Giant Hellblazer Re-read Part II: Issues 4-12: Newcastle: A Taste of Things To Come

Author’s Note: This is the third of a series of entries covering a full re-read of Hellblazer from start to finish, including side stories. I promise, it won’t be the only thing on this blog, there will be plenty of other things posted here as well.
Also,
Hellblazer is disturbing. It’s excellent horror. There’s a reason it was marketed for mature readers. That’s all the warning I’m going to give.

This entry covers issues 4-12, the rest of the first year of Hellblazer. This is the first long arc, though the arc never received its own title, and includes one of the most important pieces of information about John Constantine’s history: the Newcastle Incident. The hardest thing about analyzing this arc is remembering to focus on issues other than issue 11, “Newcastle,” which deserves, and will receive here, its own focus. That issue is aptly subtitled “A Taste of Things To Come,” a title which would have worked just as well for the arc as a whole.

I am posting this entry before the episodes of NBC’s Constantine which introduce some of the major elements of this plot, primarily because I expect that there will be very little in common between the two. I have several reasons for this prediction: 1) there is no way that NBC will be able to represent the events of Newcastle without significantly watering them down, as this is still network television; 2) the upcoming episodes are based as much on the issues of Saga of the Swamp Thing featuring these characters as they are on the issues of Hellblazer, and I expect that the Invunche/evil goddess plotline will take precedence over the Resurrection Crusade and Zed (see below); 3) viewers of the TV series already know information John learns for the first time in this arc of the comic, so by necessity the series is going to have to take a different line. This is therefore one of the arcs I am really getting a chance to post for the initial reason I am doing these entries in the first place: to make the summaries and comparisons available to people who may not have the time, resources, or inclination to go pick up 300+ issues (there are side stories, after all) of Hellblazer based on a television that might still be canceled (please, NBC, show some sense and let it live).

That summary here is going to be a bit long, because it’s an unusually long arc, nine full issues. There aren’t many stories in the history of the series that go this long. Issue four begins with Gemma, Constantine’s niece, bemoaning the fact that her family has been caught up in the Resurrection Crusade, an evangelical pyramid prayer scheme, and their directives have uprooted the life she knows and restricted the freedoms to which she has previously been accustomed. Desire to rebel against her family causes her to wander into danger, in the company of some young women who claim that they are allowed to do whatever they like now that they are married to a mysterious man. Meanwhile, John falls in with a young artist named Zed, who accompanies him to Liverpool when he rushes there upon hearing that Gemma has disappeared. John and Zed barely save Gemma from strangulation by the mysterious Man, whose house is burned by the militant wing of the Resurrection Crusade. John, more than a little suspicious of the Crusade, begins investigating them, and promptly discovers horrors including soldiers from Vietnam brought back from the dead by the power of pyramid prayer, whereupon they return to their hometown and commit atrocities identical to what they did in Vietnam, as the dead are unable to tell the difference between past and present. Constantine decides to put a stop to the Resurrection Crusade’s activities. Zed is harassed and eventually kidnapped by them as well, as her mysterious past appears bound up with their activities; they begin to work at brainwashing her to become “the Mary,” giving her a central role in their upcoming plans. John, meanwhile, is consumed by guilt as his attempts to uncover the Crusade’s headquarters result in multiple deaths, causing him to nearly commit suicide by throwing himself from a moving train. The demon Nergal makes himself known to Constantine, and John accepts the demon reluctantly as a temporary ally when Nergal offers to heal Constantine’s wounds with a demonic transfusion in exchange for some assistance. Constantine sleeps with Zed, preventing the Resurrection Crusade from using her as a vessel for conception with an angelic partner, and then offers his body for use by the Swamp Thing, who possesses him in order to conceive a child with his wife. He thus prevents both Heaven and Hell from achieving their aims. Nergal is displeased that John has double-crossed him, and swears revenge, but inadvertently reveals that he was the demon involved with the Newcastle incident which has so haunted John. The actual nature of that incident is finally revealed, as well as the trauma of John’s time in Ravenscar afterward, and John is finally able to pursue revenge on Nergal. With the help of the last surviving member of the Newcastle crew, Ritchie Simpson, John does so, destroying the demon completely, but causing Ritchie’s destruction and damnation as well.

For the first time, in this arc we see Constantine caught between the forces of Heaven, as represented by the Resurrection Crusade, and the forces of Hell, as represented by the Damnation Army, while he struggles a) to keep his loved ones from becoming collateral damage, b) to keep himself alive while being targeted by forces far more powerful than himself, and c) to keep the forces of Heaven and Hell reasonably balanced so neither can proceed to treat humanity as a doormat. These motivations will remain a part of Hellblazer from this point onward, and many of Constantine’s methods, views, and choices as established here become the basis for his story later in the series, as do the consequences of his actions.

This arc also introduces some of John’s family: his older sister, Cheryl, who loves him but doesn’t understand him, who sees him as a source of strength and feels guilt about it, and for whom John cares deeply; her husband, Thomas, a weak man who is easily led by promises and flashy religious stunts; their daughter and John’s niece, Gemma, a justifiably resentful girl whose curiosity is clearly going to get her into trouble on numerous occasions, and whom John loves dearly. Constantine’s family is clearly going to be an Achilles heel: he is willing to drop everything and run to their aid as the story begins.

Also found here for the first time is Zed, the first ongoing romantic figure found in Hellblazer. She’s a great character, with powers of her own, who isn’t willing to be a damsel in distress and is more than willing to call John on his bullshit. She was a clear choice for female lead for NBC’s Constantine, and it looks like the show is going to be tackling this storyline soon, at least in part.

By far the most important part of this arc, more important than any other character introduction or plot point, and arguably the single most important part of Jamie Delano’s entire run on Hellblazer other than the establishment of John Constantine as protagonist, is issue 11. This is one of the few issues to be collected in more than one trade paperback; in addition to being in The Devil You Know, this issue is also found in Rare Cuts.

