I am the Owner of a Magic Backpack

A short story

This is a short story I wrote for a friendly competition my friends and I have every Halloween. Since I was writing this I didn’t have time to do a regular post this week. I hope you enjoy it!



I am the owner of a magic backpack. Every morning I can open it up and discover whatever I need for the day. It just appeared in my room one night. When I found it that first morning, I curiously opened it to discover it held $227.68, several blankets, and a few bags of extra large marshmallows. That evening I was planning to attend a friend’s bonfire but I was running a bit late so I chanced speeding to try and get there faster. Unfortunately I was pulled over and was written a ticket for speeding that came with a $227.68 fine. When my friends and I arrived we discovered the ground was still damp from the rain that had fallen earlier that day; the blankets provided a great buffer between the ground and our buns. Also the person who had been in charge of bringing the s’mores ingredients discovered when they opened their grocery bag that they had forgotten the marshmallows at the store. I saved him a trip back when I retrieved them from the backpack.

Over the course of weeks and months and years I grew comfortable with my backpack and the power it gave me to prepare for whatever was coming that day. My friends celebrated my legendary foresight but I never told them how I did it; who would have believed me anyway? Still it was really awesome to know I could be prepared for anything. At least until I began to realize that my magical backpack came with some rules.

By this point I was a freshman in college and as I followed my morning routine one day before heading out to class I checked the backpack and discovered a sheet of paper that appeared to have the answers to a test written on it. It was for my Pre-Calculus class and I knew I had been keeping up pretty well with the material and I was a bit leery about cheating, especially so early in my collegiate career. So I decided to abstain from reading or memorizing the answers. I was, however, unsurprised when I arrived in class a few hours later to discover that we were having a pop quiz to check how everyone was doing in the class. I still managed to get all but one question right, and because it was a check-up and not a true test it didn’t even count against my final grade, anyway. But I never got another answer sheet again – something I greatly regretted when I forgot to study for my psychology exam and failed it without any help from the backpack.

From that point on I realized I had a choice. I didn’t have to use whatever items the backpack provided me, but if I didn’t there would be no guarantee it would help me in a similar situation ever again. This led me to make some…questionable decisions. For example, after graduating college I applied for my dream job as an entertainment writer for The New York Times. The morning of the interview the backpack offered me a Purdue University tie despite the fact that I went to BYU. I hadn’t even considered applying to Purdue. Still, I dutifully wore the tie to the interview and when the HR Manager asked me about it I concocted a story about how I had wanted to go to Purdue but couldn’t afford it and that BYU had offered me a better scholarship. It turned out that the manager had also wanted to attend Purdue but also found she couldn’t afford it. Thus, our camaraderie established by my white lie, I had the inside track and was eventually hired for the job. Could I have gotten it without the deception? I’ll never know.

Several months later I was on a trip to Los Angeles for the premiere of a new science fiction flick starring one of my favorite performers. I opened the backpack the morning of the premiere to discover, among other more mundane items, a scrap of paper with my boyfriend’s cell phone number written on it. I was very confused by this discovery because, of course, I already knew his phone number in order to be able to identify it in the first place. After a few minutes of thinking I realized the backpack was probably trying to get me to call him but I knew he was at work right that moment so I put the phone number in my pocket and went about the rest of that day, intending to call him as soon as I had finished my work that evening. After the premiere I was approached by that favorite performer of mine and I was invited to an after party. Unable to resist the chance to spend time with someone I had admired from afar for so long, I went. I had completely forgotten about the phone number in my pocket. I arrived back at my hotel around 4 AM, still buzzed, and dropped onto my bed and into immediate sleep without even bothering to take off my shoes.

The next morning I woke to discover only a handkerchief and a pamphlet about survivor’s guilt in my backpack. I immediately remembered the phone number from the day before and called my boyfriend. There was no answer. I flew back to New York and raced to my apartment but found only a message on my answering machine. It was from the local police department. My boyfriend had gone out to have a few drinks with some friends the night before and had been struck and killed by a drunk driver as he walked to the bar. If I had called him when I had meant to he would have been delayed at least a few minutes and it would have saved his life. All it would have taken was a single phone call. That’s not too much to ask, is it? It shouldn’t have been.

You’re probably wondering why I’m telling you all of this. I’ve kept it a secret for decades. Why tell someone, now? Especially you, a stranger whom I have never met before?

