No Spoiler Reviews: Cobra Kai

Cobra Kai has no right to exist, let alone be good.

It’s a spin-off of a move franchise whose third installment limped out of theaters thirty years ago. It’s centered on the villains of those movies. And because Pat Morita has passed on (RIP), it can’t include most people’s favorite character.

How did this happen? Who greenlit this? Who had the audacity to even suggest it?

And how the hell is it this friggin’ good?

Because seriously, if you put the first two seasons of The Mandalorian up against the first two seasons of Cobra Kai, Cobra Kai is the better show, hands down. It’s got funnier lines, better acting, and better characters.

Cobra Kai’s surprisingly deep, willing to show us good and bad sides of all the characters. As a result, for its first two seasons, there’s no real villain. There’s conflict, sure, and tension, hell yes, but you can sympathize with everyone. Root for everyone. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a TV show where I liked every character, but Cobra Kai pulls it off.

…for two seasons. The third season drops the “no villain” posture, and switches genres entirely. From a grounded, complex show, exploring the adult lives of Johnny Lawrence and Daniel LaRusso while also examining how their rivalry impacts their kids’ lives, Cobra Kai switches over to a YA love-triangle plot in a universe with martial-arts movie logic. Which is fine, as things go, but isn’t nearly as interesting, and is a jarring switch, after two seasons of being a rather different show. You’ll want to see all three seasons (season two ends on a bit of a cliffhanger), but be prepared for the tonal shift.

Still, if you liked the Karate Kid movies, I highly recommend Cobra Kai. It’s clearly made by people who love those movies, who could recite them line by line, because of the way they weave the backstory from the trilogy into the plot of the show. They even manage to make good plot fodder out of the third movie, which is something I didn’t think was possible!

They took their love, and built this beautiful show, that for its first two seasons stomps everything else I’ve seen recently.

The Mandalorian: Season 2 Review

Ye gods, it has been hard for me to avoid spoilers for Mandalorian Season 2. Even though I deliberately avoided every article, every review, still things would slide by on my Twitter feed, and then boom spoiled.

So two of the “biggest” reveals — well, okay, three — were basically spoiled for me before I even started rewatching Season One.

I…well, I hate that, so I’m going to be very careful here. The first part of my review will be completely spoiler-free, promise.

The second part will have spoilers, but I’ll label it in huge header-style letters first, so if you haven’t seen Season Two yet, you can stop before you get there.

Ready?

Let’s go.

Non-Spoiler Review

Season Two is a huge improvement on Season One.

In Season One, the episodes were very much disconnected, both tonally and plot-wise. It felt like the kind of show that a network that 20 years ago would have been shown out of order on a network, because they thought no one would notice.

Season Two finally gets its plot arc together. Each episode flows naturally from the last, and builds on it, till the final episode feels inevitable, instead of weirdly tacked-on.

As a result, every single part of the writing is stronger. The dialog is better, because it has a purpose. The individual plots are better, because they’re not mucking about, they’re building to a conclusion. And we get to see more character moments from Mando, learning more about him, and how he changes over the course of the Season.

Basically, everything that was missing from Season One is finally in place.

And thankfully, they don’t throw out the elements from Season One that mostly worked. They revise them a little, perhaps, but amidst the new cameos and characters, it felt good to see them tying into locations and events from Season One. It made the whole thing seem more grounded, more real.

So what’s not to like?

Well, I’ll save the details for the spoiler section, but basically they still don’t know what to do with Moff Gideon other than have him be SO EVIL, LIKE REALLY EVIL, HE WEARS BLACK AND EVERYTHING CAN’T YOU SEE HE’S EVIL?!!

And they can’t seem to think of a good name for something Imperial other than to call it “Dark,” which makes me think they drank the Dark Kool-Aid in their Dark Treehouse while wearing their Dark Hat (and listening to Dark Music) just a little too much. It’s not scary at this point, it just sounds uncreative (and a little racist, to be honest).

Finally, after all the buildup I heard online about the last episode, it was a complete and total letdown. Plot-wise, character-wise, and ending-wise. Just meh.

SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

This next part of the review has spoilers! If you don’t want ’em, skip out now. I’m going to give you till the count of 3.

1…

2….

3.

“Dark” Troopers? Seriously? That was the best name they could come up with? The scariest name?

And what’s scary about them? They have better armor than stormtroopers, they’re kind of strong? I mean, really, how are they a frightening force?

They’re obviously there so that the only thing that can rescue our heroes from them is a Jedi. Which is…so frustrating, and feels like a lost of wasted potential.

Ditto Moff Gideon. “I’m done with the Child, you can have him”? And then Mando just believes him? Mando, who a few episode earlier we saw shoot an enemy that claimed to be disarming? Mando, who we’ve seen call in a New Republic hit on an entire base? That Mando?

I don’t buy it, not one bit.

I feel sorry for Moff Gideon. They have him strutting around in that ridiculous armor, which he has no business wearing in the first place, spouting villain dialog which goes nowhere and does nothing.

Dear god, I just remembered: “Dark Saber.” Jesus Wept. What a horrible name for a MacGuffin.

And then Luke shows up, and he doesn’t sit down to chat, doesn’t explain anything, just this dude in black comes up and says “Give me the child,” and Mando just hands him over, no problem.