A more specific look at the events and characters of Newcastle is in order here.

It is established clearly before the issue even begins that something happened at Newcastle which scarred John very deeply. John goes searching for the memories, to remind himself, and we get our first hint at just how bad it’s going to be when the flashback opens with a look at all six of the crew: John Constantine, Judith, Frank, Benjamin, Ritchie Simpson, Anne-Marie (whose ghost we’ve seen as a nun haunting Constantine, but she’s not a nun here – first bad sign, whatever happens here is going to change her in a very fundamental way), and… uh-oh, that’s Gary Lester, already doing drugs but seeming mostly functional. The shock of seeing how different Gary and Anne-Marie are from their first appearances in issue 1 is a brilliant, concise signpost.

This is immediately followed by another: the sight of a young, confident, already angry but still hopeful John Constantine who believes that he can make everything okay.

This is quite possibly one of the most terrifying concepts in the entire series. We are given a moment of quiet interaction among the characters, to realize that in the next 30 or so pages, we are going to see the single event that will cause Anne-Marie to become a nun, Gary Lester to become a non-functional junkie, and John Constantine to become the bitter, self-destructive, nightmare-ridden wreck we know and love.

The crew break into the Casanova Club (“Casanova,” translating roughly to “Newcastle,” very clever, Mr. Delano) where Mucous Membrane made its debut, and things start to go wrong immediately. Anne-Marie, a psychic, senses that horrors are occurring. They discover, in the cellar, an awful conglomeration of slaughtered people, and upon returning upstairs, they find the club owner’s daughter Astra, dancing, possessed. She tells a harrowing tale of sexual abuse brought to an end by the terror elemental she has summoned, but which she can no longer control. John confidently plans a summoning of a demon to drag the terror elemental away, and takes control of the situation. Unfortunately, nothing goes as planned, because he does not know the correct name of the demon he is summoning. It toys with all of them, drags Astra to hell, taunting John with the possibility of her rescue. John makes a spectacular attempt, returning only with her severed arm when he fails. As the perspective returns to the present, we find out how all the members of the Newcastle crew fell into destruction, and John plots his revenge on Nergal, whose name he finally knows.

This event is the foundation for the entirety of John Constantine’s later career and story. It represents the first time John sets out not to simply con but to actually destroy a being much more powerful than himself, and for a motivation as personal as revenge. It represents John’s greatest failure, the guilt from which he will never recover. This event is the source of his insanity, the reason he spends two years in Ravenscar Secure Facility for the Dangerously Deranged. Again and again, stories about Constantine will return to this event and this location. The death of Astra is not the most horrible thing that John Constantine ever witnesses or is party to, but it is the first of the major catastrophes of this type in his life, and as such it holds tremendous significance.

Many comic book heroes have an event in their histories that defines their motivations. The death of Bruce Wayne’s parents is probably the most famous example. The events at Newcastle fill this role for John Constantine.

Giant Hellblazer Re-Read Part I: Issues 1-3

Author’s Note: This is the first of a series of entries covering a full re-read of Hellblazer from start to finish, including side stories. I promise, it won’t be the only thing on this blog, there will be plenty of other things posted here as well.
Also,
Hellblazer is disturbing. It’s excellent horror. There’s a reason it was marketed for mature readers. That’s all the warning I’m going to give.

The first part of this entry covers the first two issues of Hellblazer, “Hunger” and “A Feast of Friends,” upon which the Constantine episode named after the latter was directly based. For arcs adapted into the TV show so directly, I will be providing comparison notes as well as stand-alone analysis of the arc in the comics.

The last part of this entry covers issue 3, which is a standalone issue, the first of many in the series.

The first issues of such an iconic series deserve their own close look, as this pair of issues has a special place in comic book history. For most readers today, these issues, as the first two included in the volume Original Sins, are the standard comic book introduction to John Constantine as a character. When reading, though, it is important to realize that this was originally just an introduction to him as a protagonist rather than a side character. DC Comics was betting on the character’s popularity from Alan Moore’s work on Saga of the Swamp Thing to really get the series launched, and then for word of mouth and positive reviews to get new readers from there. The early issues, before the series became part of the Vertigo lineup (indeed, before the Vertigo lineup even existed), were part of the shared DC Universe, and it shows at various points, but these two issues are just to establish John as the main character of his own story.

The DC execs were aware, though, that if they didn’t refer to recent events of Swamp Thing, they’d have angry fans writing in to the letter columns (hey, remember when those existed?) and the whole project could be put in jeopardy. So issue 1, “Hunger,” starts us off a bit in medias res, with Constantine recovering from a victory against some of the major Swamp Thing villains that did not come without massive personal cost to him and those he loved – a pattern which becomes familiar, the more one reads of Constantine’s story. John is haunted, literally, by those he has sacrificed to achieve his ends.

For all those who had read about John Constantine in Swamp Thing, and been interested by his story and his perspective, it must have been an awesome moment to realize that not only is he the protagonist, he’s also the narrator of Hellblazer. From issue 1, we’re treated to a semi-lyrical, bitter, sarcastic, self-deprecating, and still shockingly candid narration of John Constantine’s thoughts and emotions, creating a breathtaking contrast between what we as readers are allowed to see, and the walls he builds between himself and the rest of the world. We are allowed to see the ghosts that only John can normally see; we are treated to the inside of his head, when others are kept out with his sarcasm, grins, and cigarette smoke. The point when, very early on, John sobs himself to sleep after being wished a good night by the ghost of a former lover is our sole warning of the experience we’re letting ourselves in for, by reading this series.

There’s a reason John Constantine has often been referred to by fans as “DC Comics’ whipping boy.”

