Game of Thrones, The Long Night, was fucking EPIC (literally)

[Warning, this post contains SPOILERS.]

Were I not under strict doctor’s instructions not to overextend myself for precisely this kind of thing, I would be writing SUCH an in-depth post right now*. But given that I am under such instructions, I will say this:

It was bloody EPIC, in the most literal sense of the word. I mean GREEK EPIC. I mean THE ILIAD. I mean Bran Stark is friggin’ Helen of Troy.

It’s not as easy as I would wish to say that epic fantasy can be literature. It should be, but people have weird prejudices, and though Shakespeare would be epically confused by the literary distinctions (drawn by marketing departments) that are accepted too easily by many academics, these prejudices persist.

Granted, there are any number of books where the tropes of epic fantasy are used without thought merely because people like magic and dragons and battles and journeys. And all power to the writers and readers who derive satisfaction from that. There are also infinitely many ‘literary’ books about middle-aged, middle-class white men boning younger women, but are we to suppose from this that there’s nothing more to literary fiction?

It would be naive at best and willfully ignorant at most common to suppose that the best of epic fantasy is as unaware of its roots as its dime-a-dozen knock-offs. Anyone who saw the Elizabethan revenge tragedy of the Red Wedding should already know that Game of Thrones has more to it, but ‘The Long Night’ really dove down deep into our collective subconscious of not only what makes for a satisfying story, but also what makes it epic.

What is epic?

Epic is a literary genre that has its roots in Ancient Greek oral tradition. Most famously, The Iliad and The Odyssey. ‘Literary genre’ in this means ‘type of story-telling’, usually distinguished by shared tropes, themes, and narrative structures. Epic is a literary genre, revenge tragedy is a literary genre, romance is a literary genre, dirty limerick is a literary genre.

Epic is, to the best of my memory, typified by themes that encompass the struggle of nations, by a narrative that takes the hero or heroes on a lengthy journey, by struggles that encompass both gods and humans (or, on a non-religious interpretation, discussions of fate, fundamental ethics, or the individual’s place in the incomprehensibly large universe), and by a narrative form that breaks down a very long story into ‘episodes’.

The episodic structure allows not only for simple chunking of information, but for specific themes to be explored and for each hero to have their moment.

Moments of glory

One key aspect of the epic tradition is that there will be multiple protagonists, each of whom is a hero. This means more than simply being ‘heroic’ in our modern sense of sacrificing oneself for the sake of others. Ancient Greek heroes, like Achilles, were semi-divine. Literally. Usually, one of their parents was a god – Achilles, Hercules, all the greats. And the epic form of story telling would give each hero their moment.

More specifically, before they died (always in battle), each hero would have a moment of glory. This is actually one of the things that the film Troy got right. Yes – I hear you, Troy was not nearly gay enough, and the demotion of Achilles and Patroclus’s love to being Cousins who were Best Buds sucked – but they were pretty spot on from the point of view of how significant glory was to Ancient Greek storytelling.

Glory is how you are remembered. Glory is immortality. Glory bridges the gap between human beings and gods.

And one thing we get perfectly in The Long Night is for each hero to get their moment of glory before death. And they were ALL fucking AWESOME.

Theon slaughters dozens of dead men in the Godswood defending Bran, the boy he wronged – now the man, who has just confirmed that Theon has redeemed himself.

Beric Dondarrion meets his final death having saved been brought back by the Red God 19 times, specifically so he could be here in this moment, saving Arya Stark.

And for me, most strikingly heroic of all, Lady Lyanna Mormont, beloved of millions, wise and strong beyond her years, stabs a zombie giant in the face with her dying thrust.

These are all classically epic moments of pre-death heroics, where each hero gets a set fight in which they triumph before they die

Heroes are demi-gods

Note also that although the ‘semi-divine’ rule of Ancient Greek epic is not precisely embodied for most heroes in Game of Thrones, the spirit of it is.

Theon is the son of a king (even if that king bent the knee). There’s also a sense in which he is dead – Theon, Prince of the Iron Islands, died in the Bastard of Bolton’s cell. Reek was reborn in his place. Then Theon fought his way back from the lands of the dead to reclaim his identity. This fits neatly with the Iron Islander religion: what is dead may never die. And he realises that fully just before his death, when Bran acknowledges that he has come home. He is again the person who grew up in Winterfell – a person who was dead who can now never die, because his tale will live on. Semi-divine.

Beric Dondarrion is the most obvious case of a semi-divine character. He died and was brought back to life in service of the Red God 19 times, each time losing a bit more of himself. He freely acknowledges that he is not longer completely the mortal man that he was, but lives only to be the agent of a god in this world. As Bran does for Theon, Melisandre confirms it shortly before his death – he was brought back to life by the god so many times precisely so that he could be here in this moment of glory upon which the world changes.

Lyanna Mormont might be less obviously semi-divine, but she is clearly a hero and a girl with courage, intelligence, and presence of command beyond her years. Her divinity is in standing like a bear before death, despite her youth and small stature, and stabbing death in the face. She dies arguably the most heroic and viscerally satisfying death.

And of course, Melisandre, who has lived too long a life, extended by magic and the will of her god, to die here, in this cold, desolate place. Her moment of glory all the more powerful because her faith was one that had waned. This is more obvious in the books,but still articulated in the show – she never had the emotional connection and faith that propelled Thoros to bring Beric back to life. She didn’t believe she could raise Jon Snow from the dead until she did it. And we see here her emotional connection – as it had been absent in the earlier, darker arts she has practiced.

She achieved great feats under Stannis’s command, but always with external cost – sex with a king, the blood of a king, and worst of all, the sacrifice of Shireen. In the books, we see that she is half charlatan, and that’s perhaps easier to miss in the show, but I think it still holds true. When she works with power but against the spirit of the god she serves, it is always at a cost, and it usually doesn’t achieve the best outcome for her and hers. But as at the Wall, even though she is far from the warm lands of her god, when she wills with feeling and with faith, her powers not only work, they are spectacular. When she lights the trenches that surround the castle, she does so with complete conviction and sheer desperation – and that’s why it works.

Her death, collapsing as a pile of robes in the snow, is the most literal embodiment of a hero returning to the divine from which they were created. On first watching, I thought she literally melted away like a Jedi knight who has lived up to the ideals of the light side of the force. And although rewatching on a larger screen made me reconsider whether her body melted away, I believe the impresison was intentional. It is one of several iconic science fiction moments ‘The Long Night’ draws on to evoke the epic not only with ancient literary tropes but with their modern echoes

The moments of glory

The Long Night gives us more than the ancient trope. EVERY hero gets their moment.

Brienne and Jaime fight with style and pinache and power on the walls and in the courtyard.

The Hound overcomes his PTSD and, surrounded by fire, moves to protect Arya.

Dolorous Edd could not be properly said to be divine in any sense – he is the epitome of an ordinary man – a man of the Night’s Watch who has given himself up for the greater good with no expectation of glory (indeed, vociferously the opposite). And he saves Sam’s life in his moment of glory immediately before death.

The epic literary trope rings with ancient satisfaction in our bones, but the modern commentary of the show and the books take us further. It says that you do not have to be divine (even metaphorically) to be a hero. To make your stand. To make a difference.

To count.

Sci-fi and fantasy moments

I mentioned above the Star Wars/Melisandre moment, but long time readers will likely be unsurprised that I picked up on Terminator moments, too.

In fact, I was cursing myself moments before the episode punched me in the face with the visual imagery of the Night King walking out of dragon fire like the T-1000 walking out of the gas tanker explosion. Earlier in the episode I’d noticed a recurrence of the Terminator-like waaaawomp! theme music, which we first heard in the season six episode ‘No One’. For those who don’t recall, we hear it for the first time in that episode when Cersei reasserts her power by using The Mountain as her obedient killing machine (Cersei, played by Lena Headey, whose most notable pre-GoT role was as Sarah Connor in Terminator-franchised series, The Sarah Conner Chronicles). It then recurs as Arya is being chased through the streets by the unrelenting Waif, who also mirrors the mannerisms of the T-1000.

Anyway, there was clueless Terminator fangirl me going, oh, it’s nice that they’re revisiting that theme, but it’s a shame there’s nothing overtly Terminatorish going on here.

What an idiot.

Terminator basically = Death, coming for you. Which everyone has spent the last two episodes describing explicitly, both in reference to the Night King and his army. Let’s quote Kyle Reese for a second:

Listen, and understand. That terminator is out there. It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead.

Kyle Reese, The Terminator

Now listen again to Gendry telling Arya what he knows of fighting the Others (the dead):

Look, I know you want to fight… but this is different. This is… this is death. You want to know what they’re like? Death. That’s what they’re like.

Gendry Baratheon, Game of Thrones, Season 8, Episode 2

It’s the same feeling of a man trying to get through to a woman that what they’re facing is certain death – absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead/You want to know what they’re like? Death. That’s what they’re like.

But it’s better than a direct quote, because it’s updated. Here, Gendry is the one who is scared and Arya is the experienced fighter who knows what she’s doing. And so she responds:

I know Death. He’s got many faces. I look forward to seeing this one.

Arya Stark, Game of Thrones, Season 8, Episode 2

And this is what good literature does. It takes a cultural touch point, and it spins it to show us a new side. The warning is the same, but Arya is the hero, and Gendry is the one afraid. I love the Terminator films and I love Sarah Conner, but it takes until the second movie, when she is half-mad, for Sarah to become a badass. And even then, if she’s a kind of hero, she’s not this kind of hero. She’s not the half-divine protagonist – that role goes to her son, John Connor, hero of the resistance, and protagonist of the film, who caused a time-travel paradox to create his own existence.

Arya started her training before her trauma. Arya did her training on screen. Arya is fighting for herself, and not so some man can one day be a hero.

But I’m getting side-tracked. I’ll come back to Arya-as-hero in a bit. I want to briefly mention the other classic sci-fi reference I spotted: Jurassic Park.

Frankly, I’m ashamed it took two watchings, but in my defence, my first viewing was on a tiny screen, and as others have noted, this episode was Very Dark.

I should have seen it in the fact that both the dragons and the dead make noises not unlike the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. I should have been primed for it by the fact that there are freakin’ DRAGONS, and the dinosaur link it not a massive leap. But I missed it.

That’s OK, those links are easy to dismiss. What’s not is the fact that the scene where Arya is hiding from the dead in the stacks of the library is almost shot-for-shot the kitchen scene in Jurassic Park. Down to Arya’s/Lex’s head movements and the undead bloody well snorting at her like a velociraptor.

Again, it’s a lovely touch. Lex Murphy was another visionary character of the early 90s. She was a girl who was also a computer geek, and she protects her little brother in this scene, ultimately saving him from the dinosaurs. But again, Arya is more than Lex Murphy. Arya is a hero for the girls of the 21st century. She moves with confidence, rather than panic, and we’ve already seen her kill more dead than most of the grown men on the battlements.

And that makes it all the more powerful when, having escaped the library, she later finds herself overwhelmed and on the run in the hallways of her home.

Arya Stark the hero

OK, let’s talk about it now.

Having watched what amounted to a piece of cinematic perfection on Monday 29 April, I was utterly mystified to see ‘Mary Sue’ trending less than an hour later.

Grown-arse men were calling Arya Stark a Mary Sue, because she has the honour of killing the Night King.

It was puzzling and enraging in equal measures. And it’s hard to find a more clear-cut case of that term existing purely for the purposes of misogyny.

For those not in the know, ‘Mary Sue’ was a term coined following a 1970s Star Trek fanfic. You wouldn’t have known it from the way it was presented by the time I was introduced to Star Trek in the 80s and 90s, but Star Trek fandom, from the beginning, was led by women and girls. And they wrote fan fiction. They wrote about adventures in space and they wrote about Spock and Kirk getting it on and they successfully campaigned for the show to be renewed.

And one woman in the 70s wrote a now notorious piece of fanfic in which a character called Mary Sue saved the day and got to make out with their love interest afterwards. You know, like Captain Kirk did every week.

When men – professional authors, even – do this, we call this a self-insert or wish-fulfillment character. But when a woman does it, it is deemed gauche, embarrassing, to be discouraged. So, over the years, ‘Mary Sue’ became the label for any character who fitted the broad tropes of having a tragic (but underdeveloped) background, who was unnaturally gifted (and gifted at everything), who saves the day, and who ‘gets the guy’ as a reward.

I am not the first to point out that this description epitomises Batman. And… the vast majority of male heroes and protagonists across most genres.

What it doesn’t describe, is Arya Stark.

So, she gave the final blow that killed the Night King. And she is a supremely skilled fighter – skilled far beyond what most women could achieve. And her dad and mum are dead.

That doesn’t make her a Mary Sue.

Why not? Well, first off, she doesn’t have a tragic backstory. She lives through tragedy and trauma. Her mum and dad are alive all through season one and play far more pivotal on-screen roles than she does for that season. Both die not to advance Arya’s plot or provide her motivation, but as the result of their own folly.

