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Season 8, episode 5 (2 updates)



Ken Ilgunas and David Dalton are reviewing each episode of the final season of Game of Thrones. Check the “Game of Thrones” category to list all of these posts.


David:

Mornin’, Ken …

We just watched, I believe, the most extraordinary television episode ever made. It wasn’t just the spectacle, which topped all the previous accomplishments of this series. It also was the drama. In the middle of all that destruction and death, it was the fates of our beloved characters that kept us mesmerized.

I miss Varys already. The Hound did not deserve to die either, but at least he took his monster brother with him into the flames. So much for wondering whether Jaime would save Cersei or kill her. Instead he arrived just in time to die with her. Good riddance to Euron. Qyburn deserved a slower death, but as expected he was killed by one of his own creations.

You know how much I have wanted this series to follow the trajectories of classical storytelling, with a satisfying and irony-free ending in which, on the whole, good triumphs over evil. With one episode remaining, we are on course for that. There was no way that Cersei was going to go down easy. She got her just deserts (with an enormous amount of unjust collateral damage). Much justice was done in this episode, yet much injustice was done in the process. At least three of the remaining characters — Jon, Tyrion, and Grey Worm — are greatly disturbed by this injustice. The camera spent a great deal of time on the suffering of the innocents, about which Tyrion and Varys had worried so much. Injustice and cruelty on that scale do not bode well for Daenerys. Grey Worm’s troops could have gone to the Red Keep and captured Cersei. But Daenerys wanted total destruction. She will have to pay.

And though we are on course for a classical ending, it’s not at all apparent how that will be achieved. Since dying in dyads seems to be the new thing, it’s conceivable that Jon could die with Daenerys, or that Tyrion could die with her. It’s possible that Daenerys will abdicate the throne, recognizing her own unsuitability, and cede the throne to Jon, because she knows that Jon is loved and she is not. But I think we should believe Jon when he has said so many times that he does not want the throne. And yet, how could Jon go on living and not accept the throne, since by the rules it is his?

As for the throne itself, I wonder if it isn’t safe to suppose that the throne was destroyed and will never be used again. That probably bodes well for the future of the Seven Kingdoms. I expect the capital to move — to Winterfell. Was that snow falling in the final scenes, or ashes? When a heroine gets up from the rubble and storms away on a white horse, what can that foreshadow other than last-minute matters of urgent justice? Both Jon and Arya appear to have rethought their lives while Kings Landing burned. The setup for the final episode is as near-perfect as any mortal writer could make it.


Ken:

Morning David,

GoT’s episode scores on Rotten Tomatoes are getting progressively worse. At this time, the latest episode, “The Bells,” is less than fifty percent “fresh.”

This is a bit surprising to me because I thought “The Bells” was exceptional. Spectacular even. I agree with you that this might have been the finest hour in the history of television.

That said, I think some of the criticism is probably valid, centered on the question of the Mad Queen: Was Dany’s descent into madness true to her character? But the fact that we’re asking this question is partly what makes it so exceptional. Her turn was both a surprise and a reasonable outcome. It is Martin at his best. Or Martin at his almost best.

If you think her turn was too abrupt and too out of character, I can see why someone might hate this episode. Frankly, I don’t know. Just an episode or two ago she seemed well adjusted. And she has been a beloved character for eight seasons, freeing slaves along the way, who has always done well to manage her worst instincts. So maybe it seemed a touch unpleasantly random. I get that. That said, I respect the hell out of Martin for creating such a naughty story: We watch a young and charming idealist build power for eight seasons and then, at the last moment, she turns everything to ash. No other writer would be so bold. This defies all the norms of classic storytelling.

Maybe it could have been foreshadowed better? Maybe we should have seen more of her madness before she did what she did? One episode she’s fighting alongside Jon in the north and she’s clearly got all of her wits. A few days later her hair is a mess, her eyes are wild, and then she’s burning a city alive? I’m thinking that maybe her descent into madness could have been a bit more complete.

I suppose we also have to ask the question: What’s in this for Dany, the breaker of chains? Why is conquering Westeros so important if you’re just going to burn it to the ground? Why not take the remains of your army back to Essos, where you’re loved?

I ask these questions because I’m wondering if there was a point to what just happened. Is this her breaking the wheel? Is this her ending tyranny? Did these people need to die and did the city need to burn for, as she says, the future generations of Westeros? Why does she even care about the future generations? I suppose the ultimate question is: Is there a larger point to her destiny (that doesn’t even factor in her own wellbeing)? Or is Martin saying that there is no such thing as destiny, and that Dany’s story is the story of a ruthless conquistador, who wrongly thinks they’re fighting for a higher purpose, when they’re not…

If there is a point, maybe “The Bells” lays the groundwork for a more peaceful empire, even if her life must be sacrificed along with the thousands of innocents in their crisped hovels and charred alleyways. Maybe this is just me trying to twist the narrative into what feels right and expected and narratively-coherent. But maybe Martin is saying “nonsense” to all of that. Maybe he’s still breaking with the traditions of classic storytelling. And I love him for that; even he’s not leading us to a place where we can satisfyingly watch, in the last moments of the show, the king and queen united, and the kingdom at peace, just as the curtains close.

I’m eager to discuss this more, but a few stray thoughts for now…

– Sandor Clegane has long been my favorite character. His last moments with Arya were touching, and his death with his brother, though hard to watch, seemed like a proper end to his character. The makeup, costumes, and setting design (which too often go unnoticed) were top notch. These were like two gods duking it out on the peak of Olympus. To use an overused word, it was epic. He died with his vital life force: revenge, plunging her brother, and himself, into the flames that made them who they were. Without his death, there may have been nothing to keep him going and nothing to feed his better instincts.

– I thought Jamie and Cersei’s deaths were beautiful.

– One quibble with your review. I do not think Grey Worm was disturbed by the injustice, but that he was complicit in it. I believe it was him who hurled the spear at the Lannister army that’d already surrendered. He let his mid-battle bloodlust get the best of him.

– I would be very upset if the Iron Throne was melted off camera. That’s a hugely symbolic moment that I hope they’ll show us next week.

– Very fascinating theory about Winterfell being the new capital. It’s not a great port city or well positioned, but why not? Does Sansa somehow get to be queen? I don’t see how that’ll work. But you’re right to imagine a whole bunch of successor scenarios, and dyads dying together.

– I thought the whole episode was a visual and cinematic spectacle. The camera work, the flames, the defenses, the rubble… It was a visual feast, but in a more honest way than what we saw in the zombie battle episode. Here, we saw pain, devastation, rape, murder, bloodlust. We saw the worst instincts of mankind. Has GoT said anything more honest?

– I think that is probably the last we’ve seen from Arya, unless it’s an image of her getting on a boat and sailing away. It was a fitting and beautiful end to her story.

– Emilia Clarke’s acting was outstanding. The best we’ve seen from her. Give her an Emmy.

– I don’t think it was in Missandei’s character to yell, “Dracarys!” in the last episode. Why is a former slave telling Dany to kill a whole bunch of innocent people? Where does Missandei’s rage come from? She was taken fairly in battle and given a swift death. It would have been more in character to tell Grey Worm and Dany that she loves them in her last moments. And that would have given Dany more reason to do what she did.

– Will Dany snap out of her murderous delirium, and say, “What have I done?” Or is she the Mad Tyrant from now on?

– What’s to be done? Tyrion and Jon and the rest are appropriately horrified. Will Dany take a sword in the back? By whom? I think the conventional storytelling arcs, if they’re to be trusted, has the Mad Queen going down and the Just King taking her place on the Iron Throne. That would be the end that most satisfies the typical consumer of Western storytelling. But at this point it’s fair to say, “Who the hell knows.”


Update 1:

David:

I’m so glad we agree on the quality of this episode. As for the progressively worse reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, that is very interesting. All I can suggest is that it’s what I call “vindictive” reviewing, which I often see in Amazon book reviews that take a stand on a controversial subject. To a vindictive book reviewer, if you don’t like the book’s message, then it must be a bad book. By now, I suppose, so many people’s pet ideas have been frustrated that they’ve gotten vindictive because they haven’t had their way. Maybe that’s an advantage of my easy ability to suspend disbelief. I just go with it and don’t complain very much. Not that I would do that with just any author. But I trust Martin.

To follow up on some of your observations:

— If Daenerys is mad, it comes and goes. We’ve seen this before, as when she crucified the slave traders in Meereen. Though it was cruel overkill, that was an act of justice. As for the innocents inside the walls of King’s Landing, surely Cersei deserves some of the blame for that. She brought them inside to use as shields. It’s not that I’m apologizing for Daenerys. I’m only thinking of how, in Game of Thrones, there is never a sharp line between good and evil (except maybe for Jon). As for the state of Daenerys’ soul, much depends on what she does next.

— That Sansa could end up as queen surely is a possibility. That the next king or queen should be loved seems to be a rule. Sansa is loved, though not as much as Jon is loved. As for the other rules of succession, one rule surely must be noble blood. In addition to Daenerys, that would leave Jon, Sansa, Arya, Bran, and Tyrion, and maybe Yara as candidates. If Martin or HBO violate the rules of classic storytelling, it’s even possible that we don’t even end up with a winner. Instead we end up with a failed state, and winter coming. Yikes.

— That Arya’s storming away on a white horse was the last we’ll see of her makes sense. But what would she do? Wander, with winter coming on? I think she sees Winterfell as her home. She loves her siblings. Surely she will return there. The opening scenes of the next episode could be in some unexpected place, as part of the endplot. But I’m guessing that we’ll go to Winterfell next.

Having said that I trust Martin and willingly suspend disbelief for him, it would be a huge blow to my psyche and to my sense of story if we get a twisted ending with whiffs of nihilism and more injustice and unhappiness than I can stomach. Still, it’s a great credit to Martin as a writer that with an hour to go, anything could happen.