The basic premise of this story is as follows: John Constantine comes home to discover an old friend, Gary Lester, curled up in his bathtub, absolutely covered in insects and strung out on heroin. After defumigating his apartment, he discovers that Gary has released a hunger demon from Sudan, which he had initially trapped inside a bottle. The demon is causing a deadly pandemic of consumption: a man starving to death in a restaurant while eating his way through the menu several times over; a body-builder who devours himself alive; a jeweler who dies from eating gemstones; a collector who perishes after literally chewing through his collection of comic books. Constantine is has two concerns: a) getting Gary out of his apartment, and b) keeping the hunger demon from destroying everything and everyone. He seeks out the aid of Papa Midnite, a wealthy and powerful magician with a penchant for strong ritual magic. Together they come up with the way to eliminate the demon: trap it inside the body of the man who let it loose in the first place. At first, John has little sympathy for Gary, who seems to be more concerned with his next fix than with the potential destruction of the human race; but as Gary appears increasingly pathetic and afraid, we see that this isn’t going to be easy. But Constantine follows through, tricking Gary into believing that he’s being led to his next fix, and instead imprisoning him inside MIdnite’s clubhouse and inviting the demon inside. In true Constantine fashion, he won’t let himself look away, and drinks and smokes his way through Gary’s grisly end. In the final panels of the comic, we see that Gary’s ghost joins the others haunting John.

There is one major fact that is brought home to readers meeting our protagonist for the first time through this story: he is a stone-cold bastard when it counts. Because we have the perspective of going into his psychology, we can see that John isn’t entirely unscathed by sacrificing Gary to his demons – literally – but at no point does he even hesitate to follow through in doing so. Constantine isn’t an easy man to read, and he’s definitely not an easy person to like.

All of which makes Chas all the more interesting as a character: Constantine’s oldest friend, his getaway driver, and the one person upon whom John can seemingly depend for absolutely anything. Magic isn’t his mindset or his place; he’s an ordinary guy, a cabbie, and he works with the material he can see and touch in front of him. And yet, he survives and sticks by John through thick and thin, even when John acts in a manner that would drive anyone else away. We get our first look at this relationship as well, though Chas has only a very minor role to play in this arc, and Chas is already someone whose fate and history we wonder about.

Chas is one of the most important differences between the comic and TV versions of the John Constantine story, but oddly enough not in this particular episode. He’s pretty much written out with the flimsiest of excuses on the show (in reality, apparently actor Charles Halford was juggling multiple projects and the script was simply written with the knowledge of his unavailability). He’s anything but normal on the show, in ways that haven’t been revealed as of this writing (shortly after the airing of episode six of Constantine).

John and Gary have their differences as well, and they make for a very different version of this story. In terms of plot, there is one huge change in the adaptation: the sacrifice to the demons is Gary’s own choice, in the end, although he is conscious of the fact that he has been to some extent manipulated into making that choice by John’s own plans. John is still cold and manipulative in many ways, but since the showrunners made the (wise, I think) decision not to have a voiceover for the entirety of the show, the only way we can see his inner conflict over the situation is for it to be displayed externally, and we see tears in his eyes at several crucial moments – something Gary Lester in the comics would never have had a chance to see. At the same time, it makes more sense, because this version of Gary is much more sympathetic, both to us and to John. He’s seriously screwed up after “the Newcastle incident,” about which we know much more in the TV version in episode four than we do by the conclusion of the first two issues of the comic, and has gotten himself into the situation with the hunger demon in a desperate attempt to atone for what he sees as his own part in that debacle. He makes mistake after mistake, but it is clear that his intentions are in the right place, unlike the Gary from the comics whose focus is always on his next fix.

John himself goes through a very different series of psychological contortions over the course of the story, between the two versions. In the comic, he has to deal with the fact that he is forcibly sacrificing a former friend to a hideously evil force, and with the fact that he does so in the hope that Gary will die without ever realizing it. In the TV episode, he puts on a spectacular display of a redemptive story arc, a realization that people are capable of change, which turns out to be entirely fake – but then has to deal with the fact that his manipulative con job has inspired an actual turnaround in Gary, even if not in himself. Both are typical of the character, in different ways, but the TV version is definitely focusing on the gentler, kinder aspects of his character while the comic takes pains to introduce readers first and foremost to the fact that John Constantine is dangerous. Of course, there’s also a key difference here in that “A Feast of Friends” is not the introductory episode in the TV series – and the fact that it’s highly unlikely that any network TV series would start by deliberately introducing its audience to one of the least likeable aspects of its protagonist.

That’s Hellblazer for you, though, right there – this arc is the only heads-up readers are going to get, that this is not a series that’s going to flinch from anything, and if you’re looking for moral black-and-whiteness, for a superhero who will go out and be noble and shining and glorious, well, this isn’t the series for you. Given which, it’s easy to see why the series was so groundbreaking from its earliest issues, and why it eventually became one of the six starting series for the Vertigo lineup and later would be identified as the singular flagship title for the label.

Issue 3 is a serious contrast from the first two, being overtly political and full of ridiculously over-the-top imagery that nonetheless makes its point: politics are hell, says Jamie Delano. Literally, in this case. Ha. Ha.

One would expect an issue about demon yuppies rigging an election in favor of Margaret Thatcher to age less well than this issue has. But while this is definitely one of the least subtly political issues of Hellblazer, it actually holds up reasonably well, simply because John’s experiences are so well unfolded for the reader. This is a brilliant example of character-based storytelling, and establishes that this series is first and foremost about its protagonist doing awesome things, and everything else is, to some extent, incidental.

A bit of summary: John is tipped to investigate the deaths of a number of yuppies in poor areas of London, by his friend Ray Monde, who trawls newspapers for unusual patterns. He discovers a pair of demons collecting souls for their master, Blathoxi. Constantine returns home, summons Blathoxi directly rather than going through his underlings, and offers up his soul to the demon. John’s eagerness to sell his soul indicates to Blathoxi (as intended) that John might have inside information that the Conservative party, which Blathoxi has backed in an attempt to shore up the UK soul market, might actually lose the election, and the demon pulls out of the market immediately. John is thrown back into his apartment, which is now full of angry demon yuppies who want his blood; his life is saved by Blathoxi, who turns up to drag his employees back to hell for punishment, because he doesn’t dare let on that John has successfully conned him. John is left hanging upside down from the ceiling where he can do nothing but watch the election results come in as Thatcher wins again.