Arya is supremely skilled, but, as I said on Twitter at the time, show me the eight years of on-screen training that John McClane went through before he survived the events at Nakatomi Plaza in Die Hard. What’s that? He was just a middle-aged white man who was nearly kicked out of the police force? DAMN, Arya Stark only trained with the first sword of Bravos, the Hound, Brienne of Tarth, and the assassins in the House of Black and White. You’re right, John’s story is way more plausible. [/sarcasm]

And, let’s just note: Arya’s training in ‘water dancing’ started before the tragic death of her parents, and she showed proficiency with a bow at home in Winterfell. Again: her parents were not fridged to explain her sudden dedication to murder skills.

She is very good at fighting, but is she unbelievably good at everything?

Again. No. She sucks at embroidery and diplomacy. She readily concedes that her sister, Sansa, is both brighter than her and more knowledgeable about politics. And she’s not even good at all fighting styles. She’s small, and her fighting abilities are adapted to suit a petite person. When she first fights with the Hound he easily defeats her because her techniques are suited to unarmoured rapier dueling. From him she learns to fight against someone who is broad and tall and has a broadsword. And when we see her later sparring with Brienne, we see what she has learnt. Both women are shown to be experts in their style. Arya is lightning fast where Brienne has power and strength. The fight ends in a standoff where each is positioned for what would have been a killing blow.

Arya learnt to not try to beat people who are taller and stronger than her at their own game. She learnt how to defeat them with her own advantages.

Lastly… Arya is a hero. She’s meant to be larger than life.

The whole idea of a Mary Sue is premised on misogyny. There’s nothing wrong with having wish fulfillment characters – people you can identify with who are better than you, who could defeat your enemies and reap the rewards you desire.

Apparently I have to break it to men that they are not Batman, or James Bond, or John McClane. And they never will be. They couldn’t be. Likely, no one could be – no real human being could do all the things those guys do.

And that’s OK, as long as you don’t start telling women or non-binary people or men of colour or disabled men that they can’t have wish fulfillment fantasies too.

Because somehow your impossible self-inserts are just naturally more believable than ours.

And I like most of those characters – well, not James Bond, never understood why his brand of smugness was meant to be attractive, but most of them. And I’ll do you one better. I LOVE, Superman. And that dude has everything. He’s not even pretending to be an ordinary human (except when… well, Clark aside, you know what I mean).

Wish fulfillment characters are not bad. Heroes are not bad. You just need to learn to share and let other people have some.

Oh, and if you’re interested in those visual references I was jamming about earlier… You know Arya Stark’s move where she goes in to kill the Night King? It’s the same move Achilles uses to kill the giant challenger he has to fight at the beginning of the film Troy.

She’s going for the exact same spot. She just has a back-up plan. Because this is the end of her hero’s journey, not the beginning.

[Edited to add:] Arya as No One

Oh my God readers, I just had a revelation. This moment is ALSO a deliberate callback to Lord of the Rings – the most famous fantasy epic of them all. I’m talking about the moment when Eowyn declares that she is no man, and kills the Witch King.

There was some discussion in the previous episode about what could kill the Night King.

Arya has been asking people what can. Gendry tells her to stop asking. They’re death. Implicitly: no one can kill death. And Arya smirks – she’s killed death before. She killed it in the House of Black and White when she killed the Waif, who, as mentioned above, gets the same Terminator/death-coming-for-you theme tune as the Night King.

As asks again of the war council: will dragon fire kill him?

They hope so, they say.

But it doesn’t. Dragon fire cannot kill the Night King. Jon Snow cannot kill the Night King. Theon Greyjoy cannot kill the Night King. The implication seems to be: nothing and no one can kill the Night King.

And so, No One does.

Arya rejects that identity at the end of her training in the House of Black and White. She says that she is not No One, she is Arya Stark. But is she, still? The deaths she brings, these are not the deaths of the people on her list, they are those other have asked for.

Alright, she kills all the male Freys, and that’s a personal revenge. But she is also avenging Walder Frey’s violation of hospitality on a colossal scale that demands divine retribution.

She kills Littlefinger, but again, she does so at Sansa’s request.

Throughout season eight we see her questioned:

The Hound – wasn’t he on your list? I took him off.

Beric Dondarrion – wasn’t he on your list? For a while.

Melisandre, are you going to kill her? They share a look, and Melisandra answers the question by misquoting herself. Years ago she told Arya she would close many eyes forever: brown eyes, blue eyes, and green eyes. And many speculated that Melisandra would be killed by Arya as she had green eyes. This time, she says “brown eyes, green eyes, and blue eyes“. And we recognise that the White Walkers and the dead all have glowing blue eyes. On first watching, I thought that merely meant that Arya would kill a lot of the dead. But read this instead: Arya kills all of the blue eyes dead people, when she kills the Night King.

This conversation isn’t merely a confirmation that Arya has taken Melisandra off her list, it is a request, from the servant of the Red God to the servant of the God of Death: to kill the Night King.

And because Arya is now No One, she doesn’t kill Melisandre, because she no longer cares about her own list. She kills the Night King instead.

*Reader, I did not follow the instructions.

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Games of Thrones, Season 6, Episode 1 – aka, why should I bother?

Game of Thrones, Season 6, promo imageI adored Game of Thrones when it first came out. I had been excited for years before it came out. But even I approached this season with trepidation. I’ll be blunt (trigger warning: rape mention) I’m talking about the rapes. The extra rapes. Rape where sex was consensual in the books (i.e. the rape of Cersei by Jaime (who hates rape and saves Brienne from rape what even?)) and the rape of Sansa, which had previously been Jayne Poole (which was also bad, but… many people were invested in the story of Sansa’s quiet, feminine strength and… it was problematic OK?)).

Our amazing show, which gave us so many amazing female characters in so many different roles that we’ve never gotten to see women play before and all together, not just one or two and… it was amazing, and where it then went the last two seasons left a lot of people feeling betrayed.

What’s more, last season was weak overall. I talk about this at length in my review of Season Five. I know a lot of people who bailed afterwards. I knew I wouldn’t, but as the new season approached… I wasn’t sure why.

But I watched it, and… I was more than pleasantly surprised.

The following is not a review – I’ve not the energy for that – but rather, it is a minimally spoilery list of reasons to watch this episode and hope that things are turning towards the light. (I mean, not for the characters – those fucks are gonna suffer, you know that, right? – but for us as viewers who need things to get a bit less rapey and sexist.) I make it for the sake of saying ‘You may be worried, but these things happen and they are the good things you probably didn’t think would happen‘:

Things are going to get better for Sansa.

Brienne is gonna be FRIGGIN’ AWESOME.

Dolorous Edd is pretty cool. I just like writing that sentence, ngl.

Tyrion and Varys politically analyse Meereen. You know you want it.

Daenerys. Is not a white saviour to anyone (in this episode). Which is good. She’s taken down a lot of pegs. But she’s also pretty awesome. Which is also good.

Sand Snakes. Are snakey. And even if their characterisation last season was lack luster, they certainly make a statement.

Arya. Is on screen and therefore awesome. But also blind and suffers physical consequences for this.

Nakedness… happens. But not in the way you expect it to.

I mean, the first two points were the most important to me, and they satisfied exactly what I needed to make this episode worthwhile, but the other stuff is also good.

And no, I’ve not told you anything about Jon Snow. As is right and proper. Watch the episode if you wanna know about that.

Review: Game of Thrones, Season Five (contains spoilers)

Game of Thrones, Season Five, promo image[Trigger warning for extended discussion of rape and sexual violence.]

So, I’m in the unusual position of reviewing season five of Game of Thrones before my review of season four is finished. I had a lot to say about season four, but because I was ill and still trying to finish my PhD, it’s sat half-done for months. I will get back to it, but I feel like you’d be more interested in reading what I think about the season that’s just finished at this moment.

And, boy, are there things to talk about, most of it having caused outrage on the Internet.

In terms of plotting and scripting, this was the weakest season so far. Some of it is due to the books. A Feast for Crows, and especially A Dance with Dragons, is a sprawling mess. These two books were originally one, which grew so out of control that George R R Martin decided to split his cast of characters in half and have one book dealing with one set, and the other with the others. After which A Dance with Dragons is still the second largest book I own, beaten only by my complete works of Shakespeare. I think we have to acknowledge the challenge this presented to the television show’s producers.

As you’ll know if you’ve read my Read Along with Rhube on A Dance with Dragons, much of it consists of Daenerys sitting in a holding pattern in Meereen whilst half a dozen different people who have suddenly realised she’s important journey from one continent to the far end of another to reach her. This presents a problem in a TV show where Daenerys is not only one of the most popular characters, but also portrayed by probably the most powerful actor in the show. Emilia Clarke has reportedly negotiated a no-more-nude-scenes contract; in a show now notorious for gratuitous female nudity, this is quite a feat. Whilst many characters and plotlines simply haven’t even been mentioned this season, this just wasn’t something that was going to happen with Daenerys. Given that Daenerys isn’t even in a Feast for Crows, and spends most of A Dance with Dragons treading water in filler chapters, it’s not entirely surprising that great swathes of other plot needed to be dropped in order to keep her plot relevant and pacey.

Nevertheless, given these constraints, it’s puzzling what David Benioff and D. B. Weiss decided to add to the season, as well as what they decided to cut from Daenerys’s plot.

Let’s tackle the most controversial change first.

What Happens to Sansa

In the books, Sansa Stark’s childhood friend, Jeyne Poole, poses as Arya Stark at Littlefinger’s behest as part of a ruse to hide the fact that the Lannisters lost Arya. Littlefinger sends Jeyne off to marry Ramsay Snow, Roose Bolton’s bastard, who has captured Winterfell, the Stark’s home. The Boltons do not know that Jeyne is not Arya Stark, but Theon immediately recognises her as Jeyne. In the show, Jeyne Poole plausibly existed as an unnamed girl hanging around with Sansa in season one, but we haven’t seen her since. Introducing her as Sansa’s friend now would have been weird. They might have had A. N. Girl posing as Arya, but it makes sense for Sansa to take this role. Sansa, and the actor who plays her (Sophie Turner), are too popular in and central to the show to simply banish her for a season, and in the books we haven’t seen hide nor hair of Sansa Stark for quite a while. Jeyne Poole was a ward of Littlefinger, and Sansa is currently posing as a ward of Littlefinger; it makes sense to condense the roles.

What’s problematic is that what happens to Jeyne Poole is awful. Because Ramsay Snow is awful. I’m not sure they’ve been able to fully convey how awful in the show, just because being inside Theon’s head remembering his torture is not something you can really convey on screen. But in both show and book he is unequivocally the most evil sonofabitch in two continents’ worth of truly awful people. What happens to Jeyne Poole is, in some sense, just part and parcel of that. She is raped on her wedding night. That in itself is not a surprise. It would have been out of character for Ramsay to be a caring and tender lover. But in addition to the rape, he makes Theon watch. More, he makes Theon go down on Jeyne/Fake-Arya first, as a way of humiliating them both. So, the moment book-readers realised they had condensed these roles became the moment at which we realised that without some drastic deviatition, poor Sansa, who had already been subjected to Joffrey’s horrors, would be enduring one of the most horrific rape scenes in the series.

It is not quite as bad as it is in the books. Theon does not go down on Sansa. But he does watch, and Sansa is raped. And we are told that she is raped repeatedly afterwards. And Theon does watch as she is raped. Unlike some rape scenes in the show, the camera does thankfully pan away from watching in gratuitous detail, but many have criticised the fact that it pans away to Theon’s face. Sansa’s rape and humiliation is presented as a part of Theon’s character growth – what brings him to recovering a sense of self and finding the strength to eventually rescue both himself and Sansa.

There are complex things to say about this. For a lot of people it was the last straw. Famously, The Mary Sue declared that they would no longer be promoting the show after this. I think the fact that people are reacting strongly and publicly and drawing attention to how appallingly prevalent rape and the abuse of women’s bodies is in entertainment is important. I have not decided to stop watching Game of Thrones as a result, but I understand why some people have.

For me, if I was going to quit, it would have been at the rape of Cersei in season four. In that scene, the producers took a scene of (extremely kinky) consensual sex and turned it into rape. They did it purely for sensationalism, and it was super gross. In the books, Jaime Lannister comes home and meets Cersei in the sept where their son is laid out, dead, and they have sex on the altar. Cersei initially protests that she is on her period, but Jaime says he doesn’t care, afterwhich Cersei urges him on. In the show, the producers remove the icky-to-men fact that Cersei is doing the perfectly natural thing of menstruating, and have Jaime forcing himself on her as she protests, tries to push him off, and is visibly distressed. This is after Jaime, having been home for weeks (months?), has been shown frequently complaining that Cersei won’t let him have sex with him. It goes from a passionate homecoming that illustrates how twisted their relationship is to one of a frustrated man taking from a woman what she has expressly and repeatedly indicated she does not want. For me, what happens to Sansa is awful, but turning a scene of consensual sex into rape and then treating it as if it was nothing (Jaime goes on like nothing has happened, and Cersei does little more than get a bit more drunk than usual) is worse.

I’m also bothered by the fact that for a lot of people it’s the fact that it’s Sansa getting raped that’s the problem. This was what was said again and again in discussion following that episode – it was the fact that it was Sansa that made it so much worse than the other rapes in the show*. Yes, the character has been through a lot, but so has Cersei. I do feel like there’s an element of people being more willing to forgive a rape if it happens to a woman who is more morally questionable herself. And whilst I don’t think anyone who is more outraged about Sansa’s rape than about Cersei’s literally thinks that Cersei deserved it, I’m disquieted that it seems to reflect a societal tendency to look for narratives around rape when we explain it to ourselves that focus on the victim’s life, and not on those who choose to rape. In this case, that includes the decisions writers make when they choose to portray rape, as well as real life rapists.