Hahaha, nope.

They’ve taken the ship. Why not have Luke stay for a bit? Discuss his plans? Get to know the Child?

Oh, it’s because de-aging CGI is expensive? Well, gosh, maybe they should have had some other Jedi come in and take the Child.

Like, oh….How about Qi’Ra? No computer-based aging required. We know she was working with Darth Maul, so her being a trained Sith is possible. And she can pretend to be a good person, at first, who’s willing to take the Child.

But having someone actually evil, actually, interestingly evil, take the Child gives us a plot engine for Season 3, and a cliffhanger for all of us who’ve seen Solo.

Instead, Luke’s flown in, taken the Child, end of story. What’s left to do?

Oh, the whole rule over Mandalore thing? That’s so obviously a fake problem, I don’t…I don’t really care.

I might care, if Mando had to try to protect the Child while getting involved in a plan to retake Mandalore and put what’s-her-name on the throne. That’d be interesting.

But that ship’s sailed, hasn’t it?

So for me, the final episode was just a big letdown. Going out with not a bang, not even a whimper, but more of a sigh.

I think the first five episodes of the Season are fantastic. But things start to wobble in Episode Six (it was good to see Boba Fett kicking ass, sure, but did Mando really need to throw himself at that force field three effing times?), and then completely come apart in the finale.

I don’t know if I’ll watch a Season Three. Having established their show once, and fixed it the second time, then thrown it all away, what’s there to draw me back?

The Mandalorian: Season One Rewatch

In preparation for diving into Season Two, I’ve been rewatching The Mandalorian’s first season. And there’s a lot of things I’m noticing, good and bad, about the series that I didn’t pick up on before.

Warning: Slight spoilers for Season One below.

The Good

I still love the decision they made to set it just after the original films. Both aesthetically, because it lets them recreate the look of those movies (which I’m still a sucker for), and story-wise, because it gives them a lot of room to play, with the Empire crumbling (but not gone) and the New Republic still finding its feet (along with everyone else). Lots of possibilities.

And seeing characters that got short shift in the originals, like the IG unit and the Ugnaught, finally get their due as fully realized people, warms the heart of this old fanboy.

The special effects are simply spectacular. You can tell they poured a lot of money and time into them. And it’s not just The Child, either; the ships, the creatures, everything looks as good as (or better) than anything made for the movies.

Ditto the music. I love the theme: So sparse but memorable, really sets the Western tone for the series. They keep the music low-key or gone for most of the show, which I appreciate. It’s there to heighten some moments, but otherwise they know they don’t need it.

And sometimes — not often enough, but sometimes — the dialog crackles. I think the scene between the two speeder troopers at the open of Episode Eight is one of the funniest, most re-watchable scenes in a modern Star Wars production.

The Bad

Far too often, though, the dialog is clunky. There’s too many times where characters point out something completely obvious, like when they reach the lava river in Episode Eight and someone actually says “That’s a river of lava.”

Or the dialog simply makes no sense at all. Like when The Child approaches Greef, hand out, intending to heal him, and Greef cries out “It’s going to eat me!” Which is laughably bad. Nothing Greef’s seen in his time with The Child could make him think that tiny thing was going to try to eat him. It’s just ridiculous.

Often they recap something that the audience has heard already, sometimes twice. And I don’t mean the whole “I don’t take off my mask thing,” which they obsess over for some reason. I mean actual plot recaps they have two characters give each other after we (the audience) have just seen it happen in that same episode. There’s a scene in Episode Seven where Cara and The Mandalorian recap not just the situation he’s in (which we know because we saw him get it in) but also why he brought her along (which we know because we saw him recruit her).

It’s not just the fact that these recaps don’t make any sense in-story (because they’re often between characters that know the things they’re rehashing). They’re also wasted time, in a show that doesn’t have time to waste (only 8 episodes for season one, each only about 30 minutes long).

Setting aside the dialog, I also wonder if The Mandalorian changes at all over the course of the season? His circumstances change, sure, but he starts out a pragmatically ruthless, honor-among-thieves type, and ends the season as…a pragmatically ruthless, honor-among-thieves type. There’s no grand moment when he realizes something about himself that he wants to change, and makes a conscious decision to change it. The droid IG-11 has more of a character arc then he does!

The Ugly

There’s so many parts of this season that make me cringe.

Basically all of Episode Six (“The Prisoner”). For that episode to work at all, we need the other crew members to look and feel like a tight-knit group, moving and working like a well-oiled machine. That way, when they betray Mando, we’ll actually be worried about him being able to take them down. As it is, he’s the only member of the crew to display any competence at all, so it’s no surprise when he comes out on top.

The less said about Xi’an’s “I’m a bad girl and I’m into you, Mando” shtick, the better.

They really obsess over his helmet wearing. Too much. In a galaxy filled with all kinds of intelligent creatures, from Calamari to Tusken to Jawas, is it really so odd for someone to always wear a helmet? Re-watching it, I was struck by how much I really don’t care what Mando’s face looks like. I care about other things, like “Why did you leave The Child alone in an empty ship in the middle of Mos Eisley?”

And the whole sequence with Moff Gideon…Ooof. Where to begin.