It’s amazing how the same metaphors are still used to talk about politics almost thirty years later: people selling their souls, people being morally bankrupt, buying and selling elections, that helplessness that makes watching the numbers on an election come in a special kind of torture… and as a result, this issue holds up because the reader can play a form of mental Mad Libs with it. It doesn’t have to be about Thatcher anymore – fill in the candidate of your choice. It doesn’t have to be about her brand of economics – fill in the policy of your choice. The fact that this story is only a single issue long means that Delano didn’t take very long to actually discuss any of the policies under criticism, with the result that even if one disagrees with him, one can still pretty much ignore that and enjoy the humorous last panel, when John realizes he can’t reach the TV to turn it off, and has to just watch the election results until dawn. Ugh. Torture indeed. (As an American reader, I’m imagining not being able to turn off Fox News on election night… I can imagine plenty of people would feel the same way about MSNBC. I don’t know what the channels are in other countries, but I am sure they exist.) And yet, I think anyone sufficiently politically minded has been there, in some sense.

It’s also an interesting moment for John Constantine, because we have to ask ourselves why it matters to him. He spends so much time insisting that he doesn’t care about anyone, he’s concerned only for himself, and the world can go to hell for all he cares. Why, then, does it bother him to watch the elections turn out in a way he doesn’t like? We get our first example of John’s own narration lying to us, and of course to himself, about his own motivations. This is a signpost for future issues, if we’re watching carefully: don’t trust the narrator.

Why Is Bad Quality More Acceptable In Old Sci-Fi?

Author’s Note: Contains spoilers for a really bad episode of the most recent season of Doctor Who; if you actually care about the show, I recommend ignoring this warning, because dear sweet gods that episode was bad and maybe now you won’t have to actually watch it. Also spoilers for some episodes of older and newer Star Trek, not that the basics of the plot really mattered in the stories under discussion.

I recently sat through one of the worst episodes of Doctor Who I have ever had the displeasure of watching. The episode in question was “Kill The Moon,” near the midpoint of series eight, starring Peter Capaldi. Even Capaldi’s superb acting couldn’t come close to saving this episode. I sat and stared in disgust for the entirety of it, and would honestly not have cared much if the human race had been extinguished in the episode, because the whole premise was so ridiculous that I found myself unable to suspend any disbelief. To give you an idea, I am arachnophobic to a point that can actually be considered a mental illness, but the giant spiders crawling all over the moon for some reason (still not entirely clear on why, honestly) didn’t bother me in the slightest.

After I finished watching, though, a thought struck me. The premise of the episode is absolutely awful: the moon is a giant egg waiting to hatch a giant alien that’s the last of its species, apparently, though how the Doctor knows that is unclear since it is otherwise a complete mystery to him, an alien that will do something to earth, maybe possibly, so, uh, maybe the human race will have to kill it, or not, except that shouldn’t be an issue because the Doctor is either a jerk or an idiot, and I as a classics major should not have enough knowledge of biology and physics to figure out this problem faster than the Doctor and all the scientists of earth, and meanwhile there are single-celled spiders infecting the moon for no good reason. But it’s awful in a way that would have been perfectly at home in classic Doctor Who with a less annoyance-filled version of the summary. And I would have watched it and laughed hysterically and enjoyed myself greatly.

To make things more complicated still, there are exceptions to the old-good-new-bad rule. There are some really awful episodes of new Who, which are still fun to watch, particularly in series one. Anything involving the Slitheen, who wander around with zippers in their foreheads (and oh, did the special effects department love that shining blue light effect, they’d never had a budget before – they had a special effect, and by god they were going to use it, over and over and over….) was frankly kind of ridiculous, even coming on the heels of mannequins trying to take over the earth, but it all still worked somehow. My initial theory was that it was due to expectation of that kind of campy quality from fans of the classic show, but new viewers seem to feel the same way.

Which leaves us with the same question: what makes bad science fiction palatable, and why is it so much more common to find it in older work?

Doctor Who makes a great test case for old science fiction versus new science fiction, simply because it’s the same franchise. For the same reason, Star Trek and Star Wars do admirably for the same purpose, and are worth spending some time discussing here.

I love Star Wars, and always have. But you will not find me claiming that even the original trilogy is made entirely up of brilliant films. Groundbreaking, perhaps, but this is not the same as brilliant. Of the original trilogy, I have always maintained that the only one which is objectively high quality is The Empire Strikes Back. I love A New Hope in particular, and always will, but I can’t claim with a straight face that it’s actually a good movie, in pretty much any respect. Frankly, Revenge of the Sith is a better film – but its flaws are much harder for me to accept. I thought at first that it might be due to the fact that I hadn’t watched A New Hope in a long time, but upon re-watching it, I find I love it as much as I ever have, and am willing to ignore flaws in it that I am incapable of not raking over the coals in more recent films in the franchise when the exact same mistakes appear.

I find I have the same expanded tolerance for artistic mistakes in early Star Trek. I am more able to accept that women on the original Star Trek cling to Captain Kirk and say, “I’m frightened, Captain,” all the time, where women looking ethereal with their hair blowing in the wind of new planets as they model their pretty skirts in Star Trek: The Next Generation bothers me intensely. In part, I am able to excuse the politics of the earlier show because of its earlier context, but the fact that it’s also just plain poor writing bothers me less in the earlier show – and this is just one example of many.

