Wow, I haven’t done one of these in a while. I have been quite busy writing-wise, some of which I hope to have news on in the near future.

So, without any further ado, here are things I’ve liked in the last two-and-a-bit months.

Perfect Sound Whatever

I listened to this on audiobook really quite a long time ago now and—actually, back up. I should probably explain what the fuck this thing is. So, Perfect Sound Whatever is an autobiographical book by a British comedian named James Acaster. In 2016 he, according to the book, it’s not like I’m spilling hot tea here, broke up with his girlfriend and his agent, and generally went through a lot of shit, life and career-wise. He then spent most of 2017 trying to get his act together which he did, somewhat bizarrely, by deciding to listen to as many albums from 2016 as he could. Leading him to conclude that 2016 was the greatest year for music there had ever been.

It’s a very strange listen, because it’s a combination of personal anecdotes, stories about the albums themselves, and discursive meditations on life, music and mental health. It’s also just really nice because I’m so sick of people whining about music (and everything else) being shit these days—and it’s great to have someone sit down and explain to you, passionately and at length, that there are remarkable relevant artists doing remarkable relevant work right now if we’d stop banging on about how entitled millennials are and pay attention for five minutes.

Now I think about it, it’s a slightly odd text to recommend on audiobook because what will happen is he’ll discuss an album and you’ll think “oh that’s cool, I should look that up” but because you’re already listening to something—that thing being James Acaster talking to you about albums—you can’t really stop and source the album he’s talking to you about. On the other hand, James Acaster is a professional performer and he writes like a stand-up comedian so the text itself works, I think, so much better when it’s read out loud by James Acaster.

I should probably also mention that listening to Perfect Sound Whatever makes it a lot harder to go back and watch, for example, the quartet of Netflix shows that James Acaster made over the period he describes as being really difficult in the book. Because you suddenly become very aware of quite how not-joking he is about the many dark themes he touches on. Like, he does a routine about growing up as a “little Christian boy” in a show that ends with him turning the lights out and eating a Christingle and that whole gag feels a lot stranger when you’ve heard him talk quite honestly about his struggles with religious faith.

So I suppose my recommendation is to watch Repertoire on Netflix, then listen to Perfect Sound Whatever, and then watch Repertoire again and feel way sadder about it.

Disco Elysium

This is the nuts. It’s a … I’m honestly not sure if it’s originally French, it feels like it might be, and it’s got quite a lot of slightly Frenchified language… anyway … it’s a game in the fairly standard isometric RPG mould. Obligatory note: for those of my audience who know shit all about videogames, an isometric RPG is a computer game where you play the role of a character (hence role playing game, hence RPG) and the graphics are two dimensional, shot from an isometric angle, rather than being fully rendered in 3D. If I want to be really pedantic about it, I’d suggest that isometric RPG is a good example of a retronym in that, back when 2D graphics were the only graphics, we just called them RPGs.

Where was I? The role that you play in this particular roleplaying game is of a washed up, probably divorced (?) completely awful, or possibly a genius (?) detective who wakes up, drunk and amnesiac in a hotel room, discovering that he has a murder to solve in a richly realised but subtly bizarre world. Also his tie keeps talking to him.

I’ve not got that far into the game, partly because it’s quite slow paced and complex, and partly because I’ve actually started a second play-through. The reason I’ve started a second play-through is because during my first play-through I accidentally let my morale score dip too low, got drunk, making it even lower, then had a conversation with myself that went so badly I gave up on being a cop. And, technically, I could have re-loaded the game and made slightly self-destructive decisions but it just seemed like such a perfect end to that frankly surreal story that I couldn’t quite bear to.

And, actually, my second play-through is really my third play-through because on my second play-through I tried playing a custom character, accidentally gave myself a health score of 1, and died of a heart attack trying to turn the lights on in my hotel room.

It’s that sort of game. It’s completely bananas.

Play it if that sounds at all appealing.

The Boulet Brothers’ Dragula

I feel like a bit of a national traitor for putting the Boulet Brothers’ Dragula as my dragshow entry for this list rather than Drag Race UK. But, the thing is, although I really liked Drag Race UK, it was still basically Drag Race, and I’ve seen a lot of Drag Race over the years.

The Boulet Brothers’ Dragula seems very much designed for people who’ve seen a lot of Drag Race over the years. Obviously, I don’t want to speculate too much about intent but it feels to me like it almost deliberately positions itself as an anti-Drag Race. One of the quite fair criticisms that’s been made of RPDR is that it can present quite a narrow view of what drag is and while it is getting better at this (to some extent) and, in a way, Dragula is no less narrow I think there’s quite a big difference between a narrow portrayal of an art form that sells itself as the entire art form and one that doesn’t.

Hell, by the third series the Boulet Brothers have taken to saying really explicitly in every judging “we are not here to judge your drag. Drag is art and art is subjective. We are here to judge your drag as it relates to this competition” which is basically the opposite of the way the judging is presented on Drag Race. Like, they never ever do the “we need to see you do something different” thing. People who have one shtick don’t necessarily go far in the competition but, if you always wear a mask, generally they don’t read you for always wearing a mask.

For what is essentially horror drag (with all the full-on sideshow grossness and freakery that entails), Dragula has a strange sincerity to it. And, obviously, there’s that old saying about sincerity being the most important thing and if you can fake that you can fake anything, but the show really does feel less produced than most reality television. Partly, I think, because it has such a narrow focus that it can be honest about what its looking for. I mean, yes “next drag supermonster” is, in a sense, no less vague than “next drag superstar” or “Alan Sugar’s next business partner” but, in the context of the show, you get a very, very good idea of what the brand actually is. It’s someone who can turn a fabulous lewk, but also eat live spiders, and staple dollar bills to themselves.

Dragula is super not everyone but you kind of have to respect how hardcore it is. Also, it’s very noticeable that it only took them to season three to start including drag kings and bio queens in the competition.


One of the great things about the “holiday season” (which is to say the period of 3-6 months between the schools going back and shops finally running out of excuses for flash sales) is that you can buy family boxes of biscuits. I fucking love biscuits.

The Vampire Diaries

So I did actually watch this when it first came out on TV but I drifted away from it about the time it forked off into The Originals, and there was that whole weird thing where Klaus went to New Orleans and suddenly the racial dynamics got really uncomfortable. On the discovering that the whole thing was on Neflix, I finally decided to do a re-watch and, you know, this is definitely my favourite girls & vampires series, and I love girls & vampires series. It’s just so balls-to-the-wall everything, like their vampires just straight up murder people all the fucking time, their werewolves also just straight up murder people, although slightly less so, and the only thing better than a broody vampire boyfriend is his a broody vampire boyfriend with a cooler, sexier, less broody brother. Also, I know pretending to be different people is, like, an actor’s whole job but I’m always secretly really impressed by the way Nina Dobrev comes across so differently when she’s playing Elena (the heroine) and Katherine (the heroine’s evil doppelganger vampire murder villain).

And I do get that the show has its issues. I mean, there’s no getting away from the fact that Damon murders a lot of basically innocent women and yet still comes across as a surprisingly plausible alternative boyfriend for a teenager. And the racial dynamics that are non-ideal in The Originals are also non-ideal in, um, the original, not least because it’s set really specifically in Virginia so you do have the slightly hand-waved fact that both the romantic interests really explicitly fought for the Confederacy. Okay, now I say it out loud, there’s a lot that I could see would be a deal breaker for a lot of people with this show.

But, hot damn, is it watchable. I have very much the opposite feeling watching a season of The Vampire Diaries that I have watching a season of Game of Thrones. Like, I get to the end of a season of GoT and find myself thinking “well, that was really compelling, but I’m pretty sure nothing actually happened.” Whereas when I get to the end of a season of The Vampire Diaries I have forgotten what the plot was at the beginning because there have been six different plots since. I have watched this show before and I completely failed to remember that there’s a crypt with 26 vampires in it that gets opened up about halfway through the first season because so much other crap happens afterwards.

I’ve been sitting here for about ten minutes trying to sum up what it is I like about this show in spite of its obvious problems and I just can’t do it in sentences so here’s some bullet points:

  • Elena has a tonne of agency, and genuine chemistry with both guys, even the one she’s supposed to going out with, which never happens
  • The heroine’s friends get to be genuinely interesting and do their own shit—although I feel consistently sorry for Caroline
  • The nice normal guy in it is genuinely nice and not a creepy douche bag, despite having previously gone out with the heroine
  • Everyone keeps a diary. I know it’s the title of the show but dude
  • Little brother Jeremy is weirdly not awful
  • Even the token jock character actually gets quite a good arc
  • Every so often they’ll just wheel in a new hot guy in case you don’t like any of the current selection of hot guys
  • The escalation is off the charts
  • People just kill each other all the time, and it’s fine
  • Like, seriously, look up half the characters on the Wiki and they’ll have an entry for ‘death’ and it’ll usually have more than four entries

The Netflix Cinematic Christmas Universe

So I love Netflix Christmas movies. I don’t know why because they’re all the same, and they’re all terrible. Maybe it’s just as bloody minded reaction against that one tosser who sent the “who hurt you” tweet when it turned out that some people were, for some reason, watching Christmas movies at Christmas.

The most recent entry to the Netflix Christmas stable is called The Knight Before Christmas and, frankly, that is already amazing because not only is the title a weak pun based on a famous Christmas story, but, also .. knight? Like actual knight. With a sword and armour and stuff. Oh my God, it’s the best. By which I mean, quite bad, but in a brilliant way.

To talk very briefly about the actual film (spoiler, that is not the topic I’m most interested in) it’s about a knight who travels in time due to the intervention of an “Old Crone” who appears to be, maybe, thirty five but prematurely grey, and does dashing, knightly things in the 21st century, trying to work out what his “quest” is that he must perform in order to become a “true knight.”

Spoiler: it is to make out with a hot chick.

Very, very briefly I was bothered by the fact that they seemed to forget what century he was from, like, all the time: the splash screen says he’s from 1334, they keep referring to him as being from the 13th century (when, of course, 1334 is in the fourteenth century) and he is, and to be fair this is a problem that all fictional knight have, wearing a type of armour that would not have existed until the 15th or even 16th century. I am, frankly, shocked at the lack of historical detail in this time-travelling Christmas movie.

But that’s not what’s important. What’s important is that there is a reference in the movie to someone having had a message from Aldovia.

Which means that this film, which canonically includes real magic and time travel, takes place in the same universe as A Christmas Prince, its sequel A Christmas Prince: The Royal Wedding, and its upcoming threequel A Christmas Prince: The Royal Baby.

So much about those movies makes sense when you realise that they take place in a world where magic and time travel are real. Like, why is it always Christmas in Aldovia? Time travel magic. Why was the King of Aldovia required to hide the proclamation declaring that his adoptive son is also his real heir inside a hand-carved Christmas decoration? I still, don’t know. But probably something something Old Crone magic swirly blue portals.

To make things even cooler, in the film The Princess Switch, Vanessa Hudgens’ character watches A Christmas Prince, meaning that A Christmas Prince exists as a movie in the world of The Princess Switch. But, therefore, also presumably The Knight Before Christmas, which exists in the same world as A Christmas Prince, must also exist as a movie in the world of The Princess Switch. But The Knight Before Christmas ALSO STARS Vanessa Hudgens.

Which means not only does Vanessa Hudgens in the world of The Princess Switch have an identical double in the form of either the princess or of the lady who undergoes the titular princess switch but she must also exist in that world either as the actress Vanessa Hudgens (who in that universe looks identical to a princess who exists in that universe) or, as I am increasingly thinking more likely, she doesn’t exist in that universe as an actress and the films that are watched in Netflix Christmas Universe B, rather than having been made in Netflix Christmas Universe B, are actually windows into Netflix Christmas Universe A (The Knight Before Christmas / Christmas Prince universe) through which Universe B characters can observe the actions of their Universe A alter-egos.

How did a universe full of Christmas-themed characters wind up being separated out from their alternative reality selves and imprisoned in a hermetically sealed space-time bubble of eternal Christmas? TIME TRAVEL MAGIC.

I haven’t gone as deep into this rabbit hole as I’d like to yet (partly because I’m worried I’ll get trapped in an alternative Christmas universe). For example, I’m not yet certain whether A Christmas Inheritance takes place in Universe A or Universe B. It could, of course, take place in its own Universe C but William of Occam enjoined us that elements should not be multiplied needlessly, and therefore I will, for the moment, posit the existence of only two Christmas Universes.

Anyway. movie isn’t out yet. But the  moment it drops I’m watching the shit out of it.

Aaand, as ever, tell me what you’re into at the moment in the comments. Or don’t.


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Hello, and welcome to another edition of Things I Liked in or around the month that I liked them. I always try to do a witty preamble for these and then realise I should just get on with talking about things I liked, that being what I’m here for.

So, uh, here’s some things I liked.

Mind Hunter (Season 2)

Occasionally people will ask me what my guilty pleasure is, and I’ll go off on a long rant about how I find the concept of a guilty pleasure really annoying because it tends to get used “a thing that you like but feel you shouldn’t like for somewhat abstract reasons of social censure.” Basically, it’s how people describe things they enjoy but think are too lowbrow for them (sidebar: it gets used about romance novels a lot and I’m not mad keen on this) and I very strongly believe you shouldn’t feel guilty about enjoying something just because it’s not Proust.

Having said which, there are some things which I do feel genuinely feel guilty about enjoying because I am concerned that they are on some level actually harmful to actual harmful people. Professional wrestling is my go-to example here. Love Island has gone through guilty pleasure and out the other side in that I decided not to watch this year, and probably won’t until they can prove they can at least one season without killing any cast members. And another thing that I think might need to go on the list is true crime.

And the true crime thing is complicated. You’ve got things like Serial which seem to be legitimately concerned with a potential miscarriage of justice, but even then they blur the lines between storytelling and journalism, and often get presented in a very victim-erasing way (although I’ll admit this is kind of damned if you do / damned if you don’t in that, on the other hand, it squicks me out that I can easily remember the name of Adnan Syed but can’t remember the name of the girl he might have murdered, but the other hand, I’m sure her family would rather not be household names). Even further down the “ethics-o-meter” are what you might call the sexy serial killer shows. There was quite a well-publicised one on Netflix recently about Ted Bundy that got thoroughly lampooned by how much it emphasised Bundy’s essential hotness. And those I flat-out avoid because, yeah.

Mind Hunter, for me, skates just close enough to the line that I’m okay with it—although every so often I’ll Google the person they’re talking about and realise that the serial killer in question is still alive, and that makes me feel really odd. I think  one of the factors that lets me enjoy Mind Hunter as a cool “inspired by a true story” crime thing that pushes all the buttons that other stuff that serial killers does is that it’s set just long enough ago that it feels like a period piece. And so the realisation that actually no, this is still within living memory throws me. But there’s enough architecture around it that carries me through. Having said which, I am on some level aware that I’m sort of having my cake and eating it in that most of the time I can tell myself that I’m watching the show for the fascinating insights into the origins of the FBI Behavioural Science Unit, even though deep down I, like everybody else, am mostly just waiting to see which big name serial killer they interview this week.

And to give the show its due, it’s actually quite conscious of that approach to serial killers, and engages with it in a way that doesn’t come across (at least to me) as condescending. The main character obviously has tendencies in that slightly sensational direction – there’s quite a nicely set up sequence where he’s desperately hankering after an interview with Manson even though interviewing Charles Manson will in no way help with the case they’re working on, and when the interview finally happens it’s weirdly anticlimactic because Charles Manson ultimately is just a guy. In fact, “just a guy” is sort of the way it portrays most of the serial killers it presents. From years of crime dramas we’re a very used to the idea that a serial killer is some kind of real world supervillain capable of inhuman feats both physical and mental (Red John in The Mentalist is the poster child for this kind of character). But most of the people they interview are just shit and broken, and yes they’ve done terrible things, but that’s because people sometimes do terrible things, and the really frightening things about terrible things is that they’re not that hard to do.

But none of that is why Mind Hunter season 2 was one of my favourite things on TV in August. In season 2, the Deputy Director of the FBI stands down, due to events of the previous series, and is replaced by a character called Ted Gunn who we have been trained, once again by years of police procedurals and, for that matter, any other kind of institutional procedurals, to assume will be evil, incompetence and dick with the protagonists for no reason or benefits for himself. We’re told he’s a suit, or a pen pusher from city hall, who’s more interested in politics than cracking cases and whenever he interacts with the team he sits there in sinister lightning, with ominous music playing, and you keep expecting him to say “you’ve got to fire the genius guy and make the woman a secretary, and wrap up this impossible in case in six seconds or I’m closing the unit.”

Except, um. He doesn’t do any of that. He’s really supportive and gives them the resources they need and works the politics so that they do what they need to do. And this is fucking weird. But then you remember that Mind Hunter is based on an actual autobiography and is about the establishment of a department within the FBI that exists today, and is well-respected and well-funded. So the story is basically about how representatives of the establishment recognised that what these people were doing is worthwhile and helped them do it better.

I think there should be more of this. I mean, I know conflict is important for drama but popular culture should not be training us to believe that it’s impossible for state institutions to do anything right.

Naturally Tan

I kind of love Tan France. I mean, all the Fab Five are, and the clue is very much in the name, fabulous but Tan is the British one so he is my guy forever. The thing about Tan France’s autobiography and, no offence to Tan, is that he hasn’t had an especially interesting life—sort of his whole deal is that he’s just this kid from South Yorkshire who ran a bunch of business, married a Mormon rancher, and, as far as I can tell, accidentally got cast on a major Netflix show. But everything about this I find really charming.

