Watching “The Lighthouse”

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I think I picked an interesting time to see this movie. Actually, the timing was due to the alignment of my schedule and that of a friend I saw it with. Judging by the previews, The Lighthouse looked like one of those movies that my husband would appreciate for its quality while not at all enjoying the experience of watching it (which was his reaction to The Witch, David Eggers’s previous film). I prefer to see movies with company, and this particular friend had expressed interest in seeing it. So we went.

But I had just come off of an intensive weekend of ritual work that had been expressly designed to hack the participants’ subconscious. It was even partly informed by ancient Greek myth and religious belief, which is also present in The Lighthouse in both implicit and explicit form (maybe you think Willem Dafoe’s character is just being poetic when he calls on Triton to levy a curse upon Robert Pattinson, but for all the character’s questionable accounting of himself he looks sincere as hell in that scene). So while there’s a leap toward the end that doesn’t quite land for me (an issue that I also had with The Witch), I also didn’t spend as much time as some viewers did (if Twitter is any indication) wondering what the hell was going on.

Not that you need to be an expert classicist to appreciate The Lighthouse. I think you just have to be prepared to go along with a claustrophobically subjective viewpoint, and accept that whatever the objective reality of the situation might be, it’s really not the point here. (Part of me wanted the long-delayed ferry to show up in the final scene, like Fortinbras at the end of Hamlet. Probably wouldn’t have added anything to the story, ultimately.)

But while I’m not the only one to observe some ancient Greek threads running through the movie (ancient Greece having been, after all, a maritime culture, with much of its religious and superstitious thought bending toward the sea and its dangers), while I’ve seen mention of Proteus and Prometheus in various places, I found myself thinking not only of Poseidon, as one might expect, but also of Hekate. Or perhaps Artemis. And maybe a bit of Charon as well.

One of the things I’ve dug into over the years is the way ancient Greeks thought about borders. It seems odd in our current reality of a world divided up into nations with firm boundaries, sometimes with walls or fences built along them, but in earlier eras a country or kingdom was something more like an area of geographic influence. This indicates a vaguer and more porous boundary than we probably think of today, and the ancient Greek sense of liminality, of in-between and uncanny places, seems to be manifest in this idea. Artemis or Hekate, who were sometimes conflated, had their sacred places located at edges: at the furthest reach of a king’s influence, at an entrance or doorway, at the intersection of two roads. And, notably, at harbors. Both were also frequently portrayed carrying torches; in the case of Hekate, this rendition is so iconic that modern-day depictions rarely show her without them. To me, watching this movie after I’d had a headful of Hekate for two straight days, a lighthouse standing in a place often beset by fog and storm, from which no other land or people were visible, was the very quintessence of that uncanny liminality that the Greeks found so concerning. (The uncanniness of crossroads in mythology and folklore persists to this day: consider the legend of Robert Johnson, for instance.) There’s also the importance of locks and keys in this movie, something else reminiscent of Hekate.

It’s also possible, though it feels like a cheat, that this is one of those stories where the characters have been dead the whole time and are playing through some sort of afterlife drama. There’s the arrival on the boat, to a rather grim and featureless place, and the characters’ conflicting accounts of their personal histories could be read as the loss of memory that is a feature of the ancient Greek afterlife. In this reading the moonshine they drink in ever-escalating quantities become the waters of Lethe, of which the dead drank to forget their lives. The movie’s final shot rather supports this interpretation as well.

Do I think Eggers had all this in mind when making The Lighthouse? Maybe, maybe not. It kind of doesn’t matter. This is the kind of movie you can bring your own stuff to, and view what’s happening through multiple lenses–something that does seem to be the filmmaker’s intention, given the nature of the film’s climactic moment where the lighthouse’s Fresnel lens finally, perhaps, yields its secrets. Another friend who’s seen it said that they were going to call what’s commonly referred to as gaslighting lighthousing from now on, given that one of the grounds being contested between the two characters in the film is whose reality is going to win. You can interpret the mermaids, the weather, the behavior of the seagulls (downright Hitchcockian at times), the characters’ accounting of their personal histories, and the occasional cephalic tentacle in multiple ways from the concretely literal to the subjectively figurative, and the ability to shift along this axis while you’re watching the movie strikes me as one of its notable accomplishments.

And even if none of that works for you–and I’ve seen plenty of reactions indicating that it doesn’t–there’s Dafoe’s magnificent scenery-chewing, and Pattinson’s managing to hold his own against it most of the time. Most reviews that I’ve seen say this is Dafoe’s movie, and I think they’re right, but if your impression of Pattinson’s acting ability is primarily informed by the Twilight series, then you’ve really missed what he’s capable of.