Star Trek gives us a lovely additional gold mine of opportunity in terms of discussion: episodes of old Trek and new Trek which are not only from the same franchise but based on the exact same concept, sometimes openly so. There are episodes of the original series which are the subject of episodes in later series – only changed from drama to comedy, because really, who could possibly take seriously the concept of water with a molecular difference that makes people drop their inhibitions and go crazy. And yet, “The Naked Time” is one of my favorite episodes of the original Star Trek, precisely because of its variety in the way the characters are affected, and what is revealed about each of them. Okay, yes, the crazy-making-water is absurd, but it’s just a mechanism, it doesn’t actually matter. But when unlocking its mysteries becomes a central concept in “The Naked Now,” in Star Trek: The Next Generation, it can only be handled as comedy.

And now, I think, these three franchises between them have provided us an answer key.

Modern science fiction takes itself seriously in its details. A film that claims to have science of any variety will have any inconsistencies pulled apart by fans. A film that does actually have real science will be combed carefully by popularizers of science and roasted if the opportunity arises. The explanation of “it just works that way, okay?!” is no longer acceptable. Many viewers I know, myself included, have a certain tolerance for that kind of explanation, but once it goes beyond that line – and I’m not even exactly sure where the line is, except that I’d be willing to bet it’s different for every viewer – any science fiction that uses that explanation, must either be bad, or be deliberately comedic.

The reason “Kill The Moon” failed utterly as an episode was the fact that it attempted to take itself seriously. The Robin-Hood-themed episode earlier in the season fared much better, because it was unabashedly silly for most of its run time. “The Naked Now” is ridiculous and delightful. A lack of imagination plus a consistently deadly serious attitude, combined to produce a thoroughly unappealing atmosphere for much of later Star Trek – and the times when this is not true, those episodes are amazing to watch.

It’s kind of sad, the idea that we can’t take the explanation of “it just works that way, we don’t understand why” seriously anymore. Part of it, I think, is that actual science has progressed so far in the last forty years or so, and knowledge of science has become so popularized through the work of people such as Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson, that we’re able to accept older science fiction as being the product of a culture that didn’t have as strong a foothold in science fact. Even so, today’s viewers seem to have a seriously deflated view of how much people actually knew in the 1960’s, or what people were willing to accept. When we look at awful special effects, and someone points out, “oh, but it was much more impressive back then,” there are still plenty of examples where, at the time of a movie’s release, people didn’t think it was any more realistic than they do now – they were just more able to focus on the creativity than on the need for realism.

And that, I think, is the answer I’ve been reaching for.

And yet, I wonder what might have been, had the Star Wars prequel trilogy tried to simply offer a rollicking good time instead of trying to make Serious Social Commentary.

Reasons (Other Than Constantine) To Watch Constantine

Author’s Note: This entry was a challenge from a friend, to write a review of NBC’s Constantine now that it’s truly hit its stride, explaining why the show is worth watching without resorting to a description of why its protagonist is awesome – that’s for another entry, possibly as I start my epic Hellblazer re-read. (No fear, it won’t take up the whole blog, I promise.)

It took some time for NBC’s latest comic-based show to get itself up to full speed, but by episode five, it has certainly done so – sadly, it seems, just in time for the network to decide against ordering an additional nine episodes, halting production at thirteen. In addition to being kind of a stupid move considering the show’s ratings (becoming one of the top shows on all the streaming networks, retaining over 80% of viewers from Grimm, which airs in the previous time slot, and showing ratings improvements of over 30% week-by-week, are all very impressive accomplishments for a show relegated to the 10pm Friday night graveyard slot, premiering opposite the World Series with its second episode airing on Halloween), the show has become truly impressive in its own right, even without considering the adaptation from Hellblazer, in numerous ways.

First, the acting is stupendous for the most part, much higher than usual for network TV. It’s not perfect, that’s certain, but in particular the dynamics between the characters are delightful to observe. There are small moments thrown in by the actors, moments of expression, exchanges of physicality that are some of the best I’ve ever seen in TV or film. The actors have been very clearly growing into their characters, and just as the characters themselves develop closer dynamics and become a team, so too have the actors. A modicum of research into the culture of the cast and crew on-set confirms that this is a show with a great set of people working on it, who have become friends as well as colleagues, and who have come to really love their work. Even rarer, they actually make effort to reach out to the fans to share that, something particularly to be treasured when dealing with any beloved and iconic property. The cast and crew have made deliberate forays into the fandom on Twitter; they sometimes turn up in the comments sections on other social networks. They are clearly listening to what fans have to say, but in the best of ways: the executive producers have confirmed that their goal is not to simply conform to everything the fans want, as that never works out well; they simply take it into account before doing their best to give the fans something we’ve yet to think of.

Which brings me to my second point: the scripting. The dialogue has been showing a significant quality curve upward, especially starting in episode three, “The Devil’s Vinyl.” Of course, acting and writing are inextricably intertwined, but we’ve all seen shows and movies where actors manage to screw up great lines, or manage to somehow deliver poor lines well. This show has neither problem – the excellent cast has been given increasingly phenomenal writing to work with, and the wit positively sparkles. One important result of this is that every episode of Constantine has some serious re-watch value. This is true starting even with the (relatively) weak pilot episode. The pacing is consistently rapid, there are constantly at least two things to follow in the story at any given time, and this show never condescends to its audience – a refreshing change from standard comic book fare.

The creators of this show are giant nerds, and they are fascinated with every aspect of their subject matter. They have made the assumption (quite correctly, as it appears from fan response) that at least a portion of their audience is the same way. This fascination goes far beyond the DC Comics universe, though that of course is its beginning – hence the appearance of dozens of “Easter eggs” hidden in the episodes to date – and extends to carefully researched folklore from around the world, linguistics, religion, culture, metaphysics, philosophy, and more. I have personally spotted over a half-dozen languages and writing systems used correctly in the show, and friends have confirmed more.