That said, I do think including this rape was unnecessary, that how it was portrayed was problematic, that it’s inclusion reflects deeper problems in the show, and that to an extent the outrage for this particular incident reflects a cumulative disquiet which has come to a head.

Firstly, no rape is necessary. Writers choose what they include and what they don’t. Secondly, in a season where so much deviated from the books, deciding to include this specific rape is an active decision, and not a passive attempt to accurately reflect the books. Moreover, Benioff stated explicitly in an interview with EW that they loved this subplot, and it was something they were looking to find a way to keep in the show from as early as season two. He is reported to have said:

If we were going to stay absolutely faithful to the book, it was going to be very hard to do that. There was as subplot we loved from the books, but it used a character that’s not in the show.

David Benioff in Entertainment Weekly

They loved the idea of Ramsay raping a girl. They were actively looking for ways to keep this in. This is a problem. When writers are so disassociated from thought of what rape is actually like, that it’s become this plot device for heightening drama such that this is the lens you see it through, it’s a problem. It’s a problem that goes hand in hand with the ‘fridging‘ phenomenon, in which women characters are routinely killed in horrible ways to further a man’s character development. Sansa Stark isn’t dead, but they wanted this plot because it was horrible for Theon and it illustrated how horrible Ramsay is. As others have pointed out: we already got that Ramsay was horrible.

Which brings us to the issue of presentation. Yes, in the books, we experience this rape through Theon’s eyes and as part of Theon’s character development. This is partly a consequence of GRRM’s writing style. Each chapter has a specific point of view (given by having the point of view character’s name as a chapter title), and only certain, significant characters get a point of view. Ramsay does not get a point of view. Theon does. Moreover, Theon as named for this chapter as ‘The Prince of Winterfell’, which is a way Ramsay mocked Theon for his attitude when he was briefly in charge of the castle. Theon’s presence on the wedding night is specifically framed as that of a ‘lord’ taking his ‘rights’ with a new bride through which Ramsay mocks Theon, because he is no longer lord of the castle, and he no loner has a member with which to ‘take’ the bride. All of this is extremely gross, but it’s also all completely lost in the TV show. They’ve entirely dropped the thing where Ramsay mocks Theon as being his lord, Theon (thank God) does not actively participate in the rape by going down on Sansa. Sansa has a greater claim to ruling Winterfell than either of them (in a way that Jeyne Poole did not) – something that the show makes much of, to the extent that it’s legitimate to question Ramsay risking antagonising her like this when he has other people to torture. And, crucially, the show is not tied to presenting any one specific point of view, and if it were, Sansa is still a more significant character than Theon. Whilst I was grateful that we didn’t have to watch a blow-by-blow of Sansa’s rape, panning away to make the scene all about how the rape made Theon feel was super gross.

Once again, it’s about decentring women in the violence perpetrated against us; and because men’s feelings about rape are thought to matter more, the feelings of those who actually experience sexual violence have lesser impact, perpetuating the culture that leads to rape being seen as ‘no big deal’. And the consequence of this is that men who think they would never rape will regard certain rape-acts as not rape. See the fact that Benioff and Weiss didn’t think they were writing a rape scene when they changed consensual sex into rape last season, and Nicolaj Coster-Waldau didn’t think he was performing the role of a rapist as he played the role of Jaime forcing himself on a weeping woman who says ‘no’ and struggles against him. This stuff is a huge deal.

Yet More Added Sexual Violence

And whilst we’re here, I’d like to talk about how poor Gilly becomes the victim of attempted rape as a part of Sam’s character development. A sex act he is incapable of defending her from, and which did not need to be added, and which the writers then had to get them out of through Deus ex Ghost (i.e. Jon’s wolf showing up out of the blue). The scene was completely unnecessary and is quickly followed with Gilly rewarding Sam with sex after she’s nearly been raped. It’s just… it’s just so inappropriate.

But I guess Sam has been such a nice guy, so he deserved sex. Uuuuuggggggh. Do I even have to go into how the Nice Guys Deserve Sex trope contributes to rape culture?** And then this becomes the motive for Sam to move out of Castle Black and go to the Citedal – because men just can’t control themselves and Sam can’t protect Gilly, instead of the fact that the whole world badly needs for people at the Wall to know more about how to fight White Walkers!

The Plotlines We’ve Lost

S S Abandoned Plotlines

S S Abandoned Plotlines (found on the Reddit of Ice and Fire)

At the same time that these deeply disturbing and unnecessary plots have been added, we’ve also seen a distinct absence of the women who could be legitimately kicking arse.

We last saw Yara, Theon’s kickass sister, pointlessly retreating from a fight that wasn’t in the books, in season four. This season (instead of fighting for her right to rule the Iron Islands, capturing northern castles, and then being captured by Stannis in time to see just what has become of her brother) she is utterly absent.

Catelyn Stark’s avenging zombie persona, Lady Stoneheart, has been completely lost, along with all the wonderful characters from the Brotherhood without Banners.

Val, Mance Rayder’s sister-in-law, is a sore loss to the male-heavy world of the Wall, and whilst we’re talking about Mance, him being Dead-Dave-Really-Dead and not pretend-dead as he was in the books is just a waste of a character. His absence as the leader of the disguised wildlings sent to save Jon’s sister contributes to the general sense of unbalance in the Winterfell plotline, where Ramsay Bolton becomes something of an unstoppable force, against which his brutality is a little hard to bear.

Not to mention the host of bitter northerners who could have relieved the relentless depression of Sansa’s wedding night with their seething hatred and cannibal pie. Whilst I don’t defend the rape of Jeyne Poole, it comes after a tremendous build up of dramatic tension in which the hapless girl is actually surrounded by people who might have rescued her, had their attention been appropriately directed at the time. Given Game of Thrones‘ love of dramatic weddings, this felt like something of a waste. And a really bleak, depressing waste at that. Benioff and Weiss were in ‘love’ with the rape plotline, but they passed up the opportunity for Lord Wyman and his Frey Pies – I don’t know, man, if you say you like shocking and horrible things, but the shocking and horrible things you return to again and again are violently sexual acts against women, when cannibalism is quite literally on the table, I call misogyny.

And then we have one kickass lady introduced to the beyond-the-Wall plot – Karsi, the wildling leader who votes for the wildlings to join Jon at the Wall – only to be killed because zombie children were her fatal weakness… She doesn’t even try to fight them, because they are children and she is a mother. I guess none of the male wildlings had kids? As Chrys from Chrys Watches Game of Thrones wrote:

And to anyone saying it wasn’t a sexist trope we’re so used to seeing that we sort of accept it, try replacing her with the Thenn dude and if the scene still makes sense to you peace be with you.

Chrys, Chris Watches Game of Thrones

I’ve ranted more about this over on my Tumblr, if you’re interested.

I’ll be honest and say that I’m more than happy to have lost the Victarion plotline – in which Theon and Yara’s uncle, Victarion, is one of the many suitors trying and failing to claim Daenerys’s hand. It felt tacked-on to A Dance with Dragons and included Victarion having a mute woman-of-colour sex slave. Which might just be the most racist and misogynist addition to all of Geroge R R Matin’s books. Truly, I can live without that.

By contrast, Quentyn Martell and Aegon Targaryen are rather more interesting suitors who were also cut. If the excuse for cutting so much from the Westerosi plots is that not a lot happens in Meereen, one cannot help but feel that there is still a fair amount that might have been included. Given that Aegon was widely speculated to have been a possible rider for one of Daenerys’s drgons (his Targaryen blood also making him a significant challenge to her claim to the throne), ditching him entirely seems significant. I wonder if they will find a way of working him back in for the next season.

Similarly, I can’t say I am pleased to have lost the plague plotline. I’ve always felt that the complete disaster at Astapor and the plague that follows, along with the vast armies of Yunkai closing on Meereen, were an important part of deconstructing Daenerys’s image as a white saviour. Yes, she frees the slaves, but because she doesn’t understand the culture she overturns and because she fails to put any kind of stable governmental structure in its place, she leaves chaos and disease in her wake – disease that, with a sense of poetic justice, eventually infects her, as well. This season Daenerys struck rather too successful a figure by contrast. Her humiliating the leaders of Meereen and threatening them with dragons that, in the books, she has all but lost control over, is an uncomfortably imperialistic turn.

Meanwhile, instead of adventuring in the Riverlands, Brienne spends the whole season waiting for Sansa to tell her it’s OK to come to her rescue, only to be looking the wrong way when she finally sends the signal. Whilst it was satisfying for Brienne to finally fulfil her promise to avenge Renly, I would have been more satisfied if she had been rescuing Sansa. After all, this is not something Theon is able to do by himself in the books. Given that we have lost Abel/Mance and his spearwives, along with all the entertaining northerners with their burning hatred of the Boltons, it would have been perfectly reasonably to have Brienne step up and kick some arse on Sansa’a behalf!

It is starting to very much feel as though many of the best plotlines were cut.

Of Stannis and Shireen

Meanwhile, as additions go, Stannis burning Shireen in service to the God of Light might have been intended as shocking, but registered as implausible and distasteful.  Whilst the possibility of Melisandre killing Shireen has always been there – the blood of kings is clearly magical and something that the books made as much a thing of as the TV show – Stannis sacrificing his daughter is another matter. After all, in the books, the queen and Shireen are left at Castle Black to keep them out of harm’s way!

It also simply doesn’t fit with the characterisation of Stannis’s love for his daughter in the show, and the indication that (as Chrys of CWGoT has put it) he would go ‘full rambo’ on anyone who harmed a hair on her head. (Incidentally, I am personally headcanoning the events in accordance with Chrys’s retcon of what happened in that episode.)

Basically, I don’t think it’s out of keeping with the show to kill off an adorable child, but it didn’t make sense in this context.

Also I loved Shireen and I just didn’t want her dead and I am OK with simply feeling that it’s wrong on that basis.

Other Things

There is so much else one could talk about, but honestly, the general disappointment of this season has left me exhausted. So, I’ll be brief:

Cersei’s Walk of Shame: yes, it was gross, but it was also completely textually accurate. I struggle to get worked up about it in the face of all the other misogyny this season. Overall I actually thought it was relatively tastefully done and reflected the horror of the scene without being simply another excuse for female nudity. I didn’t feel like it lingered lovingly on her boobs or anything. It made me sigh with exasperation when I read it in the books, and it made sigh with exasperation again, but it wasn’t as bad as I had feared it might be.

The Sand Snakes: a disappointing snooze-fest. The Dornish came off as stereotypes of passionate Latino-ish people. I’ve resisted the equation of Dorne with American stereotypes of Latin-Americans, as the fantasy-Britain setting makes the Dornish more equivalent to Mediterranean, but it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the makers of Game of Thrones don’t know the difference. Bronn literally stereotypes them as sexy and crazy, and the Sand Snakes are presented as, well, wild and sexual and violent. It was disappointing.

Jaime: is off rescuing his daughter from the Dornish. For some reason. Because I guess no one needs to fight a war in the Riverlands anymore. Not only are neither Brienne nor Jaime where they are meant to be in order to eventually meet up again, but in not storming off, spurning Cersei in favour of Brienne, Jaime’s failing to come to Cersei’s aid after her passionate plea to him (which we are also denied) doesn’t make a lot of sense. Are we to believe that no one in Dorne passed on the message, or even told him his sister had been arrested? Once again, it doesn’t make sense and sacrifices an emotionally powerful plot point.

Daenerys and Tyrion meeting: I actually liked this. The two of them are on my Iron Throne Dream Team, so I wriggled with joy to see them together, and Tyrion did a passably convincing job of giving her good advice.

Daenerys and Daario: I’ve never been a fan of this relationship, but having Daario take such a prominent role in advising her didn’t sit at all well. Daario is a dangerous distraction for book-Daenerys, and that she should listen to him so seriously is worrying and strange. But more weird and uncomfortable is the way Daario takes charge once Daenerys is gone. What he says is actually very good advice, but I’m not sure what orifice he pulled it from. Deus ex Daario.

The White Walkers: the zombie movie finally arrived, and it was AWESOME. Except that the only woman in it was killed. And almost all the women have been removed from Castle Black, so we’ve not much hope of that changing in the future. D&D seem set on following the tradition that zombie films are a boys club, and I’m Just. So. BORED. of being mad at this happening again and again and again. Women LIKE ZOMBIE MOVIES. I know, because I was involved in the, The Girls’ Guide to Surving the Apocalypse, where we talked about zombies all the time. Women LIKE APOCALYPSE MOVIES. You might have noticed from the success of Mad Max: Fury Road this summer. I’m bored and sad and bored. Get your shit together and get the women out there, Game of Thrones. THERE WILL BE WOMEN IN THE APOCALYPSE.

Jon Snow: is almost certainly not dead. Despite the fact that it’s been confirmed in the Independent today that Jon Snow really is dead, I find it hard to believe. The very fact that Melisandre magically appeared at the Wall (where she always had been in the books) strongly supports the popular fan theory that his death at the end of A Dance with Dragons was about as permanent as any of Beric Dondarrion’s deaths. We know fire priests can resurrect people.  We know Melisandre questioned Thoros on the matter. And in the books a lot of prophecies seem very much to indicate that Jon Snow still has a role to play. Not to mention the fact that his mysterious parentage has yet to be revealed. If he really is dead in the show, then I don’t believe he is in the books, and killing him off would signal that the show is more lost than ever.