Let’s start with why he doesn’t already know the troopers have The Child? The speeder guards obviously know The Child’s important. They have working comms. Why don’t they just tell Gideon? Because that’d eliminate the need for his “I’ll keep them alive to drag out this episode” speech.

Then he commits the sin of actually saying they know what the e-web thingy is, and then goes on to explain it to them anyway.

Gives them “till nightfall” to talk things over, as if he cares about their lives…When, if he did care about them, he wouldn’t have sprayed blaster shots into the bar in the first place.

It’s all such mustache-twirling villain stuff, I can’t help but roll my eyes.

Which is a shame, because the actor, and the character, is fantastic. An Imperial Moff, clinging to some semblance of control in his corner of space, defying the fall of the Empire. Great stuff.

I just wish they gave him something to do other than posture and bluster. Oh, and pilot a Tie-Fighter, something an administrator who came up in the intelligence services has no business doing. It’s kind of like if the Governor of Montana used to be in the CIA in the 1970’s but then decided to hop into an F-22 for funsies. Just…why??

Conclusion

On first watch, I felt The Mandalorian was a solid B-movie in TV show form, a nice little Western story told on the edges of the Star Wars universe.

After re-watching it, I still think that, but I’m more frustrated than before at the mistakes the series makes.

It’s hard not to compare it to Firefly, another Western-in-Space story that had a pulpy feel. The Mandalorian doesn’t come off well in that comparison: It stumbles out of the gate, with clunky dialog and “villains” that don’t act in ways that make sense.

Here’s hoping Season Two is better!

An Outline for The Boys, Season Two

I haven’t truly binged-watched a show in a long time. Yes, even with the epidemic, I’m more often working or doing chores than watching something on streaming.

But The Boys is so irreverently good, so twistedly watchable, that I started it on Friday and spend Saturday finishing it off.

There’s currently only one season, and when the last episode was over, I thought: Well, they just blew everything we knew up. Where could they go from here? Could a Season Two be even close to as good as this?

Dear Reader, I think it can.

Below is my outline for a Season Two.

Major Spoilers for the The Boys Season One follows

Butcher

Butcher starts Season Two with everything he’s built his life on for eight years suddenly knocked out from under him. His wife’s alive, she’s been raising the kid she had with Homelander, and she’s never, not once, tried to contact him about it or tell him the truth.

He’s going to struggle to come to grips with that. He’ll be in denial at first, and then angry when his ex-wife (and is she even his ex?) lays it all out for him. There’ll be fights. He might try to move in with them — insisting on a husband’s prerogative — he might try to “rescue” Becca (which she’ll resist, confusing him more).

He might even try another attempt on Homelander’s life, using his new family as bait.

All of these efforts, this raging at the new reality, will fail.

Finally, at the end of the last fight with his ex-wife, when the bleak truth has settled in, he’ll remember something Homelander dropped at the end of Season One, when he was talking to Stillwell (who was all tied up with explosives at the time): The name of the scientist who created Homelander.

Butcher will shift gears at that point, away from Becca, and towards a new goal: To track down this scientist, and guilt him into making a formula to undo his greatest mistake. Something that neutralizes the effects of Compound V, making Supes normal again.

Homelander and Becca and the Kid

Meanwhile, Homelander has been trying to play house with Becca and his son.

But he’s bad at it. Incredibly bad at it. Becca doesn’t really want him there, the kid wants a dad but can’t relate to someone raised in a lab, and Homelander himself has no role models to imitate.

Butcher himself might help here, in a scene where he’s feeling low and takes pity on Homelander for once. Gives Homelander an in, something he can do to bond with his son.

But it’s too little, too late. In an attempt to show “tough love”, Homelander ends up killing the kid’s favorite pet. Becca drives him out of the house, tells him not come back.

The Seven (as was)

With Homelander distracted, Maeve steps in to lead The Seven.

It’s a literally thankless job. Their new manager at Vought feels nothing but contempt for Supes, seeing them as just more dangerous versions of spoiled celebrities. And every interview Maeve gives, someone asks her about Homelander. Even when he’s gone, he overshadows her.

So she begins making some changes, to get some attention. She brings back a disgraced Supe, makes them part of the Seven. She gets back with her ex, and comes out of the closet.

It all unravels, though, when she finds out how Starlight has betrayed them all (in working with Hughie to take down Vought from the inside, tracing the route of Compound V to supervillains) and Homelander returns, all in a rage from his failed family experiment.

Hughie and Starlight and the Gang

Finally, “The Boys” has stopped being an all-boys’ club. Kimiko and Frenchie are an item, and more and more Kimiko is willing to help them in their crusade against Vought (though reluctantly at first).

Hughie and Starlight’s relationship remains fragile. They’re friends and allies, but arguing constantly about the best way to go about things. Each time of them reaches out to rekindle their romance, the other pulls back, wounded and mistrustful from their last fight.

Because of all this back-and-forth, Starlight doesn’t realize how deep she’s gone to the other side until Maeve confronts her about it towards the end of the season, framing everything as Starlight’s attempt to undermine her and take over leadership of the Seven.

The Climax

Everything comes to a head all at once.

Homelander returns in the middle of Maeve and Starlight’s fight, pissed at everyone and everything.