I opened my magical backpack this morning and the only item in it was this handgun.

I reached in and pulled it out without looking at first, absentmindedly thinking about something else. When I realized I had something heavy and metallic I looked and immediately dropped it from surprise. It’s a good thing real guns aren’t like those in the movies or it would have gone off and we might not even be having this conversation, right now. I quickly stuffed the gun back into the backpack and fretted about what to do next. What on earth was I supposed to do with this thing? Was my life in danger? Someone else’s? Was I expected to shoot a person or a wild animal or maybe just a target? Did I need to commit murder, for some reason, or would it be in self-defense? I’d never owned a gun before, never shot one. Was I supposed to miss wildly or would I discover, as I had so long ago during that interview, that I would know what I needed to know when I need to know it?

The thing about this backpack is that it always gives me what I need, but it never tells me when or why or how or any of the other things that might make it easier to use. It seems reasonable that there have been times I’ve even used something from the backpack in a way that it didn’t expect, unless we accept that the backpack is not only prescient but also omniscient. Perhaps I’m an unreasonable skeptic but that seems a bridge too far, for me.

Easy there. Sorry for waving the gun around so much. Don’t worry, I’m not going to shoot you, accidentally. I just use my hands a lot when I am talking.

Anyway, so I tried throwing away the backpack a week after my boyfriend died. It reappeared in it’s usual spot by my bed the next morning. So I drove out of the city, built a fire and I burned the blasted thing – it even provided the necessary gasoline and matches that morning. Still, it reappeared the next day. So I gave up and I kept using it. I hate this backpack with every fiber of my being. But at least if I am using it I know I have tried to prevent harm coming to my friends and family. Even though the more I have considered the more I have realized that the likelihood of my doing so is ever more remote.

This backpack gives me everything I need but never tells me what I need it for. It may seem miraculous, and indeed I have absolutely found it to be so on many, many occasions. But most of the time it’s maddening. What is this paperclip for? To keep some papers together? To pick a lock? To throw at a passing, obnoxious squirrel? How could I know? How could anyone know? And while I know what happens if I don’t use something it gives me, what happens if I misuse something it gives me? Sure I could use that pencil to write myself a to-do list but what if I was actually supposed to use it to write a letter to my mother and not doing so causes her to die, somehow? And if I fail there will it still give me the tool I need to prevent my brother from dying next week? Or will I cause two deaths because of one innocent mistake? Or more? Did I already lose all of those opportunities forever when I forgot to call my boyfriend?

So that brings us here, together, now. I have this gun. And our captor has issued a command that one of us must kill or both of us shall die. You were prepared to attack me until I displayed my firearm. The backpack has provided, and the situation seems clear. But is it? Should I use this gun to kill you so that I can keep living and protecting my friends and family from whatever harm may befall them, assuming I even can? Does it have some other purpose in mind? I also have to wonder if perhaps the backpack arranges these scenarios. If I can accept that I own a backpack which can both see the future and manufacture or obtain materials to provide to me against those outcomes, is it possible that this backpack is arranging that future for me so that I will have reason to use the items it gives me?

I do so hate time travel and prophecies. They never help as much as you think they should; they never make any sense until afterward, if then. And yet I find myself having lived decades enduring at least one of these on a daily basis. There’s no more time. The answer must be the obvious one, this time, after all.  I’ve known what I need to do with this gun from the start, really. For whatever it’s worth, I’m sorry.

Attached evidence technician’s note: After listening to the living victim’s testimony following his rescue the previous night I decided to check the backpack’s contents again this morning and discovered this written monologue. It matches up with several of the items from the vic’s testimony though disputes others – primarily that the victim had been prepared to assault the dead victim; the living vic assures that there was never any intention of attacking the dead vic before dead vic blew their own brains out.

The backpack was checked for contents last night and discovered to be empty. It vanished into thin air immediately after I removed the papers. I don’t know why it thought I needed these but I’ll tell you what I didn’t need: to be written up for misplacing evidence and a psych eval.

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.

The Defenders: Worst Behavior

Together at last!

SPOILERS follow for all Marvel/Netflix collaboration shows through The Defenders episode 3.