To be fair, his autobiography feels deliberately, well, British in that there’s clearly quite a lot of things that he doesn’t think are anyone’s business but his own and so he’s going to ignore all that stuff, and instead go on for quite a really long time about why you should never wear a functional belt. It’s basically the opposite of a tell-all autobiography. It’s a polite-chat autobiography, but he’s very open about what you’re getting into, and what he’s willing to talk about, so it’s hard to feel cheated.

In short, it’s an endearing portrait of the Tan France that Tan France is willing to share with the public—it has its carefully chosen intimacies, like his husband’s refusal to believe him about the sizing of his wedding ring, and some experiences with being south Asian in Britain and America (spoiler: they are not always pleasant). But mostly it’s just … nice?

I will say, I picked up in the Audible edition, which is narrated by Tan himself—because I have a particular fondness for people reading their own autobiographies—and I think a lot of its appeal comes from his presentation because you can stick it on in the background as you wash the dishes or make the dinner and it’s like Tan France has come round to your house for a natter.

Obviously your mileage with this will very much vary depending on how much you like the idea of Tan France coming round your house for a natter.

Slay the Spire

Okay, I’m a year late on this one. And for the vast majority of my readership who have no idea what the terms “roguelike” and “deckbuilder” mean this game is a roguelike deckbuilder. What fun. A roguelike is a game that takes place in a randomly generated dungeon and a deckbuilder is a game that is played using a small deck of cards that you add to over the course of that game. Confusingly, deckbuilders as a genre are different from customisable card games in which you have a larger deck of cards that you design for yourself at the start of the game.

The thing I most admire about Slay the Spire is that it contains nothing that it does need to contain. It started out without two playable characters, has since added a third and will be adding a fourth sometime next week. The dungeon has three and a half floors, each with a very small number of possible bosses. But all of these limited sets of interacting pieces work together to create something with a surprising amount of depth.

If I have one criticism of the game, and this isn’t really a criticism of the game, it’s a criticism of myself, it’s that the set of skills you need to be good at the game are non-obvious and don’t necessarily relate to the things you instinctively want to be doing. You want to be saying “ooh, I’ve got a lot poison cards this run, I’ll take more poison stuff and make a poison deck that does things with poisons.” What you need to be saying is “ooh, I’ve got a lot of poison cards this run, I need more front-loaded damage to have a good chance of dealing with Gremlin Nob.”

And actually there’s a weird if deeply nerdy satisfaction in gradually building your mastery of the game, even if it’s a skill that is of absolutely zero practical value in the outside world.

Jenny Nicholson

I watch a lot of YouTube channels, usually of the “I am a person having an opinion” variety. And at the moment I’m super into Jenny Nicholson because her opinions are … kind of delightful? She somehow manages to be snarky without being smug or diminishing the thing she’s talking about, even when the thing she’s talking about is blatantly terrible.

One of the issues with discussing YouTubers is that because these sorts of channels are usually just someone sitting on their bed talking into a camera it’s hard to separate the content from the person. Or at least your perception of the person. So it’s hard to discuss them or recommend them without feeling like you’re projecting way too much onto a stranger on the internet or offering a random human being up for judgement.

Which is to say, I like the YouTube persona that Jenny Nicholson presents, because she seems cool. And I think what I find cool about her (that is, her YouTube persona) is that she doesn’t seem to give a shit if you think she’s cool. I mean she’s done an entire video in which she talks about how much she loves Beastly. Once you’ve done that you can never be cool again. Which is, y’know, cool.

Anyway, here are some of my favourite Jenny Nicholsons to get you started:

She Used To Be Mine

One of my favourite things as someone who knows shit all about either music or theatre is that thing you sometimes get in instances of musical theatre where you’ll have a song that’s structured as if it’s the show’s main love theme, but is actually about something completely different. Sondheim does this all the damned time, see My Friends in Sweeny Todd or I Am Unworthy of Your Love in Assassins.

Back in the mid-to-late-2000s there was a musical version of the indie movie Waitress. Full disclosure, I have seen neither the musical nor the film it is based on, but one of its big numbers is called She Used to be Mine, and it does that thing that I’ve just said I like. So I like it.

SYtbM is a love song that the main character sings to herself in the past. Which is awesome. Also it’s Sara Bareilles, who is also awesome, although I confess I mostly know her because Gravity was used as the backing for a well-known Community fanvid.

And those are the things I liked. As ever tell me about the things you liked in the comments. Or don’t.

Also, I’ve got a book out. Like, tomorrow. Yay. Maybe you could buy it?


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So I’ve been really torn about whether I should weigh in on the Dreamspinner thing because I do absolutely see both sides here. And, at the very least, I hope we can all agree that for some people not to be getting paid money they are owed by a company that owes them money is a non-ideal situation. I think a lot of acrimony that surrounds this discussion, though, comes down to whether you feel the specific circumstances that have led to some people not getting paid money they’re owed are understandable and forgivable, or utterly unethical. And the reason I decided to get involved in this is because, as far I can tell, where you stand on that spectrum depends partly, obviously, on your personal feelings about the publisher, but it also depends on your instinctive response to a deeply abstract question about economics. And if there’s one thing that I think is on-brand for this blog it’s over-analysing deeply abstract questions.

Analogy the first: you work for a mom and pop hardware shop, owned by Ma and Pa Nailerman. One day Ma Nailerman comes up to you and says, “Sorry kid, it’s been a bad month for hardware because people are being really careful and not breaking stuff at the moment so we’re going to have to put off paying you this month.” Now probably you wouldn’t be overjoyed because, well, you’re unlikely to be selling rivets for the love of it and you expect to get paid for it at some point. But you might also understand where Ma and Pa Nailerman are coming from. It’s tough being an independent hardware retailer these days, what with all the competition from Big Screw, and they’re good people, and they let you take an extra day off that one time for your cat’s birthday so you might suck it up. Besides, you know they’re good for it and if there ever comes a point when they’re not good for it they’ll have bigger problems than you will.

Of course, if it happened again, and if it kept happening, you might eventually decide that you have to move out of your minimum wage shop floor job and start looking for slightly more stable employment. But you wouldn’t think anything bad about the Nailermans. You’d know they did their best. You’d probably blame the economy. You might even blame whichever political party you didn’t vote for.

Analogy the second: you wait tables at Ma and Ma Cookerson’s Non-Heteronormative Family Diner. One day, Ma Cookerson takes you aside and says, “Sorry kid, it’s been a bad week in the family dining business so we can’t afford to pay you but we’ll make it up to you next time.” And, again, you’d probably roll with it, for all the same reasons you did last time, since the Cookersons are just as nice as the Nailermans. But suppose then she was to add, “Also, we’re keeping your tips.” And she’d quickly go on to explain that they’d write down how much you made in tips and they would add that to what they paid you back when they could afford to but you’d no longer be working with the assumption that whatever money a customer gave you was yours.

You might feel a little bit worse about that. What’s weird is, you might feel worse about that even if the next reduction in your income was the same as you had when you working for the Nailermans (after all, my understanding is that, in the US at least, minimum wage laws don’t apply to wait staff precisely because tips are factored into their income). What makes the difference here isn’t the amount of money that’s being withheld. It’s the understanding you’d previously had about how money was to be divided. When you get a job waiting tables (and, actually, this varies a lot, and the way tips are distributed is very different in different places but this is an analogy so stick with me) the deal is: what the customer pays for the food goes to the restaurant, and what they leave as a tip goes to you, and there is a meaningful difference between your employer withholding your wages because they can’t afford to release those funds and them taking away money that, by your understanding of the terms of your employment, should already be yours.

Analogy the third: after your understandable but financially detrimental experiences in various ends of the customer service industry you decide to start growing lemons. Why you decide to do this, I’m not sure. Just go with it. You make a deal with the aptly named Mr Lemonseller. He offers you the following bargain: you will grow the lemons, and he will sell the lemons, and you will split the proceeds from the sale of the lemons 30/70. And this works fine for a while. But then one day Mr Lemonseller comes back and tells you that he has sold all of the lemons but his transport and accommodation costs were much higher than expected due to fluctuating oil prices and an unforeseen Ariana Grande concert. Thus, he informs you, that although he did sell the lemons, he had to spend some of your half of the lemon money to cover his expenses.

This you might reasonably be much more pissed off about. Because you had a very specific deal with this man. You do your bit of your job (growing and producing the lemons), he does his bit of the job (transporting and selling the lemons), and it’s up to each of you individually to make your bits of that process worth it. You don’t, after all, get to ask Mr Lemonseller to give you more money just because the price of fertiliser went up or the state has introduced a new tax on the colour yellow. Effectively Mr Lemonseller has exploited the fact that, because he is the one who handles the money, it is much easier for him to pass his costs onto you than it is for you to pass your costs onto him. Now it’s possible that you’ll still be okay with this deal. You might really like Mr Lemonseller. You might even find that you make more money working with Mr Lemonseller, despite the fact that he occasionally dips into your cut of the lemon money, than you would with somebody else. Because maybe Mr Lemonseller is fantastically good at selling lemons. But if that’s the case, you’d probably be more comfortable re-negotiating your deal so that Mr Lemonseller is upfront about what percentage of the lemon money he actually takes rather than just accepting a situation where sometimes you don’t get money that definitely exists and you are definitely owed.

Now I appreciate that the way I’ve structured this rhetorical device deliberately leads the reader to see the situation under discussion as more like the last example then the first. And I do happen to believe that the Mr Lemonseller model is a better way to think about the relationship between an author and a publisher than the hardware store or the hybrid-model of wait staff salary plus tips. But I also understand that there are people for whom the first analogy is the most apposite one. There are people for whom working for Dreamspinner is like working for Ma and Pa Nailerman who are currently having trouble because Amazon suddenly starting offering customers unlimited hammers. I do get that. I really do.

But having thought about this, as I usually do way too much, the thing that keeps coming back to me about the Lemons Analogy is the fertiliser / travel costs thing. If you work a job for a salary there is an understanding that you are strongly insulated from the uncertainties inherent in the business you work for. And, perhaps paradoxically, that makes it easier to accept the rare occasions on which the uncertainties inherent in the business impact you – because you know for it to have got to that point things must have gone very, very badly. But if someone is selling your lemons (or, obviously, in this case your books) then you are already assuming much more of the risk of their doing business. You’re effectively more of an investor than an employee. If Mr Lemonseller breaks his ankle and can’t sell lemons for three months, that’s your income gone. And so if Mr Lemonseller also then asks you to help cover his medical fees you’ve effectively been double impacted by his misfortune. And, maybe, you are better off paying those medical fees in order to keep Mr Lemonseller in the lemon-selling business because otherwise you’ve got no way to sell your lemons but is it fair for Mr Lemonseller to be asking you to do that in the first place?

And, again, I should stress that for some people the answer is yes. Some people will be profoundly grateful to Mr Lemonseller for getting them started in lemon-selling. But from a strict standpoint of business ethics your deal with Mr Lemonseller is very clear: you get 30% of the money, and he gets 70% the money, and he does not get to decide what’s done with your 30% of the money. Even if the thing he’s doing is going to make him better at selling lemons in the long run. Because if Mr Lemonseller is allowed to take some of your lemon money and re-invest it in his lemon business he’s effectively asking you to assume risks your never signed up to assume for rewards that will benefit you substantially less than they’ll benefit him. If he takes your lemon money and uses it to buy cantaloupes, sells the cantaloupes at a profit, then uses the cantaloupe money to invest in a better fruit stall that might long-term lead to your selling more lemons, and therefore getting a larger lemon-based income, but short-term you had to subsidise his capital investment. And you, after all, do not own the fruit stall.

On top of which, once again, you have no means to treat him equivalently. If you break your ankle, and therefore cannot produce any lemons, he has to get his lemons from somewhere else but you can’t make him give you some of the money he makes from selling someone else’s lemons to cover your medical expenses. If you want to buy a deluxe lemon-harvesting machine you can’t unilaterally do that with his percentage of the lemon money because you never have possession of it. So he can make investments with your money, but you can’t make investments with his money. And, to a lot of people, the only ethical way for this relationship to be managed that doesn’t create genuine moral hazards for the Mr Lemonsellers of the world—who could be very easily tempted to re-invest your lemon money in the reasonable certainty that they’ll make it back before you notice it’s gone—is to have a rigorous system in place to make sure that cannot happen.

The thing is, I completely see why some people view their relationship with a publisher differently. Especially if you’re used to working a more conventional job (and, frankly, virtually everybody is more familiar with conventional jobs than they are with weird, rights-based industries unless you’ve always been a novelist, and you’re married to a novelist, and your parents are novelists) it’s natural to think of the company who sends you money every few months as your employer and yourself as effectively their employee. But that isn’t actually an author’s relationship with their publisher. You have a deal with them, in which you make stuff, and they sell it, giving you a share of the profits. And, by my very limited understanding of contractual law, those profits become yours at the point of sale.

For some people, this doesn’t matter. Some people are perfectly comfortable seeing their royalties as a sort of variable salary that the company pays from an undifferentiated pot of money, and they accept that if the pot is running low, not everybody is going to get to take money out of it every month. But for other people the existence of the pot of money system highlights a structural flaw in the way the company has hitherto set up its finances. Just as I would expect Mr Lemonseller on selling my lemons to set aside my part of the money lemon, and not touch it because it’s not actually his, just as I would expect the Cookerson’s to let me keep my tips even if they couldn’t afford to pay me my salary, I would, on reflection, expect a publisher to do the same with my royalties. Because the deal we have is not that I get given a variable amount of money depending on how well the publisher is doing at the moment, the deal is that I get a certain percentage of the revenue generated from the sales of a product that I have produced.

I’m in kind of an odd position in that I find myself having quite a strong opinion about a contentious current issue based entirely on my opinions about a completely abstract issue that I didn’t even consider until the contentious issue cropped up. The truth is, that payments, of any kind, are rather like, I mean pick whatever example leaps out to you because there are hundreds, many of them biological, in that you don’t really notice until it stops working. I think what I’m groping towards here is that I now hold quite firmly to the position that it is correct practice for publishers to earmark royalties and not touch them (see above: re Mr Lemonseller and his moral hazards) and that a publisher not doing this would be a problem even if it was still managing to pay its authors. And I suspect part of the problem here is that if you don’t agree with that principle, then the current state of affairs looks very different because there is a huge and important distinction between an unfortunate situation that ultimately couldn’t have been avoided, and an unfortunate situation that should never have been possible.

Before I wrap up and sign off, there’s one more way of articulating this that might help people see where those of us who have a problem with the structures that have led to all these difficulties are coming from. Because, on reflection, you can make a case that the deal an author has with their publisher is essentially the same as the deal an author has with their agent. Which is to say, you sell my shit, and we split the money. Now, of course, in the case of an author-agent relationship the split is very much more in the author’s favour, but if my agent turned round to me and told me that they’d kept my share of the royalties this time round for any reason I would, meaning no disrespect, lose my motherfucking shit. And I don’t think single person would have a problem with that because it makes intuitive sense that the money I receive from my agent is definitely my money and not only does my agent not have the right to withhold a penny of it they have a professional obligation to set it aside to give it to me within the timeframe we’ve agreed upon.

But, or some reason, when it’s the same situation with a publisher it all feels … wobblier somehow, probably because it’s no longer an individual lemon seller you’re dealing with, so much as a distributed lemon-selling network.  From my perspective, though, the principle is the same. You may, of course, feel differently about your lemons and that’s fine, this is a complex situation and there are no easy answers, especially when you get into questions of how people’s responses to the practices of a business impact people whose livelihoods depend on that business. I mean, ultimately we all care about lemons, and are just trying to make lemonade as best we can.



Welcome back to another edition of Things I Liked. First of all, thing I’m not liking: the heat. Seriously, the Arctic is on fire. That is not okay.

Angel Season 5

This was a surprise. I think I said, in the last one of these that I liked Season 6 of Buffy much more than I was expecting to, while also thinking it was basically terrible. For what it’s worth, I liked the first five episodes of Season 7 of Buffy more than I was expecting to, and was halfway through planning a passionate defence of why Buffy Season 7 is way better than you remember, when holy shit, what happened? I mean, I think basically having a villain who is intangible was a major strategic misstep, let’s not even mention Captain Tightpants playing a misogynistic southern preacher, and turning your central female empowerment metaphor into also sort a rape metaphor (having previously turned your secondary female empowerment metaphor into a drugs metaphor) maybe not the best call? I did, however, find Willow/Kennedy less awful on second watching. It’s still not amazing, and it has a slight sense of “oops, maybe I shouldn’t have killed half my only queer couple” but it perhaps unintentionally does quite a job of representing a different type of relationship. I think my charitable reason of Willow/Kennedy is that they’re not supposed to be the love of each other’s lives, but that it’s all right for Willow to move on, and embrace being gay as part of her identity. Given that Tara and Willow’s relationship, though lovely, is very filtered through metaphor and largely revolves around doing heroin…sorry I mean magic…together, it’s actually quite important to have both characters talking openly about being gay. Having said which, Ambiguously Gay Andrew is still very much played for laughs. So, steps forward, steps back.