Starlight’s fight delays her helping Hughie and the gang getting into Vought’s headquarters for the final piece of the evidence, making them think Starlight’s betrayed them.

They break into the lab themselves, where they find Butcher, happily switching everything over to churn out the Compound-V antidote. He’s carrying a rifle that’s been modified to fire doses of the antidote, so he can make Homelander mortal.

And everything goes to shit when the world’s first supervillain team chooses that moment to assault The Seven in their Vought HQ.

More Social Distance Streaming Recommendations

We’re halfway through the third week of shelter-in-place here in California.

It’s starting to feel almost normal, this staying home and avoiding other people thing. Natural to move aside when walking on the sidewalk to avoid passing within six feet of someone else. Odd to think about leaving the house.

But then I think about going out for coffee and donuts, or driving out to the bookstore, and I remember. What we’re doing, and why. And what we’re trying to prevent.

I hope you’re own stay-at-home is going as well as it can. That you’re safe, have enough food, and don’t have to worry about being kicked out by your landlord.

Here’s a couple more shows to keep your mind occupied while we wait for the viral storm to pass:

Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist

I didn’t want to like this show. True, it’s about a programmer, which should immediately draw me in, but it gets everything about being a programmer at a startup wrong, right from the very first episode. It’s the equivalent of the lazy “enhance” trick we’ve seen on too many shows, drawn out into an entire plot point. It rankles me, every time.

And the lead is….let’s say bland, shall we? The main character is the least interesting part of the show.

But the rest of the cast is phenomenal, the musical numbers are both weird and fun, and it nails the mix of guilt, hope, and love that comes with caring for a terminally ill family member.

So I’ve been gritting my teeth through the software-world bits, and enjoying everything else.

Source: Hulu

Birds of Prey

Ok, not a TV show, but have you seen this movie? It’s currently battling it out with Thor: Ragnarok in my head for the best superhero movie of the last ten years, and I thought nothing would ever get close to Thor.

It’s got goofy comics action — one scene has Harley shooting people with glitter bombs — fantastic fight scenes, a crazy sense of humor (wait till you see what Harley will do for a breakfast sandwich), and incredible sets (one scene takes place inside multiple rooms in a fun house).

The cast is phenomenal, with the exception of the kid playing Cassandra Cain (but she’s young, so can be forgiven).

My wife and I found ourselves watching it twice in a row one night (the second time with the director’s commentary on) and I didn’t even mind. It’s that good.

Source: Online Rental

A Few Streaming Recommendations for Social Distancing

As we enter the second (or third, or fourth) week of hunkering down in our homes, I thought I’d rattle off a list of shows I’ve been watching to distract me from everything that’s been going on:

Locke & Key

Loved the comic by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez, so I thought I’d check out the new series.

The show is very different from the comic, both in the way the characters are represented and the pacing of the story. But it preserves the core idea of the comic, and damn, it’s good. Even when the characters are making obviously dumb choices, it’s compelling.

Fair warning, though: It’s a bit intense at times. At several points in the season, I could only do one episode a night, because it was just…too much, right now.

Source: Netflix

Westworld

The new season is out! So I’m going back and re-watching Seasons One and Two, both to refresh my memory and to give them time to release more than just a few episodes of the new season.

I’m impressed by how well Season One is holding up, even after I’ve watched it multiple times. I’m discovering new depths to the performances of the actors playing Bernard and Delores, and seeing things that link up with future events that missed the first few times through.

Also Maeve. Who doesn’t enjoy watching more Maeve?

Source: HBO Now

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel

I discovered this one late, so shame on me. But Seasons One and Two were awesome, and I was worried about Season Three.

I shouldn’t have been. Not only is it still damn funny, but I didn’t need to re-watch any of the earlier seasons to dive right into the latest one. The characters are all there, sniping and helping each other, like always.

Just intimidatingly good writing in this series. Something to aim for in my own work.

Source: Amazon Prime

How to Fix Game of Thrones, Season 8

Spoiler’s ahead. If you haven’t seen Season 8 yet, and plan to, you probably want to stop reading now.

Just to give us a little buffer between this and the spoiler’s below, I’m posting a completely non-spoilery GoT picture below. Everything beneath that picture will contain spoilers.

What Went Wrong

Season 8 felt rushed, to me. Not in terms of pacing; they cranked the slow-motion all the way up to 11 for this last season. Rushed in terms of execution.

Jon’s first dragon ride was the first time the dragons looked fake to me. I mean, I know they’ve always been CGI creations, but they looked good up till that point. It’s like they got so far, and then quit.

And so many storylines get short shrift. Dany’s slide from liberator to slaughterer is too abrupt, too forced. Ditto Jaime’s about-face from noble knight to love-struck pawn. Once the battle with the Night King is over, it seems they give up explaining character actions, and instead just move them about the board to where they’re needed.

It’s sloppy, and it didn’t have to be this way.

How to Fix It

Let’s start with the decision to only make 6 episodes. This was a mistake. It doesn’t give us enough time for all our storylines to breathe. And we end up wasting a good portion of each episode with slow-motion filler, instead of pushing the story ahead.

So we go back to 10 full episodes. We cut any slow-motion that doesn’t serve the story or the tension of the episode (which, let’s face it, means all of it gets cut, save for the slow-down before Arya’s awesome leap at the Night King).