All that said, when I got home after the movie I told my husband that he’d been right not to come, and that he wouldn’t have liked The Lighthouse at all. Come to that, I personally can’t say whether I’d describe my experience of watching it as enjoyment, either. But it’s an intriguing, uncanny, and beautifully constructed piece of work, and if you’re into ancient Greece personally or professionally, that’s an additional reason to give it a look.

#amwriting

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I am, hopefully, finally reaching the end of a short story revision that has taken months. So over the weekend I pulled out a few old drafts to see if there was anything salvageable in them.
 
The answer was yes, kind of, which was nice, but what felt really good was realizing how much I’ve improved as a writer since I wrote them.
 
It’s hard to keep going with this stuff sometimes, since I’m nowhere near where I’d hoped to be (I’ll be frank, I had a goal of having several books out by age 45, not, um, none). But wow, what I’ve written this year is so much better than even a few years ago.

Homes and history

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Some years back I attended a lecture by one of my favorite authors. The lecture’s topic was on giving your setting a sense of history, of having a story of its own that began before it became your story’s stage, a place which your characters inhabit. A canonical example in the genre, and one that he mentioned, was of course Lord of the Rings (paid link). You can’t go two pages in that book without someone expostulating on the history of this edifice or that landmark. It works, and works very well; Middle-Earth has a strong sense of history, beyond its mythical underpinnings from our own world. A book recommended at the lecture was Simon Schama’s Landscape and Memory (paid link); it’s a dense read, but worthwhile for its unpacking of how the history of a place shows in our encounters with it.

I think about that lecture and that book a lot, especially when I’m formulating settings for my own stories, but this past week I thought about them for another reason: after 45 years, my parents are preparing to move out of the house that I grew up in. The house is currently in an intermediate stage between lived in and packed up, with antiques moved into a single room for appraisal, books going into boxes, dishware migrating to the curb for neighbors to take if they want. For me, who hasn’t lived there in decades and has visited only intermittently, this is profoundly disorienting. The place is changing, while still showing signs of its history.

I found myself thinking of real estate listings, especially when I looked in the closet of my childhood bedroom. As a teen I’d written on the walls in there, the sorts of profound insights that one comes up with at age fourteen or so. The whole house might not get repainted when it goes on the market–my parents have taken very good care of it–but that closet definitely will be.

Real estate is listed and sold as though it’s bereft of history. It’s understandable; people want to imagine their own lives in a potential new home, not someone else’s. But on this trip, of course, I found myself thinking of the house’s history, and my own history in it, and the history of the place it was built before the neighborhood came into existence in the 1940s. Snapshots of eighteen years of growing up, and decreasingly frequent visits afterward. Even before my parents begin preparations for their move, the place had shifted from what I remember: a dogwood tree that wasn’t even there when I was growing up is now tall enough to need trimming back from the power lines. The forsythia that lined one edge of the front yard is gone, replaced by a fence. My former bedroom, now my dad’s study, is painted green instead of white (though an old marionette of mine is still hanging from the lighting fixture). My parents extended their bedroom closet into the attic, so the shelves and cedar closet I remember aren’t there anymore.

Places have history, and over time the signs of that history fade, but leave their impressions nonetheless. My husband and I bought some forest land a few years ago, land that has been cultivated for logging operations for over a century, but where replantings have a history of failure. Hiking around the northwest, we can still see signs of former logging operations before those lands were converted to recreational use. Those places had a history before they were logged, even a human one–but that’s something we’re conditioned to think about intermittently, if we think about it at all. Imprinting our own history on these places of necessity entails interacting with the history of what came before, whether we’re aware of it or not.

My history in my childhood home has come to an end. It’s a strange feeling, the idea of going back to that town, that neighborhood, and not have it be home anymore–even though I haven’t lived there for decades. Nowhere else have I experienced this feeling of a place being familiar and strange at the same time. (There’s probably a word for it in German.) People talk about going back to where you come from and having it look just the same, only smaller, but I think what I’m experiencing now is what happens after that. It’s an attenuation of my connections to the place that I came from, and to its history.

I wonder about the people who will live there next. Will they wonder about the people who lived there before them, and look for signs of them in their new home? Probably not. The way we think about house and home doesn’t really make space for this.

Signs of that history will be there, though, albeit isolated from their meaning. And I’m thinking, now, as I work out the details of a setting for a new story, a setting that is, among other things, a home: who was there before its present inhabitants, and how did they live?

The algorithm is not the antelope

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There’s a classic metaphor in library science meant to remind librarians, archivists, and other information professionals in training that the map is not the territory. To wit, the example goes that an antelope in its natural environment, doing antelope things, is an antelope–but an antelope stuffed and mounted in a natural history museum is not. It is now an object, a document: something that can tell observers something about what an antelope is, but divorced from its context that would reveal the whole of the thing.