More impressive even than the research, though, is the respect accorded these cultures and belief systems. When possible, the producers have consulted actual practitioners of the faiths referenced in the show, and in several cases (most notably the dance ritual in episode five, “Danse Vaudou”) have actually incorporated those practitioners and their work into the relevant scenes as filmed. This is more important for Constantine than for some other shows: there are certain aspects to the story of John Constantine which are seriously problematic – after all, this show features a white male who takes direct advantage of the privilege that affords him, to walk safely into and out of places, and to casually appropriate bits and pieces of others’ cultures, to take on roles for information-gathering that accord him respect and authority, while others must make do with less due to their gender or race. This show acknowledges that at every turn, sometimes subtly, sometimes openly, such as Papa Midnite’s furious – and entirely correct – accusation, “You are a magpie of magic, a thief of tradition; you steal from other people’s cultures and beliefs to suit your own purposes.” It is both glorious and rare for a show to call out its own protagonist on his white male privilege.

Even more subtle is the show’s handling of the protagonist’s lack of privilege in certain regards. Serious mental health issues, physiological addiction, and oh, let’s not forget the bisexuality issue. Initially, I was upset when I heard the official line regarding this: it’s not going to be central to the show, and isn’t going to really be clarified one way or the other beyond subtle information. I, like many other viewers, took this to mean that it was going to be removed entirely. I now have to admit I was wrong in this. While I would prefer that the show deal more openly with this issue, they have actually done exactly as they claimed: sexuality is not central to the show or to the characters’ dynamics, and Constantine’s sexuality has remained ambiguous from the pilot episode onward, with a line-drop in episode five confirming his bisexuality in a very subtle way that can be ignored by anyone who wants to ignore it, but definitely points in that direction for anyone watching closely for signs. This is now being handled the same way as Constantine’s smoking: a gradual introduction, testing the waters to see how the viewer base reacts.

That attitude – experimentation, testing the waters of the viewer market – is typical of the way this show is being run. There is an amazing opportunity here for audience members to cast a vote with our wallets in favor of shows that display social consciousness, smart writing, progressive thinking, and complex moral analysis. If you like all of these things, you should be watching this show; if you have friends who like these things, you should be recommending this show.

One of the best protagonists in decades is just a bonus.

#SaveConstantine

Representation of Disabilities and Persons with Disabilities in Avatar: The Last Airbender (and Legend of Korra)

Note: The later part of this essay will contain spoilers for the most recent episodes (as of 10/22/2014) of Legend of Korra, and there will be warning for when they will begin. The whole essay will contain spoilers for the TV version of The Last Airbender in its entirety.

As a person with disabilities whose hybrid spirituality includes certain aspects of Eastern Buddhist thought which are beautifully expressed in the Avatar franchise, watching this series was quite the experience. The variety of disabilities displayed both in Avatar: The Last Airbender and now in Legend of Korra is unusual in television, as is the astute writing. I plan to write more about both shows in the long run, but for now I’m going to focus on this particular aspect.

There are four major recurring characters in Avatar: The Last Airbender (noted after as A:TLA) with disabilities that directly affect the course of their storylines: Teo (a wheelchair user following a traumatic injury), Zuko (facial scarring, speech impediment, potential visual impairment, emotional trauma and possible PTSD and depression), Azula (severe mental illness), and Toph (blindness). One thing all of them have in common is that none of them are given a chance in the show to experience full recovery. The audience is allowed to understand that Zuko may recover from some of his trauma, and I understand that in the comics Azula makes something of a recovery from her illness, but the core show ends before either can occur. Teo and Toph have no chance of recovery from their physical disabilities.

Let’s examine the mental disabilities first. Zuko experiences flashbacks under certain circumstances, has many of the emotional issues often found in people with histories of abuse, particularly in childhood. Azula shows symptoms of the same, though different symptoms – which is a rarity in television, to see two characters showing very different symptoms as a result of directly-related emotional traumas. Their emotional issues show up in particular relief against the contrasting sibling relationship between Sokka and Katara. Azula, in addition to her trauma- and abuse-related issues from her family life, is clearly unstable in a much deeper way, perhaps so deeply as to be identifiable as sociopathy. As her life changes and the pressures alter in ways she is unprepared for, her grip on reality loosens. By the end of the show, she is hallucinating her missing mother, and spends her last moments on-screen chained to a grate, screaming and spitting blue fire. This is particularly poignant when a viewer considers again the fact that this is a sixteen-year-old girl who wants, more than anything else, to be loved. There is a reason why Zuko and Katara, contemplating her at this time, are not even smiling over their victory.

Zuko is the one character who perhaps shows a mix of physical and mental disability. In addition to his flashbacks, trust issues, and clear depression and anger control difficulties, Zuko also flinches when touched, or when someone approaches from his scarred side; he turns too far around when looking to that side, indicating perhaps that there is some visual impairment on that side. This may just be a fluke of animation, however, as there is nothing ever said in the actual dialogue about this. At the same time, it is noted that his hearing is extraordinarily sharp, a trait often found in those who have an impairment in another sense. It is certainly a valid interpretation, and very subtly expressed if intentional on the writers’ part.

The two characters with definite physical disabilities have obvious visual cues: Teo’s bandages and wheelchair, and Toph’s white eyes. At no point have the writers in the Avatar franchise examined the type of physical disability that doesn’t come with that kind of indicator, but to be entirely fair, that would be very difficult to animate on the budget A:TLA had. Perhaps sometime later in Korra? We’ll see.

Both Teo and Toph have a positive attitude toward their situation, and refuse to be restricted and defined by their disabilities. Teo, whose disability is based in his mobility, uses his wheelchair to fly. As an intermittent wheelchair user, it brought tears to my eyes to watch this. Toph, whose disability is a missing sense, replaces it with another ability: her earthbending. Of course, the catch is that, in our world, neither is possible. It makes me wonder what the writers were getting at here.

There isn’t too much more to do with Teo, he’s a relatively minor character, so let’s turn to Toph, whose disability is the most explicitly examined throughout the series in a number of ways. We see how it affects her in certain environments more than others; we see how she is able to function and live a relatively normal life in spite of her inability to see, but still does run into difficulties that clearly rankle; and we see how others react to her based on their knowledge of her and her disability. Each is worth examining separately.