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So now we are three episodes into this mini-series/epic movie adventure and the heroes finally – finally – all meet up. The majority of this episode is filler. Most Netflix seasons are thirteen episodes long, this one is only eight, and it still has an entire episode that consists of people simply refusing to communicate long enough for them all to individually discover the same information so that they can all meet up together, but not until the very end of the episode. You would think that an organization that has spent so long in the shadows would maybe not leave three avenues of discovery so readily available, but here we are.

Those methods of discovery, by the way, are due to some sloppy, sloppy work by The Hand. Danny figures them out because they shut down three of their shell corporations on the same day and sent all the money directly to their home base. If you shut them down on different days or use a some intermediaries before combining the funds then that avenue would likely have been closed or taken months and months to follow instead of five minutes. Luke finds them because one of their cleaners, so unimportant as to be entirely unaware of what was happening, visited their home base and had to get a parking pass. There is no reason to ever bring your clueless-by-design cleaning crew to your home base. Recruit and pay them in neutral territory or at least somewhere less obviously tied to you. Jessica is the only one who had to do any real digging – which makes sense since she is the only practiced investigator in the crew – but was only able to do so because they lost track of the architect who got her involved in the first place. There is no reason for an organization as powerful and successful as The Hand to leave any of those threads dangling, much less all three of them. And of course our heroes discover them in such a way that leads all of them to just coincidentally show up at the base at the same time.

The show does make up for some of this narrative silliness by paying things off with the meet up. But it also has some pretty good fight scenes going for it even before that. The cold open lasts fifteen minutes until the opening credits, during this time we see Elektra revived as the Black Sky. It’s still not entirely clear what the purpose of the Black Sky is but apparently it keeps all of Elektra’s instincts – including the ability to speak and to fight – but loses her memory. She practices her fighting abilities against increasing numbers of enemies using blunt weapons under the eye of Sigourney Weaver. The director used some wide shots to show some good angles of the fighting without always flashing around in cuts. The writing choices allow all of Elektra’s opponents to be strictly stunt workers which precludes the need for a lot of the cuts; the use of all the black in costumes and weapons as well as the darkness allows for a lot to be hidden as well without cutting away. It’s a much more interesting fight scene than we saw before.

The ultimate culmination of this gauntlet is that immediately after defeating a largish group of enemies single handed without taking a single blow she is swarmed by even more ninjas with naked blades and the lights go out. When the lights come back on she stands alone in the middle of a bunch of corpses, blood everywhere. On the one hand it was apparently an impressive fight that we weren’t allowed to see; on the other hand it probably wouldn’t have been much different than what we’d already seen. Not showing the fight may actually have been the better choice in much the same way that Jaws is scarier for only rarely showing the monster shark.

Later on Sigourney Weaver uses Black Sky/Elektra to try to taunt Stick, Daredevil’s old mentor, into giving away the location of Iron Fist. He won’t do it and has apparently only been awaiting an opportunity for someone to bring a weapon near enough to him to allow him to escape. My favorite fight scenes in cinema have always been the ones with Jackie Chan. I love how he uses his environment and restrictions to do interesting things. There’s certainly something to be said for technique, speed, power, and all of that jazz. But the improvisational nature of his fights combined with his comedic timing have always made even his worst films very enjoyable for me. This fight is over with quickly but we do see a few moments of Stick using the fact that he is handcuffed to a pole to his advantage somehow as he continually crashes his enemies into it and uses it for leverage to deal with others. Eventually he takes one of Elektra’s swords and cuts his own hand off to escape. But not before, in a moment of sheer badassery, he punches Sigourney Weaver in the face with the stump where his left hand used to be. This fight scene isn’t funny or charming like a Jackie Chan scene, but Stick definitely gets across the message that he is so good he can use his restraints against you and so badass that he will literally punch you in the face with the bloody stump of his hand that he cut off himself without even flinching if that is what it takes to win.

The music and direction do a great job of building tension toward the end of the episode. Credit the writing staff and the director for not cutting the episode before the gang gets back together. This is one place being a Netflix show built for bingeing really works in the favor of even someone like me who is only watching one episode a week. Were this a show made for a regular television network everyone might have bumped into each other but the actual working together bit probably wouldn’t have shown up until the next episode.