Anyway, this is about Angel. And, at the time, I remember Angel Season 5 being seen as an even bigger car crash than Buffy Season 7. I seem to recall there being a lot of rumours back in the day that the network had interfered quite heavily, insisting on Spike being in it, and banning any kind of overarching season-long plot (my, how times have changed). And maybe it’s me projecting but you can almost feel the bitterness at those restrictions seeping into the early episodes—to say nothing of the season’s whole premise of the simultaneous futility and nobility of attempting to hold to your vision and ideals within the soulless framework of corporate America. But, actually, I kind of enjoyed it, and if it was the studio that made them put Spike in, and focus more on short arcs and episode plots then … the studio did a really good job? I mean, some of the episodes are completely bonkers—there’s the one with luchadores, and the one where Angel becomes a muppet—but they were kind of fun in their own right?  And while I do enjoy arc-based TV, I feel that episodic TV has been given short shrift over the last decade or so. Being able to remember individual episodes of a show is something I no longer take for granted, and it’s actually quite nice to be able to say “oh I liked the episode where [x] happened” as opposed to just having nebulously positive feelings about a series in general.

Of course, by the end of Season 5 you do get the creeping realisation that they’ve killed of literally every significant female character in the show. Darla stakes herself in Season 3, Lilah dies in Season 4 and Cordy winds up in a coma, before finally dying off-screen in Season 5, and then Fred gets consumed from within by an ancient demon goddess from beyond the dawn of time. Also: even creepier now I come to think of it, of those four characters, 50% of them die in ways that are specifically pregnancy related, and an overlapping 50% of them suffer fates that explicitly involve them losing control of their bodies. So not great optics there however you cut it. And what’s especially annoying about this is that, in a vacuum, I actually really like the Ilyria arc. Much like Season 6 Tara, the fact she’s going to kick it means Fred gets better characterisation in Season 5 than she has in all the other seasons put together, and getting to see Amy Acker do something other than the non-threatening nerdgirl everybody fancies is incredibly refreshing. She seems to be having a really good time as Ilyria, and she does it really fucking well. Also, dead women existing primarily to facilitate men’s character development is super not okay but Wesley’s whole arc of growth and dissolution across five seasons of Angel is irritatingly effective. Although it makes Gunn’s arc look problematically shallow by comparison.

In fact, I’m even going to go out on a limb and defend the final scene where there’s the surviving Angelites in an alley making a clearly doomed stand against an actual endless army of demons. I think this felt emotionally unsatisfying at the time because after Season 7 Buffy had been such a let-down people really wanted Season 5 of Angel to send things off in a way that meant something, and it kind of did the exact opposite of that. And it’s hard to tell, even in retrospect, how much of that was just the showrunners throwing their toys out of the pram because they were annoyed at the network and how much of it was a coherent philosophical statement. But with my ‘death of the author’ hat on, I think you can make a plausible case that the simultaneous value and meaninglessness of individual good acts has been a fairly consistent theme of Angel. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Anne (the charity-worker who first appears as a Sister Chanterelle in the second season of Buffy) appears in the final episode of Angel. Because, in a sense, it’s her arc that best typifies the point of the series in that, for all its prophecies and epic tales of redemption, it repeatedly underlines that the most important thing is individual people looking out for each other.

So yeah. Season 5 Angel: surprisingly non-terrible on re-watch.

Crunchy Caramel M&Ms

So these have apparently been in the country for a year, and I’m sure they’ve had them on the other side of the pond forever, but oh my god, they are the best thing. Normally I’m both a tremendous sucker for and deeply sceptical of gimmicky variants of generally nice confectionary. Like I only ever buy Skittles when they’re doing something weird with the colours, and I will jump at the opportunity to buy a white chocolate version of something that’s ordinarily made of milk chocolate, even though I know it will always taste provably worse than the original. Strawberry Jaffa Cakes can go fuck themselves, but also I will buy them whenever they are reduced in Tescos.

But crunchy caramel M&Ms are legitimately great. They, like, crunchy. And also caramel, but not in that shit chewy way that caramel usually is. On top of which they’re wrapped in that crispy M&M shell so it’s this delicious texture party in your mouth.

And I just got through an entire packet of the things while writing this section.

Also, interesting cultural  note: I’m pretty sure it was always M&Ms that had the “melts in your mouth not in your hand” tagline, which never made any sense to me because, by and large, chocolate does not melt in your hand in this country, on account of how it’s always cold and rainy. But the last couple of weeks I’ve not been able to buy ordinary chocolate because it’s melted everywhere. Seriously, fuck you climate change.

Invisible Inc.

 I’ve actually had this game for ages, but because it’s on a timer and has perma-death the first time I tried to play it I got really freaked out. I’ve finally come back to it and … it’s just really good. It’s this cyberpunk infiltration stealth strategy game where you play members of a vaguely rebellious, possibly a bit anarchist organisation called Invisible Inc that has just had its HQ wiped out by megacorporations and has three days to steal enough money and technology to hit them back. It’s from the same people who made Mark of the Ninja, so you feel simultaneously incredibly tense and incredibly awesome pretty much all the time. And it’s got that thing I really like in stealth games where you’ve near-perfect information so you absolutely know that if things go wrong and  you’ve fucked up it is definitely entirely your fault.

Abortive Romances in Computer Games

 So I’m also replaying the Mass Effect trilogy, partly because I think my Xbox 360 is going to die, and partly because my theme for this year appears to be revisiting things with disappointing endings. And something that struck me for perhaps the first time is how much potential there is those games for romances that … don’t quite work out. And that’s incredibly rare to see implemented.

Romance in computer games is, well, difficult. Because it’s really important to some people and other people really resent the people to whom it’s really important. Most famously the romance options in Neverwinter Nights 2 were almost offensively shit because the designers seem to have felt that they had to put them in for the people who wanted them but also had no interest in doing them (something that arguably remains true for that particular developer, since I’ve never seen them write a successful romance plot). Being, y’know, a romance writer I obviously take my romance options quite seriously: I think I’ve said before that who your character falls in love with is often one of the better ways to articulate who that character is. Someone who goes for the Iron Bull is very different to someone who winds up with Josephine.

But even in games that take this stuff seriously, and put thought into it, what you very seldom see is a romance that ends tragically or just doesn’t quite happen (and not in a “whoops I clicked the wrong line of dialogue” way). And this becomes difficult because romances that don’t work out can often unintentionally disregard player consent: you kind of need to know you’re signing up for a tragic love story before you get on board because otherwise you’ve just wasted 50 hours actively progressing a narrative that will ultimately disappoint you. And this is bad enough in linear fiction but when you’re encouraged to identify with the protagonist quite as literally as you are in a video game and you have to drive the story by your actions and choices it can feel like kind of a slap in the face. I have an on-going Twitter joke about my bad Bioware boyfriends: it was pure luck that I made the choices I did in Dragon Age Inquisition because otherwise I would have been three for three on romantic disasters. My first boyfriend ran off and became a drunk because I wouldn’t make him King, my second involved me in an act terrorism and forced me to execute him, and my third could have brutally betrayed me to his people based on decisions made about seventy hours earlier.

Retrospectively, I have a lot of time for all these romantic, shall we say, missteps. And going back to Mass Effect—so that I could finally get around to romancing Liara for all three games—I find myself weirdly appreciating all the other stories I could be telling, or have told, with my Shepard and her partners. Notably, I think more than any other RPG series I’ve played, these games have a lot of time for the possibility of romance just not working out. At one point, I did deliberately set up a Sad Shepard run where everyone she loved died: I romanced Kaiden in Mass Effect 1, specifically so I could send him to die on Virmire, and Thane in Mass Effect 2, who—unlike Kaiden—is not a tit. But, of course, he is terminally ill and dies in Mass Effect 3 no matter what you do. There’s something kind of ballsy to me about a game that lets you play out a romance arc with a terminally ill character and then turns round and says “yep, that terminally ill character you romanced died of their terminal illness.” But the game puts enough narrative weight behind this that it feels genuinely meaningful.

On top of which, you can sort of semi-romance Samara in ME2 and ME3, but she’s an Asari justicar (sort of like a samurai/knight errant) who is four hundred years old who’s been forced to murder all three of her daughters so … she’s not really feelin’ it. Or rather, you can have a real connection with her, and a kiss or two, but the over-riding theme of the relationship is no matter how strongly you feel for each other, and no matter how much potential your relationship could have had, you kind of just missed each other. Because life is like that. Although, now I think about it, you can also boink her daughter, which will promptly fry your brain because that’s how she rolls and you should have known that going in, what were you thinking.

And there’s Tali, your perky space-technologist who can lovingly romance for two and a half games, and then watch throw herself into a chasm if you pick the wrong side in the conflict between the Quarians and the Geth. Which, now I write that down, makes me feel I missed a trick with my Sad Shepard run, although I’m not totally sure I could bring myself to do it. I had enough time killing Mission in the original Knights of the Old Republic, and she was really annoying.

So basically, this month I’ve been feeling very appreciative of story outcomes I know exist in a game, even though I’m not following them.  Which probably sounds a tenuous. But, hey, my blog, my rules, I can appreciate weird stuff if I want to.

A Song I Found By Accident

 I occasionally click on things randomly on Spotify. And I found a song from, like, three years ago which charmed the crap out of me. Here it is.

Hope you’ve all been having a fun July.  Tell me what you’ve been enjoying. Or, well, don’t.


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A little while ago (okay, nearly a year ago) I played through and not so much reviewed as mused on Wadjet Eye’s Blackwell series. I mentioned at the time that there was also a sequel called Unavowed and now a mere whole-lot-of-months later, I’ve finally got around to playing the darned thing and can ramble on about it at length for the three people out there who especially care what I think about point-and-click adventure games.

Quick recap for those who don’t remember/aren’t gamers/don’t care but are still reading for some reason. The original Blackwell saga was a five part series (pentology? pentalogy? quintet?) of games following a young woman named Rosangela Blackwell who discovers on the death of her aunt that she is a “bestower of eternity”, basically a fancy name for a spiritual medium, who goes around talking to ghosts and laying them to rest and stuff. They’re a good little series of games, with a nice overarching story that hints at a larger world.

That larger world is the setting for Unavowed.

Oh, spoilers coming as always, I’ll put some space before the major ones because this is one of those rare examples of a game/story/text where spoilers might actually spoil something.

Straight out the gate, Unavowed is more ambitious than Blackwell (or at least, more ambitious than any individual instalment of the Blackwell series), giving you multiple different options for the player character—you can be male or female, and start the game as a cop, an actor or a bartender, and each of these choices (well, the background choices, gender seems mostly cosmetic which is fair enough) appears to have a significant impact on the game (I should stress that I say this having only played once, but unless I got particularly lucky—I went cop—I felt my choice was very well integrated). You get a brief spooky intro during which your character has his/her first encounter with the supernatural, then gets possessed by a demon, blacks out, and wakes up a year later being exorcised by a half-djinn and a slouch-hat-wearing fifties fire wizard (Gilbert seems to have a thing for slouch-hat-wearing fifties guys, which is fair enough, I mean don’t we all). It turns out you’ve spent the year doing mass-murdery things and are very close to being arrested, but now you’ve been picked up instead by this team of mystical monster hunters called The Unavowed (which is the title of the game, d’ysee).

And before we go any further, I’ll say that I really liked this game but I have a serious love-hate thing going on with the name. Because it sounds super cool but … what does it actually mean? Like I’m used to avowed being used as a modifer for other adjectives, usually personality traits or beliefs like “an avowed cynic” or “an avowed atheist” but then does being “unavowed” just mean not being anything in particular? I suppose technically “avowed” means “publicly stated or admitted” and since the unavowed is a secret organisation then any member of the unavowed is, like a kind of recursive acronym, an unavowed member of the unavowed which is an organisation the existence of which is itself unavowed, at least to the general public. Although since they also do self-define as members of the unavowed to each other then that makes them avowed members of the unavowed…

I digress.

Anyway, you join the Unavowed which initially just consists of the half-djinn (Mandana), the fire mage (Eli), and the group’s leader, the full djinn Kalash, who is also Mandana’s father. They let you in because you save them from some kind of extradimensional thingummy called a “ligamental” proving to the group that while the ability to fight with a sword or conjure flame by pure force of will is useful, nothing can stand up to the adventure game protagonist’s power to combine arbitrary objects with other arbitrary objects. The team is soon rounded out with Vicki (a cop who’s also your former partner if you take the cop background) and Logan (who’s a “bestower of eternity” like Roseangela from Blackwell whose spirit guide is the child KayKay, who Rosangela helps to pass on in that series).

The continuity with the previous games is handled … okay-ish? There’s this whole plot point where they explain the Unavowed not getting involved in the events of the Blackwell series because they usually leave Bestowers alone on the grounds that death is part of life, which makes ghosts part of the natural world, while the job of the Unavowed is to deal with the supernatural. This distinction seems, frankly, a little spurious. After all, some of the entities you deal with are things like dryads and naiads, spiritual manifestations of natural real-world phenomena. Why would the spirit of a tree be “supernatural” but the spirit of a dead human not be? Part of me wonders if it wouldn’t have made more sense to just blank the whole thing and just accept that not every supernatural crisis would be directly handled by the Unavowed. It feels like one of those situations where the explanation is less plausible than the thing it’s trying to explain.

There are six missions in all in the game, spread around different districts of New York, and the whole thing has a certain love letter to the city vibe (there’s even a shoutout to the rainbow bagel craze from a few years back). Once you’ve picked up Logan and Vicki from the first two missions, you can complete the remaining four in any order. You can bring two companions on any given case (five’s a crowd I guess?) and each has unique abilities to help you solve the mystery—Mandana is good at fighting and can spot lies, Eli can burn stuff and also read any text that has been destroyed by fire (this happens a surprising amount), Logan can talk to ghosts and Vicki has the weight of mundane law enforcement on her side. The two-at-a-time thing is a bit artificial, but it makes the game feel very replayable (disclaimer, I have not actually replayed it). You get to the end of a scenario and—at least if you’re me—your first thought is “I wonder how that would have gone differently if I’d brought the other two.”

The basic premise is that while in possession of your body, a demon called Melkhiresa was running around the city stirring up supernatural chaos in order to create hotspots of mystical energy (this is a little vague) that she/he/it could tap in order to create a pocket reality. Which is a little bit phase three profit (I am aware that meme is super dated) but let’s just go with it for now shall we? Each mystical hotspot involves summoning up some mythological being, usually one of a fairly archetypal flavour—you have a dryad, a merman, some ghosts, a Chinese spirit called a ba jiao gui (somewhat cheekily, the entry on this spirit in the in-world text you consult to understand its nature is exactly the same as its wikipedia entry), a faerie and so on. Pretty much all of these creatures have been summoned into the world against their will, and while they’ve usually fucked shit up pretty bad, that’s usually not their fault (with a couple of exceptions). As a result, the moral dilemmas you get at the end of each mission feel genuinely dilemma-ey rather than the classic “kill the puppy save the puppy” non-choice you often get in this kind of game. Often you’ll have the option of undoing or reversing some of the harm that the creature caused, but at the risk of killing it, or you’ll be able to send the creature home but at some further cost to somebody else. On the occasions when the supernatural instigator of the chaos is just malicious, there are still usually reasons why killing it outright wouldn’t necessarily be the best call.

Structurally, the game borrows a certain amount (not necessarily directly or intentionally, I’m using “borrows” here to really more mean “resembles”) from Bioware’s classic RPG Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. You start off with a fairly linear segment while you get your core party together, then there are several hubs you can visit in whatever order you prefer, but before you get to the last one there’s a sudden dramatic development that recharacterises the entire game.

So yeah, this is where the heavy spoilers kick in.

If you’re leaving now, short version. Unavowed is a really good point-and-click adventure game. It’s very accessible (virtually all the puzzles are intuitive and none of them rely on the “moon logic” that so famously characterised the genre in the ‘80s), potentially to the point of being too easy if you’re a glutton for puzzle-themed punishment. You can get it on Steam right now for a tenner (and it’s the sort of thing that gets reduced fairly often if you’re phobic about paying full price) and is worth a look. You absolutely don’t have to have played Blackwell to enjoy it, and both work fine as an introduction to the world and, for that matter, the genre.

Okay, now that’s out the way. Spoilers.













Do people even do that any more? I could probably set up some kind of funky tag where this is all just blanked out until you mouse over it. But whatever let’s just assume I’m being deliberately retro.

Anyway, the basic premise of Unavowed is that you’re following this creepy demon called Melkhiresa who is some kind of ancient spirit of knowledge who spent a year running around in your body doing awful things, all of which you have spent the rest of the game undoing. Just before the final mission, you wake up to find yourself no longer in control of your body, screaming inside your own mind while somebody else talks to your friends wearing your face.

There follows a long push-pull between you and the other presence where you say things like “give me my body back” and “go back to the void, demon” and Melkhiresa responds with things like “you have no idea, do you?” Which is all ominous and foreshadowy. Then your friends catch you again, and repeat the exorcism to cast the demon out into a magical circle where it can be banished. Only what comes out isn’t a demon, it’s a human spirit. And it turns out it wasn’t the demon Melkhiresa who caused all the carnage, it was you—or rather, the person you thought was you, because you are actually Melkhiresa, who had been summoned from the void and spent a year trapped in the body of a sociopathic magician, forced to tell her/him where she/he could find suitable sources of magical energy to power the creation of a pocket reality, which had been your plan all along.

Now … there’s quite a lot about this that is a bit fridge logicy. Like I seem to recall that you get onto the trail of Melkhiresa in the first place because you were using that name while you were running around being evil for a year, but since in reality the person running around being evil was you, and Melkhiresa was just an unwilling passenger in your mind providing you with information, it’s not clear why you would have used her name rather than your own. And it seems weirdly convenient, misdirection-wise, that Melkhiresa has such a specific personality and set of powers. She has access to the memories of your character, but can also modify those memories for her own comfort and also—despite being a demon and as far as I can tell therefore having no real notion of morality of any kind or any reason to value human life—specifically modifies those memories in such a way that she not only remembers murders you committed as having been committed by somebody else, but also remembers your life from the perspective of somebody who isn’t a high-functioning psychopath when it’s kind of clear that your character is in fact, a high-functioning psychopath.