Overall, this was always going to be a challenging season, but I didn’t expect it to go so spectacularly wrong. Instead of leaving us breathlessly waiting for more, the end of each episode tended to leave myself and my friends in awkward silence, and in need of watching something else immediately afterwards to cleanse our palates.

This season was needlessly misogynist, full of plotholes and implausible character decisions, and overall disappointing. I will be watching next season, but it will mainly be in the hope of it getting better. I find it hard to blame those who have decided to quit.

*I can feel people preparing to tell me that that’s not what they were saying so I’m just gonna say this: there were a lot of people talking about this. If you don’t think you were saying this, then it’s entirely possible that I am not talking specifically about you. It’s not specifically about any one person, and the fact that you might not have said this doesn’t undermine the fact that a lot of people were saying it. I’m exhausted from having this discussion and don’t want to go over it again in the comments, so comments are off. But I wanted to address the way that different rapes often spark different responses depending on who it is being raped – I think it’s important to think about what sparks our outrage and question whether what we choose to be outraged (or less outraged) about does not sometimes reflect problematic aspects of ourselves. But I also know that that’s an incredibly difficult thing to talk about sensitively and I don’t have the mental energy to chair a debate about it. So, it’s turn the comments off or not discuss this at all, and I think it’s an important question to raise.

**If you’re expecting this, it’s not going to happen, but why not check out some of the many, many articles on this. The Geek Feminism wiki has a good primer on Nice Guy culture; you might also check out ‘The Friend Zone Cultivates Rape Culture‘, by Jerica Lowman; or Laurie Penny’s ‘It’s nice to think that only evil men are rapists – that it’s only pantomime villains with knives in alleyways. But the reality is different‘.

Read Along with Rhube #30: Chapters 59 and 60

Hey gang, it’s baaaaaack! With season four of Game of Thrones just a few short weeks away, I’ve dusted off my reading hat and picked up my now-somewhat-battered volume of A Dance with Dragons (it’s heavier than I remembered). We’re at p. 783 – only another 176 to go!

I’ve also created an index page, which you can find in the drop-down ‘Index’ menu above. This is mostly an aesthetic change (I didn’t realise I could make drop-down menus this way before!). At the moment I’m still intending to keep the original index post up to date (apart from anything else, I don’t relish the thought of changing the links across 29 posts), but the new, ever so slightly swankier version is there if you want to just grab if from a drop-down menu.

That little bit of admin over with, let’s see if we can remember where we are, shall we?

Chapter 59: The Discarded Knight (Ser Barristan Selmy)

So, Daenerys has flown off with her dragon and nobody’s really clear on what happened – people are worried that she’s dead. Ser Barristan is now serving Dany’s husband, Hizdahr zo Loraq; although, what with the poisoned locusts that Dany nearly ate, suspicions are ripe. Was this a plot by Hizdahr to assassinate his queen? Could the Prince of Dorne have been trying to assassinate Hizdahr, in his role as a rival suitor for Dany’s (already claimed) hand? The answer to that one is no, btw, Ser Barristan – that boy just isn’t cut out for this level of intrigue. Unfortunately, the King doesn’t know that, and Ser Barristan is now rather worried for the boy’s life.

Whilst Selmy is considering plots within plots, the Yunkish arrive along with their sellsword, Bloodbeard, who chucks the head of Admiral Groleo across the throne room. Groleo had been taken as a hostage to ensure the safety of the Yunkish men who had entered the city to sign a peace accord with Dany. One of these guys died whilst trying to flee the dragon, and this is their vengeance.

Worse than the insult of killing Groleo, though, the Yunkish (who return three Meereenese hostages along with the head) now demand the destruction of the dragons in exchange for the remaining hostages. It’s an outrageous demand, made the more so as the Yunkish flatly declare that Dany is dead, killed by her dragon (‘Weeds grow through her broken skull’) but where the situation demands a decisive response, Hizdahr simply calls the audience to an end and says he must consult with his council.

As the people disperse, Selmy catches up to Quentyn – the Dornish prince – and warns him to stay away from court in Dany’s absence and to seriously consider leaving altogether. Hizdahr is not going to take too kindly to another suitor to his wife’s hand hanging around even without the whole poisoned-locusts business. Quentyn recalls to Selmy that he is known as ‘Barristan the Bold’ and asks him what name he, Quentyn, can expect to be called if he returns to Dorne without Daenerys. To stay is hopeless, but to leave means a dishonour that this prince, in his youthful determination, cannot accept.

This is an interesting chapter – lots of politics afoot. Hizdahr’s rather pathetic lack of decisive response to the Yunkish insult raises some interesting questions. The poisoned locusts having been Hizdahr’s makes him a prime suspect, but one cannot help but ask whether this is really the sort of man who could so calmly offer his queen poisoned food in a plot to claim the throne for himself. I can’t help but wonder if he isn’t a dupe who genuinely wanted peace, whilst the other political powers in Meereen plotted murder. What’s clear is that, whatever mess Daenerys was making of ruling, she was all that was holding this place together, and there is no one her equal to step into the power vacuum she’s left behind.

As for Quentyn… Oh Quentyn. I like you, I like you a lot, but you’re no more cut out for this place than Hizdahr is, and, as Selmy notes, you do not have the kind of fire in you that would attract a woman like Daenerys. This will not end well.

Chapter 60: The Spurned Suitor (Quentyn)

Speaking of the Prince, this chapter is his. His advisers think he should listen to Selmy, but Quentyn thinks he owes it to the men who have already lost their lives getting him here to see it through, so they stay. Quentyn, Quentyn – too nice for this world. As his advisers slur the names of the Meereenese (“‘I call them all Harzoo'”) Quentyn will have none of it, and demonstrates that he remembers every single one (that’s how we know he’s a nice boy).

And he’s smart, too. ‘They do not see. His friends had lost sight of his true purpose. The road leads through her, not to her. Daenerys is the means to the prize, not the prize itself.‘ He knows that Daenerys is not simply an empty symbol of power or a prize to be won and that, in many ways, her hand in marriage is not nearly as important as her command of her dragons. That is smart… but is he smart enough?

Quentyn’s new plan is to ask the Tattered Prince – the man whose contract he and his companions ran out on – to help him steal a dragon. It’s certainly audacious. If Quentyn’s right, it might even be a stroke of genius. If you want help from a mercenary you’ve betrayed, you have to intrigue him as well as pay him, and stealing a dragon certainly has that. Such a gutsy prize also allows the Tattered Prince to ask for something more than money. He asks for Pentos. And given that this is where the chapter rather dramatically ends, I think we can assume that this is the deal that is made.

As for the dragon? Quentyn’s reasoning is that he has the blood of the dragon within him, therefore he will also go unburned, as Daenerys does. He’s certainly shown himself to have grown in bravery and wits, but blood of the dragon… we saw how that line of thinking worked out for Viserys.

Quentyn, I so want things to workout for you. I can’t help but think that you would make a good and kind king. But I’m not sure that this is a world for good and kind kings.


Game of Thrones: Are. We. Ready. Yet?!!

I mean, yeah, I’ve been ready since the moment the last episode finished, but… I’m so excited!

There has never been a fantasy show like this, or of this quality.




As a side note: I know I haven’t updated ‘Read Along With Rhube‘ for umpteen million years. I do intendto finish my chapter-by-chapter review of A Dance With Dragons, I’m just still doing the ill-depression-PhD thing, but it is at the back of my mind for when I have a moment.

In the mean time: SQUEEEEEEE!

The Third Annual Serene Wombles

Sorry this is so late. I had, like, three significant life crises happen all at once, and I only had this half finished by 3rd October, which was my blog’s birthday. I really wanted to get this out on the day itself, but that’s life. Let the post begin!

Wow, we survived a whole ‘nother year, and for some reason you lot are still interested in what I have to say about various forms of speculative media and other awesome shit. Weirdos.

For the n00bs: The Serene Wombles are the awards I give once a year, on my blog’s birthday, for the stuff I liked best of all the things I have reviewed. The skinny:

Eligibility for a Serene Womble is conferred by being the subject of a review on In Search of the Happiness Max in the past year. There may have been better or more worthy things that came out this year, but if I didn’t find them relevant to my interests, or if I simply didn’t have the time to review them, they won’t be eligible for a Serene Womble. I make no pretense that these awards are significant or important in any way, but I enjoy having the opportunity to praise and draw attention to things I have loved.

The Serene Wombles are divided into two categories, those that apply to recent releases, and special Time Travelling Wombles for the most awesome things in my Reviewing Through the Time Machine posts. The division between the former and the latter may at times seem arbitrary – why should a film that came out in 2009 count as a recent release, whilst a TV Show that ended in 2009 requires a time machine? It’ll always be a judgement call, and the call is mine. At the end of the day, these are not the Oscars, they’re the highlights from a blog, and are therefore subject to my whim.

Due to illness and stress and stuff the pickings have been a little thinner this year than I would like. Nevertheless, there have been some really awesome and creative things out there, and I still want to praise them.

The Serene Womble for Best Film

Poster for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Poster for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Elligible films: Looper, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Star Trek: Into Darkness.

So… guess who hasn’t been to the cinema a lot this year?  There are a whole bunch of films that I wanted to go see this year  – summer of bloody superheroes indeed! – but illness and lack of funds have prevented me. As a consequence, this was basically no contest. Looper made me angry. Star Trek: Into Darkness was tiresome and disappointing. And I enjoyed The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey a very great deal. I said when I watched it at Christmas that it would be the one to beat, and, alas, nothing rose to the challenge.

This was an exceedingly pretty film that I found well-paced and which realised the story very well. I didn’t mind the extra stuff added in, and actually like that Peter Jackson took this once-in-a-generation-or-two opportunity to explore Tolkien’s world more fully. Bags of fun!

The Serene Womble for Best TV Show: Hemlock Grove

Hemlock Grove PosterEligible TV Shows: Hemlock Grove, Doctor Who, House of Cards, Game of Thrones, Hannibal, America’s Next Top Model, Sleepy Hollow.

For the first year, Game of Thrones is not the winner of this category! I still enjoyed it, and it had some of my favourite moments of the whole series, but the pacing was rocky, and for consistently good value there was some significant competition.

Hemlock Grove was original, genre bending, narratatively interesting, conceptually challenging, and thoroughly addictive. It wasn’t quite like anything I had seen before, in a good way.

Hannibal deserves an honourable mention, but although it was addictive, entertaining, and well-acted, I can’t say it was anything especially new or original, just very well done. House of Cards was well-acted and reasonably well-written, but fairly unoriginal and tiresomely another privileged white man plotting petty revenges that it’s hard to care for when he’s not really received any very great slights. Doctor Who is… Doctor Who. This really isn’t going to be a contender until Moffat leaves. If an episode doesn’t leave me wanting to scream, it’s a good sign. I thought there were a couple of somewhat interesting episodes this year, but that’s all. America’s Next Top Model, much as I am in the business of defending it, is not remotely in the same league. Sleepy Hollow snuck in as a last minute entry. I enjoyed the one episode I’d seen at time of review, but it’s basically entertaining fluff.

So, it’s a hearty congrats to Hemlock Grove. You seriously impressed me and I hope I can spread the love to my readers.

The Serene Womble for Best Novel – Null

There was precisely one entrant in this category: A Dance with Dragons. Given that this is just a couple of chapters from the longer Read Along with Rhube chapter by chapter review that I have been doing for the last year (two years?). It feels a bit cheaty to give it a free pass to a Serene Womble by default of multiple entries and the fact that I just haven’t reviewed any other (current) novels. Plus, it just isn’t that good. Entertaining, interesting enough for the time and attention I have devoted to it? Yeah, I guess. But it’s also deeply problematic and I doubt it would win against any competition it might have had in another year. (It did not win last year, for example.)

Fair? Unfair? It’s my blog, I get to choose.

The Serene Womble for Best Blog – Escher Girls

Escher Girls avatarEligible blogs: Myths Retold, Academic Men Explain Things to Me, Escher Girls

Oh man, this was a really hard one. I want to give the award to all of them and actually changed my mind a couple of times. One of the difficulties is that Myths Retold is a very different kind of blog to the other two, which are in turn very similar to each other in both content and impact. I considered making a separate category for ‘Best Fiction Blog’, so that I could honour Myths Retold as well, but then I couldn’t think of any other fiction blogs and it seemed like that would be getting needlessly specific. Basically, I’m saying that all three of these are very good and worth your attention.

I’ve picked Escher Girls for the win for the scope of its impact. Escher Girls is the creation of Ami Angelwings, an awesome Canadian woman who started the blog to ‘archive and showcase the prevalence of certain ways women are depicted in illustrated pop media’, namely: women are contorted into physically impossible poses for the pleasure of the male gaze. The blog functions as a demonstration that the way women are drawn in comics and other illustrated media is dramatically different to the ways that men are drawn, that we are sexualised to extremes and that this sexualisation is commonplace, and in ways that do not compare to the male power fantasies of ripped muscles in skin-tight costumes which are so often held up to minimise women’s claims of unfair treatment. The volume of examples that Ami has collected (both personally and from submissions) is staggering, and the comfort this provides to women (who have long been told that their experience of alienation by sexualisation in mainstream comics is a mere subjective impression) is extensive and powerful.