Danny attempts to confront the executives of The Hand’s primary shell company with the information that he knows and can prove they are up to criminal activity. They are entirely unimpressed with this knowledge and the pretty lady who smiled and led Danny to the conference room pulls a pistol out of her skirt and levels it at the back of his head. Fortunately – or perhaps unfortunately, depending on how much you like Danny Rand – she doesn’t immediately pull the trigger and allows Danny to fight long enough for Luke, Jessica, and Matt to all show up and help him out. This is when we get another terrific fight scene which is as impressive for how it depicts each of our heroes fighting as for the actual fight itself.

Luke busts through a wall first to help Danny and one of his first acts is to stand between Danny and two sub-machine gun wielding bad guys. Danny’s fighting style is just as we should expect given his training and temperament. He is fast, stylish, and aggressive. Luke’s style is very mountain like. He doesn’t move with speed or grace – remember, for all the fighting he has done he isn’t really trained at all – but he happily punches and throws people directly into walls as the opportunities arise to use his brute strength without leaving himself or Danny open. Jessica fights similarly to Luke, they share that lack of training and the super strength that allows them to overcome it, but she isn’t impervious like he is so she’s forced to hang back and let the tougher and more agile allies do most of the fighting as she cleans up whatever they miss. Matt fights a rearguard action and while he has flashy moves the same as Danny they don’t come with as much power or nearly as much aggression – remember that Matt has been fighting an internal battle with himself over the violence he has perpetrated and his ever-increasing desire to perpetrate more ever since he took up the mantle of Daredevil.

The camera follows the action well, using cuts mostly to accentuate the insanity of the melee rather than to disguise the blows being dealt out. It makes sure to highlight each of our heroes at least a couple of times including a very Jessica moment where she knocks out one guy cold with a punch and then gives him an annoyed look as she hammers the elevator down button to prepare their escape. Danny also gets what might be my favorite Chi Punch, yet. He punches Elektra’s sword as she attempts to cut Matt in half and shatters it as well as knocking her back through a wall to give them the time they need to make their escape.

This episode exists solely for the purpose of reaching this final battle, and it shows. It makes a play at some interpersonal issues, some sociopolitical issues, and some investigative work but it all falls flat. The investigative stuff is especially boring after the first time someone figures out where it is they need to be, but the other issues just kind of get dropped so the episode can keep moving which saps them of any narrative power. The final battle is fun and interesting, though, and it’s exciting to finally see all of these heroes together at last. It also contrasts with the “fun and exciting” battle at the end of Game of Thrones’ penultimate episode in  season 7 in that everything that leads up to it at least makes sense even if it’s a bit uninspired. This allows people with a critical eye to enjoy the Defenders scene quite a bit more.

At last they are in the elevator from the teaser trailer and the excitement has begun. Now that The Hand has revealed themselves and our heroes have finally all gathered together the story should finally be able to build up some momentum and we should begin to see some of those awesome comic book hero team up moments we’ve been dying to see. If we’re lucky, we’ll even get to see Jessica knock some sense into Danny.

The Defenders: Mean Right Hook

The promise of the show begins to bear fruit

One-quarter of the way through the first season and the promise of the series – that all four New York mini-heroes would meet up – still hasn’t quite been met. Still progress is being made and the meetups are not half bad. SPOILERS FOLLOW for The Defenders season 1.

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Toward the end of the episode Danny and Luke were both investigating different angles of the same event: apparently The Hand has killed a whole bunch of people and hired a bunch of random guys out of Harlem to come clean up the mess by spraying some sort of acid on the bodies. Side note: the acid only seems to disfigure the bodies to make identifying them more difficult or impossible which is a nice, understated decision; since this is a comic book adaptation they could easily have gotten away with acid that completely dissolved the bodies but it is nice to see them avoid going full ham every once in awhile.

Danny tracked The Hand, Luke tracked the Harlem kids and when Danny went to question one of those kids Luke stepped in to protect him. Super hero team-up stories seem to always require the heroes fight each other but this is a conflict that makes perfect sense, for once. Both of our heroes are amped up on fear and confusion. They’re frustrated because they already feel like they’ve failed to protect someone. They’ve both shown extreme arrogant streaks in their history and have reason to feel that they are more or less invulnerable. Danny doesn’t know the kid’s history; he just knows he seems to be doing the bidding of The Hand. Luke doesn’t know that Danny wants to protect people – or that Danny isn’t a loose cannon who might hurt an innocent in his quest (after further consideration, Danny actually might be a loose cannon, right now) so Luke steps in to deal with Danny. Danny, for his part, doesn’t know that Luke isn’t working for the bad guys either. So they fight.