I read a joke theory once, I think it was on TVTropes, that Toph is blind because “she can’t see anything less badass than she is.” Hilarious though that concept is, because Toph really is badass almost beyond description, it really does encapsulate the way in which her disability doesn’t actually impede her in getting things done, most of the time. She can still walk around towns, talk to people and do almost anything she needs to get done. At the same time, she can’t read wanted posters, or write, or enjoy books, or see when they fly over things, or see through sand or ice or certain other surfaces or… a number of other things, because she is in fact disabled. She’s competent enough that it’s easy to forget, both for the viewer and for the other characters, but it comes up just often enough that we’re reminded that for her, it’s a constant. This is absolutely brilliant writing, reflecting the experience of a competent person with a disability, and rejecting the concept of disability binarism (the idea that a person is either completely able or completely disabled all the time with no variance).

It’s worth looking at how the other characters experience her disability, and, to go further, how she experiences their experience. There are two categories of people in Toph’s life: those who knew her first as blind and then as a great earthbender, and those who knew her first as a great earthbender and then as blind. Those who encounter her disability first tend to see her as fragile and in need of protection and restriction, and unable to make decisions for herself. It is difficult for people who know her first as a little blind girl to understand that she can be more than that. Those who know her first as a great earthbender, often forget that she is blind – most often Sokka, played for laughs, but other characters as well. The first is more obviously discriminatory and oppressive, but the second, particularly in light of the insensitivity it reflects to the experience of constancy described in the previous paragraph, is also a serious issue, particularly given that these are supposed to be the friends who understand her best. Again, this is excellent writing, and reflective of the experience of many people with disabilities. The best part is that, being Toph, she’s willing to trap them in it, call them on it, make fun of them for it, forgive them, and move on. She makes an amazing role model.

Alright, it’s time to talk about Legend of Korra up through recent episodes, you might want to skip to the end of this essay. Go to the next line of italics and you’ll be safe.

Another of the greatest women on TV these days is the protagonist of the sequel series. It was a brave move on the writers’ part, to put her in a wheelchair at the end of season three. Unlike A:TLA, we’re going to have time to see Korra process what has happened to her, and either make a recovery or not. She’s been told now by both Katara and Toph – both of whom know of what they speak – that it will come down to her attitude and her decision whether or not that recovery occurs, and to what extent.

So often, when a television protagonist is injured, we get some kind of time-skip and everything is fine. Even this show has been guilty of the rapid-fix, such as the end of season one, when Korra’s bending was restored awfully quickly after being taken away. This time, the writers are taking their time to do this right. We’ve had a time-skip, but we’ve also had flashbacks to physical therapy, to individual steps one at a time, to the painful process of working through the recovery from an injury and an illness. All the while being told by well-meaning people that she should take her time, everything’s under control, her job is being done by other people.

Which is great, because she does need to take her time. On the other hand, she’s also clearly absorbing the message that maybe, just maybe, she isn’t needed anymore. And that part of her identity is being called into question. The viewers see Korra trying to get in touch with her Avatar spirit and failing. And yet, there’s hope, because we know how strong Korra is, to have even survived this far.

Alright, the spoilers are over. You can come back now

As someone who’s been through some of the issues of disability, illness, recovery portrayed in the show (obviously not the Avatar spirit stuff, but I’ve definitely been through a sense of spiritual damage and recovery), it’s hard to watch sometimes. But that’s a sign the writers are doing it right. It should be hard to watch. I hope it’s hard to watch for people who haven’t been through it, but know someone who has. I hope it’s hard to watch even if you don’t know someone who has, because you know there are people out there who have been through it. This shouldn’t be easy to watch.

I so appreciate that there are writers out there who don’t pull their punches on these issues, and write them with care and precision, love and humor. The world would be a better place for people with disabilities if more media examined disability this way; popular understanding would naturally expand. Please support media you see doing good work like this, and point me at other examples you know.

House Words and Bannermen in A Song of Ice and Fire

So this was suggested by the comments on my last post, plus another idea that had been marinating in my brain, and the two combined and grew teeth and started chewing on me in the middle of the night. Result: my second post on A Song of Ice and Fire. There won’t be too many of these, I promise, but neither will this be the last.

First, I have to give some credit to my source: I spent a ridiculously long time clicking links starting from the “House Words” article at A Wiki of Ice and Fire. They have a somewhat terrifyingly complete alphabetic listing of House Words by House. I have reorganized them by banner allegiance, below, with analysis.

The reason for this exercise was the question asked in the comments to my other post, roughly, “What is the effect of House Words on our moral views of a given House?” I had also been thinking of a different – but related – question: how do a Lord’s associations with certain bannermen affect the reader’s views of his House’s morals? And I thought, why not combine the two? And here we are.

Keep in mind as we go through this list, that there are many Houses not listed here. They are those whose Words have not been listed in the books, the appendices, or any related media, or for that matter any interviews with GRRM, which were apparently the sources for a couple of these. So, for example, I don’t think we are meant to assume that House Greyjoy only has one vassal House.

Also, with one exception, clearly marked, each minor House is listed only under the Great House whom they serve when they first actively appear in the series. Unless the first action they are seen to take in the series is betraying their rulers and switching sides, they are listed with their original allegiances.

House Martell – Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken. Bannermen: House Allyrion – No Foe May Pass. House Fowler – Let Me Soar. House Jordayne – Let It Be Written. House Yronwood – We Guard the Way.

House Martell’s legacy of independence, which is the main thing readers and viewers hear about Dorne other than its wine for quite some time into the series, is strongly portrayed in the House Words of both its ruling House and those of Martell’s bannermen. The small number of them whose Words are actually given makes this easier to keep consistent, but consistent it certainly is. Audience members will find their views on House Martell bolstered by the bannermen, I think, whatever those views might be. If one is sympathetic to Dorne’s views and aims, the bannermen are sufficiently in line with those to be affirming. If one assumes that Dorne is a danger and a threat to Westeros and needs to be subjugated, the bannermen certainly lend credence to that as well. In terms of character, we don’t get much in the way of information about the bannermen of Dorne other than this.

