food but not to provide them with any sort of purpose or sense of order. Without any sort of guidance the former slaves often turned to violence or hopelessness; some even begged her to allow them to sell themselves back to their owners.

While in Meereen she continually made decisions without considering the ramifications. One example was when she refused to open the fighting pits – a decision she was eventually convinced to backtrack on. Had she allowed herself to accept advice beforehand she might have made a stronger ruling, whether she ultimately decided to allow them to re-open or not. She was also known for dishing out executions without trials to entire groups of people who may or may not have been innocent of the crimes of their fellows. Ser Barristan Selmy at least temporarily coaxed her off of this dark path but since his death it is unclear if she will be willing to listen to others with the same counsel.

For example, in Spoils of War after literally every person she asks – minus Olenna’s advice from earlier – tells her both that she must be restrained in her campaign and that it is foolish for her to personally lead the fights she attack the Lannister army from dragonback anyway. This is honestly the beginning of a sound strategic decision if she actually had knowledge of their disposition – the army was spread out and in a bad defensive position after a long, undisciplined march from The Reach back toward King’s Landing. Considering she apparently has no scouts in her entire force – otherwise the disasters she’s suffered this far could have been avoided or mitigated – it seems just as likely her force accidentally stumbled upon the Lannisters as that it did so intentionally. In any case, while the battle started out as a sound tactical assault, she appears to be doing it as much to get revenge on the Lannister force as for any strategic benefit. Long after her overwhelming forces have destroyed any hope of resistance by her enemy she allows the Dothraki to slaughter men who could have been taken prisoner and strafes the grain supplies with dragon fire.

If she was really there to do battle strictly for the benefit of her side in the war she probably wouldn’t have brought the dragon that required her to put herself in danger. Generals do not belong on the front lines where they can more easily die and cause breaks in the chain of command and the Dothraki appeared to be more than sufficient to destroy her enemy given their apparent greater experiences, numbers, and the fact that cavalry is stronger than infantry. If one is willing to accept the danger to leadership then it might make sense to deploy the dragon as it would protect allied lives in the fight. However, it would have been sufficient for her to strafe the opponent a handful of times, disrupting their lines, and retreat to safety. There was no tactical advantage to destroying the grain stores; it would have been far wiser to capture them for use by her own forces as well as potentially in a war in the north should convince King Snow to capitulate to her demands. Heck, she could even have just given it back to the people of The Reach to gain some goodwill, there. Sure it made pretty explosions but that is the action of someone who wants to cause pain and suffering, not someone who wants to rule wisely or benevolently.

Daenerys Targaryen has shown at times a willingness to fight for the rights of people who are too weak to fight for themselves. When she listens to her advisors she often makes wise decisions, even when she ultimately goes against their advice. But she’s also shown herself to be rash, self-absorbed, and exceptionally vindictive. There is an opportunity for her to be a good queen or even a great one – no one can deny the potential of her high ideals – but as long as she childishly refuses to learn self-restraint and commands without thinking through the consequences there will always be the danger that she could become the next Mad Queen, instead.

Game of Thrones Season 7, Episode 1: Dragonstone

Jon and Sansa were both right

You can find excellent recaps all over the internet of just about any show, so I want to try to do a little something different with my TV show analysis. I just want to pick out a moment that struck me and try to dig into it a little bit deeper than you might see in a recap or reaction video which has to cover an entire episode. Sometimes there might be more than one thing, sometimes maybe I’ll even do a regular recap, but for now I want to focus on a single scene from the first episode of Game of Thrones, this season.

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SPOILER ALERT: I will definitely be spoiling large chunks of this episode along with several moments from previous seasons. Continue reading at your own risk!

It’s been a few weeks since this episode aired so let me refresh your memory as to what exactly happens, here. Towards the beginning of the episode Jon holds court in the main hall of Winterfell. Jon starts out by immediately overturning tradition and announcing that not only does everyone need to prepare their fighting forces – again – but that women will have a place in the northern army as well. Since Lyanna Mormont backs him up everybody falls into line. Jon might wear the figurative crown, but she’s the real power. Jon then asks Tormund Giantsbane to take the WIldlings back to the wall and reinforce the Night’s Watch there.

And then we get to the part that matters, today. Jon mentions that Last Hearth and Karhold are likely the first castles in the path of the white walker invasion. Before he can continue to his point, one of the assembled lords (Lord Yohn “Bronze Yohn” Royce, vassal to House Arryn and currently following Petyr “Little Finger” Baelish, if it matters to you) stands up and declares the castles should be torn down since the Umbers and Karstarks, the respective families who claim those castles as homes, betrayed the Starks. Sansa immediately and sensibly points out that the castles did no harm to anyone.

She continues a bit viciously to suggest that instead of destroying them they should be given to families that supported the Starks against the Boltons, because those castles are going to be very important in the coming war. Jon replies that the Umbers and Karstarks have held faith for centuries and argues that the entire houses should not be punished for the sins of a few reckless idiots. They go back and forth for a bit but Jon holds firm and since he’s the King in the North and well regarded as a giver of speeches he gets his way and everyone ultimately approves.

Why Jon is right

First of all, if I had been writing Jon’s lines he would have said something along the lines of, “Just as the castles did nothing wrong, neither did the children of Small John Umber and Harald Karstark. If we aren’t going to punish the castles we shouldn’t punish them, either.”  But maybe there’s a reason I’m writing here instead of for Game of Thrones. In any case, his argument is a good one, especially by a modern sensibility.