The fight itself is also well choreographed and while it suffers from the rapid cuts of most American fight scenes it also lingers on some of the shots and shows some blows connecting. The reason for this is two-fold. In order to show Luke’s ability to unflinchingly take a punch they can’t be flashing back and forth between the beginning of an attack and the end because it just won’t make any sense. In order to show off Danny’s ability to punch really fast due to his training and skill in martial arts they actually did some slow motion fighting. Since the speed distortion is there anyway this actually allows them to shoot the fight at a slower speed and then speed it up in post-production rather than the other way around. Fighting more slowly means more precise and less harmful blows, which means they can be shown connecting. Add in some sound effects to give the impression of powerful blows and no one who isn’t analyzing the scene with an eye to figuring out how it was done will know the difference.

So this fight was more enjoyable to watch because it was filmed better but it is also more enjoyable because it teaches us about the characters participating. The opening fight of the series was two unknown people fighting with swords in a sewer. There was nothing in their technique or manner than could be seen in the darkness to help us distinguish between them or understand anything about their goals or desires other than that they both wanted to win the fight. In this fight Luke mostly takes blows, only occasionally bothering to fight back. He’s a protector, not an attacker. He throws Danny rather than punch him because he wants Danny to go away more than he wants to hurt him. Danny neither hesitates nor slows when his enemy reveals himself to be impervious, he just keeps stubbornly trying new attacks as quickly as he can in the hope he can get through. He will not give up no matter how impossible his task may seem.

In another part of town the other two h-words meet up but they don’t fight. This might be the first time since the inception of the Marvel Cinematic Universe that I’ve seen two Marvel heroes meet and not immediately contrive a reason to get into a fight. Jessica Jones is in trouble for tampering with evidence as she pursues her day job as a private investigator, as well as because a man shot himself in her apartment/office. Matt shows up to act as her attorney. It might seem like a huge coincidence that he would somehow pick that case but the episode spends time earlier on a pair of scenes that make this entirely feasible. Foggy is trying to help Matt avoid being Daredevil by overloading him with casework for his day job. Later on Foggy is given a command by his new boss, Jeri Hogarth, to keep an eye on Jessica Jones and make sure any trouble she gets into doesn’t fall back on their office since Jones used to work for them. Foggy almost certainly decided to kill two birds with one stone when he heard Jessica had been picked up by the police and asked Matt to intercede on her behalf. Little does Foggy know that this is very likely to completely undermine the first goal and may not improve their odds of achieving the second very much, but it’s the thought that counts. Murdock and Jessica don’t get to do much together, but the promise is definitely there for some interesting interactions next episode.

I know this week’s post is a bit shorter than normal but that’s probably a blessing considering how long-winded I can be. There’s just not as much to say about an episode of The Defenders as there is something like Game of Thrones. When I finish the series I may try to go back and do some big picture thinking about the series because at this point it is definitely becoming obvious that this was written more as an 8-hour movie than an 8-episode television season. Still, there’s a lot of show left and hopefully we’ll get into some meatier material, soon.

The Defenders: The H Word

The series premiere is mostly a tease.

Now that the cultural phenomenon known as Game of Thrones has ended for at least another year, it’s time to turn my attention to a series that I fully expected to be a cultural phenomenon in its own right but haven’t heard much about: The Defenders.

This is the Netflix version of The Avengers, teaming up all of the Marvel super heroes to have appeared on the streaming platform so far. I know people have watched it, I’ve talked to several of them. But there don’t appear to be strong enough opinions either way to cause the internet to buzz about it in a way that reaches my ear.

When Daredevil first released the internet went bonkers, it was a much better adaptation of the comics than the poorly received Ben Affleck vehicle – though I enjoyed the film when I saw it the year it released, I’m a bit leery of watching it again for fear that it won’t hold up to my matured sensibilities.

When Jessica Jones came out people just about lost their minds. Critics adored Krysten Ritter and David Tennant and they praised the strong story, as well. It was pretty well-received by non-critics as well and I’m not afraid to admit that it is easily my favorite of the Netflix/Marvel collaborations so far.