Academic Men Explain Things to Me serves a similar function, in providing a platform for women to voice their frustrations with the phenomenon of ‘mansplaining’, in which women frequently find that men explain very basic things to them, often in areas for which the woman is herself an expert and the man a novice. Again, this is an area in which women have often been told that they are imagining being treated in an overly patronising manner, that there are ‘know it alls’ of both genders, and that our subjective experiences are not as valid as men’s (who, of course, are privileged by a default supposition of objectivity that does not exist). By creating a venue to archive these experiences in detail and volume, Academic Men Explain Things to Me has provided a powerful vindication of women’s experiences – one which I genuinely believe is helping men to rethink their behaviour, as well as providing women with a sense of justification long denied.

In the end, I chose Escher Girls for its breadth of impact. I feel that there has been a palpable shift in comic and visual culture over the past year, where the misogyny in mainstream comics has come under increasing scrutiny from more mainstream critiques and fans. I don’t think Escher Girls have been the sole cause of this. Blogs such as DC Women Kicking Ass have also provided a sustained critique and made significant contributions, as have prominent critiques from individual women, such as Kelly Turnbull and Kyrax2. But to concede that a leading light is a part of a movement need not minimise the specific contribution. I think the impact of Escher Girls can be seen in the fact that it was able to spin off other projects, such as The Hawkeye Initiative, which highlights the discrepancies in treatment of men and women in comics by showcasing redrawings of sexualised female images with the male character, Hawkeye, in an identical pose.

Moreover, Ami’s blog is impressively organised in a way that facilitates citation and comparison from multiple angles – the tags page not only collates posts by trope, but also by artist, company, character, series, and Genre/Medium. And the blog integrates a Disqus commenting feature, allowing for debate and discussion of issues in a way that usually isn’t possible on Tumblr style blogs, and which Ami manages with great sensitivity.

It’s hard to compare a project like this with an artistic endeavour, like Myths Retold, which is not aiming at the kind of social change Escher Girls enables. Myths Retold demonstrates an artistry and poetic sophistication that simply doesn’t apply in assessing the other two blogs. All I can say is that whilst I recommend all three blogs to you, I felt that in this year, Escher Girls seemed most significant to me.

The Serene Womble for Best Webseries: Welcome to Night Vale

Night Vale logoEligible webseries: TableTop, Vlog Brothers, Welcome to Night Vale

I admit to using the term ‘webseries’ loosely. I reviewed quite a lot of things this year that don’t fit neatly into large categories, and although I might call TableTop a webseries, Vlog Brothers a vlog, and Night Vale a podcast, having each win a category for which it was the only entrant, I don’t think that’s a good use of my time and attention or yours. In any case, there is no question in my mind that Welcome to Night Vale outshines the other two, and I do not have the qualms I had for the previous category, in that I feel these compare fairly well, for regularly web-distributed entertainment.

TableTop is a nice idea, and if I were really into game mechanics I might find more value in it, but ultimately it fell flat for me. It’s basically just like watching other people play fun games. The games look fun, and maybe you like the people, but you can’t help but feeling that the whole thing would be more enjoyable if you were actually playing, too.

Vlog Brothers is entertaining, amusing, thoughtful, and informative. I recommend it. But it can’t hold a candle to Night Vale.

Welcome to Night Vale is one of the best, most enjoyable, most original shows I have had the pleasure to stumble across in a long time. The idea of using the podcast format as though it were a radio station for a fictional town is not one I had come across before, and it has been put to good purpose. Funny, strange, and more than a little bit dark, Night Vale is like a ray of sunlight that never fails to make me smile or to delight me with its unexpected changes in direction. It’s also surprisingly durable in terms of being something I can listen to over and over and still find new things to enjoy. I’ve had a hard year, especially the last few months, and being able to tune in to Night Vale any time I would otherwise have been alone with my thoughts has been remarkably soothing. It comforts me to know that wonderful, joyful, eccentric people are making such wonderful, joyful, eccentric works of art.

Not to mention that it manages to be progressive in terms of representation of gender, race, and sexuality without ever being po-faced. I can’t not give this an award.

The Serene Womble for Best Music: Stephanie Mabey

Album cover for Wake Up Dreaming, by Stephanie MabeyEligible musicians: Garfunkel and Oates and Stephanie Mabey

Garfunkel and Oates are witty and entertaining, but occasionally problematic. By contrast, Stephanie Mabey’s music is pure joy. I’ve listened to her album, Wake Up Dreaming, again and again, often on loop, since downloading it, and I’m not sick of it yet. Her music is delightful, witty, and often beautiful – a real must for the geek music lover. I can’t recommend her work enough.

The Serene Womble for Best Webcomic: City of the Dead

City of the Dead, panel oneEligible webcomics: City of the Dead

OK, this one was the only entry in its category – I haven’t been reading as many webcomics this year, focussing, as I have been, on trying out different new media instead. Nevertheless, this comic is dynamic, atmospheric, and fun, making full use of the online medium to present a fast-paced and cohesively presented story. It’s no Romantically Apocalyptic (the winner from last year), but it’s certainly a cut above the average, and worthy of your time.

The Time Traveling Wombles

The Time Travelling Womble for Best Novel: The Count of Monte Cristo

Cover Art: The Count of Monte CristoEligible novels: The Count of Monte Cristo.

A consequence of the sparse nature of this year is that the categories for the Time Traveling Wombles each has only one entry, but as each are stellar examples of exemplary works, this should not count against them.

I had no idea that The Count of Monte Cristo would be either such a rip-roaring adventure, or that it would be so progressive for its time (I ship Eugenie/Louise forever). Some classics are classics because they are fun as well as intelligent, and I can’t recommend this one highly enough.

The Time Traveling Womble for Best Non-Fiction Book: Wild Swans

Wild Swans - cover artEligible non-fiction books: Wild Swans.

In my original article on this I wrote that this is one of the books I would say everyone should read before they die, so it should be no surprise that I honour it here, also. Wild Swans is a biographical and autobiographical work of heart-rending and exquisite expression of three women’s lives across turbulent twentieth century China. The tale is worthwhile and breath-taking in itself, but for people living outside of China – people for whom the ‘Cultural Revolution’ is just a term – this intimate, detailed, and thorough history is an absolutely essential piece of reading that will change your perspective in the world.

Time Traveling Womble for Best Blog – Inexplicable Objects

A cupcake with a festive plane-on-a-stick in it.Eligible blogs: Inexplicable Objects.

Dating from a time before there was any such thing as a ‘blogging platform’ (the first was launched in October 1998), one can’t help but feel that Inexplicable Objects, which updated weekly from April 1998 to June 2001, would have made a phenomenally successful Tumblr. The archive is still active, more than ten years since it stopped updating, and it’s still one of my very favourite things in the world. Chocked full of delightfully strange objects, coloured by the witty commentary of Bill Young, this little website is a welcome piece of harmless absurdity to brighten your day. It may be the only entry in this category, but it is assuredly worthy of the Womble.

And finally:

The People’s Choice Award 2013: Hemlock Grove, Season One

Hemlock Grove PosterBy far and away the thing you most wanted my opinions on that I reviewed this year was Hemlock Grove. Netflix’s original fantasy/horror/weird show, released as an entire season, all at once, in April this year has garnered nearly 2,500 hits, with over a thousand more than its next nearest rival, Looper. This should possibly give pause for thought, as my review of Looper garnered attention more because it was negative and controversial than because the film was well-liked, but I hope that those who came to read my review of Hemlock Grove came away with a more positive image and their interest was more than car crash theatre.

Incidentally, last year’s winner, The Guild, Season Five, still has more hits than any other page on my website (including the home page) at over 14,000. What do these figures mean? Who knows, but something captured a lot of people’s interest, and maybe that’s something that’s worthy of your attention, too.

And that’s about it for this year. I hope you’ve enjoyed my reviews (or at least found them interesting) and that those who have won Serene Wombles of one kind or another get something positive out of the experience. It’s amazing the volume of wonderful and engaging things out there to culturally consume  in this crazy internet age; I hope I can continue to provide some kind of useful commentary on the tiny section of it in which I partake.

Review: Game of Thrones, Season 3 (Contains Spoilers)

Game of Thrones Season 3 posterIt’s hard to say that there has ever been a more hotly anticipated season of any show than the third season of HBO’s adaptation of George R R Martin’s sprawling epic fantasy, Game of Thrones. One comment I hear again and again from people is that upon finishing an episode of Game of Thrones they instantly want more – like they had expected it to go on and it cut off abruptly. So greatly are people drawn into the world and its plot. I myself was counting down the months, the weeks, the days, from a surprisingly long time off. Basically, from the end of season 2. As one macro said: ‘One does not simply wait 306 days for Game of Thrones Season 3‘. Of course, HBO, weren’t idly letting the tension build itself. In addition to a dazzling array of posters and trailers, the cast seem to have been everywhere doing countless promo shoots, both ridiculous and sublime, including the sublimely ridiculous. They also seem to have cottoned on to the humorous creativity which infects the fans, offering the ability to create your own Game of Thrones style sigil.

House Sigil Philos

I made a sigil for Philosophy, because I’m sad.

Although, to be honest, all these things were just stop-gaps in my already stoked anticipation.

The question is: did it deliver?

The answer? A complex shuffle of competing shouts of ‘HELL YES!’ and ‘Eh’.

There’s no doubt, the big moments this season were big. Of all the moments in GRRM’s A Song of Ice and Fire that stand out as jaw-droppingly shocking for newcomers and most-tensly anticipated by long-time fans, this season has an uncommonly high percentage. The previous two seasons probably contained one a-piece: Ned’s execution in season one, and the Battle of Blackwater in season two. This season we are treated to:

  • Daenerys sacking her first city
  • Jaime losing his hand
  • The Bear and the Maiden Fair
  • and, of course, the Red Wedding

All of which were unutterably delicious. This season saw the pay off for things that have been set up gradually over a long period of time, with Daenerys’s freeing of the Unsullied and raising of Astapor being one of the most visually stunning and dramatically satisfying pieces of television I’ve ever seen. Daenerys’s storyline is one of the most interesting and complex in an exceptionally interesting and complex show. And it has to be. Hers is the storyline that involves dragons, and that’s a trope of weighty cultural depth, heavy with the legends and fairytales of disparate cultures and centrally located in the modern consciousness of fantasy tales by Tolkein’s iconic Smaug in The Hobbit. I love dragons, but I know a lot of geeks who find them overused and annoying. If you want to win over that crowd, as well as the crowd of non-geeks who are watching for the sexy, violent, political drama, you need a solid foundation of plot, character, and acting of sufficient gravitas.

And they pull it off. Daenerys comes to her pivotal moment early in the season: episode 4. Having escaped from Qarth with her dragons and a modest amount of loot, Daenerys comes to Astapor, a great slaving city, famous for training the Unsullied: eunuchs of unparalleled fighting skill, endurance, and obedience. Jorah urges Daenerys to buy Unsullied, despite her entrenched ideological objections to slavery. The Masters of Astapor give her the usual spiel via translator, all the while mouthing off about her in Valyrian. Daenerys, against Jorah and Selmy’s advice, agrees to trade one of her dragons for all of the Unsullied – including those still in training.

Daenerys Kicks Butt

Up until now, Daenerys has been a beautiful young girl with a great name and three dragons, but she has had no land, barely any people, no army, few funds, and her dragons were small enough to be mere curiosities. At the start of season 3, though, we see that her dragons have grown, and so has she. Jorah and Selmy are too busy squaring off against each other to realise that Daenerys would never give one of her dragons into slavery. She is deeply opposed to slavery, views her dragons as her children, and is more than smart enough to realise that one dragon is worth more than 8,000 Unsullied when it comes to war.

In a stunning move that cements her stature as legend in the making, she waits until the Master has placed the whip of power in her hand and then reveals to the sexist pig that Valyrian is her mother tongue, and she has understood every insultingly misogynistic phrase he has uttered. She tells him that a dragon is not a slave and commands the Unsullied to kill their masters, and her dragon to roast the one who holds his chain alive. Having sacked the city, she frees all the slaves and asks them to fight for her of their own free will. Of course, they do.

It’s stunningly cinematic, worthy of a feature film. Emilia Clarke really comes into her own, and I take back every single word of doubt I voiced for her. I dare you to watch the above and not want to follow her anywhere.

Rousing stuff. Climactic stuff. Which is a little bit weird for an episode just shy of half way through the season.

Brienne and Jaime’s Very Bloody Buddy Movie

If you’ve been following me on Twitter or Tumblr for a while you may be aware that I was basically referring to this season in anticipation as ‘Brienne and Jaime’s Very Bloody Buddy Movie’. Of course, in reality, this was only one thread of plot, but it forms the backbone for the middle part of the season where all the political shenanigans are working themselves out to set up the big events further down the line.