Now we’ve got enough space to tell our story. But what story do we tell?

Dany’s Not Mad, She’s Just Drawn That Way

Despite all of Varys’ hand-wringing and Tyrion’s prison self-pity, I don’t think Daenerys’ actions in the latter part of the season mean she’s gone insane. I think she’s been driven to a dark place. I think she’s angry, and seeks vengeance against her enemies, as she always has.

But crazy? No.

And with more time in the season, we can show it.

Start with the siege of King’s Landing. Let’s make it a proper siege!

We can still have the naval battle at the beginning, where she loses another dragon because the ship-mounted scorpions catch her by surprise. So she lands angry and hurt, already. One more death to lay at Cersei’s feet.

Her troops dig in around the capital. She summons her war council, where the Westerosi try to tell her how to proceed. She dismisses their advice, telling them she’s conquered several cities already, and knows how it’s done. She puts the prep work in the hands of Grey Worm, who was at her side when she won those cities.

The next day, she goes to the wall, and does what she knows best: she talks directly to the people.

She doesn’t appeal to Cersei. She doesn’t care about her. She makes her pitch directly to the people of King’s Landing, just as she made it to the people of Slaver’s Bay: throw down your masters, open the gates, and the Breaker of Chains will give you freedom.

But unlike before, the gates don’t open. No troops lay down their arms.

Instead, Cersei executes a prisoner. Right there, in front of everyone, where Dany can see.

Notice I said a prisoner. Not Missandei, not yet. Cersei captured several people after the battle, and over the next few weeks, as the siege drags on, she executes them all, one by one.

Each day, Daenerys goes out to make her plea. Each day, she sees another of her followers executed in response.

And loses a little more of her patience.

On the last day of the siege, Cersei executes Missandei.

By the time battle is finally joined, we’ve seen the build-up. We’ve seen Daenerys try to prevent bloodshed in the way she knows how. We’ve seen her try to connect to the people, and fail.

So when the Bells sound, and she decides to sack the city anyway, we may not agree with her choice, but we understand why she makes it: because it’s too little, too late.

Jaime Isn’t Love-Struck, He’s Summoned by Duty

Jaime’s about-face in the latter half of the season also doesn’t make sense. It’s a complete reversal of his entire character arc, where he’s been building to a sense of himself as an honorable person, a flawed one, but one that has been trying to do the right thing.

Why would he run back to Cersei, after finally rejecting her and riding North?

Answer: he wouldn’t.

Instead, while the seige is happening in King’s Landing (over a couple of episodes), we sometimes shift over to Winterfell to show what’s happening there.

For Jaime and Brienne, it’s a long-sought time of peace. Winter has come, true, but the Night King’s been vanquished, and the war at King’s Landing will soon be over (they expect Cersei to surrender to Dany’s dragons). They can lay down their arms, and simply enjoy being with each other. A reward for all that they’ve gone through, all they’ve lost.

That peace is shattered, though, when a raven arrives from Tyrion, summoning Jaime to King’s Landing.

Tyrion’s letter tells Jaime of the loss of a second dragon. Of Daenerys’ rejected pleas to the city. Of Cersei’s stubbornness in the face of certain defeat.

And he begs his brother to come help. To sneak through the siege lines, and convince Cersei to surrender the city. To save the lives of the people of King’s Landing once again, as he did when he killed the Mad King.

We see Brienne and Jaime argue about what to do. Brienne begs him to stay, to let Cersei pay for her mistakes, finally. But Jaime feels honor-bound to go.

We still get the scene of Brienne crying, begging him not to leave. We still get Jaime, regretful, saying goodbye. But not because he’s “hateful”.

He leaves because he’s honorable.

Jon Hides from the Truth Until It’s Too Late

Meanwhile, Jon didn’t tell Daenerys who he really is in that scene in the crypts (before the battle with the Night King). He told her Rhaegar loved Lyanna, sure, but he held back on the results of that love.

Why? Because he has doubts. He’d just been told something that contradicts everything he knows about himself. He heard it from Bran, true, but Bran claims not to be Bran anymore. And Sam confirmed it, which makes him take it seriously, but Sam could be wrong, couldn’t he?

So he holds back.

After the battle, he does finally tell someone. His family.

In that scene in the Godswood, he opens up. Shares what he knows, and his doubts about it. Bran insists it’s true, and gives some spooky quotes to back it up.

Jon says he’ll have to tell Dany next. She’s his queen, she deserves to know.

But Sansa convinces him not to. Sansa tells him — rightly — that she’ll see him as a threat if he tells her. That she doesn’t want to see him burned alive, like her grandfather and uncle were. And if he doesn’t want the throne, he shouldn’t tell anyone.

The last argument convinces him. He decides not to tell Dany, and swears the rest of them to secrecy.

Sansa, of course, immediately tells Tyrion, intending to drive a wedge between Dany and Jon, weakening the Dragon Queen. And setting in motion the chain of events that will end with Varys’ betrayal.

Jon tries to go on with Daenerys as if nothing’s changed, but it has. He starts to pull away from her touch, her caress, out of his concerns about their incest.

Dany doesn’t understand why, at first, though she gives him some slack because of what they’ve gone through (and her focus on retaking the Iron Throne from Cersei). But it unsettles her, makes her feel rejected and alone, and contributes to her sense that Westeros doesn’t like her, that its people will never love and accept her.