Luke Cage came and didn’t get quite the praise. It suffered for having a second act and villain which were far less interesting than the ones it started with. Iron Fist suffered from poor writing, some potentially poor acting choices by Finn Jones, and the decision to cast Jones in the first place for a variety of reasons we’re not going to go into here, today. Daredevil season 2 amped up everything, the bad and the good, in a way that left viewers torn. Many people said that the parts featuring Jon Bernthal’s anti-hero The Punisher were the best parts but disliked everything that happened around those bits.

So, yes, the Marvel/Netflix collaborations seem to have been trending down a bit, but they were still doing solid work and drawing plenty of fans, attention, and writing – everyone may have been talking about how bad Iron Fist was, but they were talking about it. Perhaps in watching this we’ll discover why this is. Spoilers follow for any and all Netflix/Marvel shows, including the first episode of The Defenders.

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The H Word drops us straight into an action sequence in a large sewer where a man new to even old Netflix-Marvel fans sword fights with a woman who has her face cinematically obscured throughout the engagement. The camera angles and choreography are fun and interesting in how they obscure the woman’s identity but terrible in how they portray the fight scene. It ends up being an example of the worst things American cinema does to fight scenes, especially TV fight scenes. There are lots of cuts just as blows are about to land, and later when punches begin being thrown, obvious misses by the actors/stunt doubles – this was a common complaint about the fighting in Iron Fist so it isn’t particularly surprising to see the same problem crop up again. You would think they might have spent a bit more time polishing this scene, at least, as these are the first few minutes of the introduction to a highly-anticipated series but they chose not to.

As the fight progresses it is clear that the man is losing the battle, even as it remains unclear which if either of these people is a hero, villain, or well-trained innocent bystander. The man is disarmed, the woman is about to execute him, and then Danny shows up to save him at the last second. Danny quickly begins punching at the woman – this is where the aforementioned fight issues become even worse – and eventually chases her off, but not without first failing his mission to protect the man.

So begins an introduction to the series and it’s characters written in much the same manner as I might have chosen to had I been put in charge. That isn’t a compliment. Each character, their powers, their weaknesses and flaws, and their sidekicks are all introduced methodically throughout the episode. Anyone who has seen all of the previous series is left wondering what the point of all of this is. Anyone who hasn’t gets a rough idea about the basic characteristics of each character but without the backstories contained in their individual seasons that give you reasons to care.

There’s even a cringe-worthy line delivered by Jessica’s friend Malcolm as he tries to help her investigate a case. He boldly declares, “I used to do heroin!” This is something both characters – and even viewers who bothered to watch Jessica Jones are well aware of. The frustrating thing is that if it had been phrased a different way (i.e. “Back when I used to do heroin…”) it probably would have been just fine. The episode also belts viewers over the head with the meaning of the title as Jessica’s friend Trish Walker tries to convince her to go out and save people by calling her a ‘hero’. Jessica immediately reminds her, “You know how I feel about the H word!”

One of the few bits of the show that actually adds new information is the introduction of Sigourney Weaver – her character is unnamed for now and is apparently suffering from a terminal illness but in one of the better moments of the episode she interacts with former Daredevil and Iron Fist villain Madame Gao. Gao is the only villain to survive either of those shows so long time viewers will know her and be impressed by Weaver’s character’s ability to cow her quickly and easily with only a few words and not even a hint of a threat. New viewers, of course, will be left far less impacted by the importance of this scene.

Beyond that we see a moment where Jessica Jones is approached by someone begging her to continue her private investigator work but Jessica is convinced that the woman’s husband is merely cheating on her and doesn’t want to take the job. Fortunately for the woman – and likely the plot of the show – someone calls Jessica and leaves a voicemail while using a voice modulator insisting that she not investigate the case. Anyone who knows Jones at all knows that this was the only way to get her to investigate. It makes me wonder if perhaps this mysterious caller is actually on the side of the Defenders and only did things that way because he or she knows Jessica as well as the audience does.

The episode ends with a massive earthquake shattering buildings and streets throughout New York, affecting all of our characters. Sigourney Weaver delivers a suitably threatening line to a random innocent bystander and the credits roll.

All in all, this isn’t a terrific or particularly memorable episode of television. That’s not a huge slight against it because television pilots rarely are. There are so many introductions and so much plot setup to do that there’s rarely time to be particularly interesting. The primary goal is to simply be not boring. It’s also probably worth noting that as a Netflix series this show has been designed specifically with a Netflix audience in mind; which is to say that it is meant to be binged, not picked apart an episode at a time as I plan to do. A show can be good at both, Jessica Jones I think, is a good example of this, but it is very difficult.