This seems obvious, and yet in an increasingly information- and data-rich world, where our own interactions with documents become documentation in turn, it’s something that it can be hard to maintain conscious awareness of.

Two books that I’ve read recently highlight this point in different ways. The first is Meredith Broussard’s Artificial Unintelligence, which makes the point that AI not only doesn’t work the way most of us think it does–or could–but it’s only as good as the data we feed it. And it turns out that there are some pretty important limitations on what we can feed it, with implications for how the systems we design impact us. The second book is Barry Lopez’s Horizon, a wide-ranging meditation on how we understand our world, which includes among other things a cautionary note on putting too much trust in documents despite the seductive allure of big data sets. Studying maps is a lot of fun, but at some point you have to go and take a look for yourself, if you can. (Since the passage in Lopez’s book that I’m referring to takes place in the context of a scientific field expedition to Antarctica, that “if you can” is especially pertinent. I’ve spent much of my time reading Horizon consumed by jealousy of the places Lopez goes and the people he meets.)

Back in the dawn of time when I was studying computer science, an algorithm was described as a kind of outline, a plain-language formulation created to describe how a computer program was going to solve a problem. What I like about this way of thinking about it is that the limitations of the algorithm are implicit within it: you know that it’s only going to solve this problem (hopefully) and the scope of its task is clearly defined. At that time most of the people who were using computers were people who had been taught to think about them and about their capabilities in this way. These days, most of us probably know less about what’s going on inside those computers in our pockets (themselves constantly sending and receiving data in exchange with computers elsewhere) than what’s going on under the hoods of our cars. (I’m always running into people my age who are astonished that people younger than ourselves aren’t better at using search engines. Why should they be? It’s not like Google teaches you anything about information discernment.)

When I was in library school the chief danger of an information rich environment was seen to be the difficulty of picking good information out of the overwhelming flood of what was available. That’s still a challenge and I think it’s even harder now. But the other problem is that having so much information at our fingertips can fool us into believing that that’s all there is. This isn’t even a case of missing the forest for the trees–it’s a case of not realizing that you’re in a forest, because your attention has been drawn to something on your phone, which has a pretty good plant identification app on it that still doesn’t know whether that’s a Western hemlock or a Sitka spruce.

My intention here isn’t to claim that we should all toss away our phones and get offline. Especially since I’m, uh, posting this on the Internet. But I’m reminded of a concept that I teach to beginning nursing students when I’m introducing them to library research and literature searching. The foundation of evidence based practice is to use evidence–in the form of documented research–to inform what you do in a clinical setting. But it’s not the only thing you bring to that encounter. There’s also your own knowledge, developed through training and experience–and the knowledge, values, and expectations of your patient, who’s no more an algorithm than you are.

A few years ago I took a wildlife tracking class, an exercise if ever there was one in returning documentation to its context of origin. I had a wonderful tracking book written by a regional expert on the subject (who also happened to be one of my teachers) with beautiful images in it of animal tracks ranging from shrews to grizzly bears. Seeing a track in its context of having been left by an animal was an exercise in using documentation to aid in the expansion of knowledge while recognizing that it didn’t contain the whole story. Tracks are affected by weather, substrate, animal size and speed of movement, and a whole host of other variables. The track in the book can’t tell me what the animal was doing (though the diagrams of gait patterns can help), while the track on the ground, with some detective work and additional contextual clues, can.

Likewise, while a search engine can tell me a lot, it’s only as good as the information on which it feeds. It’s never going to fully reflect reality, and it’s a good idea to occasionally remind ourselves of that fact.

Walking about writing

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I’m currently listening to Antonia Malchik’s A Walking Life, ironically while driving in my car. Between a daily commute that’s 35 miles each way, plus weekend trips to a rural property that’s twice that distance along with getaways to many of the Pacific Northwest’s beautiful places, like a lot of people I spend more time in a vehicle than on my feet.

There’s a lot of reasons why this is a problem, which are detailed in Malchik’s book (along with the explicit understanding that not everyone can get around on their feet, or can only get around for short periods). But the one that’s struck me this week especially is the effect on creativity, especially writing.

I’m thinking of this especially because, like a lot of people who write and read fantasy, I cut my teeth on Lord of the Rings. One notable feature of that work is the emphasis on walking; there’s even a bit in Fellowship of the Ring where they discuss walking or riding on horseback, and decide that walking is the better option. (Which turns out to be true, as they even have to send the packhorse Bill back home when they’re forced to enter the Mines of Moria.) This gets more interesting, at least to me, when you learn that Tolkien was fond of going for walks. If you visit Oxford, you can retrace some of the routes he followed. For all the differences in lore, history, perspective, and technology between the peoples of Middle Earth, they are all similarly constrained in speed of travel: namely, a walking (or running) pace, unless they are fortunate enough to have access to horses or boats. Much has been made of the heavy level of detail to Middle Earth, and much of that is discovered by the characters walking through the landscape and telling one another about what they’re seeing.