On which subject … yeah I’m very much in two minds about that aspect of the twist. Basically it’s kind of the plot of that one episode of Angel where the little boy is possessed by a demon but it turns out the little boy is really the evil one and the demon is just trapped inside him. Like on one level I really dig the humanity is the real monster style twist. On the other hand I’m always a bit bothered by just a psycho as a motivation for a villain, partly because it lacks nuance and partly because it’s often a very unhelpful way to portray mental illness. Obviously your mileage here may be very different from mine, but speaking personally the reason it works so well for me is that the setup isn’t so much “you did all this stuff because you’re a psychopath” as “you did all this stuff because you’re a psychopath, and you’ve spent your whole life pretending not to be a psychopath and that had got to the point that it was so draining that you decided to build your own world that you could shape around yourself, which led to the summoning of Melkhiresa and the other events of the plot.” And that … actually makes a twisted sort of sense.

As a spiritual (put not intended but should have been) successor to the Blackwell series it works really well. It has the same core ideas (fairly pulpy supernatural mysteries, strong emphasis on relationships with NPCs, a lot of heart). As a literal sequel the seams look a bit rougher (the “ghosts are part of the natural world but dryads aren’t” thing really narks me—also the whole reason you meet Logan is that your evil alter-ego set up a specifically ghost related event as one of her sources of mystical energy, how does that work if ghosts are “natural”) but it’s fine. As an adventure game in its own right, it’s really well put together, the puzzles are fun and intuitive and involve the absolute bare minimum of combining everything with everything else. There’s a strong emphasis on dialogue with NPCs that makes it feel meaningfully like you’re investigating something rather than just clicking on stuff, and the party mechanics make you really care about your companions.

Some people will think it’s too easy. Then again some people thought Dark Souls was too easy.

Overall, though, I’ve yet to be disappointed with a Wadjet Eye game and if you feel that pointing at and clicking on some things is a way you want to spend nine-hours-ish then you could do a lot worse than Unavowed.


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This is going to be another long-form, well, I was going to TIL but TIL is Today I Learned, so … another long-form Things I Liked. And like the last long form Things I Liked it’s going to be long because it’s about a Thing I Liked way more than I expecting to.

That thing being Season 6 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Don’t @ me.

Obviously part of the reason I responded more positively to Season 6 than I was expecting was that it would have been very, very hard for me not to. I mean, I was seriously considering just not watching it on the grounds that Seasons 1-5 have such a beautiful and complete arc as Buffy goes from out-of-her-depth schoolchild to confident teenager to fully developed vampire slayer to decisive leader to straight up mythic hero. And having that crash back down to the Double Meat Palace is as jarring as shit. And don’t get me wrong, musical episode aside and to some extent musical episode included, there’s an awful lot to criticise in Buffy Season 6. It’s tonally inconsistent, the character work is uneven, it has very little of the sharp wit of the earlier seasons, and all the subtlety of an insult comic beating you over the head with a VHS recording of an after-school special. But there is something about it that feels … almost like it could have value. If you ignore all of the stuff that really doesn’t.

I suspect partly here it’s just about the way I react things. Broadly I like things that do what they do well, dislike things that do what they do badly, and get totally obsessed with things that do what they do in a way that almost but doesn’t quite come together. And Buffy Season 6 is the most like that a show could possibly be. Basically, if it was 10% better it would just be bad. If it was 10% worse it would be unwatchable. Instead, it’s just this weird, perfect storm of so many great concepts colliding with so many shit concepts in a vortex of distinctly variable execution. I mean come on, what’s not to love.

Let’s get the obvious things out of the way first. In rough chronological order:

  • Giles leaving makes no sense and, yes, Tony Head wanted to go back to England but, bite the bullet and kill him. I mean, the character, not the Gold Blend Man. It just makes Giles look like an oblivious prick. Buffy has literally come back from the dead. Her feeling that she needs you around is totally justified. Also she did fine developing independence and self-sufficiency while you were actively her Watcher. Over-relying on Giles has never been Buffy’s problem.
  • Magic isn’t heroin. I can’t even be arsed to unpack this because it is so clearly awful.
  • I lied. If you are going to make magic heroin, keep it heroin. Don’t have some people taking heroin fine and being all like, “oh no, it’s cool, I’ll do the heroin so you don’t have to”. Also maybe don’t have people start experimenting with heroin at school, under the supervision of the school librarian who also does heroin.
  • Also also: maybe don’t pick the same metaphor for heroin and lesbian sex.
  • Wrecked. Gone. Although I will admit some of the invisible Buffy stuff is quite cute.
  • You can signal that being a teenager is difficult without making Dawn a kleptomaniac.
  • Why is a thousand-year-old ex-demon obsessed with the idea of a fairytale wedding to which she has had no cultural exposure? Bonus points for it flying in the face of a millennium-long career specifically based around the consequences of bad marriages.
  • Don’t randomly kill off half of your only gay couple. I seem to recall at the time, Whedon played the sexuality equivalent of the ‘don’t see race’ card here, insisting that it would be homophobic to decide against killing a character just because that character was gay. This was in 2001. We are still, as a culture, not in a place where that argument holds water. Twenty years ago it barely held air.
  • Going out on a limb here, maybe don’t put a graphic and realistic attempted rape scene into a show otherwise built around sanitised fantasy violence. Also maybe don’t spend the rest of the season and most of the next season setting up the attempted rapist as a romantic hero.
  • In-between the cliff-hanger ending of ‘Seeing Red’ and it’s immediate resolution in the start of ‘Villains’, Willow apparently bothers to source and put on a scary black outfit and Buffy gets her hair permed.

Not all of what I’m going to say next will be positive, but a surprising amount of it will be. (Editorial note: actually very little of it, which may nevertheless still surprise you, depending on how you felt about Buffy Season 6).

In a sense, Season 6 is a return to form for Buffy. It’s just that ‘by return to form’ I sort of mean ‘return to central narrative structure’ rather than ‘return to quality’. The formula of an early Buffy season was “take a teenage-type problem that teenagers have, then put a supernatural twist on it” and that worked for three seasons. Season 4 briefly tried applying the same formula to not fitting in at college, realised that didn’t quite work, and then developed into an almost explicitly science-fictiony adventure plot about a secret government conspiracy. And on a meta-level became really invested in the idea that Buffy was the best in the world at what she did, and this played off well against The Initiative because suddenly, instead of Buffy fighting demons and dealing with real world problems, the real world was trying to deal with demons and Buffy was showing them how it was done. Then Season 5 went full epic and had her fight a God, redeem an irredeemable character, lose her mother and take on a more adult role, and sacrifice herself to save the world.

Season 6 brings it all back to metaphors for real life problems, and in some ways that makes a lot of sense. I originally watched Buffy Season 6 at university, hating it along with the rest of the world, and part of me does wonder if I’d have responded to it better if I’d been just a few years older. Because weirdly it spoke to me quite clearly on this re-watch because I could look back with a lot of emotional distance on a time in my life when I’d got to the end of a journey and then hadn’t known what to do next. The season is a really good evocation of that point of becoming an adult when you’ve just got off the conveyor belt of school-adolescence-college-ohwhatthefucknow. I think at the time I was annoyed by Season 6’s assumption that Buffy wouldn’t know how to be an grownup because I thought it lost sight of the fact that everything Buffy had been through had been a metaphor for the stuff that’s supposed to teach you how to be a grownup. I think what I hadn’t appreciated was that the stuff that’s supposed to teach you how to be a grownup kind of doesn’t teach you how to be a grownup . And in that context the terrible decisions the characters make feel really grounded and real. The problem is, the (arguably) terrible creative decisions that went into framing the terrible character decisions made all of Season 6 into a bit of a hot mess.

For example, in a vacuum I really like Anya and Xander’s arc. I suspect we’ve all had friends who ran too hard at adulthood, trying to immediately get the job and the wife and the kids and the picket fence without stopping to thinking whether that was something they really wanted or could sustain. And I think Xander’s coming to the realisation that he has seen precisely zero good models of marriage (his parent’s relationship is clearly a nightmare, Buffy’s are divorced, and we know we nothing about the Rosenbergs) and that he is over-committing to an institution that he doesn’t necessarily have faith in is surprisingly nuanced and believable. And I can see why Anya is really hurt by that, because he does literally leave her at the fucking altar and is incredibly bad at talking to her about things (although, thinking about it, she clearly hears everything he says during ‘I’ll Never Tell’ in Once More With Feeling and, like, do they talk about that afterwards or just go back to ignoring it, which says other, deeper things about their relationship). But her reaction to the whole wedding arc is so Bridezilla-ey and gendered that it was really uncomfortable for me to watch. I suspect part of it was that the show was never quite sure where it was going with Anya. She’s always kind of been comic relief and, in some ways, it’s a bit weird that Xander winds up marrying the comic relief. Like, apart from the fact she’s quite conventionally attractive I’m not sure what you can say about Anya that would make you want to be in a relationship with her. And don’t get me wrong, I love quirky people and think quirky people are valuable. But I can’t think of a single personality trait she has that isn’t a joke: scared of bunnies, obsessed with money, strangely literal. The whole wedding thing is actually a fantastic idea for a storyline. It’s just Anya’s not quite a real person and her relationship with Xander is so lightly sketched it’s hard to know what it working or failing would look like, and so everything has to fall back on these very broad tropes about women liking weddings and men getting cold feet and women being cross.

Buffy’s money problems have a similar issue. The broad idea that Buffy is now wholly responsible for a family unit and that is too much for her because she’s just come back from the dead which, in this context, is kind of a metaphor for “has just got out of university or the equivalent”, is actually really smart. The problem is, it involves suddenly looking hard a bunch of questions the series has previously ducked. Like Giles does not have a job for half of Season 3 and all of Season 4 – we’re never asked how he pays for his flat and scones. And in Season 5 the Watcher’s Council re-hire him and give him backpay. They’re also apparently able to keep black ops teams on retainer, throw lavish retreats, and pull political and economic strings at the highest level. You’d think they could set up a trust fund so the Slayer—who is their entire reason for existing—doesn’t have to flip burgers to pay the bills. On top of which, Buffy had no trouble finding a job when she’s a teenager living alone in Los Angeles, and yes, it was waitressing but it’s not like Double Meat Worker is a step up from that. Again, in a vacuum, Buffy realising she now has to provide for herself and Dawn (and, also, weirdly Willow and Tara who appear to be living in the Summers’ house rent free) is a good arc. But it feels like the way it was executed relied on throwing artificial obstacles into Buffy’s path and deliberately humiliating her. Like the show deliberately had her wind up at a weird, parody fast-food joint with a comical uniform, and a greasy smell, because it would make her sadder. And the writers seem to subscribe to the notion that making Buffy sad is the key to good storytelling.

Of course, the other big thing that goes on with Buffy this season is the Spike arc. And there is so much with this that nearly works and so much with it that really, really doesn’t. Oh, where to begin. Like, in some ways Buffy’s boyfriends have always existed to reflect on where Buffy is in her life. Angel flat out makes no sense outside the context of a melodramatic teen romance, but works perfectly in the early seasons because, well, Buffy is a teenager and Angel is what you want love to be when you’re a teenager. Season 4 Riley is a really interesting portrayal of a more adult relationship: he and Buffy are genuinely interested in the same things (admittedly, those things are fighting monsters but at least he’s not going to buy her a copy of Sonnets from the Portuguese), he’s supportive while finding it non-trivial to come to terms with the fact that she’s better than he is at the stuff he values about himself, and they kind of learn from each other about how to communicate and support on another and, um, kick demon ass. Season 5 Riley is a total dick and largely just a way of dealing with Riley’s poor audience responses. But Season 5 Spike really interestingly demonstrates Buffy’s growth into an almost archetypical figure. Spike’s arc in Season 5 is about him wanting to be the kind of person who is worthy to be in Buffy’s life. And Buffy’s arc is about accepting that but not reciprocating it. Which, y’know, I think is about right because Spike is a monster. Because, as Xander reminds us, vampires are monsters. They make monster movies about them.

Season 6 Spike is, well, that’s the problem. It could be a couple of different things, and most of those things are bad either from an in-world or or out-of-world perspective. No matter how you look at it, Buffy’s relationship with Spike in Season 6 is definitely not supposed to be a healthy one. The issue is you can interpret that unhealthiness in a variety of ways, some of which are ever-so-slightly victim blamey round the edges. The way I read Buffy’s relationship with Spike on the most recent re-watch is that his behaviour towards her is fairly uncomplicatedly emotionally abusive. Yes, he listens to her, and is there for her, but he repeatedly reinforces to her that she is broken and wrong, and he is the only one who understands her. It is not okay to treat someone like that, even if you’re in love with them. And this is where we get into difficult L-word territory (in the love sense, not the early 2000s show about lesbians sense) because I think my attitude to love is a bit … uncommon, in that I view it as quite a morally neutral thing. Probably not want you to hear from a romance writer, but stay with me.

I personally feel that it’s important to recognise that you can love a person but still ultimately be harmful to them. A lot of people find that notion really, really offensive for reasons I do understand. They will tend to take the line that if you’re abusing someone, you don’t love them, you just think you love them. And I think this is one of those situations where both ways of looking at it are true and have value, depending on what outcomes you’re looking for. The issue I have with the “you can’t love someone if you’re harming them” line of reasoning is that, to me, that makes it very easy for people to justify their behaviour: I love [x], therefore the way I am treating [x] cannot be harmful. The strength of that line reasoning, I think, is that it can make it easier to encourage people not to justify the behaviour of other people who are harming them. I think it’s probably a lot cleaner to sit someone down and say “if [x] really loved you they wouldn’t be making you feel this way” than it is to say “yes, [x] might love you but independently of that, [x] is also making you feel bad and the one doesn’t justify the other.”.

And this is where Buffy/Spike gets messy because while I am okay simultaneously entertaining the ideas that Spike loves Buffy and Spike treats Buffy abusively for a lot of other people those two concepts are mutually contradictory. And this gets really tough because the show sells the notion that Spike loves Buffy incredibly hard. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen both possible interpretations of that dynamic in the fandom. There’s “Spike treats Buffy badly, therefore he can’t really love her which makes sense because he’s a demon and doesn’t have a soul”. And I’m okay with that one because it at least acknowledges Spike’s mistreatment, although it does mean that his (spoiler for a 20 year-old TV show) getting his soul back at the end of Season 6 erases a lot of the frankly unforgivable stuff he did earlier in the season. Which, thinking about it, is kind of the standard Angel gets held to but we’ll come back to that if I ever write about Season 7.

Then there’s “Spike loves Buffy, therefore he can’t be treating her badly”. And this is a little bit problematic on one level, although if I squint I can see how you might emphasise the supportive elements of his relationship with her and downplay the negging her, deliberately isolating her from her friends element of the relationship. Where it strays into super not okay for me is when it gains the corollary “and therefore she is treating him badly” which I feel does cross the line into straight up victim-blaming, although it’s not helped that the show sort reinforces this interpretation by having Buffy say “I’m using you and it’s killing me.” And, to be fair, there is a way of way looking at that line which is more nuanced, since it’s about how Buffy feels about herself, and her own behaviour. i.e. that she is not comfortable being in a relationship where she is getting what she needs, and the other person isn’t—and that arguably reflects well on Buffy, if you are willing to overlook some of the statement’s more difficult implications. Like, you shouldn’t have to have sex with someone just because they’re in love with you. But it’s also okay to have sex with someone who is in love with you when you’re not in love with them as long as you’re both aware of that, and consenting to it. And, obviously, the power dynamics in the Spike/Buffy relationship are really difficult because they’re both in their own ways very damaged people.

As a coda to the Spuffy ramblings, because I do view their relationship as abusive (and pretty uncomplicatedly so) I’m left in this odd place where, on the one hand, I think it kind of has value as exploration of that dynamic, and has some genuinely interesting moments when it’s not smashing a symbolism house, but on the other hand it’s just not what I’m expecting to see in my escapist feminist power fantasy. Which is not say that an escapist feminist power fantasy can’t explore those themes, and Buffy often does, but not normally through the character of Buffy herself. And maybe it is important to point out that even a kickass super-heroine can find herself trapped in an abusive relationship. But I think it needs to be done in a world where Buffy already exists. This is sort of like if Jessica Jones had come out in 1996. You need to do the thing, before you can deconstruct the thing. Otherwise you’re just taking away some people’s thing.

Which kind of leads us into Willow/Tara. The thing is, Season 6 is absolutely Tara’s best season. Up this point, she’s just kind of been Willow’s girlfriend, or a fairly generic helpless bystander. There’s a bit of development of her relationship with Dawn and the Scoobies in Season 5 but it’s mostly highlighting the fact that they don’t really have one. But in Season 6, because her relationship with Willow is falling apart, and also perhaps there’s a greater emphasis on small-scale domestic storytelling, Tara really comes into her own. We see being a friend/parental figure for Dawn, a non-judgemental, non-negging, non-trying-to-get-in-her-pants confidante for Buffy (she’s the only one, in my never terribly humble opinion, whose response to Buffy sleeping with Spike is remotely appropriate or supportive),  and obviously this feels a bit manipulative because you’re kind of watching it going “oh Tara’s having a really good arc in this season, this is just so we’ll feel sad when she dies” but it’s actually really … nice. And well-done. And, I’m aware I’m saying this a lot, nuanced. The thing is, Tara’s defining characteristics have always been that she’s steady and sweet and reliable and nice, which don’t come across well in a high-drama show about government conspiracies and fighting gods. But once Giles leaves and everything starts to fall apart and you need someone to, say, deal with the teenage girl who’s starting stealing shit or listen to you talking about your destructive relationship she really shines. And, actually, this watch through has been the first time I’ve been able to look past the series’ many flaws and my general distaste for the Killing The Gays trope to actually feel sad for the loss of Tara as a person. Which is ironic, in a way, because Tara’s role in this season is very much as a plot device.