The episode is interesting enough to make at least casual Marvel fans want to keep watching so it probably does it’s job just fine and there is still plenty of time for the show to improve both within the framework of this season and in the future seasons it will inevitably get because even mediocre Marvel properties draw enough interest to be worth keeping around, these days.

It is frustrating to see the show jump back and forth between things the audience should be aware of from previous series and trying to make sure people who haven’t seen them won’t be lost. In trying to do both it largely bores the old hands and leaves the newcomers with plenty of questions. The show would have likely been better served to pick one avenue and stick with it; considering Netflix spent all that money on those other shows I probably would have leaned toward excluding new people to convince them to watch those other series.

 

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.

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!

Final Fantasy XV’s “Story” DLC Problem

Final Fantasy XV’s DLC is significantly worse than the main game.

SPOILER WARNING – I will be going into detail about a few of the story beats in Final Fantasy XV and it’s downloadable content (DLC). Since the DLC mostly takes place toward the end of the game’s timeline, some of these reveals are pretty important to the story, such as it is.

Let’s start with this: Final Fantasy XV is a perfectly acceptable game. It has gorgeous visuals, fun protagonists, and a cheerful, dapper villain who ranks among the most entertaining the series has ever produced. It has it’s flaws, to be sure – and those flaws do keep it from being great – but it’s still a perfectly acceptable game worth spending a bit of time with.

So how did Square Enix fail so incredibly badly with their story DLC?

Before the game even came out Square announced that there would be at least 4 story DLC releases: The Holiday Pack and an episode titled and featuring each of Noctis’ three traveling companions. There was also announced an “Expansion Pack” but it’s unclear if that will contain more than the ability for on-line co-op play if and when it ever comes out. So far three of these DLC have come out: The Holiday pack plus Episode Gladiolus and Episode Prompto. While the main game is, again, perfectly acceptable and improving all the time with patches that add content the DLC is pretty much garbage. How did this happen?

Cut content or bad storytelling

For many people the first question about story DLC is whether that DLC was actually cut from the main game due to time constraints or simple greed. This is a very important question for the Final Fantasy XV DLC because probably the biggest flaw with the DLC is how it fits into the timeline of the story.

The Holiday Pack takes place in some time that is both undefined and seems impossible. During the course of this DLC Noctis roams the city of Altissia with only Carbuncle for a companion. Players of the game will recall that the city is destroyed very shortly after Noctis arrives and that he is never both conscious and without his companions except for when he is participating in a particularly boring and sloppy boss fight. So it doesn’t seem to fit into the timeline at all and is perhaps some pointless fever dream of Noctis’ sometime after Chapter XIII.

The companion episodes take place during clearly defined times – Episode Gladiolus takes place during Gladio’s departure from the party in the main story and Episode Ignis takes place after Noctis accidentally throws the titular hero from a moving train – but that doesn’t really improve much because while they have timing in-universe their story timing is abysmal.

We learn from his DLC that during Gladio’s departure from the party he went into a deadly cave to prove his strength and/or to earn some more. (Which is a dumb idea to begin with, but if you want to hear more about that, check out my YouTube video on the subject.) At the end of the DLC he returns to his friends and claims to have found that strength along with a new katana. Anyone who has played through the game, however, knows that he didn’t have that katana with him and never really talks about or displays this new strength again.

In Prompto’s DLC we learn the dark truth about his past. He is not a natural citizen of Insomnia or even Lucis. He was originally born in Niffleheim but raised in Lucis without telling anyone else. As it turns out a general/scientist of Niffleheim experimented with babies and demons to create the Magitek Troopers our heroes face throughout the story. And Prompto was one of those babies who was kidnapped/rescued by some Lucian spies, though they never told him. This prompts – no pun intended – an existential crisis in Prompto who now believes himself to be a threat to his friends. That is until Aranea shows up and convinces him to suck it up and choose to be a hero anyway.