This isn’t the only way to convey the richness of your fantasy setting, of course. But it’s one way, and it’s a good way, because you can unroll that richness at a pace that makes intuitive sense to the reader: a walking pace. In two other books I read recently, N.K. Jemisin’s The Broken Kingdoms and Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation, there are several passages where the viewpoint character is moving through space at a walk, the setting unfolding around them and suffusing the reader with detail. This works even when the viewpoint character is blind (Broken Kingdoms’ Oree) or the setting is deeply, deeply weird (Annihilation‘s Area X). Even the climax of the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie is predicated, in part, on walking.

My thinking is–and Malchik’s book seems to back me up here–something about walking encourages imagination. For all of the ways we have of getting around, it’s the one that has specifically played a role in our evolution, from standing upright to using our hands for things besides locomotion to being able to see further distances to our methods of acquiring and using food. Going for a walk, or a run, or–last summer, when I was healing a broken ankle–a roll at a pace akin to walking is one of my chief methods for addressing a creative block.

I don’t want this to be just about “Feeling stuck? Go for a walk!” although it probably would help, because it doesn’t address what folks who can’t do that are supposed to do, and it also doesn’t address how our environment is increasingly designed and built to limit this kind of mobility. I live in a city, and while it’s a city with a lot of parks and quite a few open spaces of no designated purpose, it’s still a challenge to get around on foot for reasons physical and psychological (I’ve been told more than once not to go out alone if I don’t want to be harassed, for instance). It’s more that our lives are increasingly designed to discourage the kind of aimless wandering that can lead to insight. It’s one reason that I’m glad of the increased interest in hiking where I live, even if I do sometimes get irritated in the moment because, well, I go hiking to get away from people. I do think there’s something to the increasing recognition that starving ourselves of nature, and of undirected, non-goal-oriented movement through it, is robbing us in ways we’re perpetually distracted from appreciating.

And I think we could do a lot worse than design our living environments for walking–and other forms of human-powered, human-paced locomotion. I can’t help thinking it would be better for all of us.

Reading The Underground Railroad

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I picked up Colson Whitehead’s prizewinning The Underground Railroad for the most prosaic of reasons: it filled in a square on my local public library’s summer reading bingo grid.

I’d have read it eventually anyway. I’d read Zone One and liked it, I’d been hearing really good things about The Underground Railroad even before it won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer, and it’s thematically apropos to our cultural moment, as we seem to be attempting yet again to grapple with an enormous facet of American history that an awful lot of people would still prefer to pretend never happened. But if I’m honest, I read it sooner than I would have otherwise.

There have been plenty of (well deserved) positive reviews of the novel, which I heartily recommend. But one element that repeatedly caught my attention from a writing perspective is how skillfully Whitehead interweaves concrete historical detail and  speculative or fantastic elements. In this book, the railroad isn’t just figurative; it’s a literal train that slaves escaping the South can board and ride, hopefully, to freedom. Even so, escape isn’t that simple, which is one of the things that makes the novel so successful: tension and suspense sing like taut-stretched wires on every page. But Whitehead also did a ton of research for this book, and it shows, particularly in the early chapters depicting Cora’s life on the plantation before she makes a break for freedom. That concrete detail makes the speculative or fantastic elements of The Underground Railroad even more convincing. By the time I’d finished reading I was fully prepared to go looking in the cellars and forests of Maryland where I grew up for abandoned stations and hidden railroad tunnels.

This is why I get so impatient with the view that fantasy and sci-fi can play fast and loose with detail, the argument that all bets are off in a story that might have dragons or spaceships or where the Underground Railroad is literally an underground railroad. I don’t think that’s true. It’s not that everything else in your story except for your speculative element has to be detailed directly from real life (in fact, there’s much else in The Underground Railroad that isn’t strictly historical although, much as in The Handmaid’s Tale, I would be surprised if just about everything in it hadn’t happened at some point), but your story does have to hold together. One of the ways in which The Underground Railroad succeeds brilliantly is in showing in excruciating detail how in a slave society, no one is exempt, no one is safe. And one of the ways in which Whitehead achieves this effect is in consistency: every part of the story supports every other part. The cafe table on the train platform hidden beneath a barn feels as real as the scenes drawn directly from slave narratives, and the reality of the barn, the table, and the train is in a sense supported by the reality of those narratives.