The thing is, I do see the appeal of Evil Willow as an end of season bad guy, and I do see that killing off Tara was an obvious way to get her there. It’s also kind of the only obvious way to get her there. I mean, you could have killed Xander who was technically her best friend since childhood but, firstly, we have this difficult cultural thang that means we assign far greater weight to romantic relationships than non-romantic relationships and, secondly, Willow and Xander have barely interacted since, well, kind of since they stopped making out. You could do some wobbly plot device where she gets gradually taken over by dark magic although that’s not really her. Then again, it’s kind of debatable the extent to which Scary Magic Willow is Willow either. And the turn comes very late in the season because she has to have her temptation-redemption-fall arc all kind of from nowhere. Which, when you think about it, is peculiar because it’s not like they haven’t done Willow drawing more and more deeply on darker and darker magic before. It was quite a big theme in Season 5 as well, but turning it into a drugs metaphor meant you couldn’t readily build on what happened previously. And, in fact, actively detracts from it. I mean, we see Floating Black Eyes Willow in Season 5, and it was so much more interesting when it was a choice, rather than “oh noes, now she is hooked on the bad magic smack.” And I do appreciate that I started this discussion of the positive bits of Season 6 by highlighting that Buffy was kind of always about taking a real world issue and putting a supernatural twist on it but magic has been used constantly throughout the series, and it’s never been drugs, man, drugs. At no point has it been suggested that you can buy magic as a substance from shady dealers—but apparently Amy was doing that while she was trying out for cheerleading at the age of 16.

I think what I’m trying to say is that Willow Going Evil, or being tempted by darkness, works for me emotionally and thematically. Her whole identity has always been that she’s been an outsider, and she kind of racks up marginalisations as she progresses through the series: in Season 1 she’s too nerdy, in Season 2 she’s too nerdy and too smart, in Season 3 she’s too nerdy, too smart and too magic, in Season 4 she’s too nerdy, too smart, too magic and too gay, in Season 5 she’s too nerdy, too smart, too magic, too gay and too powerful. The whole thing is really well set up for her to go evil in Season 6 if they hadn’t crowbarred in this totally out-of-left-field drugs metaphor that taints every other instance of magic being used in a show that, let’s not forget, is about magic. Yes, there’s one line from Riley’s wife about how they knew some shamans who, like, got addicted, man, and one of them ate his face and the other one microwaved a baby. But there is no literally no other example anywhere in the extended Buffyverse of it being at all a thing that this is a thing. And this is beyond annoying, because without this bullshit, the arc is really good.

Dark Willow is exactly the right villain for Season 6: it’s just they needed to get her there in a way that set up the themes she talks about in the final episode, when she has a big verbal sparring match with Buffy about how Willow was a loser and an outcast instead of having her taste like strawberry. In this very mundane “we are in our early twenties now” season that is about questioning yourself and your choices, and wondering Where Do We Go From Here (ah, d’you see) “your best friend has gone evil and you didn’t quite notice because you were too distracted with your own shit” is perfect. And, again, it fits wonderfully with the villain progression of previous seasons. Season 1 Buffy fights a vampire that’s slightly more powerful than some other vampires. Season 2 Buffy fights her own boyfriend. Season 3 she fights the mayor of her town. Season 4 she fights the actual government. Season 5 she fights a God. There’s nowhere to go from there so you have to bring it back down to the personal level—and what could be more devastating than the loss of someone who has always been there for you.

I guess since I’m on villains, I should probably mention the trio. Again, in some ways they’re the perfect choice for the season where, ah d’you see, the real world is the real enemy. Y’know, because the hardest thing in this world is to live in it. And in a strange, I think perhaps unintentional way, it’s almost affirming of the first 5 seasons. The biggest supernatural danger Buffy faces in Season 6 is three guys who aren’t really particularly good at being a supernatural danger. They see themselves as Buffy arch-nemesises but she finds them annoying at worst, and when she needs to take them out she can, almost trivially. All of which suggests that Buffy has, actually, done the job she gave her life to do: which is save Sunnydale. When she rocked up, the town was a nightmare hellscape, with dead bodies showing up in highschool lockers, and the whole place at a constant risk of being sucked into hell. Now the biggest thing it has to worry about is three dudes with some wacky plans because Buffy has stopped everything else really effectively.

The thing about the trio is that they engage in some really interesting themes, in ways I don’t always agree with, and that sometimes come across as a little bit hypocritical. Like Warren is noticeably much eviler than the others, and part of me is like “fair enough, you often have one person who is the ringleader in the kind of dynamic” but part of me says that because the trio are really specifically engaging with questions about real world misogyny and male privilege, pinning all that on one objectively evil guy is … awkward? Like the bit where they get the mind-control orb and they’re all completely up for using it to turn a woman into a their willing sex-bunny, and then Warren uses it on his ex-girlfriend and Jonathan and Andrew are impatient for their turn is really nicely observed. And then it wears off and she’s all “guys, you realise this is rape, right?” and part of me like the fact that Jonathan and Andrew are shocked by that, and I think Jonathan even begins trying to deny it. But I feel like it kind of lets them off the hook because they blatantly would have gone through with it if Warren hadn’t been so selfish and the machine hadn’t worn off. Also, not inconsequential point of order. In the episode of ‘Superstar’, Jonathan does a spell that makes everyone in Sunnydale (possibly the world, it’s never entirely clear) think he’s super awesome and he definitely has sex with two hot blonde women while they are under the influence of this spell and it is played for laughs in the moment and it is not called back to here. And, I mean, if you want to get really technical you could argue that there’s a difference between straight up mind-control and altering reality so that you occupy a more prestigious position within it, which independently causes some other people to want to have sex with you. But firstly the Superstar spell does seem to affect people’s feelings directly and, secondly, you don’t want to be playing with technicalities when you’re talking about, y’know, consent.

So what this leaves us with is a situation where Jonathan, like Warren, has a history of doing this kind of thing and he and Andrew are both completely on board with doing it in the moment, but only Warren is held accountable for it. Essentially we’re invited to see Jonathan and Andrew as two nice guys who are a bit lonely and a bit nerdy and have been led astray, whereas Warren is, as Xander, ever the moral mouthpiece of series puts it, a cold-blooded killer of women just warming up. And this is … complicated? Like in a lot of ways, I find the alpha-nerd dynamic in the Trio really interesting, and I find the way that Warren lets that power go to his head quite well observed (for example, in the second episode, they each—when asked—identify themselves as the leader, but by the end of the series, Warren has clearly taken that role and the other two acknowledge it) but there’s a difference between being the most toxic and dominant guy in your friendship group and being responsible for all misogyny. In a similar way, I find Andrew’s gradually building hero-worship of Warren kind of fascinating because, on one level, that feels very real to me as a way that nerdy men interact. In my experience, geek social dynamics develop those kind of hierarchies quite quickly and you often see it played out in fandom in a number of different ways. Where it bothers me a lot more is that they also make him ambiguously gay. It feels really regressive, especially for a show that was quite lauded in its day for having a lesbian couple in it, to fall back on having him say things like “he never really loved … hanging out with us”. The whole thing is just played for laughs in a way I’m not super comfortable with.

Basically, although I like the Trio in concept I think their portrayal is problematic insofar as it engages with some quite important gender politics issues but then takes what you might call a really Captain Planet approach to them. Which is to say, it takes a complex sociological phenomenon and boils it down to individual bad people being bad, usually deliberately. And part of me says that this is necessary because you need Willow to be able to horrifically torture a guy to death without the audience completely losing all sympathy for her. But another part of me says that the issue isn’t so much that Warren is too evil so much that Jonathan and Andrew are too good. They both willingly participate in a group project that rapes and kills women—and, yes, they grumble bit, but they’re quite enthusiastic about at least half of that (and, in Jonathan’s case, have done similar things before). They just don’t like being confronted with the reality of what they’re doing. Having Warren going full “by the way, I also hate all women now, you’re all bitches and deserve to be murdered” isn’t actually necessary (I really think killing Tara is enough to make Willow going House Bolton on him understandable) and just flattens out something that was previously quite complex.

Which is sort of Season 6 in a nutshell really. And I’m starting to realise that as defences of cultural artefacts go this has very much been praise with faint damnation. All of which said, despite its many, many, many flaws Season 6 did actually do a way better job of giving me things to think about any of Seasons 1 through 5, possibly even Seasons 1 to 5 put together.

Also: musical episode was fun.


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So, I didn’t Like anything in April because I spent the whole month watching, and writing a novella’s worth of blog posts about, Game of Thrones. But now we’re out the other side and so I can start enjoying things again. Having said that, let’ start with:

Game of Thrones Being Over

I don’t mean this to come across as negative and, ironically, I mostly mean it as a defence of the criticisms that were made of the last season  but I probably wouldn’t have bothered with Game of Thrones Season 8 if it hadn’t been the finale. I realise this is a somewhat controversial opinion but I very much don’t think that the journey is more important than the destination. I mean, if it was people would take holidays in airports. And obviously some series (both in visual and print media) are essentially just a sequence of self-contained episodes that don’t really need to go anywhere (it’s fine to jump into a series of Friends for example). But GoT was always telling one, over-arching story and sometime around 2016 I was very much feeling that the story not being finished and not looking likely to finish any time soon was making the story worse. Was it a perfect ending? No. Was it better than the series dragging out for another five or six years? Definitely.

Also, now I can do other things.

Shirley Curry

This is kind of late to the party thing—in the sense of me being late to mention, rather than me being late to discover. I’ve been watching this 79 year-old-lady play Skyrim for, honestly, probably about as long as I’ve been playing Skyrim but I mention her now because I found a thirty-minute documentary about her while I was idling on Youtube. And even if you’re not the sort of person who’s into Let’s Plays (which I’m actually not, unless I really like the player) I really recommend watching the documentary. It’s really encapsulates how charming and … like it’s really hard to observe that a person who might not be expected to know their stuff knows their stuff without coming across as patronising … but how like that she is. I think there’s always something really important about being able to see someone who doesn’t fit the expected demographic for a hobby engaging with that hobby in basically the same way as everybody else. Plus, it’s nice to be reminded that the internet can be a good place as well as a horrible pit of shit and vitriol.

Buffy The Vampire Slayer Season 5

This one of the those things that I thought was amazing the first time I watched, then thought wasn’t as good as I remember it being when I went back to it, and now I think is amazing again. It’s particularly interesting when you look back on it in the wider context of TV before and since because it stands right on the transition between the episodic television that dominated the late 20th century and the long-form or arc-based television that dominates the 21st. And on one level I’ll always feel a bit disappointed that Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 5 contains very few memorable episodes (unless you count the one where Joyce dies) since virtually all over it is about the Dawn/Glory/Key/Death-Is-Your-Gift thing and there are perhaps two monsters of the week if you’re being generous, and one of those is some people from the South.  And that’s partly my bias because I really like monster-of-the-week type shows but it’s partly that I’m always a bit uncomfortable citing Season 5 as the best of Buffy when it’s actually so very different from what Buffy was both before and afterwards. What is, though, is an absolutely brilliant end to Buffy’s five season arc.

Slight aside—and I will stop talking about GoT in a second, I promise. One of the criticisms that often gets made about the later seasons of GoT and, often, the later seasons of a great many TV shows is that it “feels like fanfic” and that always bothers me because I think it’s very easy to shit on fan-fiction when, firstly, it’s actually a really interesting social phenomenon and, secondly, especially when things like TV and comics are concerned it’s not like any of these properties are designed by a single creator to begin with. And what I like about Buffy Season 5 is that it kind of feels like fanfic when fanfic is doing one of the more interesting things that fanfic does. Which is, taking the source material and thinking about it more deeply and more seriously than it ever has been in canon (in the same later seasons of DS9 read like fanfic of Star Trek and much better than the earlier seasons of DS9 which read like, well, Star Trek).

More than at any other point in the show, Buffy Season 5 gets really interested in what it means to “be the slayer.” And not in a wanky S6 “well logically if you’d spent your whole life fighting vampires you wouldn’t have learned any skills that are useful in the real world” way. Viewing the five series as a whole there’s this really satisfying arc where Buffy grows from being a slightly shallow, relatively ordinary teenager in season 1 to a competent fighter-of-evil in seasons 2-3 to a leader in season 4 to an actual mythic hero in season 5. Then it’s musicals, the Doublemeat Palace, and speeches. But I’m trying not to think about that.

I might come back to this later because I can say about lot about Buffy but for the sake of brevity in what’s supposed to be a summary post here are some bullet points:

  • Unpopular opinion: I actually think Dawn is really important and works really well. Now Willow and Xander are more competent on their own Buffy has no-one else she cares about who needs her protection. Dawn does that job—and I like the fact she’s annoying a lot of the time because, hey, kid sisters are.
  • Semi-popular opinion: I don’t mind that Buffy winds up closer to Xander than Willow. They’ve always actually had a lot more in common—they’re both kind of goofy, and not especially academic, and have the same sort of troubles reconciling who they are with their place in the world. Willow, on the other hand, is this intense-as-fuck genius who, had she not been born on a hellmouth, would have left Buffy and Xander behind, and gone on to be, like, Speaker of the House or something.
  • Moderately-popular opinion: Spike/Buffy in S5 actually works really well if you forget the fact that the writer’s forgot the fact the whole point is that it would never, ever work and she isn’t interested. I think it reflects well on Buffy that she inspires something like nobility in a someone fundamentally irredeemable and it reflects even better on her that she never loses sight of the fact that he’s still a bad person and there isn’t any expectation that she’ll reward his devotion with, um, sex or, for that matter, approval. Again, trying hard not to think about S6 here.
  • Highly-popular opinion: Giles is awesome.
  • Just sort of generally an opinion: Glory is a great villain, and the actor is clearly having the time of her fucking life, which just sort of infuses the character with this kind of unholy joy.

Videogames From Ages Ago

I picked up the most recent piece of Crusader Kings II DLC in a Steam Sale and have been happily watching my mighty Viking rulers die ignominiously of diseases that would be wholly curable in the 20th century. This is what makes Crusader Kings II fun. Take my word for it.

I’ve also got back into Stardew Valley. I … don’t know why. I just love this game so much. It’s basically a Skinner Box but it’s a really, really good Skinner Box.

And I’ve been playing Skyrim again. Which, weirdly, I have enjoyed a lot more this time round than the first. I think the problem with videogames, over any other creative medium, is that they have a very difficult relationship with expectations because you sink so much time and effort them (and, actually, I really will stop talking about GoT soon, one of the things big problems with S8 of GoT is that, for a lot of people, it’s the culmination of something they’ve been invested in for twenty fucking years). After all, if you read a book (apart from, say, epic fantasy septologies that aren’t finished yet) and it’s not what you hoped it would be you’ve only wasted a few hours. If you watch a film you don’t like, you’ve wasted even less. But if you spent 160 hours playing a videogame that never quite takes you where you want to go then … you can really fucking resent that. And I think my issue with Skyrim was that, as a diehard Morrowind fan, it felt and I apologise for this because I hate the phrase “very dumbed down” at the time.

But going back to it with a clearer of what it is and isn’t actually trying to do, I’ve been able to appreciate the streamlined design, and the gorgeous world. So basically I’ve had a blast.

And finally…

Having failed dismally to stop talking about Game of Thrones, here is a picture of Bran Stark and the Night King sharing an umbrella.

  1. I have a book coming out soon.

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I was honestly intending for my last post on this topic to be, well, my last post on this topic. But then I realised I hadn’t actually talked about the political situation at the end of the series.

Oh, but before that, one other totally unrelated thing that’s bugging me. A lot of people are comparing the death of Qyburn in episode five to Frankenstein being killed by his own creation. Except … I mean … I’m pretty sure that Frankenstein isn’t killed by his own creation. Doesn’t he die of exposure at the North Pole? Like I seem to recall that’s up there with “the creator not the monster” in terms of fairly commonly known things about Frankenstein.

But that wasn’t what I wanted to talk about. The weird link I made in my head that took me there was that people keep making throwaway comments about Qyburn’s death being Frankenstein-like, and I keep going “hang on, wut?” And I keep tripping up similarly over people’s responses to the political resolution we’re offered for Westeros at the end of S8E6. Because they tend to fall into two categories: “this is a step towards democracy, which while incremental is a step in the right direction” and “this is too small a step towards democracy, which means it doesn’t go far enough in the right direction.”

And people sort of toss this into their discussions like it’s a given—they just blithely refer to the situation as “quasi democratic” when it’s … not. People also sometimes make throwaway references to Magna Carta which … well … it’s sort of a complicated document and something people talk about in the abstract a lot more than the specific. And if we assume that the Song of Ice and Fire is supposed to be roughly analogous to the Wars of the Roses (roughly 1455-1485) then we should be well past the era of the Magna Carta (1215-ish depending on which version you’re talking about). Not that it’s particularly clear what the laws of Westeros even are, especially with reference to the kinds of things that real social reform would require in a medieval setting which is … not of interest to the general public. Magna Carta, for example, includes such thrilling clauses as “All fish-weirs are in future to be entirely removed from the Thames and the Medway, and throughout the whole of England, except on the sea-coast”, and “There is to be one measure of wine throughout our kingdom, and one measure of ale, and one measure of corn, namely the quarter of London, and one breadth of dyed, russet and haberget cloths, that is, two ells within the borders; and let weights be dealt with as with measures”. Plus some parts of Magna Carta were deeply regressive, like  “no man is to be arrested or imprisoned on account of a woman’s appeal for the death of anyone other than her own husband.”