Ken:

Scanning the reviews, it appears the biggest gripe is about Dany’s unearned turn from idealist wannabe queen to genocidal nutcase. They have a point. All of a sudden she becomes her crazy father, even though she hasn’t exhibited any real symptoms. I think we have to ask ourselves if this is indeed truly bad storytelling. You’re right that she’s judiciously executed others (usually individuals or slaveowners in small groups), but never have we seen her kill innocents, and I don’t think Cersei can take any of the blame for that. The battle had been won. Soldiers were surrendering and the bells were ringing. The people weren’t at all being used as shields. Dany had gone full-on crazy. No one can be on Team Dany anymore, and that’s got to be very hard for fans. She might be able to make a better decisions after she wakes from her bloodlust, but I don’t think there’s anything to be salvaged. Even kind gestures will not change the fact that a beloved character’s soul has turned rotten for good.

I don’t think you’re appreciating the gravity of her crimes. I suppose I’m suggesting that the criticism of the episode isn’t entirely vindictive and that there are reasonable complaints. I loved the episode, but it might have been a bit more logical if we’d seen her turn foreshadowed better.

I’ll say it again, though: this was a magnificent episode. I’ve had my issues with the show, as you know. I thought the writers committed a dereliction of duty by failing to bring cosmological closure to the White Walkers. I thought there’s been a few too many cheesy action scenes. The last two seasons have been out of pace with the rest of the series. I thought the political machinations (so clever at first!) have gotten dumber over the seasons. I could go on. But I think this episode makes up for missteps. I think the show has found its footing for the finale. GoT is not perfect, for all the reasons I’ve shared these past few weeks, but at this point it knows where it’s going and is poised to conclude grandly.

— I think you’re right about Dany coming to her senses. Perhaps abdication is her way of regaining a tiny bit nobility after her genocide. Giving the Throne to Jon and heading back to rule Essos would be for the greater good, but I’m doubtful it ends that cleanly.

— I could be wrong, but I do think that that’s the last we’ll see of Arya. She’ll be a better sort of Clegane. A knight errant, but one who’s not driven by hatred or revenge. I do not think she’ll return to Winterfell. She said as much to Clegane on their path to King’s Landing.

— Care to make any predictions of where everyone winds up? Mine:

Bran crawls into a Weirwood tree and lives among its roots.
Dany gets murdered.
Grey Worm dies defending Dany.
Jon‘s the reluctant king with Davos as his hand.
Sansa either becomes Jon’s hand or rules as warden of the north.
Tyrion dies. I’m not sure where he belongs…
Brienne is the captain of the King’s Guard.
Bronne? No idea.
Arya sails off the west coast into waters unknown.
Sam becomes grand maester of Citadel.
Yara is never on camera again.

Who am I forgetting?


Update 2:

David:

If it turns out to be true that Daenerys has succumbed to the Targaryen madness, then I think I’ll continue to be the contrarian here and say that it was decently foreshadowed. In researching the history of the Mad King, this turned up:

“The Mad King was obsessed with it. He loved to watch people burn, the way their skin blackened and blistered and melted off their bones. He burned lords he didn’t like. He burned Hands who disobeyed him. He burned anyone who was against him. Before long, half the country was against him. Aerys saw traitors everywhere. So he had his pyromancers place caches of wildfire all over the city. Beneath the Sept of Baelor and the slums of Flea Bottom. Under houses, stables, taverns. Even beneath the Red Keep itself.”

―Ser Jaime Lannister

Did you notice how, as King’s Landing was burning, there were bursts of green fire here and there? That, I would assume, would be leftover caches of the Mad King’s wildfire, connecting lots of dots.

This is not looking good for Daenerys. I feel for the fans who loved her. She is very likeable, when she isn’t cruel. If there was a last straw that tipped her over the edge emotionally (and there were many recent provocations including the murder of Missandei and Varys’ treason), then I’d say it was her last scene with Jon, in which she realized that she had lost him. Jon might have been her last connection to a world of good.


Ken:

Indeed, there’s plenty of foreshadowing to draw from. She’s mercilessly burnt many and it’s in her DNA. But she’s also amazingly resilient. At the end of Season One, she’d lost her man, all the Dothraki, even the clothes she wore. All she had was Jorah and few Dothraki stragglers (and three baby dragons). Yet she believed in herself and prevailed. I don’t know if it’s right that her recent losses merit her complete plunge into madness. Yes, she’s lost a lot. (Jorah, Missandei, two dragons, half an army, and a romance with Jon). But she still had a lot! (Friendship with Jon, a dragon, half an army, various cities to the east under her influence, her health, her youth, etc.) There is nothing about King’s Landing or the Lannisters that should summon the degree of rage she exhibited, at least on the surface level. (I’m open to hear deeper, more psychological explanations tying in her unusual relationship with Westeros as her birth country, not to mention her murdered parents or messed up family life.)

I see this all as a healthy debate and I’m definitely not firmly on the critics’ side; I merely think such criticisms (at least as we’ve framed the debate) are healthy literary criticisms. I think I would only argue, as Josh has articulated for me, that we needed to see more psychic breakdown between the zombie battle and the King’s Landing battle.


Why do we know so little about socialism?



John Rawls: Reticent Socialist, by William A. Edmundson. Cambridge University Press, 2017. 212 pages.


I am going to propose an answer to the question that I raise in the headline: The reason we know so little about socialism is that, for two generations, since the era of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, the Overton window has been narrowed and pulled hard to the right. Socialism now lies outside the range of ideas tolerated in public discourse. Even Democrats are terrified of the word socialism, because it’s now a grenade word flung from the right to demonize and sabotage any idea that might reduce economic and political inequality or that might help the poor or hurt the rich. (Not that this is new. Decades ago, the right also saw the development of Social Security and Medicare as treacherous socialism.) The end of the Soviet Union in 1991 is believed to have been the last word on the viability of socialism.

Public discourse now holds that, on the matter of socialism, the case is closed. Yes, Bernie Sanders rudely brought up the subject. But few people really know what he might be talking about. If Sanders himself knows, he’s doing a very poor job of explaining it. The political problem for liberals seems to be, how can we make gains in justice and equality without being defeated at the outset by the s-word grenade?

But there is a very great irony here, though it is an irony that only the intelligentsia are aware of. That is that, while the idea of socialism was being driven out of public discourse, enormous progress in moral and political philosophy was being made behind the scenes, in academia. In 1971, John Rawls published A Theory of Justice. This book almost certainly will stand as the most important work of the 20th Century in moral and political philosophy. Rawls, in dialogue with other scholars, continued to develop his theory of justice throughout his life. He died in 2002. The year before his death, he published Justice as Fairness: A Restatement. Those were his last words on the subject.

Rawls’ theory of justice is still very active terrain in academia, though it rarely spills over into public discourse. Why is that? I would suggest that there are two reasons. The first is that justice as fairness lies outside the Overton window, and it is far too liberal to be tolerated in today’s public discourse. The second is that what has been written on the theory is very difficult to read. It is written by philosophers, for philosophers. I recently complained to a friend that, in other difficult subjects such as physics, we have science journalists who work to make progress in science known to the intelligent public. Scientists themselves often write books for lay readers. In philosophy, there is a wall between public discourse and the ivory tower. If there are journalists of philosophy, at least in English, I don’t know who they are. If you are, like me, an ordinary non-academic but motivated person, and you want to know about justice as fairness, you’ve got to climb a wall.

Edmundson’s John Rawls: Reticent Socialist, though it is as dense and difficult to read as Rawls, wants to make only one simple point. That is that Rawls eventually concluded that liberal democratic socialism is the only form of government that satisfies the requirements of justice as fairness. Five types of government are candidates. Four types fail: property-owning democracy, laissez-faire capitalism, welfare-state capitalism, and state socialism. (The Soviet Union, by the way, was an example of state socialism.)

Before Rawls, Karl Marx would have been the go-to source on socialism. The hippies of the 1960s had only Marx. (In fact, the hippies of the 1960s almost destroyed the manuscript for A Theory of Justice. Rawls was at Stanford University at the time, and the manuscript was in his office. In April 1970, students firebombed the building in which Rawls’ office was located. The adjoining office was completely destroyed. Rawls’ office had smoke and water damage. Rawls and his wife salvaged the soaked but legible manuscript, dried the pages, and retyped it.) After Rawls, I think it would be safe to say that Marx is now mostly obsolete and mostly of historical interest.

It would be similarly safe to say that, after Rawls, the previous state-of-the-art in moral philosophy is obsolete and has been replaced by justice as fairness. That would be utilitarianism, which boils down to the greatest good for the greatest number, a moral philosophy under which some can be permitted to suffer if it makes others better off. Justice as fairness does not allow the suffering of the few for the benefit of the many.

Of course Rawls has critics. It has been a while since I attempted a brief survey of arguments against Rawls. My impression, as I recall, was that many of Rawls’ critics are people such as academic theologians who don’t want what they see as the authority of “revealed” sources made obsolete and superseded by human reason.

Because Rawls almost never comes up in public discourse, it occurred to me to wonder how I became aware of Rawls in the first place. I believe that the answer to that is that Thomas Piketty refers to Rawls in Capital in the Twenty-First Century. There are four references to Rawls in that book’s index (only one is in the text; the other three are in the notes). The title of Rawls’ first book, A Theory of Justice, certainly would have caught my eye, and that’s probably when I looked into it and ordered the book from Amazon.

Rawls’ ideas — whether on justice as fairness or on socialism — are just too much for me to try to go into there. I can only encourage people to do their own reading. One reason that Rawls (not to mention Edmundson) is difficult to read is that there is a long list of concepts that must be understood. The concepts have names that often aren’t very helpful. For example, it’s not enough just to know the meaning of the English word “reciprocity,” because the term stands for a much more complicated concept in Rawls’ writing. Other terms are “the difference principle,” “fair value,” “the special psychologies,” “distributive justice,” “envy,” “excusable envy,” “ideal theory,” “non-ideal theory,” “lexical priority,” “the motivation principle,” “nearly just society,” “non-comparing groups,” “peace by satisfaction,” “perfectly ordered society,” “principle of continuity,” “pure procedural justice,” “pure ownership,” “reasonable pluralism,” “reconciliation requirement,” “reflective equilibrium,” “relative stability,” “restricted utility principle,” “self-esteem,” “self-respect,” “social minimum,” “socially dangerous extent,” “testamentary freedom,” “unusual risk aversion,” “well-ordered society,” and so on.