At its best, fantastic fiction can present a hyperreality: the fantastic elements simultaneously achieve a kind of distance from the subject, and enable a kind of intimacy. By presenting a story of the Underground Railroad that didn’t happen, Whitehead highlights details of the stories that did. I’m reminded of Octavia Butler’s Kindred, of which I recently read Damian Duffy’s graphic novel adaptation. There too, the story uses a fantastic element–time travel–to draw us close to a subject that, as a country, we still haven’t managed to look at directly. These fantastic elements adjust the lens through which we as readers view these stories. In the end, they can open up surprising and revealing new perspectives on a history that ought not to be ignored.

Into retreat and out again

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Some friends in the Seattle SF writing scene have organized a writing retreat for the past five years or so, and three years ago I started going. Though I’m a firm believer in the ability to write anywhere, I’m also a firm believer in the influence of environment on actions, behavior, and state of mind. So if someone does the necessary organizing for me to pay a modest fee and hang out in a beautiful park for several days, writing, playing music (lord, I’ve missed jamming), going for walks, and working on my plant and track ID skills, I’m not about to say no.

Partway through the extended weekend one of the other attendees observed that a lot of writing involves staring into space. I spent about an hour on Saturday doing exactly that, sitting on a beach with a notebook handy for any insights that might surface (there were quite a few, involving some short story revisions that I’d just embarked on), occasionally pointing my binoculars at a disturbance in the water to see whether it was a harbor seal (it was, on one occasion), or just another bundle of floating kelp. Being something of a reflective person by nature, this was a pretty enjoyable way to spend an hour, not least because–speaking of environment–sitting on a beach on a beautiful early summer day is a pretty great way to spend an hour regardless.

Is it work? Well, sure it is. I used to think that I had to make wordcount every day to show myself as a writer, but while establishing some sort of daily or almost-daily writing practice probably isn’t a bad idea–much as with anything else that requires practice to improve at, such as exercise or playing a musical instrument–of course there also needs to be room to imagine and reflect. In the case of the story I had on my mind just then, I’d already produced a draft, which I had just re-read before setting out to the beach, along with notes and feedback received from a writers’ group. I’d put some grist in the mill and was letting my mind, which had produced the story in the first place, go to work on it.

I’m describing all of this because I’ve seen a lot of discussion and debate about writing process lately. There’s the old plotter-vs-pantser comparison emerging again, most specifically in discussions around the ending of Game of Thrones (for the record, I don’t think that’s what was going on there), and yet another argument about whether you have to write every day to be a writer (no).

A lot of my own journey as a writer has been figuring out what my process looks like, and I suspect that’s the case for a lot of people. Models like plotting vs. pantsing or writing every day are descriptive, not prescriptive. You can talk about what works for you, and if someone’s struggling make recommendations, but it strikes me as beyond silly to insist that something is inherently better if done a certain way, or to prescribe a process for someone when what’s really needed is some discernment about how they best approach their work. Not least because I’ve found that for me, the process tends to shift with each project. Part of writing the story is working out how it’s going to be written.

To me, prescriptions around writing–or doing anything else, really–bespeak a disengagement with the work. Plug in this process, and stories will come out. Maybe there are writers that this works for; I’m not going to undermine my own point by insisting that it can’t. What I am saying is that I finally, after far too many years of trying, seem to be starting to create stories that I’m fond of and that other people want to read, and I’ve gotten there by figuring out how to produce my own work.

Game of Thrones and what we talk about when we talk about stories

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There was a moment during the Game of Thrones finale when I wondered whether Benioff and Weiss had read Yuval Noah Harari.

In his book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, Harari engages with the notion of story as a social unifier, a carrier of meaning, and a marker of cultural identity. The understanding that human beings are wired for story is not new, nor is the remarkable endurance of certain kinds of stories or the way they inform cultural meaning. My mother has never read Lord of the Rings, but in watching the movies she, a lifelong Catholic, immediately discerned that Tolkien had been one as well. The necessity of intercession for Frodo’s salvation is an explicitly Christian notion; one need not be a Christian to understand this, nor to enjoy Frodo’s story, but it’s there. Inasmuch as I agree with the statement that the United States is a Christian nation, it is in the sense that Christianity has inextricably informed what we find important about stories. If you don’t believe me, look at the popularity of Star Wars, likewise a tale founded on redemption. (I’m not saying here that all redemption stories are necessarily Christian. But redemption is woven through the Christian religion, and Christianity itself is a massive cultural force. These things have  impact.)

But Lord of the Rings is also about story, itself: Tolkien wrote it in part to create a mythology for a culture that he saw as lacking it, and the work is infused with an invented history so powerful that there are people who know it better than the history of their own countries. For this reason, when Samwise Gamgee discourses on the power of story I give him a pass, even though I usually dislike it when fiction lampshades itself this way. It’s thematically appropriate for Sam to explain why stories are important, because one of the things that Lord of the Rings is about is why stories are important. Given Lord of the Rings‘ enduring popularity, I’d call Tolkien’s argument a success.