The problem we have here is essentially that Game of Thrones very effectively challenged the fantasy tradition of treating monarchy as an unproblematic system of government, but never really did the groundwork for exploring how it could be replaced. And this isn’t because the show was rushed, it’s because the show always kind of had its cake and ate it on the whole “monarchy is shitty” thing. Varys rather sanctimoniously wonders “why is it always the innocents who suffer when you high lords play your game of thrones” but the show isn’t really interested in what’s going on with the smallfolk, or really with the machinery of governance at all (also it is fucking called Game of Thrones). Dany’s “Break the Wheel” rhetoric is actually a perfect encapsulation of this—both the characters and the show only ever really pay attention to the commoners when they’re making grand abstract points about freedom, but that’s not what makes a kingdom better. What makes a kingdom better is somebody sitting down and saying “you know, it’s pretty annoying that ordinary people don’t have standardised weights and measures for things they use in their daily lives”.

And of course we aren’t going to get that. Nobody would watch a long-form fantasy TV show in which after a long and bloody civil war, a climactic battle against death itself, and the destruction by dragonfire of a major city, the highlords gather together and say “this is terrible, we must make certain that nothing of the kind ever occurs again, and also I HAVE SOME STRONG OPINIONS ABOUT FISHING WEIRS.” So instead we get a set of slightly peculiar markers that are designed to signal progress to a modern audience by pushing buttons that we ourselves associate with modernity in ways that would be wholly different in a Westerosi context.

We start off with Sam’s attempt to full on invent democracy, which is laughed down by the assembled lords. And that whole sequence feels misjudged to me. For a start, I know there was a time skip but we’re at most a couple of months away from the complete destruction of the capital and hundreds of thousands of deaths. Now isn’t the time to be cracking wise. And the whole way the idea is introduced just feels massively metatextual. The framing is that we, the audience, are supposed to know that full participatory democracy is the “right” answer but that the lords of Westeros are too backwards to realise that. This ignores … so much. I suppose there was no Athens analogue in the World of Ice and Fire (which is somewhat facetiously known in the fandom as “Planetos”) so it’s not like in the real world where democracy would be a very well documented phenomenon. But why doesn’t Yara Greyjoy stand up and say “actually, that’s how we do it in the Iron Islands” (following the real model of Nordic countries, the kings of the Iron Islands are elected at something called the Kingsmoot, which is a much bigger deal in the books than in the show where, like, ten people show up to it). It’s not like anybody voices any of the thousands of very reasonable objections one could have to participatory democracy in a world where communicating from one side of the kingdom to another takes months, where most people are illiterate, where wealth and landowning are still entirely hereditary and, let’s not forget, people are still allowed to maintain private armies.

They eventually settle on the idea of a king being chosen by … well it isn’t really clear and obviously isn’t clear to the actual people present at the actual event (Davos even expresses uncertainty about whether he gets a vote) but essentially a small clique of powerful noblemen. And actually that is at least a fairly reasonable and stable system in the sense that, going forward, it can be fairly easily defined: give one vote to each of the constituent kingdoms except the Crownlands, and you have a nice small electorate who you can bring together fairly conveniently. Basically they transition the kingdom from a hereditary monarchy to an elective monarchy, which is … fine in a sense. Except that the show frames this change as (a) a step towards democracy, which it isn’t and (b) a clear improvement on the previous system, which it also isn’t.

I’m going to start with point (a). One of the biggest mistakes we make (and we make it because it is made so easily) when looking at history (disclaimer, I am a world away from being a historian) is to view it as having a single clear trajectory. You start with all the power in the hands of one king, and then you gradually transition that power to the nobility, then the middle classes, then the working classes, then you get universal suffrage by way of a single clear path with no deviations. The thing is, that isn’t actually how it works. Some monarchies have very centralised power, some are very decentralised, some democracies are actually deeply unjust (Athens had, like, a lot of slaves as for that matter did the early USA) and some monarchies are actually quite progressive. It’s especially noteworthy that the big selling point Tyrion pitches for the new Westerosi government is that it eliminates dynastic rule, but there’s no indication that dynastic rule is at all the problem with Westeros.

I’m not particularly pro-monarchy, I think it’s at best an irrelevance and at worst a symbol of entrenched inequality. But every year the Economist magazine (through the EIU, the Economist Intelligence Unit) publishes its annual Democracy Index, in which it rates the strength of democracy in every country in the world and it’s really interesting to notice that four out of the top five countries have a hereditary monarch (Norway, Sweden and Denmark all have their own, and New Zealand still recognises the Queen of England as its head of state) while none of the five least democratic countries do (unless you count the Kim family in North Korea, which wouldn’t be totally unfair).

Point being, moving from hereditary monarchy to elective monarchy doesn’t actually make the Seven Kingdoms any freer or more democratic, it just slightly changes the kind of feudalism it operates under.

Even worse (and bringing us to our part b) it arguably changes the kind of feudalism it operates under to a type of feudalism that will exacerbate Westeros’s main problems. We’ll ignore for the moment the whole supernatural angle (the show certainly seems to want us to) and assume that Bran isn’t going to suddenly become the God Emperor of Dune but that instead the system is going to work roughly the way Tyrion says it will: Bran will be king, but on his death the High Lords of Westeros will come back to the Dragonpit and choose a new king from amongst themselves.

This is … kind of a recipe for disaster? My inspiration for the post was a twitter thread from Brent Sirota of NC State University laying out in detail why, if we assume the War of the Five Kings is nominally the War of the Roses it follows that what Westeros really needs is actually a far stronger centralised monarchy. Robert’s Rebellion and everything that followed came about (much like the real Wars of the Roses) happened because individual noble families got powerful enough that they could challenge the monarch, and that led to decades of strife and chaos. I mean think about it—how can it ever be a good thing stability-wise for the king to be profoundly in debt to one of his own subjects (for those who haven’t recently rewatched the first series, remember that the crown owed the Lannisters millions).

What I found particularly interesting about this analysis was that, when it popped up on reddit one commentator, by way of rebuttal, posted the following quote from George R. R. Martin himself:

“The Kingdom was unified with dragons, so the Targaryen’s flaw was to create an absolute monarchy highly dependent on them, with the small council not designed to be a real check and balance. So, without dragons it took a sneeze, a wildly incompetent and megalomaniac king, a love struck prince, a brutal civil war, a dissolute king that didn’t really know what to do with the throne and then chaos.”

 And this leads to a fascinating tension of duelling authorities. On the one hand you have a legitimate historian with real-world sources and on the other you have the person who designed the world. Being a fully paid-up death-of-the-author type, I’m very much of the opinion that GRRM’s interpretation of where the Targaryens went wrong is no more valid than anybody else’s but I do think it’s fascinating that Sirota draws attention to the “weird Americanism” of the way we are invited to rally behind Dany’s abolitionist agenda, while Martin himself sums up the problems with the Targaryen regime using the characteristically American language of “checks and balances”.

Also, looking at that quote afresh, I can’t quite tell if it’s meant to be sarcastic. Because “…it took a sneeze, a wildly incompetent and megalomaniac king, a love struck prince, a brutal civil war, a dissolute king that didn’t really know what to do with the throne and then chaos” actually describes a really long sequence of events so (especially with the quote out of context) it’s hard to be sure exactly what point Martin is making. Because I suspect tipping most medieval societies into chaos would have required way less than two wildly incompetent monarchs with a civil war in the middle.  Hell there was a civil war in England so chaotic it’s literally called “The Anarchy” and that was precipitated entirely because a drunk guy rammed a boat into a rock.

I think what I’m inching towards here is that A Game of Thrones was really good at challenging the fantasy genre’s well-documented bias in favour of “rightful kings” but might have fallen foul of the genre’s somewhat less well-documented bias in favour of decentralised power. I don’t want to give too much life to increasingly outdated stereotypes of the genre, but there’s still a strong tendency in fantasy for “bad” societies to be very centralised and monolithic (your prototypical dark lords and evil empires) while “good” societies tend to be more of a loose confederation of autonomous bodies (see the rebel alliance in Star Wars or the Last Alliance in Lord of the Rings). Much as I loved Sansa’s ending in the TV series, I do think it’s interesting that “independence for the North” is seen so unambiguously as a positive outcome, rather than as a complicated state of affairs that could easily be either desirable or undesirable depending on your perspective. #StrongerTogether.

Because Sirota’s very much right on this one. It’s easy for a modern audience to get behind “freedom” or “liberation” as heroic agendas. It’s much harder for them to get behind “centralisation of power in order to create stability that will ultimately benefit the common people by enabling them to go about their lives without being disrupted by the squabbling of the baronial classes.” And it’s still harder for them to get behind “standardising the quart and making minor changes to the management of rivers.”

And as a result, the series does end on a peculiar note of cognitive dissonance. We are invited to view the institution of elective monarchy (or weirwood god-emperoroship, the jury is still out on that one) as an unambiguously good thing, even though all it’s really doing is—as one article I read pointed out—codifying the Game of Thrones for perpetuity (it’s suddenly way easier to murder and politic your way onto the throne). It’s particularly weird when coupled with the destruction-by-dragonfire of the throne itself, which is one of those big bits of symbolism that might just be symbolic in a vacuum rather than symbolic of anything. I mean … yeah the spiky chair is gone, but the Iron Throne was never the One Ring, it’s not the object itself that is inherently corrupting, it’s the endless jockeying of the noble families for power. An endless jockeying, incidentally, that they have now (entirely on the say-so of a confessedly incompetent man in handcuffs) enshrined into their new system of government.

Taking a step back (sorry, I overuse that phrase), I can’t help but think that part of the issue here is that while the show does a good job of challenging the fantasy cliché of just and rightful kingship, it actually does quite a bad job of correctly articulating the problems with monarchy. Obviously it’s right in broad strokes—heredity is a bad qualification for leadership, just because your father was good at governing that doesn’t mean you will be, it’s very easy for somebody with unquestioned power to oppress people—but I think it’s very wrong in the specifics. Many many years ago, one of the earliest conversations I remember having about A Song of Ice and Fire was with a friend who was disappointed by Jaime’s chapters in A Storm of Swords, because he felt that revealing his backstory with the Mad King made him significantly less morally ambiguous. As he put it, “would you murder a man you had sworn to protect if he had proven himself a cruel tyrant” is an interesting moral question, “would you murder a man you had sworn to protect if it was literally the only way of stopping him from actually blowing up a city and actually killing an actual million actual people” is rather less so. Although the series pays lip service to the idea that monarchy is inherently unjust and that there are no truly good kings, it presents its bad kings as so scenery-chewingly, city-immolatingly, casually-mass-murderingly terrible that it’s hard not to view its real problem with monarchy as a lack of insurance against individual bad rulers, rather than a more structural problem with a society that treats some humans as inherently more worthy than others.

In this framework, the move to elective monarchy is exactly the right play, because it probably does mitigate against the possibility of getting a monarch who will decide on a whim to burn the capital to the ground (which isn’t as far as I know a problem real-life monarchies had particular trouble with). But it does kind of leave the whole of the rest of feudalism in place and curiously unexamined.

Basically the end of the show turns the Seven Kingdoms into the Holy Roman Empire. An institution, it should be noted, that was actually ruled by a single dynasty for nearly three centuries. This is … fine. But it’s still just another turn of the wheel.


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So I’ve got an idea for a fantasy TV series.

At its core, it’s a tragic love story between a man who believes himself to be the bastard son of an honourable but naive nobleman and the daughter of the mad king who that honourable noblemen overthrew.

He’s pure-hearted but has to balance his inherent desire to do right against the harsh realities of the world in which he lives. She’s idealistic but driven to the point of ruthlessness, and constantly struggles with her hereditary disposition towards insanity, her supernatural affinity for fire, and the legacy of her abusive history which has trained her to believe that she can achieve greatness only if she follows a path of violence and terror.

They come together and each is immediately drawn to the other’s sense of purpose and honour. He tells her about the terrible existential war they must all fight against the very concept of death itself and she in turn tells him of her vision of a freer, more just world without slavery or tyranny. But as they fight alongside one another we see signs that she may be more her father’s daughter than we ever suspected, and when a mysterious seer tells them that he is not the bastard son of a nobleman, as he thought, but instead the true heir to the kingdom she has been raised to believe is hers by right a wedge is driven between them. This, combined with the sudden deaths of her most trusted advisors ultimately, inevitably, and horrifically leads to her embracing the worst and darkest parts of her nature, burning cities and innocents until at last, the nobleman’s bastard is forced—for the good of all the realm—to kill the woman he loves with his own hands, knowing that it will mean his own death or exile.

I’d want this story to unfold over about eight seasons of television to do it justice.

Oh, and I think I’d really want to make sure the two main characters don’t even meet each other for the first six years.

And I know it’s a cheap shot, but genuinely, this right here is the problem with season eight of Game of Thrones. Yes, it feels rushed. But it doesn’t feel rushed because it was told in thirteen episodes instead of twenty, or because they cut out Fake Aegon and made Euron Greyjoy a shallow dudebro instead of a creepy Cthulhu wizard. It doesn’t feel rushed because Dany left Meereen too soon or we didn’t get Lady Stoneheart. It feels rushed because the story we’re getting the conclusion to in this season is the story that—as I understand it (and again I have no inside information here)—George R. R. Martin told the showrunners was the heart of the series all along, which is the doomed love story between two characters who spent 75% of the show on separate continents. It’s like Romeo and Juliet only the entire Capulet family spends most of the play in China and the balcony scene is at the end of act four.

And yes to an extent I’m showing my romance bias (in that I’m billing this complex multi-viewpoint fantasy epic as “essentially a love story”) but what we’ve just seen in the final episode only really makes sense as the emotional culmination of a story that is fundamentally about Jon and Dany in a way that the show has never really been, and which the books might wind up being depending on what happens in The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring.

Side note: my personal pet theory is that GRRM has actually finished the manuscript for The Winds of Winter but is sitting on it not because of some weird secret deal with HBO, but because he’s spent ten years trying desperately to think of a title that begins with an indefinite article, because otherwise he knows that having the series go “A Game, A Storm, A Clash, A Feast, A Dance, The Winds, A Dream” will haunt him to his grave.

Umm … I should also stress that this is a joke. GRRM has spoken fairly recently about how much he hates “secretly finished the books” theories.

But seriously, I would not be able to cope with having one book out of seven that began with The instead of A.

Where was I? Oh yes, romance bias.

The narrative, structural and emotional climax of this episode—and therefore basically of the entire goddamned series—is when Jon Snow embraces Daenerys, tells her “you are my queen, now and always”, kisses her and then stabs her in the heart. Leaving aside for a moment the yicky gender politics of Dany’s story getting reduced to how sad it is that Jon had to kill his girlfriend (maybe he and Tyrion can form some kind of club) this would be a fucking amazing scene if it was the culmination of an eight year arc centred on this exact relationship. It feels really hollow as the culmination of an eight year arc that was mostly about completely different people, most of whom are now dead.

As I look back on Game of Thrones the more convinced I become that it was always going to be impossible to end effectively, because—appropriately enough for a show that built its reputation on its depiction of a complex five-way battle for a throne—it was really about five different shows intermittently at war with one another. Incidentally I fully admit that I picked the number “five” here purely to rhyme with the war of the five kings, but I’m pretty sure I can get there. Let’s go:

  1. It was an adaptation of the books. I mean obviously.
  2. It was also in a lot of ways a fantasy soap opera. In that it was just about a bunch of characters hooking up, doing slightly random things, and generally having personal drama with no end in sight.
  3. It was the Henriad or if you prefer I Claudius. That is, a vast and epic story covering huge movements in a continent-spanning empire following a sequence of ups and downs across multiple rulers.
  4. It was a heroic fantasy about a nobleman’s bastard and a queen-in-exile.
  5. By the end of the series, it was very much about itself and its own legacy (which is why we get actual characters talking about Gendry rowing and Kit Harrington being short).

Now the thing about these different styles of story is that they have large areas where they are compatible. Mashing up a serious political drama with a soap opera gives you the West Wing, for example, and obviously a heroic fantasy story about kings and queens and kissing and stabbing will always have elements of political drama to it.

The problem, though, is that smooshing up all these disparate narrative styles together introduces tensions. Tensions that are much better resolved in written fiction than in a TV show (although I suspect these tensions are also part of the reason that Martin’s writing has to be so intricate and painstaking). For example, a soap opera really relies on following characters day-to-day, because emotional plots about love and friendship make most sense when they’re unpacked in something close to real time. But stories of dynastic politics and ancient warfare need to take place over a much longer time scale, and it’s very awkward to try to mash the two together. You can see bits of this creeping into the season very early on, like the way that we meet the pregnant Gilly in season 2 and Young Sam is still a babe-in-arms in season 5, despite the fact that Daenerys’ dragons have gone from tiny wyrmlings to city-wrecking monsters, the War of the Five Kings has basically ended, Bran Stark has clearly gone from a ten-year-old into a creepy teen, and the Others have … okay they’ve mostly been standing around looking menacing.