Two “timing” problems here: most obviously is that Prompto is thrown from a train and somehow ends up in a snowy, mountainous landscape that I don’t recall ever being seen from the train. He then manages to not only catch up to his friends but pass them so he can be captured and tortured for some period of time. Before his final capture he somehow finds some cold weather gear, tromps through the snowy wilderness on foot for some undefined amount of time, passes out, gets captured, escapes, hides out in a cave, optionally wanders around the wilderness with a companion and a snowmobile for some period of time that can be lengthy, invades an enemy stronghold, and then finally sets off for Niffleheim on his snowmobile.  There doesn’t seem to be enough time for all of those things to happen while Noctis and company make 2 quick train stops.

The other problem is that the “big reveal” of this DLC has already been told to anyone who completed the game. In the main story of Final Fantasy XV toward the end of Chapter XIII Noctis finally finds Prompto strapped to a chair and Prompto, from the perspective of anyone who has not played the DLC, confesses to being bred in a lab to become a Magitek Trooper seemingly out of nowhere. This reveal didn’t work in the original game because there was absolutely no foreshadowing to it and it doesn’t change how anyone acts outside of Prompto becoming a bit more subdued after the revelation – something that might have been expected given everything else that’s happened and will happen, anyway. It further doesn’t work in the DLC because anyone who has beaten the game – which are the vast majority of the players who are going to try out this DLC since, like its fellows, it is locked away in a separate sub menu and so can’t be seen through the normal course of events – already knows what he is going to find out about his past and the emotional impact is completely drained from it.

If you’re looking for a good example of how to fit new story elements into your game through story DLC look no further than Mass Effect 2. In that game BioWare added multiple characters and story missions after the game had been released, but the elements they added were both time and gameplay independent. There was also more to the DLC than the new characters and gameplay elements, they added on small bits of interactions in original areas and quests for the new characters throughout the game to make them feel like they were integrated into the story all along. It also helped that you played the story DLC the exact same way as the main game instead of hiding it in an extra menu option as Square Enix did.

Square Enix doesn’t know or understand the strengths of their game

 Few would argue that the game’s biggest strengths are the relationships between the four main characters and the fun of the fast-paced combat – especially teleporting across the battlefield and destroying your enemies with a variety of weapons and magics as Noctis. It’s also called a role-playing game for a reason: it features all of the components of an RPG. Most notably for the purposes of this discussion characters gain experience, items, and equipment from quests and battling enemies that allow them to grow stronger and expands the gameplay.

Each of the DLC stars only one of the four main characters – Noctis, Gladiolus, and Prompto respectively – which means they lack the charm the game gets from the party interactions and the obvious affection they all share for each other.

They also lack the quick combat featured in the main game – The Holiday Pack is mostly a series of mini-games and only two of them feature any sort of combat whatsoever, while those moments are still pretty fun, it’s probably too little. Episode Gladiolus features the hulking bodyguard and thus features slow combat with a focus on massive sword swings. Episode Prompto attempts to jerk the game into being a third-person shooter and fails miserably with clunky mechanics and poor design choices.

The DLC also lack a lot of primary RPG staples. There is no experience to be gained, no skills to learn, and no new equipment to find and use – unless you count the small variety of guns Prompto picks up and misuses as he flails about his story. Even then you find all the possible weapons fairly early and the rest of the content is just spent picking up whatever weapon you come across as it will likely be the one most suited for the next area.

Episode Prompto also appears to have been shipped out the door in an extremely unfinished state. As previously mentioned the lynch pin of this DLC – third-person shooter combat – was both clunky and unsatisfying. But beyond even that it was a bug riddled mess. There were tons of graphics clipping issues, enemies frequently became stuck for no apparent reason allowing them to be killed with no effort, and on more than one occasion an enemy would simply fall through the ground leaving no way for Prompto to escape combat to interact with his environment. This was eventuall resolved by running far, far away so that the enemy would despawn and allow the story to continue.

Given that the DLC ignores the few things that saved the main game from it’s problems is it any wonder that it’s rated so poorly? While the main game features a solid 81 rating on Metacritic Episode Gladiolus managed only a very disappointing 51. The Episode Prompto DLC reached an uninspiring but surprising 70. It would seem some reviewers were favorably impressed enough by the amount of content that was available with the inclusion of a lot more space and side quests than was available in Episode Gladiolus to ignore it’s other shortcomings.

Square Enix can bring back more of the charm of the character relationships, tell a story that players don’t already know the ending to in an interesting way, and return to the high-quality combat of the main title in their future DLC. If they do so, they can still salvage some fun and send Final Fantasy XV players off with some hope for the next full-game installment.