All of the above terms are of course defined somewhere, but the trick is to grasp the concept when you first encounter it and attach that concept to its term. I would suggest that anyone who wishes to read up on justice as fairness make a list of these terms as they are encountered, with one’s own notes on what they mean. The terms are used over and over again, and if you’ve forgotten the concept, then the text will be opaque.

The memory of relatively recent experiments in socialism (at least in the English-speaking world) also are being lost. I was born in 1948, and thus I have no memory of Clement Attlee, who followed Winston Churchill as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom in 1945. Attlee did deliver on his promise of bringing socialism to the United Kingdom. That form of government stood until Margaret Thatcher dismantled it. I know very little about this period, so a biography of Attlee and a history of that period in the United Kingdom are now on my reading list.

Ironically, academic philosophers are aware of how other and better alternatives to our current form of government are unknown to most people (though they’re doing next to nothing about it). Edmundson quotes Michael Walzer:

For many years now, I have been worrying about what might be called the cultural reproduction of the left. [I]n comparison with the different religious communities, the secular left does not seem able to pass on to its next generations a rich intellectual culture or an engaging popular culture. The tradition is thin. I worried about this with regard to the American left and also, in greater anxiety, with the regard to the Zionist left.

Indeed, the problem is general…. [C]ompare three national liberation movements — in India, Israel, and Algeria. In each case, the movement was secular and leftist; in each case, it succeeded in establishing a secular state; and in each case, this secular state was challenged some 30 years later by religious zealots. Three different religions but three similar versions of zealotry: modernized, politicized, ideological. The leaders of the secular liberationists, people like Nehru, Ben-Gurion, and Ben Bella, were convinced that secularization was inevitable — the disenchantment of the social world. But they did not succeed in creating a rich cultural alternative to the old religion. They thought they didn’t have to do that; modern science was the alternative. Modern science, however, does not produce emotionally appealing life-cycle celebrations or moving accounts of the value and purpose of our lives. That’s what religion does, and secular leftism, though often described on analogy with religion, has not been similarly creative.

What this all boils down to, I think, is that those of us on the left have a great deal of intellectual work to do. And, having done some of that work, it must be shared with the rational public.

I’ll attempt an analogy to cooking. I have sometimes made fun of some provincial Chinese restaurants in these parts after discovering that Mexicans are doing the cooking. That cooking is bound to be terrible, because the cooks don’t even understand what they’re trying to achieve. So it is with alternatives to our endangered American democracy, with its appalling injustices and its extreme economic and political inequalities. Something must be done about it. But we’re not even sure what we’re trying to achieve, or how to talk about it.

How did that happen? Partly, as Walzer said, we on the left have been doing a poor job. And partly it’s that the sheer meanness and glibness of the opposition, with their simple, cunning, and deceitful stories — have gotten way out ahead of us.

The left needs a clear vision of what it wants to achieve. The left needs the necessary concepts and language for a public discourse in which we can work out our differences, and for what Walzer calls “cultural reproduction.” And somehow this must be explained to the many, many people who would benefit but who have very hard heads addled by fundamentalist religion and opposition propaganda.

Restoring a vintage cast iron skillet



The 1940s skillet after stripping, scouring, and one seasoning treatment. It looks brand new!

I bought this vintage cast iron skillet at an antique shop in Stuart, Virginia, for $17. It’s a great skillet, and it was a good bargain, though it’s not as collectible as some vintage cast iron, which is very much a thing now. But, since I bought it to use, it would be hard to do better.

Back in March, I wrote here about my interest in returning to the iron age of cookware — chiefly cast iron for skillets and heavy copper for saucepans. But I also like Corning Visions glass pots for cooking with liquids, because glass is so inert.

Why do you want to cook with cast iron? Many people are returning to cast iron, after realizing that, properly seasoned, it’s the original non-stick cookware. The cast iron surface does not degrade if properly maintained, and so cast iron cookware is durable enough to become heirlooms (try that with Teflon).

If you look at vintage cast iron cookware on eBay, you’ll find that pieces made by the most respected manufacturers — Griswold and Wagner, for example — have become very valuable and very collectible. Why would anyone prefer the vintage cast iron cookware to the very good cast iron cookware manufactured today in the U.S. by Lodge?

The reason is a good one, actually. If you look at the surface of a new piece of Lodge ironware, you’ll see that it has a kind of sandy finish from the casting process. I believe it actually is cast in sand. Today’s Lodge ironware has not been polished, because polishing probably would double the cost. Most vintage ironware, however, has been polished. You can see the difference if you look closely.

If you look at the photo above, you’ll see that the cooking surface has a circular pattern. That pattern was made by a rotating polishing stone. That’s what you’re looking for in vintage ironware. The polished surface is smoother and makes the surface more non-stick than an unpolished sandy surface.

Because vintage ironware is a thing, if you Google you’ll find many good sources on how to restore and re-season old pieces and how to identify what you’ve found. After watching eBay for a while, I’d say that bargains are difficult to find there. Sellers know what they’ve got. You’re probably more likely to find vintage ironware at a good price in your local antique stores.

Notice that my new skillet is not stamped with the name of its manufacturer. However, there are some features that pretty conclusively identify the manufacturer and the date. There is no “Made in USA” stamp, which means that the skillet dates from the 1950s or earlier. The “7” is the size of the skillet. A No. 7 skillet is just over 10 inches wide at the top and is pretty much the right size to fit exactly on a large burner on a modern range. The “D” identifies the product type (though I don’t know what it stands for). But the identifying factors are the notches in the heat ring at 3, 9, and 12 o’clock. That makes it close to a certainty that this is a vintage Lodge skillet. It probably was made during the 1940s.

Lye, by the way, is very effective at stripping the old seasoning from a vintage skillet. Check the label, but most oven cleaners are made of lye. After stripping, the bare iron will be a kind of battleship gray. After seasoning, it will turn black. Though my new skillet had very minor amounts of rust, it wasn’t enough to cause a problem during restoration. Stripping and scouring (with steel wool) removed the rust. If you’re shopping for vintage ironware, watch out for pitting on the cooking surface or heavy rust — anything that makes the cooking surface less smooth. What you see in my top photo is pretty much ideal, if you’re buying the ironware to use for cooking. You’ll probably find that most old ironware has pitting or other damage. But with luck you may find an old jewel at a decent price.


How it looked when I brought it home — not bad!


The back of the skillet. Note the light rust after 4 o’clock and 9 o’clock, and the notches in the heat ring at 3, 9, and 12.


Light rust on the top edge of the skillet


Stripping the skillet with oven cleaner

Season 8, episode 4 (4 updates)



Ken Ilgunas and David Dalton are reviewing each episode of the final season of Game of Thrones. Check the “Game of Thrones” category to list all of these posts.


David:

Mornin’, Ken…

This beautiful episode reminds us that in spite of Game of Thrones’ achievements in world-building, plot-spinning, and politicking, it’s the characters that really matter. We got quality time with all of our favorite characters — those who remain alive, anyway — as they tried to wring some moments of fire-lit happiness out of the temporary peace. Even so, most of their hearts were broken by the end of the episode, which is of course what must happen in a story, if any are to end up permanently happy when the final curtain comes down.

With the death of Missandei, I don’t expect many more deaths (other than villains) in the last two episodes. Two or three more deaths of characters we love will be required to clear a path to the throne, in acts of violent payback and acts of self-sacrifice. But I think (or hope, anyway) that having brought the remaining characters this far, there will be no more deaths hereafter other than deaths that are strictly necessary to the plot.

At last we are focusing on the endgame of who will get the throne. The candidates are (or seem to be) Jon, Daenerys, and Cersei. Still, even with all the war and politics involved, the question of the throne comes down to relationships and character. Martin’s long investment in rich characters is paying a wealth of dividends as we approach the end. Viewers are being invited to take sides: Whom do we want to end up on the throne? After a long dry spell of Tyrion-Varys scheming, much of the analysis is done for us, and I can’t say that I disagree with it. Is Varys contemplating assassination?

As the end-plot unfolds, I think it’s useful to look at the motivations of the key characters to make predictions about who will do what. Grey Worm now requires atonement for the murder of Missandei. Arya and the Hound are probably on the way to to King’s Landing. Cersei, of course, is still on Arya’s list. The Hound is just the right person to kill Gregor Clegane, his monster brother (probably with some fire involved). Though Jaime gave us to believe that he was returning to King’s Landing to protect Cersei, he could just as easily kill her. Though Brienne (poor Brienne!) has a duty to protect Sansa, love will surely bring her back into the action (and, I hope, for a reunion with Jaime). Podrick will go with her. I’m guessing that Sam is out of the action now, and the wildlings, too. Gendry is now indebted to Daenerys and must join the action. Yara has dibs on killing Euron (slowly, one hopes). The awful Qyburn must die. As for who kills Qyburn, I can’t think of a better death for him than some contraption or creation of his own backfiring on him. Bronn will kill somebody; I just hope that it’s a villain. I’m afraid that we may lose Varys, not only because he is contemplating treason but also because his loyalty to the little people will demand a sacrifice. If Varys does die, we can expect him to make his death count. Bran seems superfluous at this point, yet surely he has a remaining part to play. With Sansa and Bran at Winterfell, the story must return there before the end. Daenerys is in a rage. That bodes ill for her future, because Daenerys is not a nice person when she’s in a rage.

The plot is now congealing. Like buttermilk being churned, with the small lumps of butter coming together into larger and larger lumps, the possible number of outcomes are now rapidly being reduced. And yet there is plenty of room to shock us and surprise us in the final episode.

Two mysteries: Is Cersei really pregnant by Euron, or is she only lying to him to motivate him? That will matter to Jaime. Tyrion asked Jaime about Brienne’s genitals. When Brienne unbuttoned her shirt, the camera turned away. There are three options, I suppose: that she is fully a woman; that her gender is ambiguous and intersex; or that she is physically male. I have no idea which. But we’re assured that it will be revealed. Brienne is the purest soul in the entire cast of characters. She is a Joan of Arc, living according to her inner lights and suffering because of her differences. That it should be so is a mark of George R.R. Martin’s genius. In all of literature, only the Arthur story can compete with Martin’s cast of characters.


Ken:

Morning David.

Last season ended with snowflakes falling over King’s Landing. Yet, in this episode, it looked like a warm day outside the walls of the capital, didn’t it? Winterfell didn’t look too winterly itself. Apparently, whether it’s White Walkers or winter, it doesn’t matter too much if they’re coming.