The problems become even more acute come the ending, because you suddenly have to end each of these five distinct stories, and they each demand a different ending reached by a different path. Jon stabbing Dany in the heart is a fitting ending to the heroic fantasy about the nobleman’s bastard and the exiled queen, but we barely saw that story on screen. Bronn getting made Master of Coin for no clear reason is a fine ending for the weird fanservicey show-about-a-show that we saw so much of in seasons seven and eight, but it’s borderline destructive for any sense of historical realism. I can just about see giving him Highgarden because, frankly, he’s kind of right when he points out that all noble families started off with some murdering bastard, but why also put him in charge of the realm’s finances? As a throwaway joke it would be fine, except that the show also needs to provide a fitting ending to the fantasy political drama, and again “transition from hereditary monarchy to elective monarchy and put an unexpected person on the throne” is a perfectly fitting ending for that (and one that has interesting shades of Claudius’ ascension to Emperor at the end of I Claudius) but again it isn’t set up by the foregoing episodes (which were suddenly trying to tell the epic fantasy story almost from a standing start) or paid off by the following scenes (which were trying to tell a meta-story about how much we love the Game of Thrones supporting cast).

Side-note. Very famously, one of GRRM’s inspirations for writing his very detail-oriented, very political fantasy about a believably realised medieval world was getting to the end of Lord of the Rings and finding that Aragorn’s reign is blitzed through with “he ruled wisely”. His comment on this ending is well known to have included the line “what was his tax policy” (I should probably add that this makes more sense in context). And apparently King Bran the Broken’s tax policy is … to put a shiftless self-serving mercenary in charge? I mean it almost works as satire. But only almost.

There is so much that could be said and has been said about the Great Council scene. Like why is Tyrion suddenly calling all the shots despite his being literally in chains? Why is Grey Worm not pushing any kind of agenda here (I mean to be fair, the answer to this might well be “because he was a slave soldier conditioned from birth to blindly follow orders and the person who bought him just died without giving him further instructions” but that assumes you’re following the much darker “Dany the slave owner” interpretation which I don’t think the show supports even given that she goes evil in S8)? Why after eight years of ceaseless war and conflict does everybody just finally agree on a plan proposed by a man many of them hate?

Also, pet peeve alert: Tyrion’s big speech revolves strongly around the importance of stories. And with the possible exception of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series, I have always hated professional storytellers using their role as professional storytellers to tell stories about how important it is to tell stories. It always feel like I got somebody in to redecorate my living room, and they responded by coming into my house and painting “interior designers should be better paid” all over the walls.

Because I love a spurious analogy, the whole “get everybody together and suddenly we all unanimously agree to make Bran king” scene reminded me a whole lot of that one bit in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. There’s a scene where Roger and Bob Hoskins are handcuffed together, and Bob is trying to saw through the chains to get them apart, and then Roger pulls his hand out of the handcuffs so he can help with the sawing. Which prompts the exchange: “wait, you could have done that at any time?” / “Not at any time, only when it was funny.”

That was pretty much how I felt seeing all the Great Lords of Westeros sitting down and resolving their bitter differences with a single five-minute conversation. Like, seriously, guys. You could have done this at any time. These characters don’t know they’re in a series finale. Yes, some truly apocalyptic shit has happened and yes you can make a reasonable case that pretty much everybody here is sort of allied now (the Riverlands and the Vale have strong ties to Sansa, the Crownlands are basically out the picture now King’s Landing has fallen, the Stormlands are run by a blacksmith’s apprentice who is clearly in way over his head, and … also Brienne and Davos are here for no reason?) but come on. If it was this easy to solve your problems you should have solved them years ago. And why is it only the North that asks for independence when Dorne and the Iron Islands have always had a strong tradition of seeking self-rule? Why are the two kingdoms whose primary loyalty is mostly to Sansa specifically (the Vale, the Riverlands) not asking to join Sansa’s kingdom in the North rather than Bran’s in the South? Why is nobody bothered by what seems to add up to a Stark coup?

Also, really petty point: why do they change the name of the Seven Kingdoms to the Six Kingdoms when there weren’t actually Seven Kingdoms in it to begin with? There are actually still eight kingdoms in what’s left of the Seven Kingdoms even without the North (in case you’re counting: The Vale, the Riverlands, the Iron Islands, The Stormlands, the Crownlands, the Rock, the Reach, and Dorne).

Anyway, it is what it is.

I want to address a couple of final points before I (probably) stop talking about this show forever. Firstly, and very quickly I want to address the scene where Brienne updates Jaime’s entry in the White Book. I’ve seen some people argue that this is a problem because it makes her story subservient to his, and I … I don’t actually agree with this. Obviously for a lot of people the show gets no benefit of the doubt on gender issues, especially after its two most prominent female rulers wound up being severally mad and useless (yes there’s Sansa but she was never technically in charge of the North until the show ended) and I completely see where those people are coming from. But I do think it’s doing the scene an injustice to frame it as making Brienne’s story about Jaime’s rather than bringing their stories together in a nuanced and poignant way. Because showing Brienne updating Jaime’s entry in the book actually has two purposes. Most obviously, it shows how she thought and felt about Jaime, and highlights his character growth through the series. But more subtly, it shows that Brienne is now in charge of updating the White Book, which is specifically the duty of the Lord Commander of the Kingsguard. So not only is she paying a final tribute to the man she loved, but she is doing it in a way that signals the completion of her own journey in a way that has nothing to do with him. The Lord Commander of the Kingsguard, let’s not forget, is the embodiment of chivalric honour in the Seven Kingdoms, and Brienne getting that job is a massive deal.

The other thing I wanted to talk about is Bran. I sort of feel that I did the Dark Dany thing to death over the last two posts (although I will point out that—as other people have highlighted in other takes—that the fact her speaking a foreign language is used to signal how evil she’s gone is kind of problematic, even if it is clearly supposed to echo the Nuremberg rallies rather than people talking foreign on the subway, although now I think of it echoing Hitler for cheap villain points is also … not great). But since King Brandon came kind of out of nowhere, I’ve not really touched on it at all and … well … I do gots some opinions.

Like Mad Queen Dany, I do think that King Bran is probably a GRRM inclusion, but there is probably nothing that highlights how different the approaches to the specifically fantastical elements of the story are between the books and the show than its framing of the Three Eyed Raven (in the book the Three Eyed Crow or possibly just The Last Greenseer—there’s no indication that the three-eyed-bird thing is actually a formal title in the book) ascending to the throne of Westeros.

In the TV show, Bran becoming king is almost a meta-level ending. Bran is history. Bran is stories. Bran—with his ability to see anything, to spool forwards and backwards throughout the history of Westeros—is in a very literal sense the viewer. He is all of us.

In the book, Bran is tied to an ancient prehuman supernatural force that has an unknown agenda and might have been dicking with everything in Westeros since before the show began.

I wrote in my review of episode three that, when viewed in a certain light, Bran’s actions were fucking cold. He knew from the outset that the only way to win was to bait out the Night King. He used himself as bait, sure, but he also used the entire assembled army as a misdirect. I mentioned in my original post that they could theoretically have got the same result by sticking Bran in the Godswood, putting Arya in the tree and sending everybody else south to save lives, but that presumes that the Night King wouldn’t have spotted that for a trap, which he might well have done. But this again turns Bran into a Machiavellian sociopath. He willingly sacrificed thousands of people’s lives just so that the Night King wouldn’t suspect that he was being lured into an Arya-shaped trap.

And it gets worse. It’s Bran who confirms to Sam that Jon is the son of Rhaegar and Lyanna and who insists that Jon has to be told right before the battle and right after Sam finds out Dany burned his father and brother. Like in retrospect it looks a lot like Bran was deliberately trying to turn people against Daenerys right from Episode Two.

And it gets even worse. Because remember that Bran had a montage of past and future events in the weirwood tree in S6, and that montage specifically includes a shot of Drogon’s shadow flying over King’s Landing. So there is a good chance that he knew that Dany would burn down King’s Landing. The charitable interpretation of this is that he knew that Dany would destroy King’s Landing if she became queen, and was trying to prevent it by making a last-ditch effort to support Jon. The full balls to the wall evil interpretation of this is that he knew Dany would go evil if she began to suspect people were plotting against her, and deliberately chose to stoke her paranoia at the worst possible moment, sparking a chain of events that would lead to the destruction of King’s Landing, the death of Daenerys, Jon Snow’s disqualification from the succession and the Three Eyed Corvid’s being crowned king of the Seven (well really Six, well really Eight) Kingdoms.

After Tyrion’s impassioned if a little self-indulgent speech about how important stories are, he asks Bran if he would be willing to be king.

Bran’s reply: “Why do you think I came all this way?”

All this way from Winterfell to King’s Landing? Or all this way from a ten year old boy falling from a window to the omniscient wizard-king of the Seven Kingdoms?

There are a fair few people pointing this out already. But if you want to go full tinfoil hat, this goes super deep.

Oh, and I should probably add that I’m going to go off on some really obscure lore stuff here, and I’ve picked up a lot of that from a lovely YouTube channel called In Deep Geek in which a guy with a really soothing voice talks about these kinds of obscure bits of Thrones lore (he’s also very neutral, which I like—a lot of reaction videos are quite angry about this season, and IDG’s recaps tend to be very specifically factual and tied to the deeper worldbuilding stuff).

Anyway Bran is called to the North by his visions of a three-eyed-raven. In the TV show this is … just kind of Max von Sydow, but in the books it’s specifically a man named Brynden Rivers, called Lord Bloodraven, the bastard son of Aegon IV Targaryen (seriously these Targaryens get everywhere) and a terrifyingly efficient spymaster. He was a one-eyed sorcerer, a warg and eventually the Last Greenseer—basically like Littlefinger and Varys rolled into one, except he could also do actual magic. He has been manipulating events in the Seven Kingdoms for decades, he was heavily involved in suppressing the Blackfyre Rebellion, he’s a creepy manipulative magic spy who lives in a tree. He also might have driven Euron Greyjoy mad and turned him into a creepy cthulhu wizard pirate (in the books he’s very specifically called Euron Crow’s Eye and his sigil is a single red eye, and bloodraven has one eye, which is red and … like I say this gets tinfoily).

Add to that the fact that the show makes it fairly clear that Bran isn’t entirely Bran—he’s this sort of weird ancient gestalt consciousness, possibly made up of all the previous three-eyed ravens, one of whom is definitely a manipulative bastard. And many of whom might actually be Children of the Forest—beings that not only aren’t entirely human but which actually fought a war against humanity and indeed by show-canon created the White Walkers as a weapon against the First Men.

Basically there’s a pretty good set of evidence that not only is Bran Stark not Bran Stark, but there’s also pretty good evidence that the Bran-Stark-Entity is a fundamentally bad person, and possibly one implicitly hostile to humanity. Whatever you think of the politics of it, there’s a pretty strong case to be made that Tyrion just talked all the surviving lords of Westeros into crowning a quasi-human gestalt consciousness with profound ties to the very beings that created the White Walkers.

And you know what. It gets squirrelier.

Every single thing that happens in A Game of Thrones ultimately stems from Robert’s Rebellion, which ultimately stems from the “abduction” of Lyanna Stark by Rhaegar Targaryen. This took place because they’d formed some kind of connection at the Tourney at Harrenhall. The tourney at Harrenhall took place during something called the year of the false spring, which is when the harsh winter that erratically plagues Westeros went into abeyance for a year—just long enough for a large tournament to be orchestrated ostensibly by a man named Lord Whent but probably actually by Rhaegar Targaryen—before Winter came back in earnest. There’s a reasonable fan theory that some kind of supernatural force with the power to see the future and control the seasons was dicking with the weather specifically so that this tournament could come about, so that Rhaegar could meet Lyanna, so that they could run off together, so the war could happen so… something.

Throw on top of that the fairly well respected fan theory that Lyanna Stark originally came to Rhaegar’s attention because she disguised herself as a man and entered the tournament as “the Knight of the Laughing Tree” in order to avenge one of her father’s  bannermen, who had been badly beaten by some squires, and that the bannerman in question was Howland Reed, whose son is Jojen Reed who accompanies Bran on his journey beyond the wall, and whose family it is strongly hinted has hereditary greensight (having greensight, confusingly, being a slightly distinct set of powers from being a greenseer) and may therefore also have been manipulated into position by Bloodraven, or by some other ancient power of the Old Gods and the North. And I should probably break that sentence up, but … well … I think we’re squarely in long run-on sentence territory here.

Anyway, all this means it is possible that every single thing that happened in A Game of Thrones, going back well before the start of the first book or first episode, was actually part of an elaborate supernatural scheme designed to undo the centuries-ancient injustices perpetrated against the Children of the Forest by manipulating the Seven Kingdoms into a chaotic civil war followed by an apocalyptic battle between actual ice and fire, all of which was prodded through Bran’s visions (sent by some source we never truly learn the nature of) into an outcome that devastated the human kingdoms of Westeros and led inexorably to his appointment as king. A king, it seems reasonable to assume, who will rule in accordance with the mysterious visions that he is being sent by an ancient and mystical prehuman force.

Tl;dr—the whole eight-season arc, and all of its backstory, might be part of a millennia ancient battle fought by the primordial spirits of the land itself against the invading tide of humanity.

Which … well first of all that might be totally wrong. And as a reading it’s only lightly supported by show canon (while also not, if I’m honest, being especially supported by book canon, and occasionally involving cherrypicking from the two) but I think it does highlight something interesting and important about fantasy fiction, and especially about how fantasy fiction translates to television.

The Dark Bran theory, along with all the various theories about Azor Ahai, the Faceless Men, the Doom of Valyria, the Lord of Light, Maggy the Frog, Wargs, direwolves, the secret origins of dragons and their ties to the blood of old Valyria, brindled men and eyeless wyrms rely on an attitude to fantasy fiction which it’s very easy to forget is extremely uncommon outside of habitual genre readers.

There’s a line in one of the NYT articles about the Game of Thrones finale which made me realise how disparate attitudes to this kind of thing are amongst fans. It ran as follows:

            This was a Shakespearean saga about power, blood and loyalty, we once told our skeptical, fantasy-averse friends. Not some show about dragons and wizards.

            And then in its final episode, a dragon committed the story’s most potent symbolic act and a wizard was put in charge.

 Which … is a bit dismissive, but it is reflective of the feelings of a surprising number of people. And the thing is I’ve always kind of known that there are large segments of the public for whom fantasy elements are a turnoff, but I’ve never quite realised how stark the difference is between the turn-off crowd and the turn-on crowd until I started looking at critical responses to A Game of Thrones. Because for every person who’s embarrassed that a wizard wound up being king of Westeros, there’s somebody who’s narked that they didn’t go into more detail about how exactly the weirwood network worked. For everybody who’s upset that the Iron Throne was destroyed by a giant fire-breathing lizard, there’s somebody who’s upset that the show didn’t sufficiently engage with the question of how that fire-breathing lizard was connected to the Targaryens or explore the question of whether dragons might be the result of Valyrian blood magic combining humans, wyverns and the firewyrms that tunnel beneath the fourteen flames.

 Because my writing and my reading both hop around between genres, I think I might be more aware than many of how much of an acquired skill reading in a genre is. Some time last year I finally got around to reading Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series (I know, I know, what have I been doing with my time?) and it genuinely took me a while to gearshift back into fantasy mode and remind myself that if I wanted to have any hope of understanding what was going on I had to really pay attention to how Allomancy works. And that was a shift I could make fairly easily, because I am a giant fucking nerd and Sanderson’s mathematically elegant system of magical metals (each pushing or pulling on either the internal or external manifestation of some fundamental principle, and forming pairs containing one pure metal and one alloy) is exactly the kind of thing I enjoy thinking about. But taking a step back it’s also fairly easy for me to realise quite how many people there must be for whom the idea of what-a-particular-sort-of-person-can-do-by-swallowing-a-particular-bit-of-metal being a fundamental aspect of your enjoyment of a story is wholly bizarre and alien.

 I said in one of my early GoTS8 posts that Benioff and Weiss were seen in some quarters as being almost ashamed of their show’s fantasy elements, and that NYT article gave me a little glimpse into why they might be acting like that. A Song of Ice and Fire is from a particular school of fantasy that invites you not just to experience the story but to live in it, to speculate about what R’hllor really wants, to wonder what the precise limitations on the powers of the Faceless Men are, to think in detail about prophecies that are scattered across dozens of chapters across multiple books and to scour histories and visions for hints of secret truths and revelations.

 I am not even joking when I say that there are fan theories about Cersei’s eventual fate in the books that hinge on the question of whether a particular term in High Valyrian is grammatically gendered or not.

 To your average TV viewer (and I very much don’t mean that as a pejorative term, as I say all genre reading is acquired), this is a completely bizarre way of consuming a story. So of course the TV show never dove deep into Bran’s greenseer powers or the possibility that his ascension to the throne could be the culmination of a secret plot by the Children of the Forest. And of course they had defeating the White Walkers boil down to “kill the leader and they all die” because for most people doing lengthy research into the one weakness of an otherwise unstoppable enemy and relating it to the mytho-history of its creation and the motivations of the transmortal mystical force that drives it is … like … the opposite of compelling television.

 Looking back, I’ll repeat what I’ve said several time throughout these posts (although perhaps not often enough). The Game of Thrones TV show is a remarkable achievement. It wasn’t perfect by any means, but it could never be perfect. In fact perhaps in its later seasons it could never even be good because it reached the point where it really was trying to do something literally impossible—trying to wrap up a dozen different stories at once, all of them subtly different in tone and style and even to some extent genre, all requiring different types of ending and all while trying to appeal to an audience half of whom really want to know more about dragon-lore and the internal politics of the Citadel and the other half of whom really want a traditionally paced story with character beats and an emotional payoff and are just a little bit embarrassed to be watching a show with dragons in it.