Brienne and Jaime’s relationship is one of my very, very favourite things about A Song of Ice and Fire, and I’ve basically been waiting two seasons to see it finally flower before us. It’s through Brienne’s relationship with Jaime that we get to see a side of him that we have only glimpsed before, hidden behind the shocking introduction, way back in the first season, where he pushes a small boy from a window. We’re set up to hate Jaime, and almost all the characters are colluding to encourage this impression. It’s not just that he tried to kill a child to hide his incestuous relationship, he killed a king whom he was sworn to protect. Pretty shitty thing for a knight to do, right? Yeah, it’s easy, very easy to see Jaime the Shitbag.

Except, the king he killed was a mad man known for burning adults and children alive, sparking the war that led to Robert gaining his throne. And having killed the king, with his father’s army entering the capital, Jaime could have made a play for it himself. But that never even occurs to him. He cedes the throne instantly to Robert. He never wanted it. When Cersei tries to persuade him that he should be the Hand of the King, he refuses. He has never wanted power or responsibility. Despite his bravado and insolent manner, we gradually see revealed a man who’s never really at ease in social settings unless he’s talking about war. There is a hesitancy and lack of confidence lurking under the surface. His harsh words reflect a bitter disillusionment, and one might take the time to wonder why any man might ‘take the white’ – join the King’s Guard, swear to celibacy – if he were young and rich and beautiful and the heir to Casterley Rock. There must have been some real idealism in there somewhere. What would make a man like that kill a king? What would it do to a man like that to kill his king? And to be condemned for that act from every quarter outside of his family.

We also learn that Jaime always struggled with his schoolwork. There are hints that he may have had dyslexia, but Tywin, father of the year, would brook no quarter, and forced Jaime to read for four hours a day before he was allowed to go and do what he was good at: learning to fight. And I think we see here the germ of a deep insecurity. A man who only ever wanted to do what he was good at and enjoyed, but from whom others always demanded more. With no mother and a father like Tywin, it’s unsurprising the Jaime would feel drawn to the unconditional love of his twin sister for solace (even if incest is taking it a bit far). And it’s equally unsurprising that he would run away from his father for the simple, cleanly honourable life of a knight of the King’s Guard at King’s Landing.

But everywhere he is seen through the veil of ‘Kingslayer’. And at first Brienne despises him for his lack of honour. He seems everything that she is not. And he taunts her for the strength of her principles – her strength of honour, which he feels is lost to him forever. But when she proves herself his equal as a fighter he cannot help but respect her. He has always connected best to people on this one level where he is sure of his own skill, and it creates a connection that he has never had with a woman before. In turn, the respect he accords her as a fighter is one that Brienne has rarely experienced, except from Renly, whose meagrely kind treatment sparked an unrequited love, and from Catelyn, whose bravery and respect won Brienne’s undying loyalty.

When Jaime’s (successful) efforts to save Brienne from rape lead to him losing his hand, they each open up to each other in a way neither has to any other person, and in a post-amputation fever, Jaime tells the real story of what happened when he killed the mad king. How Aerys, had commanded him to kill his own father, and for his pyromancer to destroy the city; how Jaime’s action in killing him saved a quarter of a million lives. And where every other person outside of his family had refused to hear him out, had despised him, Brienne listens. And she believes him. And she tells him he did the right thing. It’s probably the most powerful thing anyone has ever done for Jaime.

I’ve written a lot about their relationship here and here. But I guess what I’m coming to is best summed up by someone else:

Put simply, she’s the knight that he wanted to be. She has all of the qualities that he tries to pretend aren’t important to him, are the realm of the naive and the stupid, but that he hates that everyone assumes he doesn’t have, that he thinks it’s too late for him to ever reclaim.

glamphonic on Tumblr

Jaime doesn’t push Bran out of a window because it’s what he wants to do. He does it because Cersei asks him to: ‘The things I do for love’ he says. Jaime was a man of honour who was despised for doing the most honourable thing in a bad situation. He had always been starved of love – his mother died when he was young and his father is a big time poo – and in a world that hates him he would have done anything for Cersei, even though she never shared the honour that came naturally to him.

And then, there’s Brienne. Who is everything he ever thought a knight should be, and she doesn’t think what he did was dishonourable when she hears the whole story. And she tells him he can be the sort of man he always wanted to be.

Guys… I just have too many feels about this. If you don’t ship Brienne/Jaime I think your heart is broken.

Ahem. *coughs* Not a tear in my eye. Dust. Yeah, dust.

Anyway. Before all the feels come out, it is totally a buddy movie, I promise. Because there is also a world of BANTER, and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Jaime) Gwendoline Christie (Brienne) manage perfectly the shift between humour and tension. Particular kudos to Gwendoline Christie for managing to portray Brienne as suitably awkward whilst also keeping up her end of the banter. Honestly, it may not have had the cinematic glory of Daenerys’s sacking of Astapor, but Brienne and Jaime’s character arc provides a much needed emotional anchor, one which gets its pay off as Jaime is forced to abandon Brienne at Harenhal, where she is forced to fight a bear in parody of a popular Westerosi folk song ‘The Bear and the Maiden Fair’. Learning that Brienne’s ransom has not been accepted because Jaime led her captors to believe that her father is richer than he really is, Jaime returns, jumping into the bear pit despite knowing that he is now useless in a fight, his only value being that others will protect him for his ransom. It is an utter confrontation with his own vulnerability at the same time as a true act of heroism, marking a quite remarkable moment of redemption.

Of course, all of the above is drawn from the books, but the HBO team are commended for pulling off what was, for me, one of the most anticipated story arcs of the whole show.

There were a couple of rough notes. Brienne’s cry of ‘The Kingslayer!’ when Jaime faints in the bath tub, felt way forced and overdone, mostly due to poor staging and overly dramatic camera angles, but the scene leading up to it was spot on. They even managed to make Brienne’s forgetting that she’s naked (one of the most painfully unrealistic moments in the books) into an act of power. Also, the fact that Gwendoline Christie is actually beautiful, and not as ugly as Brienne is meant to be in the books, makes what is meant to be a humiliating and inappropriate act of forcing her to wear a dress lose all its power. She doesn’t look awkward in it at all, and all the ‘uglying up’ styling, which was passably effective up until this point, basically evaporates when she’s cleaned up and wearing a dress that actually suits her quite well.

Minor points, though.

The Red Wedding

No review of season 3 could go by without discussing the moment that shook the Internet, as millions of fans who hadn’t read the books tuned in for the penultimate episode to witness Robb Stark, Catelyn, the pregnant Talisa, and all of the Stark army slaughtered by the Freys (and Roose Bolton) after Edmure Tully’s wedding to Rosalind Frey.

Twitter wept. An account was set up called @RedWeddingTears retweeting all the people who said they were rage-quitting Game of Thrones afterwards (you’d have thought Ned’s death in season one would have alerted them to the stakes in this game, but hey ho). Highlights include:

Meanwhile, on Youtube, countless people videoed their friends reacting:

Which was reblogged to Tumblr. Although in the land of gifs and macros everything takes a lighter tone, and to ‘Red Wedding’ becomes a verb:

Red Wedding: To betray, shoot, stab, dismember, eviscerate and humiliate a foe in a place of false safety”

@MalkyDel on Twitter

So, I think we can assume that the episode had the desired effect. Honestly, I have difficulty connecting with people who want to quit a show because it generates a strong emotional reaction for them. I kinda wish I hadn’t known it was coming, because that kind of punch to the gut is what I want from fiction. I don’t know why, but I think it’s relatively normal for humans to feel that way. Something about tapping into shared emotion at a fundamental level. Being moved by terrible things somehow makes us feel less alone.

And on a serious note, this was a very sophisticated presentation of a blood bath. No, I’m serious. I don’t know why people who will grant Shakespeare as a great genius decry violence in shows like Game of Thrones. There’s a difference between blood presented for pure titillation and blood presented as a grim confrontation with reality. A lot of the plays we count as truly great are revenge tragedies. Hamlet has a body count of nine. Titus Andronicus is his most gruesome at fourteen, as well as rape, dismemberment, and cannibalism – it was his most popular play during his lifetime. Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi is famously bloody, as is his White Devil – in one production I saw fake blood ended up literally dripping off the stage. I couldn’t find an exact figure for it, but The Revenger’s Tragedy is widely thought to be the bloodiest of the genre, with one reviewer writing: ‘the body count of Revenger’s Tragedy makes the deaths in plays such as Hamlet seem like an adolescent squabble’.

And that’s what this is: a tragedy. Anyone familiar with the genre could not help but see the visual and stylistic references. It perhaps sits somewhere between classical tragedies (like Oedipus Rex) and Elizabethan and Jacobean revenge tragedy, but both are evoked. I can’t have been the only one who noticed that the set dressing for the Frey stronghold turned remarkably Elizabethan once the wedding started. The spartan stone castle was suddenly clad in oak panelling and tapestries. And the layout of the set with the dais for the wedding party’s table was reminiscent of a stage – complete with galleries above, just like the galleries of an Elizabethan theatre, to which our attention is drawn when crossbowmen fire down upon the wedding party from above. In this context the excessive bloodiness of the scene feels right at home and calls on centuries of literary discourse about death, and our voyeuristic interest in death. I wrote my exam piece on Shakespeare about the relationship between revenge tragedies and the spectacle of hangings in Elizabethan and Jacobean England. The playwrights were conscious of the similarities between plays and these obscene spectacles. People would rent out rooms with good views of an execution; issue programmes of the day’s hangings, much like theatre programmes; sell snacks to the audience… It’s one of the reasons the play-within-the-play is a recurring feature of the revenge tragedy, calling the audience to reflect upon their own behaviour and fascination with death.

Death is one of the most central themes in literature because it comes to us all. And it is a large emotional part of life before it comes to us ourselves. I would imagine that everyone who is old enough to watch Game of Thrones has known death, probably death in the family, so the family dramas that usually form the central part of both classical and revenge tragedy ring home for all of us. And the centrality of family is emphasised from the start. We begin with a scene in which Robb and Catelyn come together again, having been estranged, are bonded by their shared desire to avenge Ned – Robb’s father and Catelyn’s husband. The scene is also set at a wedding – a joining of families. And as Catelyn pleads for her son’s life she calls on the honour of both her families: the Tullys and the Starks. Moreover, the centrality of motherhood to Catelyn’s character has been emphasised throughout the season, as she makes ritualistic doll-wreaths to protect her sons Bran and Rickon, who she thinks are probably dead, and she regrets never being able to accept Jon Snow, Ned’s bastard, properly into her heart as a son. It all leads up to the final tableau, as she seizes Walder Frey’s unfortunate wife and holds a knife to her throat, begging for Robb to be spared. Who could not but feel her agony, admire her strength – Michelle Fairley, who had always played the role with intensity, taking it up to a new and as yet unseen level.

Her stillness and inarticulate cry at Robb’s death, before her own throat is slit, thus seem wholly appropriate, where the oft trotted out cry of ‘Noooooo’ has been rendered silly in other shows. Even the realistically spurting blood that is usually forgone in modern cinema, as audiences (who have rarely seen arterial blood spray) find it implausible, works in the context of the revenge tragedy.

Granted, the Red Wedding lacks the trope of a ghost sending a protagonist on a quest of vengeance, but I think the scene between Catelyn and Robb at the start of the episode, considering Ned’s death, spurring them on to accept the Frey deal in the name of revenge, can be seen as a symbolic ghost scene. Certainly, the ghost of Ned’s death hangs over the event, and the outrage it prompted eerily echoed in the excess of grief evinced on the Internet for the Red Wedding.

We also see Robb’s hubris. He should see, really, that going back to the Freys cap in hand when he has slighted them so thoroughly is a really bad plan. But he’s the Young Wolf. He’s never lost a battle. In the classical style, the Red Wedding forms a requisite catharsis. And although Robb was, for many, a favourite character, he was set up to be a little too perfect. The handsome young man and brilliant tactician, his one flaw being falling for the wrong woman, perhaps pride in thinking he was above marrying a Frey… in the literary game he had been set up for a fall. People call George RR Martin names for murdering favourite characters, but I’m not sure he’s as harsh as people think. The really interesting characters – the Tyrions, the Aryas, The Daeneryses – the flawed characters who make the compromises necessary to survive, but still retain a humanity and charm to keep us on their side… they seem to be doing quite well.

Doubtless I am tempting fate to say such a thing, and I’m by no means convinced anyone is immune from not making it to the end, but I’m not terribly surprised that it’s the Ned and Robb Starks of this world that have popped it. Or, at least, I wasn’t surprised by Robb after Ned had gone that way.

I honestly think ‘The Rains of Castermere’ The Red Wedding is a brilliantly crafted piece of theatre – not just in the original writing of George R R Martin’s books, but in the direction, scripting, set design, and acting of the actual episode itself. It’s like a little play within a series – a set piece – after the old revenge tragedy tradition. And it provides a concentrated microcosm of the themes of the wider series. Whilst there is some voyeuristic enjoyment of scenes like this, the enjoyment is parasitic on the horror. I’m willing to bet that the majority of people who swore off Game of Thrones after the Red Wedding will be back again next year after they’ve digested the event. In part because they will digest the event. It’s an event that demands to be digested and considered. It forces reflection because the emotions it provokes are so intense. It provides a counterpoint to the glorification of violence we see exemplified in the sub-plot, as Daenerys’s three best fighters – Jorah, Greyworm, and Daario – showcase their fighting skill in a striking piece of choreography. Because, for some reason, that kind of violence, which obfuscates the pain and death and gore it causes, is permissible, where as the raw horror of a blood bath like the Red Wedding is repugnant.