The show has invested for years in its characters, as you say, and it almost doesn’t matter if there a few glaring plot holes, so long as we get to follow them to their destinations for a few more hours.

I do think the series has mostly lost me, but this wasn’t a bad episode. It was fun to see some clever banter between Tyrion and Varys, and the political situation (for Dany especially) does indeed seem complicated and hard to predict. Stray thoughts…

– For having just faced about a million zombies, there was, in Winterfell, 1) remarkably little reflection on what the hell just happened, and 2) a remarkable number of survivors. I’m craving some Night King closure. And half the Unsullied survived?! At the end of the last battle, the zombies had overrun everything and the only survivors left were our favorite heroes with their backs against the wall. Also, where are all these hot northern women coming from? The north, by now, should be covered in a glacier embedded with a million rotting bodies, and the people should be suffering from famine, fatigue, and disease. Instead, Dany still has half of her resources and everyone’s shacking up in Winterfell.

– What is the point of Bran? For all his powers of warging and time-travel, he’s become a rather impotent character. What has he accomplished apart from a few reconnaissance missions and figuring out Jon’s parentage?

– Are the knights of the Vale still sitting out all the important battles?

– I would have preferred that Jaime and Brienne never have consummated their love with a sexual act. Theirs seemed to be a rare and special bond, one forged by admiration and a deeper, more complicated variety of love. Jaime was reborn in a way because of Brienne, whose purity of soul made him realize that some inner part of him still clung to the ideal of living a life of honor. And now they have some unprotected sex and Jaime leaves halfway through the night? Brienne deserves erotic love, too, but I would have liked the show to have celebrated a rare form of love (just as there have been rare sorts of characters to be loved), rather than just throwing two more characters in the sack together. It sort of cheapens something distinct.

– I take it that Jaime is still conflicted about what to do with his sister. The only sensible thing his character can do, now that he’s ever more soaking up the purity of Brienne, is to kill his sister.

– Varys does seem to be contemplating assassination! This is an interesting development, and it works because everyone is being true to their character and their character’s motivations.

– Our favorite commenter, Josh, once predicted that Dany’s purpose is to “break the wheel” of the constantly warring kingdoms in order to end the very idea of kingdoms. In this theory, perhaps Dany could do for Westeros what Charlemagne did with the many little kingdoms of Germany and France, which is to weaken all these little kingdoms to the point of obsolescence and unify them to form the one great Dark Age empire, the Carolingian Empire. However, Dany’s award of Storm’s End to Gendry seems to be a continuation of this old style of government, perhaps ruining this “wheel-breaking” theory. Maybe so, but I’d still love to see her final dragon melt the Iron Throne.

– How does this end? Dany has fewer and fewer allies. Will Westeros be the Carolingian empire or Brexit?

– Jon is acting as admirably as he can, though I’m not sure why he felt so compelled to tell his sisters the truth about himself. Ned Stark kept Jon’s genetics a secret for decades. Why can’t Jon?

– There’s no way Cersei has been impregnated by Euron. You’ll remember that she claimed she was pregnant well before she met Euron. (There’s the chance she’s been faking it all along, of course.) In any case, Euron should be wondering how Tyrion knew of Cersei’s pregnancy. This display of accidental knowledge could perhaps create some tension in the King’s Landing royal bedroom.

– Interesting theory about Brienne as a possible intersex character. If you watch the one scene where she gets naked in the hottub with Jaime (in season three, I believe), the camera cleverly left her body parts concealed, and I do recall a surprised look on Jaime’s face. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rBb3Q8VdYas

– You’re a big Brienne fan. What would you have done with the Jaime/Brienne bond? Also, remind me to go on my rant about “Chekov’s gun.”


Update 1:

David:

I can agree with you that the transition from battle to drinking and shacking up was a bit abrupt. But we did have the pyre scenes for grieving and for properly paying respect to the dead. Life goes on — and in filmmaking I suppose it must go on a little more quickly than in books. But, as we’ve discussed before, I am all too eager to suspend disbelief and to accept what I’m shown without too much question (especially if I love the characters as much as I love the Game of Thrones characters).

The question you raise about Brienne’s purity and the consummation (I really dislike that loaded word) of the Jaime-Brienne relationship is worth some disputation. I must ask if you might be seeing their love through an Augustinian lens, a lens that very much informed the ethic of what I call the romantic myth, and the Arthur story. It’s an extremely weird lens, though our culture has internalized it and normalized it. In the Augustinian ethic, purity is a very high (and a very conservative) value. In that ethic, sex is a great defiler of purity. The right people get to do it, and their doing it is glorified and romanticized and celebrated. But others are forbidden to do it, and their doing it is condemned as wrong and shameful, and even unnatural. But the Augustinian lens is not the only lens, though it took over the world after Rome. There still exists a pagan lens, a kind of classical lens, the shreds of which survived the destruction of the classical world.

What kind of world is the Game of Thrones world, where sexual ethics are concerned? I was amused by what one of your readers on Facebook said about Game of Thrones: “Watching society approved PORNOGRAPHY and graphic violence? No Thanks. I think it also says alot about society where incest and other taboos are portrayed and enjoyed on a high ranking show. SMH.” Many people have been offended by sexual behaviors on Game of Thrones. Do you really want to join them? (I recognize that you’re not offended, that what you’re expressing is disappointment in an element of the story.)

You acknowledge that Brienne deserves erotic love, too. I would even say that she deserves it more than any other character. If she is so deserving, then would it be fair for us to want to withhold it from her or to expect her to sublimate it for some value that we regard as higher? Far from cheapening the relationship, I think that Jaime’s seduction of Brienne ennobled the relationship — and ennobled Jaime along with it. Jaime loves Brienne, though, having eyes only for Cersei, he does not seem to be in love with Brienne. Maybe Jaime saw that, regardless of where his destiny might take him next, knowing that Brienne was a virgin and that she loves him, and given that lots of people around them were getting laid, this night was Brienne’s night. Fundamental fairness demanded it. It was a wrongness to be righted. Jaime understood that fate had assigned him to give this gift to Brienne and to right the wrong. There exists an ethic in which honor requires it, rather than advises against it. Not that it was a chore, I’m guessing. One of my hopes, when the ending comes, is that Jaime and Brienne end up together, as unlikely as that seems.

Since I just ranted, please rant about Chekov’s gun!


Update 2:

Ken:

In regard to the Brienne and Jaime night together, you make good points! If there is indeed admiration, desire, and attraction, then sure, go for it… I suppose I’d thought their love for one another was of a completely different sort that didn’t involve the erotic. And we, as the audience of a mainstream show, so seldom get to see unconventional sorts of love (between same-age male and female characters) in our shows, films, and books. There’s part of me that didn’t want this rare relationship to stray into conventional romantic territory (and the woman crying after the man departs the bedroom early is indeed a romantic trope).

I don’t think my criticism comes from a place of prudishness or from an Augustinian perspective. (I’m not one to cover my eyes when there’s nudity.) I merely hoped that the show, which pairs naked people together willy nilly, would celebrate and preserve a different kind of love without putting the two of them in bed together. Surely non-sexual and platonic relationships must have existed in pre-Roman times. If it was in Brienne’s character all along to want this, then my interpretation was simply wrong.

On a high-altitude note, I’d argue that we don’t always need to give our characters what they need. When we send them off on their own in two weeks, when the show ends, we need to give our characters new quests and unsatisfied desires that they’ll seek in the afterlife of the show. We can’t just have them all settle into a warm bath, which would have been the case if Arya partnered up with Gendry.

Okay, my Chekov’s gun rant, which I generously borrow from Jeva Lange’s recent piece for The Week.

Lange introduces a nice principle: the “Chekov’s gun” principle. Chekov reportedly said, If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.

There are too many Chekov guns in GoT. The Valyrian steel barely played a role. Same with the dragon glass. Or what about the Night King’s swirly symbol, which the whole series began with? Lange points out how the Wall (which had magical spells in it, according to a previous episode) is another. Bran’s whole character may be a Chekov’s gun. (It’s not at all clear to me why Bran is so important, especially after he relayed Jon Snow’s secret.) Isn’t “Winter is coming” a Chekov’s gun, too?

I almost feel like Chekov’s gun is a good metaphor for the whole show. You have characters like Beric and Theon and Jorah go on these long complex story arcs that could end in the most poignant ways that somehow “complete” their stories, but these arcs all end in symbolically-impoverished ways, and the only reason we feel something (and we definitely feel something) is that we love and have been with these characters for ten years.

Beric is brought back from the dead twenty times. Jorah is a slave-trader, then a slave, then an infected greyscale patient. Theon goes from hothead, to Iron Islander, to killer, to… You get the rest. These are amazing character arcs and their deaths should somehow complete their stories. Rather, the writers just randomly threw out some sorta-tragic sacrificial endings for these characters hoping they’d accidentally nail it.

Bran saying “You’re a good man” before Theon’s last run with a spear isn’t good enough to tie up Theon’s whole story. I’d almost rather he die in futility, maybe in the middle of battle, by friendly fire, or something random. Because then the story at least has something to say about futility and randomness and it would throw the whole end of the show into question again: Is Martin a nihilist and is this going to end the worst possible way? That’s horrible for Theon’s arc, but it would have done amazing things for the show, the same way Ned Stark’s death did. Same with the Red Wedding.

Instead, we get our heroes dying the way heroes have died in a thousand stories, like Jorah dying beside his beloved queen. It’s not a terrible ending, but it’s not the right ending. It’s just like the writers looked back and asked, “Well what death makes most sense for Jorah given where he’s come from?” rather than having it all preplanned.

The moment when Hodor dies holding the door was one of the most amazing moments in the series. The meaning behind the character’s name was decided practically before the first books were written. That moment is so special, not just because we lose a character; it’s special because we’re witnessing an amazing, beautiful, one of a kind storyteller create something so complex and beautiful and perfect. We got none of that in the battle episode, and I’m not sure we’re going to see it again for the rest of the series.