Which brings us to the finale of Game of Thrones. There’s a moment in the (rushed and curiously flat) scene in which a hastily assembled council determines who will rule the Seven–excuse me, Six–Kingdoms, where Tyrion makes a point similar to Samwise Gamgee’s about the power of story, and uses this to argue for Bran Stark as king.

That’s when I wondered if the showrunners had read Harari. I may also have muttered “You have got to be kidding me” to the television screen. For a few reasons, among them that Tyrion’s claim that Bran has had the most interesting story out of all the possible candidates is debatable, and Westeros’s remaining politicians accepting this without argument implausible. Maybe they were tired enough of war that they’d have accepted anyone on the throne who wasn’t a Targaryen. Who knows; the show was pretty obviously disinterested in its own politics at that point.

But for me the moment didn’t land well because it was yet another thing that the show hadn’t earned. In terms of being about story, what Game of Thrones has mostly been about is the danger of forgetting stories: the people of the Seven Kingdoms forgot about the dangers north of the Wall, in the way we all tend to forget about dangers that aren’t immediate. (We know this, among other reasons, because it occurred to no one that sending the non-combatants at Winterfell into the crypts during a battle against an army that can raise the dead would be a bad idea.) Game of Thrones has been about a lot of things: the pervasive corrupting influence of power, humanity’s short-sightedness particularly when it comes to personal ambition, and response to trauma. But it’s not directly about story, not in the way that Lord of the Rings is.

This isn’t to say that Bran’s memory isn’t important. It is, because human memory is fallible and Westeros’s lack of collective memory is part of the point. But in choosing Bran, Tyrion seems to be countering his own argument: Bran’s story, while interesting, is not the most interesting one in all of Game of Thrones, and even if it were it would be a pretty weak argument for Bran as king. Tyrion, perhaps, wants Westeros to be a place founded on stories; we know that he values books and knowledge immensely, and is distressed to be left out of the book of history that Sam Tarly hands him. But within the story we the viewers have experienced up to that point, that transition has been neither earned nor made.

This essay on Tor.com makes a similar point; Bran’s ascension could in fact be read as part of Game of Thrones‘ skepticism concerning the methods by which we choose who is fit to rule. Midway through season 8 I had the thought that in its way, Game of Thrones was thematically similar to Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, wherein the ruler of the galaxy turns out to be an old man living in a shack on a remote planet with only a cat for a companion. If there’s anyone in Westeros as disinterested in ruling as that old man, it’s Bran.

I wish the show had taken more time to play this theme out, because I think it’s an important one. I think a major reason so many people have gotten so invested in this show is because, in America at least, there is a deep and widespread national cynicism around leadership, political power, and how who gets to have those things is decided. (That cynicism, incidentally, goes way farther back than the current administration; Americans could stand to know our own history better, too.) As the show drew to a close and people began discussing, often in very negative terms, how it ended, there’s some understandable consternation about why those people are so upset about a TV show when there are so many real world things to be concerned about.

But, as Harari says, stories are one of the ways we achieve cultural unity–and Tyrion said the same thing, albeit hamfistedly. It’s been a very long time since I’ve seen such a mass investment in a TV show; the last time I can remember, there were a lot fewer channels. That Game of Thrones got so much traction in an era of hundreds of channels (to say nothing of the plethora of entertainment options available on the Internet), and on a premium channel at that, is significant. Among other things, stories are proxies: we use them to talk about what matters to us in a lower-risk, lower-stakes way than addressing those matters directly. People were disappointed that Daenerys wasn’t a savior. Other people couldn’t believe anyone thought she would be. Plenty of people, myself included, thought that the best outcome would be no one getting the Iron Throne–well, Drogon saw to that, and the throne on which King Bran sits is of necessity more practical. Samwell Tarly proposed a democracy, but Westeros is going to have to wait at least a few more centuries for that. Over a million people were so disappointed that they signed a petition demanding a remake (which is almost certain to happen at some point, petition or no petition; we’re getting a Lord of the Rings TV show, after all). Interestingly, almost everyone (even people who liked the ending) seems to agree that the final seasons were rushed, and season 8 most of all.