Surely violence should be repugnant. Surely we should wince and look away. I’m puzzled by people who want to see violence cleaned up (except for in kids shows, because, as my friends who are parents tell me, kids can find that stuff pretty upsetting), especially as they tend to be the same people who think we are becoming desensitised by violence on telly. We’re desensitised by santised violence. By violence only ever presented as cool and bloodless. No, I’m not saying every episode should be a Red Wedding, but anyone who thinks the Red Wedding glorifies violence needs to have their internal sensitivity to violence checked, because all those reactions above? That great outcry such as I have never seen in response to television before? That’s people who are shocked and awed and were confronted by the fact that the underlying message of Game of Thrones is not and never has been ‘violence is cool’; rather the message in unequivocally ‘war is awful’.

The Eh

OK, that’s a lot of praise and in-depth analysis. Let’s take a breather before the close to return to the ‘eh’ that I mentioned in the beginning. Because, believe it or not, this was not my favourite season. It has most of my favourite moments (and I haven’t even covered all the brilliant stuff between Tyrion and Sansa and what’s been going on with Arya becoming a murderous little revenge driven terror*), but it also has the worst pacing. Between the really awesome moments are a lot of scenes that stand out against those moments as somewhat grey and unexciting. Most of the scenes at Riverrun are required to set up the Red Wedding, but seem to crawl by in comparison to places where things actually seem to be happening. Granted, this is only a low note in the context of general Game of Thrones quality, and you need some quiet moments amongst the burning cities and Red Weddings, but, for instance, the Brienne/Jamie banter scenes do this much more effectively than the Riverrun scenes, despite the wonderful Tobias Menzies bringing such colour in incompetence to the role of Edmure Tully.

In this way I’m hard pressed to rate this season over season two, just because season two was consistently good value. Nevertheless, there’s no denying that season three of Game of Thrones was a fantastic bit of television with some Internet-shaking drama that sort of throws down a gauntlet for all other television shows to take up… if they dare.

*Just a quick sidenote, there, as it relates to the Red Wedding, I think Arya’s witnessing of the events of the Red Wedding form a crucial part of the message as outlined above. Because, unlike, for instance, Hamlet where the cleansing pile of bodies leaves a sense that order has been restored, Game of Thrones presents the more realistic picture that violence begets violence. Revenge only ever leads to more revenge, and Arya’s story arc is all about the forging of a revenge driven character. That list she repeats to herself? That’s not just a list of people she wants to kill, that’s a list of people she wants to wreak revenge on. In hurting her they stoke the desire to hurt others.

On Dowager Countesses and Queens of Thorns

The Queen of Thorns givin' the sass

Olenna ‘Queen of Thorns’ Redwyne, sassing Tyrion Lannister in Game of Thrones.

We love them, don’t we? The old biddies carrying AK-47s of wit and scatter-bombs of scathing put-downs, but… lately, I’m getting depressed by it all. I’m depressed because of why we love these women and why we allow them to say the things that would never be given to a younger woman to say.

They’re a stereotype just as much as the whore with a heart of gold (Inara, Ros, Shae). Don’t believe me? I searched on ‘Queen of Thorns’ in Google Image Search (gif format) and got as many images of the Dowager Countess as I did Olenna Redwyne. By the Dowager Countess, I of course mean Violet Crawley from Downton Abbey. That’s her on the lower right.

The Dowager Countess

The Dowager Countess, Violet Crawley

We love her because she says the things no one else will say. We love her because she’s a woman who’s not afraid to use her voice and speak her mind. And even if what’s on her mind is kind of rude, we don’t mind, because she phrases her put-downs with such style. We’re titilated and refreshed and we say to each other: ‘I love her! I love that she can get away with that!’

But let’s take a step back and examine this. Why is it that a Dowager Countess or a Queen of Thorns can get away with things that other people can’t? The clue’s in the name. They’re both extremely wealthy, titled, widowed, very well-educated women. They’re also both white. They’ve basically won the circumstance jackpot in every way except being female. So what have they got that, for instance, Cersei Lannister, Queen Regent, theoretically more powerful and wealthy than either one, hasn’t? The answer? They’re too old to be used for their beauty or their capacity to breed. Cersei thinks the best tool she has is between her legs, but in reality, that’s as ripe for use by others as it is for her own ends. In this week’s episode, Cersei’s beauty is used by Tywin as a selling point in the marriage he wants to arrange with the Tyrells. And it is countered by Olenna because Cersei’s fertility is more limited than that of a younger woman. Cersei is learning the hard way that trying to play the game on patriarchy’s terms is a game she can only lose, as her value is defined in a patriarchy based on her attractiveness and ability to breed. When Tywin insists that she will marry Loras Tyrell, all she can say is ‘No, please, don’t make me do it again’.

So, we’re meant to celebrate Olenna as a contrast. All hail the matriarchy! But is it really? Olenna’s freedom is founded in her being past breeding age and youthful beauty. She jokes with Varys that any flirtation between them is pointless, because she is too old and he is a eunuch, but it’s a truth. They are both privileged by being outsiders to the sexual game, and they both suffer for lack of sexual value as well. Margaery Tyrell is hailed as her protégé, but in the end she must still woo Joffrey. He may not be particularly interested in her beauty, but it makes her an eligible match and a political mover to rival Cersei. And though she may have shown herself more skilled at manipulating Joffrey, in the end it is only that she discovered that he had more unusual buttons that needed to be pressed, and she will only ever have power through him.

I just…

There’s nothing wrong, per se, with characters like Olenna Redwyne and Violet Crawley. I just find it really depressing that they’re being celebrated as matriarchs and game players when they really haven’t broken out of the patriarchy at all. And even on our supposedly enlightened (ha ha) twenty-first century screen, they are only allowed to give such good ‘sass’ because they fit the stereotype for older, wealthy, white, educated, noble women. All that wry wit that’s been flowing from Tyrion, Varys, Littlefinger, even Tywin… that’s the political moving and shaking and educated wit of wealthy white men, who can come from whatever background they like (Littlefinger and Varys are not noble-born), have whatever sexual proclivities they like (Littlefinger and Tyrion can associate with whores without shame – Tywin’s attitude towards Tyrion would be nothing to how Cersei would be treated were all her indiscresions known*, and his whoring around hasn’t seemed to hold him back with anyone else). Cersei tries her hand at biting wit, but it is always edged with bitterness and uncertainty. She folds under Tywin’s gaze because she knows that, ultimately, as a woman in her prime, she has no power that is not rooted in her beauty and her fertility.

As for poor women or women of colour… they haven’t got a hope in hell. You thought Ros was witty, maybe? But never with any real power or assurance. She may have thought that when she moved to taking care of Littlefinger’s books she gained some more power, but it was never enough to set her free of him, never enough to protect her.  As for Shae? She is completely dependent on Tyrion’s protection and patronage, and though he may love her he never lets her forget it. Would you consider any of Daenerys’s Dothraki attendants witty? They barely have personalities beyond mindlessly muttering ‘it is known’. Daenerys herself is almost always required to be too serious to get away with wit, and at every turn she is called ‘whore’ or worse. I’m not saying the show isn’t critical of this, it is, and Daenerys in Game of Thrones makes a far more powerful feminist character than she does in the books. It’s just… I don’t feel like hailing the Queen of Thorns as some great victory. And I’m uncomfortable with this trend towards endearingly cutting biddies. Because they’re allowed to be cutting only because they are viewed as harmless. It doesn’t matter what they say because they are women who have outlived their sexual usefulness.

I don’t want to have to wait until I’m 70 to speak my mind. I don’t want the actors I watch have to wait until they’re 70 to get the roles where they get to portray women who speak their minds.

I don’t like that women who speak their minds in their older years are regarded as ‘treasures’ because they’re so ‘precious’ being allowed to get away with scheming and criticising men only because men sort of enjoy being taken down by an old woman. I don’t like that a woman speaking her mind in this way is seen as ‘getting away with it’, like she snuck it under the rug. They’re still not being taken seriously. And, as we see, although Olenna is allowed to take down Tyrion and to best Varys, when she comes to spar with the great patriarch, Tywin Lannister, she loses. Because an older woman with some spirit in her is a delight, but an older man is serious business.

*I’m being circumspect, here. Others who have read all the books may read between the lines.

Box Art

Now that Christmas has passed and all presents have been given, I am liberty to post them in the world.

A local shop started selling these nice-but-plain-looking wooden boxes, you see. And as I’ve got a bit of a black and silver paint thing going on at the moment, I thought it might be quite effective to paint them up in such colours, especially as a very dear friend had a significant birthday approaching, and I couldn’t afford to get her anything exciting. And so, came the first box*:

Box 1 from 1st angle

Box 1 from 2nd angle

Box 1 from top

Box 1 from 3rd angle

Box 1 from 4th angle

I was really pleased with the effect, so I did another one as a Christmas present, this time on a tentacle theme for a friend of the Lovecraftian persuasion:

Second box from front first angle

Second box from front 2nd angle

Second box from back 1st angle

Second Box from back 2nd angle

But the one that took me the longest, and of which I am now most proud was one I made for a friend who’s been there for me a lot over the last few years and who watches Game of Thrones with me (her husband has, too, if he’s reading, but after I made this I didn’t have time to make one for him and so got him Darth Vader chocolate/ice cube moulds instead):

Game of Thrones front

Game of Thrones top

Game of thrones top and front

Game of Thrones box front, side, and top

Game of Thrones box from side

Game of Thrones side, back, and top 1

Game of Thrones box back, side, and top 2


When I first started this I really had no comprehension of the work it would involve, but I am nonetheless pleased with the results. You can see here the sigils of the houses of the contenders for the Iron Throne: Lannister (lion) and Stark (dire wolf) fight it out on the front, embodying more typical coat of arms poses; Baratheon (the stag) is on the side, to the right hand of the Starks, sheltering under a weirwood tree; on the back is the kraken of house Greyjoy, its tentacles sprawling with the branches of the tree onto the top; coming from the back round onto the side is the three-headed dragon of the Targaryens, with the flowers of the Tyrells just edging up the side.

Anyway, once I was finished I wanted it for myself, which I think is always a sign of a good present.

*Please excuse the poor camera skills throughout. It said it was running out of battery, so I rather rushed things… now suspect if may have been lying.

The Second Annual Serene Wombles

Two years! Woo-woo! Thanks for keeping with me. It’s been another hell of a year, and although Life Events have meant that I wasn’t able to review quite as much as I would have liked, you’ve stuck with me, and that’s awesome. In fact, with 28,000 hits this year, three times as many people have shown at least a vague interest in this little blog as last year. So: thanks! 😀

Those of you who were here last October 3rd will remember that to mark the aniversary of this esteemed blog I decided to hand out some meaningless awards: The Serene Wombles!

What exactly are the Serene Wombles? Well, to quote myself last year:

Eligibility for a Serene Womble i[s] conferred by being the subject of a review [on In Search of the Happiness Max] in the past year. There may have been better or more worthy things that came out this year, but if I didn’t find them relevant to my interests, or if I simply didn’t have the time to review them, they won’t be eligible for a Serene Womble. I make no pretense that these awards are significant or important in any way, but I enjoy having the opportunity to praise and draw attention to things I have loved.

The Serene Wombles are divided into two categories, those that apply to recent releases, and special Time Travelling Wombles for the most awesome things in my Reviewing Through the Time Machine posts. The division between the former and the latter may at times seem arbitrary – why should a film that came out in 2009 count as a recent release, whilst a TV Show that ended in 2009 requires a time machine? It’ll always be a judgement call, and the judgement will [usually] have been made on a case-by-case basis at the time of reviewing. Sometimes I use a time machine for my reviews because I want to review something that came out in 1939, sometimes because I want to review something more recent that’s out of print, or because it’s a TV show that’s been cancelled… At the end of the day, these are not the Oscars, they’re the highlights from a blog, and are therefore subject to my whim.

Exciting stuff, eh? Let’s get started!

The Serene Womble for Best Film: Dredd 3D
Dredd 3D posterEligible Films: Dredd 3D, Prometheus, The Amazing Spider-Man, The Dark Knight Rises, The Hunger Games

The competition was basically between Dredd 3D, The Amazing Spider-Man, and The Hunger Games. If this category were about which film I’m most likely to rewatch… well, I’d probably rewatch all of those three, but I’d want to watch The Amazing Spider-Man first and most often. But this isn’t just about which film I found most fun. Each of these was well put together and entertaining, and The Amazing Spider-Man was also visually stunning and thematically well-conceived, but Dredd 3D was just in a league of its own – beautiful and thoughtful in equal amounts. It really felt like Dredd 3D was taking sci-fi back – giving us a real vision of the future, beautiful and provocative as well as dark. Breathtaking, is the word.

I doubt this film will sweep the Real and Proper awards in the way it deserves, but here in Womblevonia I’m doing my bit to recognise originality, inspiration, and artistic genius where I see it. Congratulations, Dredd 3D! Well deserved.