Update 3:

David:

I think you are quite right about Chekov’s gun. It seems I’m always making excuses for HBO, but…

Maybe the presence of too many Chekov’s guns is a consequence of making the series one season at a time, with future seasons unwritten and incompletely planned before production began. In book writing, it’s easy enough to make a single volume consistent with itself, just by going back and editing in fixes after you reach the end. But it’s a much bigger problem to preserve continuity with as-yet unwritten future volumes, unless everything is planned out in advance to the last detail. Martin’s troubles, and delays, with the last two volumes suggest that he did not have everything planned out. If that’s the case, then he had to put in foreshadowings that he thought he might need, even if ultimately he didn’t use them and they ended up as Chekov’s guns. Probably both Martin and HBO are guilty of this.

The way to do it right is the way Tolkien did it — write all of it before the first word is published. Even so, after the first edition, Tolkien made changes and corrections as the letters came in from readers pointing out inconsistencies and continuity problems.

I can forgive an awful lot of imperfection. Games of Thrones was a huge, huge project.


Update 4:

Ken:

I agree that Tolkien’s process is the way to do it. But I’m guessing GoT will in the end be something like eight times the length of Lord of the Rings. Is a story as big as GoT (told properly) even possible to accomplish by one person? And do we have examples of other people competently taking over for the original writer when he or she passes? If Martin wrote all seven books at once, then that sounds like an almost thirty year project. No publisher will ever give an advance to an author that would cover thirty years of living, so writers simply are unable, economically, to pull something like this off. You have to publish them piecemeal to make money and survive.

I think the GoT TV series had a tight, interwoven story line for the first six seasons, when they were relying mostly on Martin’s old material. Things began to fall apart in Season Seven, when the dialogue sparkled less, when the political decisions got dumber, when key characters were being conveniently resurrected from the dead… We keep watching these last two seasons simply because we love the characters and because we’re hoping it’ll all fit together in the end, and I’m arguing that it already isn’t fitting together.

Questions… You have written two, going on three, sci-fi books that are part of a trilogy, but you are publishing them piecemeal. Do you wish you waited to finish the trilogy first, so that you could have developed long, rich, and wickedly complex narrative arcs? (Not to say that yours aren’t, but you know what I’m saying…) Is creating a super long and elaborate series like GoT (or at least the GoT we really want) humanly possible? Do you think we’ll see another story that’s as long as (and perhaps more complete) GoT in our lifetimes? How do you think GoT will be remembered in thirty years? Is there any possibility they’ll do a remake in thirty years when they have more material from Martin? Or is the problem with Martin, who may have bitten off more than he can chew?


David:

I am still unwilling to use language as strong as “fall apart.” I actually thought that the dialogue in Season 7 was quite good, partly because of the superb and sparing use of English. But I agree that, once HBO outran Martin’s books, trouble was bound to happen. That outrunning never should have occurred. The reason, I assume, is that Martin missed his deadlines. Still, what Martin is doing is not something that can be rushed.

My own novels: Absolutely. I would love to be able to revise Fugue in Ursa Major (book 1 of the series) to align everything better — including the quality of the writing — with Oratorio in Ursa Major (book 2). But once a book is out the door, you can’t take it back. Still, I had done enough planning to know where things were going, and I think that I got the foreshadowing at least approximately right. As you no doubt are pointing out, to write and release the books of a series piecemeal is a dangerous process, and some things — small things, one hopes — are bound to go wrong, or at least could have been done better.

Maybe this is one reason why I am so forgiving of HBO and Martin. Perfection in a work of fiction is simply too much to ask for. If you asked me to name a perfect work of science fiction — my preferred genre — I believe that the only book that I would be able to name would be Frank Herbert’s Dune, and maybe Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game. And yet book two of the Dune series was so full of flaws that I lost interest and stopped reading it. The followup books of the Ender series also were weak. Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series is extremely good and is of consistent quality through the series. But it is hardly without flaws. At the moment I am trying to read Brian Aldiss’ White Mars, which Aldiss co-wrote with Roger Penrose, whom I regard as the greatest living physicist. But White Mars is an embarrassingly terrible novel, Aldiss’ reputation notwithstanding. Still, I will soldier on because I want to know how Penrose’s ideas shaped the novel, because I believe that Penrose is willing to say in fiction what he dare not say (but suspects) as a physicist.

One of the sad things about getting older and having spent one’s life reading fiction is that it gets more and more difficult to find novels that are fully mesmerizing and that sweep you away the same way you were swept away as a young person. The first three books of Martin’s Game of Thrones series did that for me. But book 4 (I know that you don’t agree with me on this) began to meander, in my opinion, and started to preen on the sound of its own words. Even if you like book 4 of the Game of Thrones series, I’d still argue that such a change of style and narrative mid-series is wrong. My suspicion (and, again, I know that you don’t agree with me on this, and I respect that) was that Martin started padding his writing in book 4 to make two books (and more money) out of what should have been one book.

But my bottom line here is that, if I didn’t forgive fiction writers for their sins and shortcomings, then I’d have next to nothing to read and would therefore live in a state of existential poverty.

All the questions you raise about Martin and Game of Thrones in your last paragraph above are extremely good questions. I think that the only response I’ll venture for now is that the Game of Thrones series already is a classic in the same category as Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. If Martin’s final two books diverge significantly from HBO’s version, then I will long for a remake sometime in my lifetime. Though Peter Dinklage is an American (and has the flawed princely accent to prove it), the GoT series deserves a future remake just to give a fresh set of those incredible British and Irish actors a chance to shine. Like you, I identify with writers (who are under-appreciated) more than actors (who get all the glamour and glory). But the ability of those islands to produce such brilliant actors and actresses and to astonish us with what the English language can do — that’s some kind of miracle, above and beyond the miracle of writing the story in the first place.


Vegan burger report (updated)



Click here for high resolution version.

Not only did this vegetarian burger greatly exceed my expectations, it was so convincing that I felt disgusted with myself after eating it, as though I really had snarfed down a big belly load of pink-in-the-middle beef. This is the “Beyond Burger” from Beyond Meat.

As a near-vegetarian, I can face beef only when it is well done. When I took the first bite of this burger and saw that the burger was pink inside, I felt a wave of nausea. I had to fish the package out of the recycling bin to reassure myself that I was eating pea protein and beet juice. Though the burger seemed undercooked to me, I realized that it was not undercooked and that putting it back on the grill would not make the pink go away. Not only had I given the burger three minutes on each side according to the instructions, the burger had caught fire on the grill from the olive oil with which I basted it.

The olive oil was not necessary, though. There is coconut oil in the burger — and probably other ingredients — that ensure that it doesn’t go dry during cooking.

I’m guessing that Burger King’s version, which is made by a different company — Impossible Foods — is even more convincing than the “Beyond Burger” by Beyond Meat. That’s because the Burger King version, rather than beet juice, uses a cultured “heme” made from soybean roots that is chemically similar to blood. Like the Impossible Burger, Burger King’s burger also has little particles of coconut oil in it to take the place of fat.

Burger King’s market-testing of the Impossible Burger in the St. Louis area has gone so well that all Burger King’s will carry it by the end of the year.

Vegetarian patties aimed at vegetarians have been around for ages, of course. They were not intended to be convincing meat analogs. Some of them are pretty good. But what’s new here is that the market is now going after committed meat-eaters, with burgers so convincing that they won’t know the difference.

I got these burgers at Whole Foods. The patties are little too thick for me. I prefer thinner diner-style burgers. Next time I’ll slice the patty in half.


Update: Beyond Meat, a plant-based food company, surges 163 percent after IPO



Season 8, episode 3 (two updates)



Ken Ilgunas and David Dalton are reviewing each episode of the final season of Game of Thrones. Check the “Game of Thrones” category to list all of these posts.


Ken:

Morning David.

I might like to re-watch it, but here are some quick first impressions, which are mixed…

— It was a visual feast. It mostly held my attention from start to finish. There are many superhero movies with visual feasts, and they are indeed marvels of technology, but they are often too long and too unbelievable, and sometimes they even induce sleep because you know if you nod off and wake up ten minutes later, the hero will still be alive. (I remember falling asleep for five minutes during a CGI battle in Hobbit II, and I didn’t miss anything.) A seventy-five minute battle scene works in GoT because we know, and even expect, main characters to perish. The show can amaze us with the CGI and keep our attention and emotions involved. That’s a rare feat these days. It would have been conceivable to lose one of the show’s main three (Jon, Dany, or Tyrion), and while that didn’t come to pass, we did lose a few second and third-tier characters. (If I have any criticism of the CGI battle, it was a bit difficult to understand the aerial dragon warfare, and I thought, up there, there was a bit too much movement and chaos, and I didn’t necessarily fear for either Jon or Dany’s life. This is a good point for future CGI directors: sometimes less epic is more epic! The more swoops and swirls and cartoonish feats of kill, the more quickly you lose the audience. One of the best movie sword fights was done in Rob Roy. There wasn’t any CGI, no flashy martial arts. It was just a gritty, sweaty, bloody fight, where you can watch the protagonist’s facial expression shift from confidence to fear to resignation.)

— This was a nuts and bolts battle for survival, from start to finish. There were opportunities for revealing deeper secrets of the GoT universe’s underlying cosmology. What exactly does the Night King want? Who is he? How do you ensure the dead no longer exist? What was with his fascination with Jon and Bran and Winterfell–or were they merely road bumps on his path of destruction? I feel there could have been grand moments for revelations, for secrets to be revealed, for answers, for promise of something more than a simple zombie plot… I imagined the defeat of the Night King would require some sort of mystical solution rather than a mere knife point. With a world so full of magic, of religion, of superpowers, of prophecies, of long deep complex histories, and of even time travel, I was hoping for something a bit more complex and unexpected and mind-blowing—something, ideally, that could have involved Bran’s all-seeing, time-traveling superpowers. Instead, Bran merely zoned out for a joy-ride inside a crow, and Arya solved the universe’s biggest existential threat by finding a good hiding place.