So she pulls another page from her Essos playbook: marriage to a local noble, to cement the people’s loyalty.

And the noble she chooses is Jon. It’ll seal her alliance with the North, and head off any rebellion Sansa might be planning.

Before they leave Winterfell (because they’ll be separated: she’s going by dragon/sea and he’s going by land), she proposes marriage. Jon is flustered, taken aback. He wants to say no, because of who he is, but he can’t. Not without telling her.

So he agrees. Dany is happy, says they’ll wait till after they take King’s Landing, of course, but that it’ll be good to have something to celebrate after so much war. Jon is sober, quiet, but plays it off as his concerns with the coming siege, nothing else.

But then the siege starts, and Daenerys loses another dragon, and Varys betrays her.

It’s Varys that tells her Jon’s parentage, just before she burns him alive. And when she confronts Jon, expecting him to deny it, he instead confirms what Varys believed, revealing that he’s been keeping secrets from her, too.

At this, Dany goes cold. She assumes he wants the throne, though he denies it. She wonders how she can believe him, when he’s been holding so much from her. He says she is his Queen, and she has to trust him.

She decides to trust him, but on one condition: he has to renounce the Iron Throne. She insists their wedding still take place, and that his formal renouncing of the throne take place after the ceremony. Everyone will see him bend the knee, and hear his words of fealty, and understand who is the Queen of the Seven Kingdoms.

Jon’s hurt that she doesn’t trust him explicitly, and unsure of an incestuous wedding. But he agrees. “As my Queen commands.”

The Sack

So as we move into the Sack of King’s Landing, everyone’s under tremendous pressure. Tyrion’s trying to win King’s Landing with a minimum of bloodshed. Jaime’s trying to do the honorable thing, even if it means leaving behind a peaceful life with the woman he loves (Brienne). Jon’s growing more and more uncertain of his position and his safety.

And Daenerys feels alone, vulnerable, and unloved. The people of King’s Landing seem defiant and ungrateful to her. Didn’t she mobilize the army that defeated the Night King? Didn’t she offer them a peaceful way out?

If the people of King’s Landing — or the other kingdoms — find out who Jon really is, won’t they turn on her the first chance they get?

The battle happens much like it does in the released version. But this time, when the Bells sound and she starts destroying the city, we understand why. She’s not gone crazy. She’s punishing them for making the wrong choice. For rejecting her.

One more change: when the Unsullied start slaughtering prisoners, Jon orders his men out. He doesn’t stand there like an actor without blocking directions, he actively tells his men to get out of the city. As a result, none of the Westerosi knights participate in the slaughter.

The Aftermath

Jaime and Cersei die in the catacombs under the keep. Arya almost dies trying to get out before Dany destroys the city.

Jon and his troops finally enter King’s Landing, trying to restore some sort of order. Tyrion wanders among the dead, looking for his siblings.

Daenerys gives a speech to her troops. But not the “eternal war” one she gives in the released version. She does praise them for slaughtering her enemies, and showing them no mercy when they deserved none. She praises their loyalty, and promises a new time of peace, though she knows she can always call on them to defend the defenseless.

Hearing that speech, and having seen the devastation, Tyrion resigns as her Hand. He can’t work for someone that’s proud of what she’s done. She has him imprisoned, not for resigning, but for his betrayals: once for releasing Jaime in an attempt to help Cersei, and twice for keeping Jon’s parentage from her.

In the throne room, Jon confronts Dany about the sack. Instead of responding with some weird speech about conquering the world, she defends her choices. Did she not give the people a choice? After they made it, how could she not hold them to its consequences? She talks about how she needs to inspire fear in Westeros, since she cannot inspire love. How she’ll rebuild something better from the ashes, just as she did in Slaver’s Bay. And just as in Slaver’s Bay, those who won’t bend the knee will be dealt with harshly.

Jon pushes back, saying Westeros won’t respond to the same methods she used in Essos. That its nobles are more stubborn, its people more loyal to their rulers. Will she burn them all, just to ensure that what’s left is loyal?

Daenerys looks at him, eyes fierce. “If I have to.”

Queenslayer

Jon goes to see Tyrion, more torn than ever. Tyrion doesn’t give him the “we should have always seen her madness speech,” which, again, isn’t needed. It’s enough for Tyrion to be down on himself, to have helped her kill his family, and so many women and children. He can remark how it’s different seeing people you’ve known your entire life being burned alive.

And he has a warning for Jon: that if he doesn’t act soon, Dany’s going to turn him against his family, too.

Jon scoffs. Sansa’s loyal. He’s going to marry the Queen. It won’t be a problem.

Tyrion chides him for being naive. Sansa’s not going to bend the knee, he insists. And when she doesn’t, Dany’s going to take her dragon and burn down Jon’s childhood home. His only way out is to kill Daenerys, and take the throne from her.

Jon leaves in a huff. He’s no assassin. No Queenslayer, some second coming of Jaime Lannister. He’s loyal to his Queen, and if his family rebels, then so be it.

His bluster doesn’t fool Tyrion. And it doesn’t really fool himself, either. He comes out of the visit, wondering if it’s true, and what he’ll do if it comes to it.