That, I think, tells us something about people’s investment in the show. It wasn’t the spectacle–there were visuals in the series finale worthy of Zhang Yimou, so if it had been a matter purely of spectacle no one would have been disappointed. People were interested in the politics. They were interested in how Westeros was going to solve its problem of leadership. They were interested in seeing, once the supernatural threat had been dealt with, exactly how the survivors were going to figure out how to live together. It’s one of the reasons Hamilton has been so incredibly popular; the music’s great, of course, and incorporating hip-hop into Broadway productions is still novel enough to get people in the door, but these things alone don’t explain the massive appeal of a show that uses them to bring us a Cabinet meeting (two of them, in fact). I don’t think it’s an accident that both of these shows have achieved overwhelming popularity in a time of deep political unease and unrest. The questions posed by Game of Thrones and Hamilton are the same questions we are asking ourselves.

For all our sakes, I hope we figure it out.

Another completely unnecessary take on Game of Thrones

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Like a lot of people (many of them with gigs at media outlets) I was pretty disappointed with last Sunday’s Game of Thrones episode. While recognizing that a severely abbreviated season (six episodes isn’t a lot, even if they are longer than usual) means cramming a whole lot of events into a shorter timeframe, the results have tested my suspension of disbelief to the point of being willing to write off the remaining two episodes. It feels as though those responsible for the show’s production are aware that enough people are still watching just to see how it turns out that they can afford to be lazy. The actors do their best, but when their characters are reduced to cardboard cutouts who no longer exhibit deep reflection (while apparently being able to teleport the long distances that the show spent several previous seasons establishing), they can only do so much. The show’s outpacing of George R.R. Martin’s novels has done it, and the audience, no favors.

It does highlight the importance of good writing, though, and lately the writing on Game of Thrones hasn’t been very good. (Yes, supposedly, they’re still working off an outline, or a set of notes, or maybe just the revelation of the ending, from GRRM. That doesn’t really invalidate my point.)

My biggest issue, with both the previous season and the current one, is the increasingly arbitrary treatment of time and space. One of the things that makes Westeros feel real, both in the books and on the show, is that in a world where neither asphalt nor the internal combustion engine exist, it takes a long time to get anywhere. The dragons are presumably faster but present logistical difficulties of their own, chiefly how one fuels a giant fire-breathing flying lizard.

Sure, it’s fantasy, as though that’s an argument for arbitrariness in storytelling. I’d argue just the opposite: a fantasy has to work harder to be convincing because it includes fantastic elements that the audience must believe exist, at least long enough to be drawn into the story. One of the reasons that Lord of the Rings is such a classic is this very attention to detail.

It’s not that Game of Thrones has to show us every excruciating step from Winterfell to King’s Landing. We saw that in season 1. But it’s become increasingly difficult to tell how much time is passing from one scene to the next over the last two seasons. Hours? Days? Months? Could be years for all we know.

This same lack of attention to detail is evident elsewhere, particularly in the most recent episode. Plenty of other people have called attention to Jon’s offhand farewell to Ghost, the hamfisted dialogue of Jaime’s departure from Brienne and Sansa’s conversation with the Hound, and Daenerys’s unbelievable failure to spot Euron’s fleet before it killed one of her remaining dragons. It’s less that these things occurred, and more that they lacked the development that has set Game of Thrones apart from other shows of its genre. Because yes, it does make sense for Jon to leave Ghost behind–direwolves don’t fare any better in the south than Starks. It does make sense for Brienne to be upset that Jaime is going back to Cersei, even if it’s (as many people hope) to kill her. It does make sense for Sansa to acknowledge that trauma has shaped her. But each of these moments failed to shine, like Mark Twain’s metaphor about the lightning bug versus the lightning.

And then there’s the death of Missandei, which is none the better for having been utterly predictable. Perhaps not in its exact manner (though here too there’s evidence of rushed and lazy writing), but as soon as she and Grey Worm started talking about what they’d do after the war, there was no way both of them would survive. Especially since they were the only two POC left, in a story that has mostly lacked them. They might not have died first, but having been reduced to tokens, there was no way they’d have long life expectancies. (Pretty sure Grey Worm isn’t going to last to the final credits, either.)

In a way, the inspiration of so many takes, thinkpieces, explanations and counter-explanations, and analyses of the most recent episode highlights the problem. In many of these pieces I’ve seen people filling in gaps that the show could and should have filled in for us. It’s not that every little thing needs to be explained, but interpreting Sansa’s actions after she learns of Jon’s true parentage (to which we never see any reaction from his family), or Daenerys’s incomprehensible battle strategy (miss seeing an entire fleet and charge its ranged weapons in broad daylight), or Jaime’s true motives for going back to King’s Landing (he’s understandably emotionally stunted, but he’s being either cruel or manipulative in that scene, and either way it’s a cheap shot) shouldn’t require this much after-action analysis either.

In its final hours, Game of Thrones has told its audience that we can’t trust it, and that’s really too bad.