— The first scene in the first episode of the first season was centered on the White Walkers. The show has had many stories, but the White Walker storyline is arguably the main one. And while the show did a wonderful job choreographing a huge battle, and while they poured millions of well-spent dollars into this episode, it still sort of feels like the show has swept a big plot problem under the rug. With one episode, with one dagger thrust, the White Walker plot problem has vanished for good. It would have been hard literary labor for the writers to really understand the White Walkers and tie up all its associated storylines, and to have properly foreshadowed everything, and I don’t think we got that. Why do Beric and Jon have powers of resurrection? What was the deal with Jon’s half-dead uncle? What is the source and meaning of the whole fire religion? The show is no doubt capable of establishing elaborate and moving storylines, like Jon’s real parentage, or Hodor’s (“hold the door!”), or everything leading up to Red Wedding. These happen because Martin knows ahead of time how it’s all going to end, and he lays clues throughout the story which we can only fully see when looking back. It’s the best sort of foreshadowing, because these clues are both completely out in the open and completely concealed. When the writer figures it all out ahead of time, and when the story’s conclusion is perfectly foreshadowed, the beginnings, middles, and ends of the story are united into one complex interwoven whole, producing a feeling of narrative wholeness—and, when done right, it generates, for the audience, one of the best, most satisfying emotional responses we can ask for from a story. Technically, this was a good episode. But it wasn’t a transcendental one that resonates in our souls. And that can only mean, Martin and the writers, when they began, didn’t exactly know how they were going to end. The foundation of the whole story wobbles. The next three episode will determine if it can straighten itself out.


David:

All week I’ve been dreading this episode. When 9 o’clock came around Sunday night, I told myself that I was too tired to watch. I got up at 5 a.m., greatly upsetting the cat’s peaceful morning routine with the battle noise. But the sun was rising when the episode was over, and I had the day, rather than the night, ahead of me.

As you know, I don’t like battle scenes. I know they’re necessary. You can’t have a fictional world whose very existence is threatened without some epic battles. It’s life or death for an entire world, and so all the power that can be mustered in that world has to be thrown at the threat. Now that I’ve got the battle episode behind me, I would have to say that it was superb and that it set a new standard for world-saving battles. The suspense before the battle started was very well done, with those of us at home, like those on the screen, peering into the dark, not knowing what was coming. This also gave us time for some last-minute drama and some very good setup on where all the characters were located and what they were doing. The battle itself was truly scary. I agree with you that the aerial parts of the battle were a bit confusing (though I loved those straight-down dragon dives into the clouds), but, down on the ground, in spite of the frenzy, we were always able to track the action.

Then we reached the point at which only magic could save the day. I thought that Bran had something up his sleeve, but he didn’t. Still, Bran’s benediction before the death of Theon gave him something important to do. And so, in the end, it was Arya who saved the day. I have always resented the zombie element of Game of Thrones. I’ve always seen the zombies as an embarrassing breach in George R.R. Martin’s originality. The zombie fad (which did at least put a stake through the heart of the equally worn-out vampire fad) has gone on entirely too long. Now that the zombies are down, I hope to hell that they stay down and that we are done with zombies for good, not only in Game of Thrones but in all of cinema and television. Kudos to Josh and others who correctly called the dead rising in the crypts.

So, with the battle scene out of the way and the zombies down, I am looking forward to three more episodes that I hope will be driven by character, drama, and dialogue. We still have the Cersei problem to resolve. But, with luck, that will be resolved by some means other than yet another battle (though that’s probably wishful thinking on my part).

We also have a lot of denouement waiting to be dénoue-ed. The list is long: Who is (or was) the Night King? Is he down for good? What was his motive? Does the Night King have a particular connection to the Starks? As you mention, we need to know about the fire religion, and we need to know Melisandre’s backstory. What’s up with Bran? Was his joy ride inside a crow really all he was doing? With the shattering of the Night King, is the world saved for good? Or only for one winter? Do the Starks all have hidden powers? There has to be some way in which the ice magic and the fire magic are connected, like the Force and its dark side. What might the connection be?

The remaining denouement, to me, is as interesting as the remaining plot, and there’s plenty of plot left, too. Thank the goddess that most of our most beloved characters survive. Who’ll end up with the throne? How will Jon and Daenerys come to terms? How will the Lanister siblings settle their differences? Cersei still has an army. Will she use it? There seems to be an outstanding plot element with the Iron Islands. How does that fit in?

With the battle out of the way and three episodes to go, I would say that the writers and producers of Game of Thrones have aced three out of six so far in this final season. They could ace the remaining three episodes, too, in which case I believe we will have witnessed the best storytelling and best filmmaking ever done.


Ken:

I predict we’ll get a political and interpersonal denouement. I suppose I’m worried that we won’t get a mystical/spiritual/religious/and cosmological denouement. Or at least that’s what this episode suggested.

There are so many ways to critique the show, and we’ve already examined it from one of many different angles. I suppose I’m most interested in whether all the strands get tied together in the end. Call this a “series” angle. But we can also examine this from a “history of television” angle, and I don’t think there’s even been a TV series that’s in the same league as GoT (but, as you can tell, I’m worried that an off-note ending might put the value of the whole series at risk). We can also review the episode simply on the technical details of each episode, or we can look at the wider plot of the season.

As for the wider plot, we have Yara taking over the Iron Islands. Since there are now like three dozen living people in the North (and two very injured, exhausted, and malnourished dragons–though they have plenty of fresh bodies to feast on), it seems sensible for the Winterfell survivors to retreat to a small, defensible island. Cersei has a bunch of ships, so it seems we’ll probably have one last naval battle and one last land battle? I’m thinking episode four is for wound-licking, episode five for the final battle, and episode six for the epilogue, when we figure out whose ass sits on what throne, as well as a bunch of heartfelt goodbyes.


David:

It’s definitely a landmark in the history of television. The only thing that compares, at least to my taste, is Battlestar Gallactica. As you’ve mentioned before, the old standard of two-hour movies seems very limited now, like a short story. Whereas multi-season series can do so much more.

The thing that, to me, is unexpected, not to mention intriguing, is that the writer’s work can take longer than an epic production. Martin is still laboring away on the final novel, while HBO had to get out ahead of him, even with a delay in the final season. Let’s just hope that Martin finishes before he kicks the bucket, because he doesn’t look very healthy.


Ken:

I believe Martin has two more novels to go.

And, yes, it is interesting to note how the writing of a book can take five times longer than the making of a TV series, which is of course a much more complicated task. I don’t have high hopes for all the GoT spin-off series we’re reportedly going to get. I don’t think those shows will be drawing strongly from Martin’s work. Rather, it’ll require a bunch of new writers and I doubt that Benioff and Weiss will be as involved, if they’re involved at all. A spin-off will really only give us the chance to dwell in Westeros a bit longer. I think there was a big appetite to revisit Middle Earth after the Lord of the Rings series, hence the three-part Hobbit series, which was ultimately forgettable and a failure.

But I started writing this to say something else I noticed in the show… Did you feel any sadness at all when the Dothraki horde got wiped out? Or the Unsullied? I don’t want to sound PC-obsessed, but we should note how two ethnic groups, protecting white lords and ladies, were either being used as human shields or as mounted zombie fodder. Just like that, virtually a whole race of people is wiped out and no one cares. I didn’t set out to make a point about racism here. Rather, I want to point out how the show did not do a great job making us feel for a people. In the battle for Winterfell, we don’t care about just how many wildlings, Unsullied, Dothraki, or even Winterfellians die. All we care about are about a dozen and a half individuals. I feel like the show ought to have tried to make these cultures and groups stand out a bit more, and to get us to care for them, perhaps the way Dances with Wolves got us to love a Native American tribe, or Avatar got us to care for an alien race. While GoT did a great job characterizing the Dothraki in Season One, we haven’t had a real Dothraki character for ages. (Would the Dothraki really be as submissive as they have been, following a white lady on her wooden horses across an ocean and then on a death march up to the North Pole?) Grey Worm is the only individualized Unsullied character. I don’t even think we care about Winterfellians. Season after season, new Winterfell residents, despite seven years of attritional warfare, reappear and the ranks get replenished just fine.

I don’t think the show has done a great job showcasing the peoples and the culture of these groups, and therefore we don’t really care if Winterfell, its crops, or its serfs get burnt to a crisp. We only care if a handful of elites, and Jon Snow, make it through to the next episode. Again, I’m not trying to make a political point here. This is a literary point: The show would have been more emotionally effective if the audience cared more about the preservation of a race, tribe, or culture; not just a few individuals.

PS1: The crypts were not spooky and atmospheric enough. In previous episodes, the crypts always seemed long and cavernous and mysterious. In this episode, it felt like one dimly lit room.

PS2: Wouldn’t the ending of the last episode have been so much the stronger and beautiful if Arya died upon poking the Night King?


David:

Very good points about peoples vs. individuals. To tell the truth, things were moving so fast that much of it went past me, except that I did notice that the Dothraki apparently were chosen, or volunteered, for the front lines. This connects with points you made last week about the series’ failure to concern itself with the lives of ordinary people. I think that’s a very serious criticism. I think it’s something that the BBC learned a long time ago.

That said, I found Daenerys’ weeping over Jorah very moving, as was the dragon descending and folding its wing over them. There was little time for grief in this episode. Maybe the next episode will make up for it?

The death of Arya would be so hard to take. Ask a science fiction writer how hard it is to kill off a beloved character. You’ll probably get similar answers. Orson Scott Card used to say that it was literarily acceptable to kill a character only when it was necessary for the other characters, or for the reader, to take on the attributes of that character and thus keep the character and the love for that character alive. That idea probably applies to a great many of the deaths in Game of Thrones. For example, Ned Stark’s death inspired his children to take on his attributes and to live for him in many ways.


Books that get better with age



The 1960 French edition of the Larousse Gastronomique. Click here for high resolution version.


When you are browsing in an old bookstore, what catches your eye? For everyone it’s different, I’m sure. But one factor, probably, is the same: Whatever our tastes, we’re all looking for books that get better with age.

You’ll be dealing with thousands of books, so you have to move fast. When something catches your eye, you take it off the shelf for a closer look.

The books that I stop and examine are well-bound hardbacks that appear to be 60 to 75 years old, though anything published after 1920 is a candidate. Books that are older than that tend to be a little too antique and archaic. If I’m lucky, I find a book that is timeless, and I buy it.