The Serene Womble for Best TV Show Game of Thrones
Game of Thrones Season 2 Promo 'The Clash of Kings has begun'Elligible TV shows: Doctor Who, Game of Thrones, Misfits, The Fades, The Hollow Crown: Part I, Richard II

Tough crowd. I mean, we have The Fades, one of the most strikingly original and well-executed British fantasy TV shows in a good many years – a real tragedy that it was not renewed for a second series. Then there’s The Hollow Crown‘s adaptation of Richard II, which contains some of the very best Shakespeare I have ever seen performed, and for one of my least favourite plays, at that, including a truly spectacular performance from Ben Whishaw, as Richard II, and a simply wonderful portrayal of John of Gaunt by Patrick Stewart. And although Doctor Who has been highly questionable over the last year, I can’t deny that ‘A Town Called Mercy’ was excellent. Yet Game of Thrones is still hands down the winner, for me. It feels unfair to some of the competition to give it the Serene Womble for Best TV Show two years in a row, but given that it was even better this year than last year, I don’t feel that I can really deny it. Performances by Peter Dinklage, Lena Headey, and Maisie Williams were stand outs, but everybody was bringing their A-game. The special effects were incredible – I now believe that dragons exist and that they are both very cute and very dangerous. Pretty much every element of music, direction, and writing was outstanding, and it stands out in my memory as the best thing I have seen all year.

As they say on these here Internets: All of The Awards.

The Serene Womble for Best Web Series The Guild
The Guild PromoEligible Web Series: The Guild, Dragon Age: Redmption

Well, maybe not all of the awards. This is a new category introduced to include the burgeoning genre of web series. I was tempted to roll it into the TV shows Womble, but, upon reflection, I must concede that web series are their own medium. They are usually shorter and are often much lower budget. It’s neither fair nor practical to try and compare them to much longer, much higher budget shows. Moreover, they are developing their own tropes and styles and on the whole exhibit a different character to their televisual brethrin.

That said, there wasn’t a lot of competition in this category. Both these shows are Felicia Day creations, and whilst I did watch other web series over the course of the year, I can’t deny that Felicia is the mistress of this genre – she has not only talent but the extra experience of being one of the founders of this artform. It means that she’s been at it for longer, but also that she’s better known. Nevertheless, it is notable that The Guild greatly outstripped Dragon Age: Redemption. I suspect this is in part due to the fact that Felicia will have had much less control in the latter, but I also didn’t find her own performance as convincing. In all honesty, The Guild is just in a league of its own. It has the geek-following to bring in stars for the extensive cameos that were a feature of this series, and it’s starting to get the money that allows it to do more things. It’s also excellently and knowingly written for the audience that powers the Internet: geeks. Not to mention the spot on performances of the other cast members: Vincent Caso, Jeff Lewis, Amy Okuda, Sandeep Parikh, and Robin Thorsen.

It’s a deserved win, but with more and more people finding it natural to watch their visual content online, more TV stars using short videos as a way to get a bit more exposure and make a bit more cash on the side (see, for example, David Mitchell’s Soapbox), there’s a blooming new arm of the media that I’m thinking I need to investigate further in the coming year. I’m interested to see how things develop.

The Serene Womble for Best Actor Ben Whishaw
Ben Whishaw as Richard IIElligible Actors: This category is open to any actor in any recent production that I’ve reviewed in the past year – film, TV, radio, podcast, whatever. I do not discriminate by gender. It’s a fight to the melodramatic death and the best actor wins, regardless of what’s between their legs or how they identify.

This was a tough one. I feel bad for stinting Peter Dinklage for the second year running after praising him so highly, but it was a strong field, and he did contribute to the overall Game of Thrones win – keep it up, Peter, there’s always next year. Lena Headey was also giving all the players a run for their money with her outstanding performance as Ma-Ma in Dredd 3D – a real performance of a lifetime. But I can’t deny the just deserts for Ben. He took a role I’d never especially liked or understood and made me see it from a completely different angle – an angle that was utterly compelling and heart-breaking. In all honesty I was far less impressed with Parts II and III of The Hollow Crown (and I somehow missed Part IV), and I’ll not deny that Tom Hiddleston did a good job, but Richard II blew me away, and Ben Whishaw was the lycnhpin of that production. Incandescent. Any actor that can ellucidate not just the character they are portraying but the themes of the play and have that render their performance more compelling rather than less, and to such a level… sheer genius.

Thank you, Ben, for showing me Richard II the way you see him. Have a Womble.

The Serene Womble for Best Novel Rome Burning, by Sophia McDougall
Rome Burning cover art Eligible Novels: A Dance With Dragons, Kraken Romanitas, and Rome Burning

This one was probably the hardest. Kraken is the most imaginative novel I’ve reviewed this year, and it was certainly a gripping as well as intelligent read. However, it did have some minor gender issues, the attempt at rendering London accents was unconvincing, and although I found the exploration of personal identity fun, it was inconsistent.

Rome Burning‘s alternate history setting was imaginative in a different way. For exploration of gender, race, and cultural issues it was outstanding. The characters were interesting and varied. The pace was fast and gripping. The politics, nuanced and intriguing. And, overall, the harder-to-define ‘squee’ quotiant was just higher than for anything (new) I’ve read in a long time.

Romanitas, the first book in the trilogy of which Rome Burning is the second, was also good, gripping, and squee-worthy, but the writing was not quite as strong and the world-building was more developed in the second volume.

A Dance with Dragons is what it is: a novel to which I have mysteriously devoted a surprisingly large chunk of my life in reviewing; part of a long series that has given me both great joy and great frustration. Perhaps it is unfair to put it up for assessment when the review is as yet incomplete, but I’ll give you a sneak preview and say that, for all its good points, A Dance with Dragons was not really competition for any of the above.

The Serene Womble for Best Comic Romatically Apocalyptic
A wallpaper made by Alexius from one panel of Romantically Apocalyptic

Eligible Comics: Real Life Fiction and Romantically Apocalyptic

Another new category, and only two in it, but I couldn’t leave them by the wayside. Both of these are excellent, and I thoroughly recommend them to all of you. Both are surreal, hilariously funny, and gender balanced. Romantically Apocalyptic has an edge for me by being, well, apocalyptic; but then again, Real Life Fiction has Manicorn. The real clincher is the artwork, which, as you can see, is stunning. I have never seen anything like it in a web comic. Or any comic. Or ever. And the creator, Vitaly S Alexius, hands this stuff out for free. There are no two ways about it: this comic wins.

The Time Traveling Wombles

The Time Traveling Womble for Best Film The Glass Slipper
The Glass Slipper promo imageEligible Films: Robocop, Soldier’s Girl, The Glass Slipper

That’s right, I’m giving the award to a film it’s virtually impossible to buy anymore. It’s not available on Amazon (there’s a Korean film called Glass Slipper, but it’s a different movie), it’s never been made into a DVD, the only videos I can find are US vids on eBay, the cheapest was going for about £16 (inc. P&P) at time of posting. I don’t know if it’d even play on a non-US machine. My copy was taped off the telly in the 1980s. But if you can get it, I urge you to make the effort. And this is really what reviewing via time machine is all about: drawing attention to classics and forgotten works of art. How can we get great films like this pressed for DVD if nobody speaks up to say that they are wanted?

The Glass Slipper is beautiful, sweet, and knowing. To me, it is the definitive cinderella story, and that’s not just the nostalgia talking. I feared it would be when I went to rewatch for this review, but it’s not. This was a feminist take on Cinderella in 1955, long before anyone even dreamt of Ever After. And it doesn’t sacrifice the romance for its message; it is a heart-breaking, life-affirming, challenging, witty, and beautiful work of art.

This is not to discredit its competition, however; both of the other films were clear contenders, although each is very different to the others, and it was hard to make the comparison. Robocop is a cleverly written and directed critique of capitalism. Its ultra-violence and gritty realism stand at stark odds to The Glass Slipper’s colourful fairytale punctuated with surrealist dance-interludes. Soldier’s Girl is a moving and powerful adaptation of the true story of a soldier who was beaten to death for loving a transgender woman. It perhaps didn’t have the artistry of the other two movies, but I don’t know that you want a lot of whistles and bells for such a movie – its task is to tell someone else’s tale and command the viewer to witness a crime and recognise an injustice. It would be wrong for a director to grandstand and steal the show. So, what do you do, when confronted with three such different films, ones that resist judgement on equal grounds?

I think you have to go with your gut. The Glass Slipper is the one that had the deepest personal influence on me, playing a pivotal role in shaping my psyche and helping me figure out what sort of a woman I wanted to grow up to be. Children’s or ‘family’ movies are often over-looked as less serious art objects than ‘adult’ films*, but they help to form the worldview a child is exposed to when they are trying to figure out what this existence, this life, is all about. Films like The Glass Slipper, which show a child a multiplicity of roles for women, are incredibly important, especially when they do so in the context of a story that is usually cast to define women as romantic creatures whose ‘happily ever after’ lies in marriage, and not in independant thought. Doing that whilst keeping the romantic centre of Cinderella’s tale intact is a masterful stroke. It deserves this award.

The Time Traveling Womble for Best Actor Lee Pace

Eligible actors: anyone who has acted in a film I had to time travel to watch.

It may not have garnered the illustrious Time Traveling Womble for Best film, but I can’t deny the Womble to Lee Pace – head and shoulders above the rest – there really wasn’t any competition. Lee Pace plays Calpernia, the transgendered woman that Barry Winchell fell in love with, and was brutally killed for loving. The gentle, understated approach to this sensitive role is spot on. I imagine a lot of reviews of this film will have said something to the effect of what a ‘convincing woman’ Lee Pace made – I’m not even sure what that means, but it’s the sort of thing people say when they discuss a man playing a transgendered role. I’ve known a number of transgendered women – they’re as varied as any other random woman would be from another; they’re as varied as people. Which is not the same as saying that they have nothing in common or don’t have shared experiences. I don’t want to make any sweeping characterisations of what it is to be a transgendered woman and then proclaim that I think Lee Pace matched that stereotype. What I’m saying is that he portrayed a well-rounded character – a person with loves and passions and heart-ache, with interests both important and trivial; a person whose story moved me and made me think about an important issue.

The point that moved me most – that stood out – was a moment in the above scene. It spoke to me powerfully even though it was speaking about an experience I’ve never had, and am never likely to have. Because it’s a scene in one sense about a man struggling with figuring out his own sexuality in the high-pressure environment of being a soldier in the context of the US Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell policy – only revoked just over a month before I reviewed this film; still in force when it was made. To a large extent, that’s what the film is about. But it’s also about a woman, struggling to be acknowledged as a woman, finding it almost impossible to date, even though she is beautiful and charismatic, because straight men won’t acknowledge her as a woman. And here she has found a man, a man she is falling in love with, and she must always be asking herself: is this just an experiement, for him? Am I his way of figuring himself out? And all this time she has been loving and supportive and understanding that this is hard, for him, but here she finaly shows her pain and anxiety. Yet, it’s still within the context of that loving, caring, understanding character. Once he has affirmed his love for her she subsumes her own pain to his need for support. It is done with so much subtlety and nuance. Lee Pace isn’t the one bawling his eyes out in this scene, but the emotion is nonetheless powerful.

That’s acting. Acting and sensitivity; just exactly what the role needed.

The Time Traveling Womble for Best Novel The Dark Tower, Vol. 2: The Drawing of the Three, by Stephen King
Cover art: The Dark Tower, Vol. 2: The Drawing of the ThreeEligible Novels: The Blazing World, by Margaret Cavendish and The Dark Tower, Vol. 2: The Drawing of the Three, by Stephen King.

I did think about including some of the works of Anne McCaffrey in this category, as I did talk about a number of them in her memorial post, but ultimately I decided that what I was really doing was celebrating a woman’s life’s work, rather than giving a review. Besides, I might want to review some of them properly somewhere down the line.

As for the two remaining novels… well, it was an unfair match. The Drawing of the Three is basically my most favourite book. The Blazing World is an important book that more people should read. It’s historically valuable and truly remarkable for its time. But it’s also the offspring of a genre (novel writing) in its infancy – the very first science fiction novel, in 1666. Don’t believe me? Go read the post.

As for The Dark Tower – ah… I suspect I shall spend my whole life trying to tease apart why it affects me so. My post, ‘Meditations on Death‘ explores just one aspect of my its power – the seductive power of the concept of death-as-release, what makes us resist its allure, and how this is expertly explored in The Drawing of the Three.

And, last of all:

The People’s Choice Award The Guild, Season 5
The Guild cast in the costumes of their avatarsPerhaps the most arbitrary of all the awards, this is the one you voted for with your feet. The selection for this award is based solely on the review post with the single largest number of hits. And this year it was a landslide, with 8,431 hits and counting, this post has had more hits than my home page. It’s had several thousand more hits than the total for all hits of my most popular month (July). The closest runners up are The Amazing Spider-man and The Hollow Crown (both around 1,000).

And it’s not even because it’s been on the blog since October last year – the hits suddenly started raining in in July. I don’t know what it was, but it seems like all of a sudden the Internet woke up to The Guild, and all I can say is that it couldn’t be more well deserved. Congrats, Felicia and friends: they like you, they really, really like you!

And that’s it! The awards have been awarded, and it’s time to start all over again, selecting novels and films and TV shows and comics and web series, and kittens only know what else, to review in a brand new Womblevonian year.

Stay serene and max for happiness, yo.

*Not that kind, dirty minds!