The Magicians and representation

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I’m unreasonably fond of The Magicians. I was fond of the books that it’s (increasingly loosely) based on, but in many ways I enjoy the show more. Whereas Janet was a pretty thin character in the books, Margo, her TV adaptation analogue, is magnificent. All of the women characters have more depth, which makes their stories more interesting. The ensemble nature of the show, versus books 1 and 3 being chiefly from Quentin’s point of view, allows for a broader focus and frankly makes the early portions of the story more palatable. Being myself closer in age to the Brakebills faculty than the students, I find their Gen X-leavened cynicism and world-weariness both relatable and hilarious (Dean Fogg in particular, who always looks about two seconds away from an eye-roll). Sure, the main characters start off kind of insufferable, but I was pretty insufferable myself in my early 20s. If I’d had magic on top of that I’d probably have been a total asshole. The show scratches the same itch for me that Buffy the Vampire Slayer did, back in the day; it’s a great escape, without being so candy-coated that I feel mushy-brained after watching it. And there’s the musical episodes.

So, like pretty much everyone who’s been watching and enjoying The Magicians, I found the finale of season 4 absolutely wrenching. In what follows I’m going to be alluding pretty specifically to what happened, so if you haven’t watched it yet and have managed to avoid being spoiled up until now, you’ll probably want to stop here.

I’m not going to go into how well the finale worked from a structural or character development standpoint; that’s been more than adequately covered elsewhere, from viewers who thought it was perfect to viewers who found none of it believable, including the reactions of the other characters to the episode’s climactic incident and its consequences. What I do want to talk about is how people who saw themselves in Quentin responded. Not to speak for them, as they can and have spoken for themselves, but to emphasize how the response of this portion of the audience highlights the importance of representation–not only on the screen or the page, but behind it.

The show’s creators have given a few reasons for why season 4 ended the way it did. Jason Ralph was planning to leave the show (well, this was described as a mutual decision, which could mean anything, but there were at least some reasons on his side for the departure). The writers felt that Quentin’s character arc was complete. They wanted to remove the white male ostensible protagonist (I use the word ostensible because Magicians, the show, has always struck me as more of an ensemble piece) to make room for the narratives of the other characters–this was arguably foreshadowed in “The Side Effect”.

All of these things can be true, and probably are, but that doesn’t change the fact that the writers stepped in a major and highly distressing trope, one that they could and should have avoided. The character of Quentin was both mentally ill and, it transpired, bisexual. Characters possessing one or both of these attributes have a distressing tendency to die. (Buffy did this, too.) And there isn’t really any good reason for this, except that our cultural paradigms of story have decided that it’s all very well to represent mental illness and non-heterosexuality and other non-dominant dimensions of being, but they certainly cannot be shown as attributes of a hero who survives to the final curtain, even triumphs. It’s especially distressing when this happens in a show that has capitalized on its positioning as queer-friendly, which Magicians definitely has done. In essence, while claiming to subvert one trope, the show’s creators wound up fully realizing another. And you have to ask whether they’d have done so if the white male protagonist they were removing from the stage hadn’t also been queer and diagnosed with mental illness.

I don’t actually think that they did this on purpose. I think it didn’t occur to them that the story could be viewed this way. That’s not an excuse. It’s why representation matters–not just in front of the camera, but behind it, and in the construction of the story before the camera ever rolls. How do I know this? Because, despite being a writer myself who’s been primed to watch out for this sort of thing since a friend first pointed out the Black Dude Dies First trope to me over twenty years ago (yes, said friend was black, and no, I hadn’t noticed it before he pointed it out, and if you don’t think it still happens take a close look at who dies and who survives Infinity War), despite having friends who were watching The Magicians specifically because a character they identified with had such a prominent role, despite having known many people who are not straight, are mentally ill, or both, this interpretation didn’t occur to me until I opened up Twitter the next day.

Partly that was because I was so caught up in what happened in the episode. A lot about it is very well done. Jason Ralph and Arjan Gupta are especially good in it, and I have a whole new affection for a song that up until a couple of weeks ago made me think of a one-hit wonder from my middle school years. (Given the show’s clear affection for music from the 80s I do wonder if I’m actually their target demographic after all.) It does in fact close a character’s arc, and provides a way for the actor playing that character to exit the show. But my lived experience is not the same as other viewers’. I haven’t had an entire life of seeing the few characters who possess characteristics similar to myself being offed to provide a lesson or motivation for a protagonist (Disposable Woman is bad enough), particularly not in a show that seemed to be courting my eyeballs. If I’m bringing my own perspective to a work that I create or engage with, that perspective is going to include things I’m more likely to notice and pay attention to, and things that I’m less likely to.

But how much stronger, more interesting, more inventive, and less hurtful to an audience that The Magicians has actively cultivated would it have been to write something that did all of that–and also didn’t give us yet another iteration of the Bury Your Gays trope?