Ned Umber and Alys Karstark had no say at all in the decisions of the men who chose to follow Ramsay instead of Jon or Sansa. Given their apparent age and gender, respectively, it’s unlikely they were even given any orders to directly support that choice, either. It makes little sense to punish them for crimes committed by others that they just happen to share blood with. Especially when the North will need as many people to defend those oh-so-important castles as it can find given the nature of the threat and the attrition of their population due to the recent, bloody wars.

Why Sansa is right

If Jon is right, how can Sansa be right? The answer is that while her conclusion was incorrect, it was important to consider such a possibility and the repercussions of the choice. A good ruler will consider many possibilities before making a decision so as to choose best possible course of action. It’s important to note that when she first suggests rewarding the castles to their loyal followers the majority of their audience agrees with her suggestion. This is how things have always been done. This is why you don’t betray your bannerlord; because if you fail your entire family will be stripped of their titles, homes, and possibly their lives. It is necessary to remember how things were done and why if you’re going to start changing them so that you can address the possible concerns of the people following those commands.

In this way, the argument with Sansa ultimately proves to be a boon for Jon. No one else would have stood up to him to question the decision but they all would have questioned it behind his back. Now that he has so publicly and eloquently defended his choice their concerns should be assuaged and it should eliminate a potential avenue of unrest among his people. This is an important consideration because he’s already overturning dozens of centuries-old traditions and asking people to fight what they’ve always believed to be a fairy tale. Remember, only Jon and the wildlings among the people at this meeting have seen the enemy. Everyone else only has Jon’s word to go on. It’s important that they continue to respect his decision making abilities.

Why Sansa is wrong

Sansa is wrong for a lot of the same reasons that Jon is right. She’s focused on punishing people and the past while Jon is focused on the future and the coming war. Her attitude is far from a rare one in Westeros; the assembled northerners did cheer her suggestion when she first made it, but they all must adapt to their current circumstances. Doing things the way they’ve always been done will not allow them to survive the battle with the white walkers.

She’s also wrong because after she makes her suggestion and Jon shoots it down she greatly undercuts his authority and could have caused a terrible rift among their allies with a single statement,

“So there’s no punishment for treason and no reward for loyalty.”

That really stops everyone in their tracks. Instead of being able to continue with the meeting and prepare to face their enemies Jon has to stop and defend his argument to the person who should publicly be his most vocal supporter. Additionally, she refuses to drop the argument for far longer than seems prudent. Fortunately Jon is able to defend his point confidently and ably, but had he been even a tiny bit less sure of himself it could have gone very poorly.

Why Jon is wrong

In a later scene Sansa points out that her father, Ned Stark, and brother, Robb Stark, both died because they were noble men who made stupid decisions. She doesn’t want to see Jon repeat that. Much like Sansa was wrong in the ways that Jon was right, he is also wrong in the ways that she is right. He’s not fully thinking through all the possible consequences of his actions.

After all, do you remember why Harald Karstark sided with the Boltons in the first place? Because Robb Stark had Harald’s father, Rickard Karstark, executed for disobeying orders. Robb had situation where a man betrayed him and then that man died; his son came back to seek vengeance. Jon has a situation where a man betrayed him and then that man died. That man’s son still lives. It seems unlikely to Jon even stopped to consider that his mercy might leave his back exposed to another betrayal. Again, in this way, Sansa’s argument actually helped him out. When Jon asks Ned and Alys to re-pledge their loyalty to him they do so knowing that he actively worked to save their lives. They’re now aware just how much they owe Jon which should preclude a future betrayal from them.

Jon is further wrong because from the moment they were reunited he has refused to acknowledge Sansa as a valuable resource to his rule. Also in the scene where Sansa warns Jon not to be like his “father” or “brother” Jon was quick to point out that Sansa was undercutting his authority with her incessant arguing, and he wasn’t wrong about that. However, she points out that he has not exactly been listening to her advice when she’s tried to offer it in other forums. She offered him some very good advice before the Battle of the Bastards in warning him that Ramsay would try to do something to get him to act stupid. Ramsay did and Jon fell right into the trap – admittedly with the help of a little Stark boy who had the misfortune to live and die before the zig-zag was invented. Had Sansa not stepped in to get help from Little Finger and the forces in The Vale, Jon and all of his allies would have been destroyed. There would have been no one left to rally the troops to face the oncoming invasion.

Had Jon consulted with Sansa before the meeting with the other lords and ladies – and you know he didn’t because the shocked look on her face throughout the meeting proves that she had no idea any of this was coming – they could have already had that argument out in private. She could have properly advised him and he could have prepared himself to properly explain when he issued the decree, reducing the chances it would have been turned against him. Sansa could also have been an ally in any following discussion instead of an antagonist which would have strengthened both of their positions. Instead he chose to disregard her again. In this way he is as much to blame for the near disaster her arguments became as she was.

Ultimately Sansa and Jon are opposites of each other in this scene in multiple ways. Not only are they opposed in this argument but one is focused on the past and one focuses on the future. One uses sound methodology to reach the wrong conclusion while the other uses poor methodology to reach the correct conclusion. One of them ultimately listens and accedes while the other ultimately continues to avoid sound advice and acts stubbornly.

So how about it? What did you think of this episode? Which scene stood out most to you? It was pretty good for a season premiere, I thought. With the benefit of hindsight – having written this after watching the third episode of the season – it is now apparent that the idea of children not being responsible for the actions of their fore-bearers definitely comes up for Jon again, which is also pretty interesting.