Last week I came across a copy of the 1960 French edition of the Larousse Gastronomique. The price was $10. It turns out that I already had — but had forgotten — a copy of the 1961 English edition. Though the English edition is just as thick — over 1,000 pages — the English edition is not complete. The English edition uses larger type and has been dumbed down a bit for Americans. The first edition of the Larousse Gastronomique was published in 1938. If you can find a copy of the first edition, you’ll pay hundreds of dollars for it. The newest edition, I believe, was published in 2001. I have no idea how the 2001 edition is different from the 1960 edition. But I prefer the timelessness of the 1960 edition.

One of my favorite books cost me $1. It was in a box on the bookstore floor, deemed too low-value to even shelve. But what a find that was. It’s the eighth edition of Astronomy, published in 1964. This book had been a standard college textbook since 1930. Obviously there has been much progress in astronomy since 1964. Still, most of what was known in 1964 was accurate and still holds. This book is always on my nightstand for reading in bits and pieces.

The Technique and Art of Organ Playing was published in 1922. I acquired my copy on Aug. 10, 1965. My copy of the book was lost for years, but in a miracle too complicated to describe, and through the help of a friend, the book found its way back to me. There are many pencil marks in the book, most of them from my first organ teacher, Lillian Conrad. The meticulousness of the fingering and phrasing, and the left-right heel-toe handling of the pedal work, impress the daylights out of me today. My organ technique is limited (especially now that I no longer practice regularly), but the quality of my early training was superb. As for organ-playing technique, I’m quite sure that it has not changed since 1922 — or since the time of J.S. Bach, for that matter.


⬆︎ The 1961 English edition of the Larousse Gastronomique. Click here for high resolution version.


⬆︎ Click here for high resolution version.


⬆︎ Click here for high resolution version.


⬆︎ Click here for high resolution version.


⬆︎ Click here for high resolution version.


⬆︎ Click here for high resolution version.

Somewhat off the subject, but the markings on the page above bring it all to mind:

When I was still a teen-ager, my fingers absorbed the rules for playing repeated notes in four-part hymns on the organ. It’s something that I no longer have to think about; my hands just know. The technique for organ is different from that of the piano, since organ sounds are sustained and piano sounds are not. (Well, not exactly, regardless of what you do with the piano’s sustain pedal.) Here are the rules for playing hymns on the organ, keeping in mind that the soprano and bass are the outer voices and the alto and tenor are the inner voices:

• All repeated notes in the soprano are struck.

• All repeated notes in the bass are tied (except at the end of a phrase).

• When a full chord is repeated identically, strike the three upper voices, and tie the bass (except at the end of a phrase).

• When a full chord is not repeated identically but the tenor or alto or both are repeated, tie them.

Rules like the above have a great deal to do with why poorly trained organists, or good pianists with no organ training, cannot play hymns well. Other common flaws in poor hymn playing are poor phrasing and failure to keep a steady beat. I’m off the subject of books here, but some people probably will Google their way into this. So while I’m on the subject, I’ll add this: Phrasing is critical when the organ is accompanying a congregation. You must give the congregation time to breath between phrases, with a slightly longer breath between verses. Nothing is tied across phrases. All voices break. You cannot rush a congregation that is “dragging” the tempo, as congregations are said to do, by hurrying through the musical phrases. If you give the singers the tempo in the introduction and hold the tempo yourself, they’ll stay with you to the end — if you give them time to breathe.

By the way, since it was published in 1922, The Technique and Art of Organ Playing is now in the public domain.


Season 8, episode 2 (updated)



Ken Ilgunas and David Dalton are reviewing each episode of the final season of Game of Thrones. Check the “Game of Thrones” category to list all of these posts.


David:

Mornin’, Ken …

Well, was I ever wrong last week. I expected treachery at at Winterfell. But I didn’t realize that we were right on the edge of battle. So instead of treachery we got a series of very tender goodbyes, as well as the long-awaited scene between Jon and Daenerys. I’m afraid that, next week, we’re going to be writing a bunch of obituaries. It’s Brienne whom I’m most worried about.

You predicted last week that Jaime will die in the arms of Brienne. I wonder if it mightn’t be the other way around — that Brienne will die in the arms of Jaime. Foreshadowing in Game of Thrones often doesn’t mean what we think it means, but it seems to me that Brienne’s death is all too clearly foreshadowed. Jaime makes her a Knight of the Seven Kingdoms, providing her with a deep sense of gratification for all her selfless sacrifice and sublimated love. Podrick, revealing a very fine voice, sings a sad song, “And she never wanted to leave.” A different voice picks up the same song as the titles roll. The song is a dirge. It was heartbreaking.

I rarely make predictions about Game of Thrones, but if the day is saved in the coming battle, then I think that Brienne will do it.

As a matter of drama, I can imagine a better job of giving viewers a stronger sense of hopelessness and impending doom. Still, we are clearly to understand that the characters all believe that they may be living their last hours. The series’ long investment in rich, complex, lovable characters is now paying dividends in the kind of scenes we got in this episode. Some of what happened was obviously going to happen — for example, Arya and Gendry. But there also were a great many subtle touches where the love between the characters is loftier than the ripping off of costumes, such as the looks that Brienne and Podrick were giving each other just before Jaime knighted Brienne. Clearly they know each other very well, and they have told each other many things. It’s hard for me to imagine Brienne without Podrick, or Podrick without Brienne. Next week’s episode is not going to be easy to watch.

It was Bran who had the plan, with Bran himself as bait. Let’s hope that Bran’s plan will work.

Where was Varys? How could he have been overlooked? Is he away and up to something?

I had assumed that the great battle with the dead would be postponed until the last or next-to-last episode. If the great battle comes in the third episode, then that will leave three more episodes for struggles among the remaining characters, plus some denouement. A long epic deserves a long denouement. It should be the sweetest part of a good story, as long as the writers follow the rules of classic storytelling — and I greatly hope they do.


Ken:

Morning David. My god, that was a good episode. I’d go so far to say that it was among the best episodes. Almost all the actors nailed their little scenes, as short as they were. [Jamie and Brienne on the training grounds; the three Crows; Sam and Jorah; Arya and Gendry all glistening with sweat by the forge (their sex scene, not so much); Dany and Sansa; Dany and Jon; and one of the briefest was among the bestest: Sansa greeting Theon, and later them lovingly looking upon one another over a bowl of soup–that’s a perfect example of how so much can be done with so little.]

And of course the fireside scene! This sort of scene is what GoT was missing last season. Last season, the dialogue on the expedition north of the wall seemed too chummy and forced. The dialogue at the all-star conference in Kings Landing seemed so stilted and dry and humorless and full of tiresome exposition. It could have been a grand scene, but it was lifeless. Here, by the fire, we heard good stories, saw a lot of character, and felt the atmosphere with the characters: enjoying with them a bit of wine and warmth before the storm to come. And we were reminded of what they’re all trying to save: the best of their civilization, as all of these characters exemplify honor, loyalty, justice, forbearance, and compromise.

It was only natural that it ended with a moving knighting ceremony and a song. It was the little moments that won the scene, like the mischievous and warm smile Tyrion gave to Pod upon handing him an overflowing cup of wine. (Side note: There were a few other great smiles in the episode, including Gendry’s titillated grin upon watching Arya skillfully fling daggers.) (Extra side note: Verys’s presence at the fireside might have been inappropriate because, although he is a virtuous character, his career in espionage might have subtracted from the purity of the gathering.)

At this point, the show is moving confidently toward the end, with far more poise than I anticipated, and I’m glad to admit that I may have been wrong to have doubted the writers two blog entries ago…

Some stray thoughts…

– A friend once pointed out to me that GoT battle scenes are almost always creative. This is certainly true: think of the tightening circle in the Battle of the Bastards, where everyone was getting trampled to death, or the cool ways the Night’s Watch fended off the attack against the wildlings at the Wall. We’re bound to see some really interesting battle scenes. But I’m struggling to imagine how all the moving parts will interact. We have the forces at Winterfell vs. The Dead vs. Cersei’s mercenaries. What will the battle sequence be?

– I’m also interested in what they’re going to do with the remaining four episodes. (This season has six.) The first two episodes were set-up episodes. I’m guessing the next two will be epic war episodes, with whom and versus whom, I don’t know. And then maybe we get two more as an epilogue, or as denouement, as you say? Doesn’t this all seem a bit rushed to you? If this is one of the biggest battles in this world’s history, shouldn’t it take up more than 1-2 episodes? I wouldn’t mind three. I wouldn’t even mind a whole season set aside for military maneuvers, though it’s easy for me to suggest such a thing when I have no responsibility for the CGI budget. I fail to see how, in a few epilogue episodes, we figure out who’s the real ruler, how to deal with Cersei, and then send off the surviving cast members with a few goodbyes. There’s a lot to fix in Westeros other than the zombie invasion, right? I would have written for 10 episodes.

– You can’t go wrong with a summarizing lullaby scene, in which we get quick vignette scenes of characters set to the tune of pretty music. I love that shit. It works every time. Braveheart did it well. So did The Wire. They could end the series this way.

– Where is winter, exactly? They’ve been saying winter is coming for 8 seasons now, and there’s pretty much the same amount of snow on the ground.

– I feel the plan to lure the Night King toward Bran is a bit too convenient. The Night King should know that the Living People know that killing one of the White Walkers kills all their followers. I feel like the show is making it a bit too easy for itself to resolve a difficult plot conundrum (a million zombies versus a small castle).

Death prediction possibilities for the next two episodes: Theon, Jaime, Brienne, Jorah, Hound.

Another friend’s prediction/question: Could the dead in the crypt come to life?

More unaccounted for characters: Edmure Tully, Arya’s wolf Nymaria, Meera Reed, the fire witch from Mereen, Robin Arryn.

Unanswered questions: When does the Hound get to take on the Mountain? Will that scorpion dragon-killing contraption make its way north? Is Bronn being commissioned to kill the Lannister brothers the lamest and most predictable story this season? What’s with the Night King’s fascination with his spiral body flesh designs? Who is Azor Ahai?


Updates:

David:

Was it Josh who thought of the dead in the crypt being revived? It’s a brilliant insight. And the more I’ve thought about it, the more I think that’s what’s going to happen. The setup is just too perfect. And how like Martin to set up, at the very beginning, something that doesn’t figure back in until many books (and episodes) later.