Daenerys settles into King’s Landing, to rule. She sends ravens to all the nobles of Westeros, inviting them to her coronation, and to swear oaths of fealty.

Sansa’s answer comes back: no.

Daenerys summons Jon. Tells him to order Sansa south, as King in the North. He insists she can stay there, he’ll bend the knee for the North.

But Dany won’t be placated. If Sansa won’t come, then she’ll take her army to Winterfell and force her.

That pushes Jon over the edge. Torn between family and honor, he chooses family. He embraces Dany, for the last time, and plunges his dagger into her heart.

No Kings

Drogon melts the Iron Throne and takes Dany’s body away.

Grey Worm sees Drogon leave, finds Jon with blood on his hands. Immediately takes him into custody.

Ser Davos convinces Grey Worm to let him call a meeting of the high lords of Westeros, to decide what to do.

And so we see Tyrion brought out to the assembly, where they are to decide his fate, and that of the Queenslayer.

Talk turns to choosing a King. Edmure stands up, begins his little speech about being a “veteran” and knowing about “statecraft.”

And Sansa tells him to sit down.

After he sits, Sansa keeps talking. Says the North will never kneel to a Southern king again. Not ever. The North is free.

The Dornish noble nods, and says his kingdom, too, has ever been unbowed and unbent. Though they lost the Sand Snakes, they are unbroken. They will not bend the knee, either.

Tyrion gets frustrated. Wonders if it’ll be a return to war between the kingdoms, without a single King or Queen to hold them together.

Sam stands, says they don’t need a King. What they need is a Hand.

Edmure scoffs. Can’t have a Hand of the King without a King.

Sam shakes his head. Not a Hand of the King, he says. A Hand of the Realm. Someone chosen by them, the Lords of Westeros, to serve the Realm as a whole. To arbitrate disputes, organize the defense of the Kingdoms, and prevent war.

Sansa agrees, a Hand would be fine. But who?

Here, Bran speaks up, finally. Nominates Tyrion as the Hand of the Realm. Explains why: he’s been making mistakes, and he can spend the rest of his life cleaning up his mess, with no title or lands of his own.

The other lords agree, one by one. Tyrion will be the first Hand of the Realm.

As his first act, he chooses Bran to be his Master of Whispers.

His second act is to negotiate a deal for Jon. It winds up much the same as in the released version: life at the Wall in exchange for renouncing titles, and he escapes punishment for killing their Queen.

Heartfelt goodbyes, the Unsullied sail for Naath, Tyrion hosts his first Small Council meeting. Jon reunites with Ghost and Tormund, rides into the sunset.

Roll credits.

Making Peace with Doctor Who Season 8

There’s a moment in the first episode of Season 8 where The Doctor turns to Clara and says: “You can’t see me. You look at me, but you can’t see me.”

Re-watching the episode recently, along with the rest of the eighth season, I felt that line was delivered from Peter Capaldi to me, to the audience, a plea for us to give him a chance, to let go of anything we thought we knew about The Doctor and just see him, see his version of The Doctor, and judge him based solely on that.

I’m glad I gave him that chance, and watched Season 8 all the way through, because Capaldi’s Doctor is in many ways amazing, and very fun to watch.

He’s got the grumpiness I liked from the First Doctor, the alien perspective of the Fourth, and the arrogance of the Third. Those happen to be some of my favorite Doctors, and his blend of their characteristics, combined with his own no-nonsense take, is fantastic.

Capaldi’s no-frills, no apologies, no sentimental nonsense version of The Doctor is a refreshing change after Smith and Tennant. Gone are the dewy pauses and the hand-wringing. Instead, we get a Doctor that doesn’t waste time over the lives he can’t save, not when he can spend that time saving others.

The perfect expression of all this is in the Mummy on the Orient Express episode. The Doctor doesn’t hesitate to use the mummy’s victims to gather all the information he can, asking them question after question even as they’re dying, with no apology for not being able to save them and no comfort offered — save that their answers can help the others escape the same fate. He’s splendidly hard-nosed, which makes his last-minute gamble in directing the mummy away from its next victim and onto himself all the more powerful: you know this is a Doctor that would not put himself in danger lightly.

Granted, in order to enjoy Capaldi’s performance, I had to drop a lot of habits I’ve built up watching the new seasons of Doctor Who. I had to let go of any need for continuity, taking each episode as it came and forgetting anything that had gone before. I also had to drop my need for plausibility in plot and circumstance; most (ok, all) of the episodes contained elements that stretched beyond the merely fantastic and into the completely impossible or nonsensical.

In this, it helped that I’d just come off watching a lot of Classic Doctor Who episodes. The same approach let me enjoy them: don’t worry about continuity, don’t worry about the special effects, don’t worry about the setup making any sort of sense. Just watch The Doctor and his Companion having adventures, enjoy the dialogue, and let your imagination fill in the rest.

Pushing Characters and Buttons: Lessons from Game of Thrones’ Season 5

Warning: Spoilers ahead.

I’m not sure I’ll be back for Season 6 of Game of Thrones. I feel like this last season was the weakest one so far. I’m still processing why, but I suspect it’s because of the following things, mistakes that I’ll try to avoid in my own writing:

1) Focusing on the wrong things.