 It didn’t always succeed, but you can make a reasonable case that even when it failed, it failed magnificently.

 And now its watch is ended.

 Valar Morghulis.



I didn’t get around to writing a full post about Russian Doll, but my title for that post I didn’t write was going to be the infinite potential of episode six. Because basically I liked the series, but I found the ending a bit of a letdown, and then I realised that the reason I found the ending a bit of a letdown was because nothing could possibly have lived up to the infinite potential of episode six—that point in the eight-to-ten part miniseries where it has confidently established its premise and you’re seeing clearly for the first time all the thousands of possible fascinating places it could go to.

Then it goes to one of them, and no matter how good it’s been, you’re always slightly pissed at the wasted potential of the others.

The problem with Game of Thrones was always going to be that it spent the best part of a decade living in the infinite potential of episode six, and no ending would ever live up to everything that could have been. And of course there absolutely were abrupt changes in the style of the show between series six and seven—it got a whole lot less detail-oriented and a whole lot pacier, and I very much had mixed feelings about this because on the one hand it did make things a lot less plausible but on the other hand I was really pleased that they were finally moving in the direction of wrapping things up. Because while at the start of the show the lavish, leisurely pace was something you could genuinely luxuriate in, there came a point where I’d watch a season when it released on DVD or whatever streaming service I was using and just be really impatient for it to start … going somewhere. Which it … kind of didn’t for a long time.

I’ve not really gone back to S7 since it first broadcast and what’s weird about it in light of Season 8 is that it feels at once rushed and still … kind of full of filler. In retrospect, it sort of feels that only two things really matter at the end of this show: the defeat of the Night King and Dany’s descent into the role of Mad Queen. Everything else is just so much groundwork.

Given which … really very little of S7 actually contributed to that goal. I mean neither did much else that has happened, but given how rushed it feels, it’s noticeable that it spends so much time setting up new things that go nowhere. Or perhaps a better way to put it is that the characters spend a lot of time doing things that don’t actually especially advance their goals but which do advance the plot in quite large and abstract ways, mostly involving things that happen by accident while they’re taking the actions that don’t advance their goals.

The most obvious example of this is the plan to go north of the wall and capture a White Walker in order to convince Cersei to join the fight against the army of the dead. This takes up a significant chunk of the season between its proposal in episode 5, the journey itself in episode 6 and the parley with Cersei in episode 7 (yes, that’s only three episodes, but three out of seven is more than 40% of the season). This winds up being extremely important for advancing the plot but for reasons that are utterly tangential to the protagonists’ stated goals in going beyond the wall in the first place. It’s on this journey that they find out killing a White Walker destroys all the wights it raised, and Beric Dondarrion speculates (correctly, but with no evidence) that destroying the Night King will destroy the entire army of the dead, but they weren’t going north to look for information about how to destroy the army of the dead, they were going north to capture a wight to take to King’s Landing to prove to Cersei that the undead army was real. Which they fail to do. And of course this mission leads directly to the death of Viserion, which leads to the Night King getting a dragon, which leads to the wall falling, so this plan does actually move the White Walker plot forward in a substantial way, but that plot movement has nothing to do with what Jon et al are trying to achieve.

Similarly they do make an effort to find a way to destroy the army of the dead in this season—by sending Sam to Oldtown—but this leads to absolutely no new information about the problem at hand, but does lead to Gilly of all people finding a crucial piece of evidence about Jon Snow’s parentage. So again, the plot payoff is totally unrelated to the thing that’s meant to be happening. And by the way we’ve not really had much payoff from Jon turning out to be Aegon Targaryen yet either except that it made Dany go a bit madder.

The more I think about it, the more I think that being “rushed” isn’t the real problem with the ending of this series. The problem is that there’s a fundamental disconnect between the stories that have been set up in the first six seasons and the stories that need to be paid off in the final two. People complain that the Night King got eight seasons of buildup and was then taken out in a single episode, but I don’t actually think that’s the problem. The problem is that the Night King didn’t have any real buildup at all—he had eight seasons of foreshadowing but there was never any real organic movement on his plotline. By the start of season seven we know virtually nothing about the White Walkers that we didn’t know in literally the first episode—they’re kind of scary and they raise the dead. I mean yes there was the Night King himself, and the implication that they were created by the Children of the Forest as a weapon in their wars against the First Men when they arrived in Westeros and started cutting down the weirwoods, but (a) that’s not a huge amount for six years of what’s supposed to be a major plotline and (b) at least some of what I just said about the Children of the Forest is based on book canon and YouTube videos.

Dany’s psychological degeneration is a similar issue. It’s basically necessary for the story that she be a sympathetic character right up until she goes evil, because she’s so disconnected from the rest of the plot that if she wasn’t somebody we could properly root for we’d get deeply bored of her chapters. But again, this means that her eventual turn in season eight can only ever be foreshadowed rather than actually built up to. I argued in my last post about this series that she’s been basically a terrible person going all the way back to season one, but there’s not really been any escalation in that (when people argued prior to S8E5 that Dany was going full Mad Queen, others counter-argued quite reasonably that the worst thing she’d done recently was execute some people—the flaw in Dany’s arc here is really that the worst thing she does is when she crucifies people in season four, but that’s very early on and she kind of gets better after that not worse).

Complaints about the ending of Game of Thrones tend to come in two flavours, which can broadly be summed up as:

  • This sucks because it isn’t what GRRM intended, Dany will stay good and the final battle will be against the Night King, but Beinoff and Weiss changed it because they’re hacks.
  • This sucks because while it is what GRRM intended, the show is doing it wrong because Beinoff and Weiss are hacks, and the books will do it much better.

I don’t think either of these criticisms are correct or fair. I do think that the overall shape of the ending of the series roughly matches the overall shape of the ending that the books will eventually have. I don’t think Arya will kill the Night King in the books—the showrunners basically said that was their call—or that there will even necessarily be a Night King, but I’d be amazed if the book series didn’t end with the threat of the White Walkers being wrapped up fairly early and Dark Daenerys being the final villain. And I’m not necessarily suggesting that the books won’t ultimately bring things to a more natural-feeling conclusion, but I suspect that the problems B&W are having wrapping things up effectively stem less from their being talentless greedy hacks who don’t care about the source material as from structural elements of the story that Martin is clearly also having to deal with.

Specifically, the issue seems to me to be that the ending of this story is so radically different from the beginning that it isn’t at all clear how anybody could ever make the two join up in a satisfactory way. Somehow the story needed to transition from a detailed political drama about human motivations and petty rivalries spiralling out of control and unleashing chaos into a mythic supernatural conflict grounded in prophecy and destiny, and then finally into an epic and tragic struggle between doomed lovers torn apart by fate and hereditary insanity.

Those are three completely different stories, they don’t entirely fit in the same series, and there’s no real way to transition from one to another without alienating people who were on board with the first type of story but not at all at home for the second (when I read the books, for example, I was well up for the politics but not especially interested in all the Azor Ahai, Prince Who Was Promised stuff, but by contrast there are a bunch of people who freaking loved the Azor Ahai stuff and feel understandably cheated that it went nowhere in the show). It’s like trying to combine CasablancaSaving Private Ryan and Fantastic Beasts II, the Crimes of Grindelwald into one gigantic mega-movie—sure they’re all technically taking place at around the same time and, when you think about it, sort of in the same setting, but they don’t quite fit together.

I increasingly think Jon and Dany’s romance is a good example of this (and look, I actually got around to referencing something specifically from season seven in my season seven post, go me). A lot of people (including me, in my post on this subject last year) have complained that Jon and Dany have zero chemistry, which in hindsight I think is a little unfair. Kit Harrington and Emilia Clarke are both talented actors, but they’re working against a lot of baggage that makes it very difficult for their relationship to pop onscreen.

Most obviously, there’s the comparison to Jon’s relationship with Ygritte. I’ve already made the joke about Kit Harrington and Rose Leslie having so much chemistry that they actually got married in real life, but there’s a serious point to be made here—Jon/Dany doesn’t just suffer in comparison to Jon/Ygritte because Jon/Dany is lacking, it suffers because Jon/Ygritte was unusually strong, even by the standards of convincing TV romances.

And of course once again, a lot of people also insist that J/Y is better than J/D is because Jon/Ygritte was written by George R. R. Martin, while Jon/Dany was written by Benioff & Weiss who are bad hacks who can’t write. Which again I think is unfair. I’m not denying that J/Y is well written and well presented (in both the books and TV show), but I think it’s important to remember that Ygritte is only in the books as a romantic interest for Jon, and it’s much easier to write a romance between two characters when one of them has been specifically designed to be romantically interesting to the other than it is when both of those characters have been independently established for six years of television or a series of books longer than the bible. Ygritte’s attraction to Jon could never have felt out of character for her, because prior to meeting Jon she literally doesn’t exist, and Jon’s attraction to Ygritte could never have felt implausible because she’s there for him to be attracted to. By contrast, making it feel natural that Jon and Dany—two characters who we have known for the best part of a decade but who have known each other for eight minutes—would fall so epically in love that they both make a series of terrible life-ruining mistakes for each other (Dany abandoning her ambitions to fight somebody else’s war for a people who don’t believe in her, Jon signing up to be complicit in a war crime) is a much bigger ask. The problem isn’t that it’s “rushed” the problem is that doing it in a way that isn’t rushed would take not just a few extra episodes but a few extra seasons. Seasons that would need to be justified by the inclusion of whole extra subplots, which would only exacerbate the problem of people feeling cheated when those plots, once again, had no relation to the main storyline of beating the White Walkers and Dany going Mad Queen.

To put it another way, the “more seasons/episodes would fix everything” argument is grounded in the infinite potential of episode six. We look at the current ending, and we see that it feels unsatisfying and we think to ourselves “if they’d just let these last two seasons be ten episodes they could have done this so much better”. But that’s because we aren’t imagining real episodes, we’re imagining hypothetical episodes that nebulously solve problems and improve things without actually having to think through the details of what those episodes would actually involve.

As an example, a lot of people think that Daenerys’ final turn would have been more plausible if they’d kept the Young Griff plotline, in which Varys suddenly reveals out of nowhere that he’s been grooming this guy to be the perfect king since day one, and he invades Dragonstone with the Golden Company claiming to be Aegon Targaryen. The current internet consensus (there isn’t really a consensus, but more than one person has said it, which is as close to canon as these things come) seems to be that this would mean that instead of Dany fighting Cersei for control of King’s Landing she’d be fighting Aegon, who the people of Westeros would love on account of how Varys trained him to be this brilliant king, and this will make her whole “the people love you but they don’t love me” arc more plausible, so it will make total sense when she burns down King’s Landing. I’ve even seen people who thought the whole “fake Aegon” thing just seemed like an unnecessary complication and unhelpful padding when it first came out in A Dance with Dragons saying that they now see in retrospect why it’s actually a vital part of the series’ dramatic arc.

Now I’m not going to make any judgements about how plausible this arc will wind up being in the books. I suspect it will work better than it does in the show because getting Dany’s PoV will really help and there will be more space to explore how it all works. But I’m deeply sceptical that having some guy pretending to be Aegon Targaryen on the throne rather than Cersei would be the magic bullet for the show that people are suggesting it would be. Most notably, the effect that people seem to think Fake Aegon is necessary for (having Dany fighting a relatively united Westeros under an at least plausibly popular monarch so that it makes sense for her to be seen as a foreign invader and to resent it) could just as easily have been achieved by cutting out the bit where Cersei blows up the Sept of Baelor, and having Margaery and Tommen ruling when Dany arrives, without the need to introduce yet another major character viewpoint well past the halfway point. Dany’s turning evil doesn’t seem implausible because she’s fighting the wrong enemy, it seems implausible because they’ve pushed “Dany is a truly good person” so hard for so long, even while they’ve also shown her behaving tyrannically.

The Season Seven sequence which most typifies this issue is the bit about halfway through where Jon and Davos talk to Missandei about Daenerys and she gives them the “she is the queen we chose” speech. And … boy does that not look good in retrospect. I mean people have pointed out that Jorah Mormont’s arc is pretty dark when you realise how much shit he went through for Daenerys, right down to getting his redemptive dying-for-the-woman-he-loves sequence, only for it to turn out two episodes later that letting her die would have been unambiguously better for everybody. It’s even worse for Missandei, who spends five seasons having Dany’s back in a really problematic way, then dies in chains, only for Dany to turn out to be nothing like Missandei thought—and constantly told other people—she was.

And this is … like … this is not okay. Because while it’s tragic in a vacuum, the show has really traded on the authenticity points which Dany gets from having people of colour and former slaves on her side. Missandei and Grey Worm are what allow Daenerys in seasons three through six to read not merely as a self-styled liberator but as definitely being an actual liberator. Missandei is a pretty strong contender (alongside Brienne and possibly nobody else) for the only uncomplicatedly good person in the entire series. And she truly, passionately, believes in Daenerys. And yes you could do a revisionist or deconstructionist reading where she basically has stockholm syndrome, but firstly that’s really problematic because it denies the agency of the only woman of colour on the show and secondly it’s just … I mean it’s clearly not how it’s supposed to come across. Missandei constantly stumps for Daenerys and we are never invited to even consider the possibility that she has been deceived.

The other crap-we-have-to-wrap-this-up plotline that gets a lot of flak in season seven is the whole thing with Arya and Sansa in Winterfell. And … I actually liked it a lot more on rewatching right up until the end. Unlike, I think, a lot of people, I found it fairly plausible that Arya and Sansa would each have difficulty recognising that the other had changed so much since they were children—they’re neither of them even remotely the same person they were in season one, and there’s not really any reason for them to trust each other other than the fact that they’re family. I mean for fuck’s sake, Arya literally has a bag full of peeled faces in her room, that is not the sort of thing that inspires trust. I don’t even particularly think Littlefinger was wasted; although he’s a cool character I think it can be far too easy to lean on the “scheming character who does seemingly random things for inscrutable motives” plot device. It always seemed fairly clear to me that he never really had a plan per se (like the Cylons in Battlestar Galactica). The “Chaos is a Ladder” speech was cool, but it was practically the show hanging a giant lampshade on the fact that Littlefinger’s actions were always more about creating surprising plot twists than any coherent attempt to pursue his own self interest in a meaningful way (yes he winds up Lord of the Vale, but he does that by the cunning masterstroke of marrying a woman who has always wanted to marry him, he didn’t need to plunge a continent into war and murder a king first). I just really wish that the show hadn’t been so focused on providing surprising twists and revelations that it bent the plotline to breaking point just to preserve the wholly absurd courtroom scene where they all pretend Arya is on trial when really Littlefinger is. I mean why? Why? The reveal comes after two sentences, and the whole thing would have worked fine if we’d just seen on camera the point at which the girls decide to trust each other, rather than having them continue to try to fake out the audience even in private.

And that is … perilously close to being all I have to say about Season 7 of Game of Thrones. It was a short season, and many of the complaints that were made about it at the time (rushed storytelling, lack of attention to detail, the goddamned supersonic raven thing in Beyond the Wall which is probably the worst episode in the history of the series) seem a little redundant now Season 8 is out and is … even more so in every regard. And so many of the other plotlines seem pointless—Dany takes Casterly Rock but the Lannisters have abandoned it (okay, the gold mines are tapped out, but castles have strategic value, they’re not just a resource node in an RTS), Olenna Tyrell gets to be Queen of Shade one last time, Drogon fries the Tarlys. But almost everything we see is either faking out something that doesn’t happen (the Golden Company being a threat to Dany’s army, Cersei sending her troops north, Sansa and Arya falling out) or hinting obliquely at something that does (Bran giving Arya the dagger, Dany burningating prisoners, Varys beginning to alienate Dany), but there’s no possible way to know which is which and were it not for the fact that we knew they were working from a nearly-thirty-year-old outline, no especial reason to trust that the showrunners weren’t deciding which plot threads were real and which were fake more or less on the fly.

The more I think about it, the more I think the real issue here isn’t so much “bad writing” (a diagnosis that makes me flinch every time I see it—people are always quick to diagnose it and seldom clear about what they actually mean) or “rushed storytelling” as an increasing fixation on surprise to the extent of all else. People are complaining that nothing was set up, but the truth is that everything was set up, including a bunch of things that didn’t happen. It was absolutely set up that Arya would kill the Night King, and that Jon would. And that Dany would. And that Bran would. It was set up that Arya and Sansa would turn on each other. And that they would support each other. It was set up that Daenerys would go mad, and that she would be a truly just ruler who had the clear-eyed and sincere support of society’s most vulnerable and would be opposed only by nativists, racists and reactionaries. It was set up that the White Walkers were a generic zombie army with a single weakness, a metaphor for climate change, and misunderstood woobies who Never Asked For This. It was set up for the prophecies to matter, and for prophecy to be the proverbial sword without a hilt.

Part of the problem here is the show feeling forced to keep fans guessing to keep the hype up to keep ratings up (and sure they’re getting a lot of hate, but the old saying about the existence or otherwise of bad publicity has a lot of truth to it). Part of the problem is that Martin created a story so epic, complex, sweeping and compelling that it’s borderline impossible for anybody to bring to a satisfying conclusion, especially while also fulfilling the demands of a network television show.

But an enormous part of the problem is the infinite potential of episode six. The last two seasons of Game of Thrones were disappointing for a lot of people. But when you’re comparing what you actually got to all the things you could possibly have had, how could they ever be anything else?


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