Still, everything happens with a twist. What could the twist be? Maybe the Winterfell ancestors knew of this possibility, and maybe there is something — maybe something magic — that protects the Winterfell crypts or otherwise alters the outcome? Why does Winterfell have crypts in the first place? Isn’t it the only castle that buries its dead that way?

I am terrified of the next episode…


Ken:

I wish the insight was mine, but yes, it was Josh’s. I am positive something nasty will happen in the crypts. There were at least three occasions when someone said something like, “It’ll be safer in the crypts.” Which means it’s definitely not safe in the crypts. You’ll remember that Tyrion is one of the few high profile characters assigned to stay in the crypts, so there’ll be some heroics for him to carry out.

And I think you’re correct to think there’s something else about the crypts that we don’t know. Didn’t the youngest Stark have a strange, ghoulish draw to the crypts? Didn’t the three-eyed raven in young Bran’s dreams lead him down there? There could be some magic power or long-dead ancestor that might hold special significance. I believe it was “Bran the Builder” who built Winterfell in a different epoch.

What are some of the wildest theories we could propose? Could it somehow explain the origins of the Night King? Might the dead be seeking nothing short of a resting place (or the ability to rest)? Could the Night King be a Stark? (The Night King does have a strange relationship with Bran, and he has a tendency to stare with wonder at Jon Snow). Some people have proposed that Bran’s ability to travel back in time and change events might play into these last episodes (the way he influenced a young Hodor, who’d eventually “hold the door”). Some have even proposed that the Night King is Bran and the only way to kill the Night King will be to kill Bran. (I picked a few of these insights up from The Ringer’s GoT podcast, Binge Mode, specifically their episode titled, “Our Seven Biggest Questions Ahead of Season 8.” It was so good, and they were so geeky, I actually had to stop listening because they may have been taking away some of the fun of coming up with my own predictions, or the joy of simply being startled by missing something obvious, such as the coming crypt twist. From now on, I’ll probably stick with our own flawed analyses.

Binge Mode: Our Seven Biggest Questions Ahead of Season 8


Two kinds of light


On a rainy day this time of year, it’s hard to stay away from the windows. Above, rain is falling, and the windows are wet and a bit foggy. Below, it’s the morning after the rain, and the sun has come out. The woods are rapidly turning green, but the leaves are only about half out. Lily is in her favorite spot.

Game of Thrones: Season 8, episode 1



Ken Ilgunas and David Dalton are reviewing each episode of the final season of Game of Thrones. Check the “Game of Thrones” category to list all of these posts.


David:

Mornin’, Ken…

I greatly enjoyed this episode, and what struck me is how the moral middle ground of former seasons is gone. Now the forces of good and evil are lining up as the surviving characters choose sides — good people at Winterfell, wicked people at King’s Landing. It put me in mind of a hymn:

Once to ev’ry soul and nation
Comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth and falsehood,
For the good or evil side;
Some great cause, some great decision,
Off’ring each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever
‘Twixt that darkness and that light.

(The words were written in 1845, by James Russell Lowell, as a protest against both war and slavery. The hymn is sung to the hymn tune Ebenezer, which is very much in a minor key.)

Consider poor, poor Theon, who was tortured by living in a moral vacuum as much as he was tortured by Ramsay Snow. Now Theon, having rescued his sister and feeling a bit better about himself, will go to Winterfell to fight with the forces of good. Even Jaime had to choose sides and joins the good people at Winterfell — though the first person he sees is Bran. (I’m hoping than Bran will forgive Jaime for knocking Bran off the tower because Bran foresees that Jaime has a part to play. And would Bran be the Three-Eyed Raven if he had not fallen?)

There is a huge imbalance, though. In the wicked south, we have only Cersei, Euron, and a new sellsword. And how much longer can Euron survive until Cersei orders him snuffed? Unless Cersei cooks up something new, the ingredients of drama (including characters) are now scarce in King’s Landing. Will Cersei have to rotate uselessly in dramatic circles for a while, the way Daenerys once circled in the desertlands waiting for her next cue? If not, how will Cersei stay in the thick of things? Who is there to even engage her in dialogue, since we’re all as tired of Euron as Cersei is?

Whereas at Winterfell we have a great surplus of characters all cramped up in inadequate accommodations. Thus we can expect treachery at Winterfell. But who will betray whom? Daenerys is now the character in the most awkward position. Jon Snow is suddenly the biggest obstacle to what she regards as her right and her destiny — the throne. Daenerys is faced with the choice of either great sacrifice or great cruelty. It is Sansa who is most critical and who expresses the most discontent with the present situation. Arya is an enigma and a wild card.

Though many reunions were had and much exposition was exposed in this episode, we still have many things to wonder about. Any character who is still alive can be assumed to have a critical part to play before the end. Where is Melisandre? Why was Gendry brought back after a long absence? What work do two of my favorite characters — Brienne and Podrick — still have to do? How will Tyrion and Varys get back into the thick of things? Is Sam superfluous now? Is it meaningful that Yara chose to go back to the Iron Islands?

One character, though, has risen to the top of the dramatic heap — Bran. Bran now supplies much of the plot’s remaining mystery. Isaac Hempstead Wright has grown up in this role. I believe he was 12 years old when the series started. Now he is 20 and is as perfectly cast as any character in the series. All the wise old maesters are dead, but Bran is now wise. The transformation of Bran is one of the most beautiful surprises of the entire series. I would not be surprised if Bran upstages Jon Snow hereafter.

I’m not going to make any guesses about where it’s all going. I remain convinced that George RRRRRR Martin and the HBO writers still have many shocks and surprises up their sleeves and that they’ll pull this thing off in the end. I’d say they’re off to a great start with the season opener.

One piece of foreshadowing continues to needle me: When the dragon gave Jon Snow that funny look, what did it mean?

An aside: The New York Times has a piece this morning about how GoT tourists in silly costumes are flooding Northern Ireland, oblivious to the area’s real history. Jeekers, people. Get a life.


Ken:

Hi David. I thought this was a rock solid beginning to the final season. We are primed for small personal dramas. (Will Arya and the Hound fully reconcile? Will Arya and Gendry have the show’s final romance?) And we are primed for the big picture political dramas. (Who will be the ultimate king or queen of the seven kingdoms?) Some stray thoughts and questions….

• Euron Greyjoy has tested our patience long enough. I sense that Cersei will double-cross him soon and keep his ships. You’re right: Once that’s settled, there’s not much else for her to do, apart from move her military machine. Might we get a good Martin-esque twist if Cersei uses her political talents and maliciousness for good? Her collapsing under her own treachery and deceit seems too simple, but sometimes that’s how things play out, too.

• Yara Greyjoy is going to take back the Iron Islands so Team Dany will have a safe haven should things go wrong with the zombie war. Does this mean that such a course of events is inevitable?

• There are countless things foreshadowing the demise of the Dany-Jon love affair. Verys says “Nothing lasts” as he looks down on them. The dragon gives Jon an odd look when Jon and Dany are making out. (I think the dragon’s saying to Jon, “You better think about what you’re doing.”) And Dany seems like she’s properly smitten (you have some special word for this, I remember, which sounds like “luminescence,” right?) [Note from David: Limerance!] whereas Jon is more hesitant. (Romantic unreciprocation spells disaster!) As for who takes power… Jon has never cared for titles, just what’s right and just. It seems most appropriate for him to allow his allegiance to Dany to persist (even if he’s convinced of his superior claim), but the show seems to be moving in the direction of Jon taking over eventually, and it would be too weird for them to do that as one half of another incestuous couple. The most reasonable solution to this is Dany dying in a moment of sacrifice, and Jon taking power only when he’s called to. The person in the middle of all of this is Tyrion, who is firmly on Team Dany, but who has lost favor and who has a soft spot for Jon. It’ll be interesting to see how he navigates the situation.

• Acting award of the week goes to Sam Tarly. So many relatives die on this show. So many people are reunited after years apart. When the main characters learn of deaths or are reunited, their reactions are sometimes weak, and the acting job is uninspired and half-assed. (Think of those YouTube videos of military fathers returning home to their teary, jubilant children—that’s how real people react.) The actor playing Sam gave everything he had, and I think he found a nice balance between grief and indignation. On the other hand, Arya’s emotional reunion with Jon seemed forced and forgettable.

• I do think the show is still missing some of its old Martin magic, and we see this most clearly with the absence of good humor. Martin is a very funny and clever writer. Think of all the Verys/Tyrion/Little Finger dialogue from the early seasons. A lot of that snappy, funny dialogue came straight from the books. Now we have just a few poorly crafted testicle (or lack of testicle) jokes. They have squandered poetic opportunities, too. Think of when Jon asks Dany how to ride a dragon. “Nobody does,” she says, “until they ride a dragon.” She could have quoted a fabled line from a dragon-riding ancestor, or shared a metaphor about riding the wind, or something of the sort. (PS: Why don’t they make some sort of dragon seat for the riders? It looks impossible and dangerous to hold onto those wobbly dragon spinal spikes.)

• House Glover has it coming to them. Count on them getting sacrificially obliterated next episode.

• Great dragon ride! That’s an amazing use of scenery (as you pointed out last week), and it’s a great character-building scene, as Jon begins to embrace his Targaryen side.

• Random thought of the week: It’s way too late, but I wish the show had incorporated a character or two representing the lowest classes (i.e., the ordinary people). Sure, there are lots of characters who have risen to be warriors and advisors with merit, but I’d like a few characters who are firmly stuck at the bottom, and who look at the people of the great houses from afar and from their hovels, because that’s what it would have been like for 99% of the people in such a time.

Main characters that are unaccounted for: The Red Woman, Brienne and Pod, Daario Naharis (please no), Jaqen H’ghar.

Next big character to unexpectedly die: Onion Knight

Unanswered questions:

Are we going to have a sit-down convo with the Night King, or is he just an evil force of nature without soul and complicated motivations? I feel like we need a little more explaining about his motivations…

What will be the form of government in the end? Still a straight up monarchy?

Are there no caribou or moose for the dragons to hunt? Just barnyard animals?

Will there or will there not be elephants?

Predictions: Jaime will die in the arms of Brienne.


David:

Speaking of humor, some of it went right over my head. This morning’s review in the New York Times mentions these lines:

Tyrion: “The last time we spoke was at Joffrey’s wedding, a miserable affair.”

Sansa: “It had its moments.”