I think this season spent a lot of time lingering over details that it didn’t need to, and shouldn’t. I’d count Sansa’s wedding night sexual assault as one of them, for multiple reasons. First, I think sexual assault is one of the most terrible things that can happen to a human being, and I don’t really want to watch even fake ones any more. Second, we didn’t need to see the actual assault to know it’d taken place: the very next scene with Sansa, where Reek comes upon her laying battered and half-naked on the bed, tells us everything we need to know.

But because they did decide to show us the assault itself, they weren’t able to show us other things, like Sansa trying to work out different ways to escape, or talking to the different servants to find out which ones she could rely on. They couldn’t show us the preparations for a siege at Winterfell, with Sansa trying to take advantage of the chaos to send a raven to Littlefinger or study the walls to remind herself of the best way over them.

I think it was a similar mistake to insist on showing us the full extent of Cersei’s humiliation, including the entire walk of shame. I didn’t want to see it, I didn’t need to see it — seeing her at the next small council meeting, head shaved and face cut, shaking as she reaches for her wine, is enough — and it prevented them from showing me other things, like Kevan trying to get her back, or the whole of them dealing with the aftermath.

I’ll admit that GoT takes place in a nasty world, where nasty things happen. But I didn’t need to see Craster actually rape his daughters to know he was a nasty man and understand what was happening there. I didn’t need to see King Robert’s sexual orgies to know the humiliation his antics caused Jaime and Cersei. And I didn’t need to see Viserys force himself on his sister to know she lived in fear of him.

2) Moving characters around instead of letting them move.

A lot of the decisions characters made this season felt forced, as if they needed to move across the game board for plot requirements, and the writers found an excuse send them there.

Take Jon Snow going to Hardhome. Why was this necessary? I understand that without Jon Snow there, there’s no perspective character to show us the assault of the army of the dead. But it would have made more sense for Aliser Thorne to have gone instead of Jon: he’s First Ranger, and known to hate the Wildlings more than Jon. Wouldn’t the oath to give them safe passage have been more impressive coming from an old and known enemy?

Jaime and Bronn going to fetch Myrcella also didn’t make sense to me. I mean, I understand wanting to show a buddy knight trip between the two of them, but Jaime has little reason to go and Bronn has less, and their presence didn’t affect the outcome at all. If they hadn’t been there, the Sand Snakes would have tried to kidnap Myrcella, failed, and any messenger from Cersei asking to see her daughter would have given Doran the excuse he needed to send Myrcella away to safety.

Finally we have Jorah. His decision to sign up for gladiator combat the first time made sense, since it gave him a chance to see Daenerys again. But submitting to slavery a second time after being banished again? Only made sense as a way to place him near her during the Sons of the Harpy attack. For the character, it didn’t make sense at all.

3) Trying too hard for big moments.

So many times during this season, I felt like I was watching the “Are you not entertained?” moment from Gladiator. The music would swell, the camera would zoom in on some character’s face, and they would say a line that was supposed to carry a lot of emotional weight. But it fell flat for me, every time, no matter the character or the situation.

I think the first two mistakes, made often enough over the course of the season, robbed the emotional high points of any impact. Instead of caring that Brienne finally got to confront Stannis, I just saw a knight come upon an old wounded man in the forest, tell him her name, and deliver a killing blow. Instead of dying a little inside at seeing Jon bleeding out in the snow, I knew from the moment Olly came to fetch him that he was about to be ambushed, and the circle of knives was way too much “Et tu, Brute?” to make me do anything other than shake my head.

And Drogon saving the day . Well, of course he saved the day, then dumped Daenerys in the middle of nowhere instead of somewhere else in the city. How else were the writers to setup Daenerys being standard in the wilderness, needing her two bravest knights to come save her (groan)?

None of it worked for me, and the parts that did deliver an emotional impact — Sansa’s assault, Cersei’s humiliation — were entirely negative. For me, this season was a set of lessons in what not to do. Here’s hoping I take them to heart.

Flash Fiction Friday: Oct 24, 2014

Inspired by the tv show Review, today’s flash fiction entry is a critic’s review of my day yesterday, if my life were a television series:

While no doubt the height of neo-realism, the fact remains that in yesterday’s episode our beloved protagonist again spent most of his waking hours sitting at a desk and typing. Where are the coffee shop visits and meeting friends for lunch of past episodes?

And don’t get me started on how little variety this entire season has had compared to the show’s peak (seasons 21 through 25, if you must know. Those seasons had everything: Space! Lasers! Training Montages! Romance! A far cry from the wilderness wandering seasons that followed). Are the writers completely out of new ideas?

Granted, I was intrigued by the homebrewing subplot. There were several different ways they could have gone with that one: a Breaking-Bad type descent into chemistry obsession and bootlegging, or a slow spin into self-enabled alcoholism, the worm eating its own tail so to speak. Of course, head writer Diego Byte couldn’t let anything that interesting happen. We got one party – one! – without any drunken hijinks, and that’s it.

This show desperately needs a return to the glory days of showrunners like D.C. Nassau, or even Phil Conway. They knew how to mix multiple sub-plots while still giving us a visible character arc over the course of the season. As it is, this show still occasionally has a spark of life, but its best years seem to be behind it. 2 stars.