House Tyrell – Growing Strong. Bannermen: House Ambrose – Never Resting. House Ashford – Our Sun Shines Bright. House Beesbury – Beware Our Sting (Vassals Via Hightower). House Bulwer – Death Before Disgrace (Vassals Via Hightower). House Footly – Tread Lightly Here. House Fossoway of Cider Hall – A Taste of Glory. House Graceford – Work Her Will. House Hastwyck – None So Dutiful. House Hightower – We Light the Way. House Merryweather – Behold Our Bounty. House Oakheart – Our Roots Go Deep. House Tarly – First in Battle.

That’s… a lot of sweetness and light and nature metaphors and awful puns. Excuse me while I go vomit in a corner… Back now, and ready to put aside my dislike of House Tyrell’s Words (I actually quite like the people in it, with the exception of Loras and even he’s growing on me a bit) for the sake of analysis. The nature metaphors and the almost idyllic quality of so many of these Houses’ Words are a beautifully subtle way of bringing home the message that Tyrell is just full of bountiful resources. They may not shit gold, but they’ve laid in stocks for the Long Winter, and a few years in, they’ll outlast everyone else. And so will all of their bannermen! What a great deal, if you swear loyalty! Doesn’t that just make them useful allies and dangerous enemies, though… and all while seeming so sweet about the whole thing. In addition to being advertising, though, it’s also a lovely bit of snide and superiority, actually, which is borne out in the characters’ interactions with just about everybody, but which is easy to overlook if you aren’t watching for it – or if you really want to see the best in people (in which case, I feel bad for you as a reader of this series, I really do). Again, we don’t get much on their bannermen beyond this.

House Arryn – As High as Honor. Bannermen: House Royce – We Remember. House Wydman – Right Conquers Might. House Waxley – Light in Darkness.

Well that’s mighty morally upright of you, House Arryn. And traditional. One gets the impression that these are people with some kind of legacy to uphold. The Eyrie would make a great lighthouse, and it makes just as good a metaphor. In all seriousness, I think we can see why Lysa Arryn fixated so much on “The seed is strong,” when surrounded by these bits of propaganda. There’s a whole other analysis to be done of House Words there: the effect they might have on a person growing up around them, or on a person with severe mental illness (which Lysa certainly is) who is constantly surrounded by them. House Words are indoctrination in its finest form, and this is a brilliant example of how that can play out.

House Baratheon – Ours Is the Fury. Bannermen: House Buckwell – Pride and Purpose. House Caron – No Song So Sweet. House Follard – None so Wise. House Grandison – Rouse Me Not. House Lonmouth – The Choice Is Yours. House Penrose – Set Down Our Deeds. House Stokeworth – Proud to Be Faithful. House Swygert – Truth Conquers. House Toyne – Fly High, Fly Far. House Trant – So End Our Foes. House Velaryon – The Old, the True, the Brave. House Wensington – Sound the Charge. House Wendwater – For All Seasons.

House Baratheon’s Words have always interested me: Ours Is the Fury. This is very much a battle-oriented phrase, and brings to mind the (somewhat tragic) fact that the audience only gets to meet Robert Baratheon years after the Rebellion is over and his years of greatness have passed. Based on what we hear, he must really have been amazing back then, possibly he and Stannis both (remember that Stannis supposedly took Storm’s End and Dragonstone, which were previously considered impregnable). We don’t get to see House Baratheon in its most comfortable milieu: war. The House Words of not only Baratheon but all of its bannermen speak to this, and are a fairly consistent reminder, not to put too fine a point on it, Do Not Fuck with Us or You Will Not Be Happy with the Result (I hereby propose these as alternative House Words for Baratheon). One gets the impression that House Baratheon has always been around, will always be around, and it’s pointless to try and get rid of them. Which is probably a good impression for the Words of a warlike House to give, really. In terms of bannermen, there are only a handful of characters from these minor Houses, and they aren’t directly associated with the Baratheons. I didn’t know until I looked it up that House Trant were their vassals, for example.

House Stark – Winter is Coming. Bannermen:. House Bolton – Our Blades Are Sharp. House Cerwyn – Honed and Ready (Vassals via Bolton). House Flint of Widow’s Watch – Ever Vigilant (Vassals via Bolton). House Hornwood – Righteous in Wrath (Vassals via Bolton). House Karstark – The Sun of Winter. House Mormont – Here We Stand. House Tallhart – Proud and Free (Vassals via Bolton).

As much as I dislike the Starks, I really, really hope they have more bannermen than are listed here, and that those bannermen have direct loyalty. If not, the Boltons are actually intermediary lords to more than half the Starks’ bannermen. I would like to think that the Starks are not quite so stupid as to let that come to pass (if I’m wrong, they deserve what’s coming to them, if Westeros has a version of Darwin). Also, the Boltons are scary, and are shockingly unexpected bannermen for the Starks, especially after how the Starks are portrayed from Ned’s perspective. With that kind of cold dispassion and countenance for torture, one would expect them to work for the Lannisters.

The Stark Words are grim, but some of the most compelling in the series, and have a variety of meanings. They speak to the hardness of the North, and the inevitability of death, and the necessity of preparation for disaster, and all sorts of pragmatic things… which makes it particularly interesting that the Starks are the House who most consistently have their heads in the clouds when it comes to pragmatism. It also reminds us of the House’s ancient bonds with the Night’s Watch, which show up in some of their vassals’ Words as well. They give us the impression of the Starks that the Starks like to give of themselves to others, which is why this was one of the examples that started off my thinking on this topic to begin with.

House Greyjoy – We Do Not Sow. Bannermen: House Codd – Though All Men Do Despise Us.

Given that Greyjoy is one of the Great Houses, I think we can take this as proof that there are more Houses than are known as having House Words, even if some of the missing names from the list weren’t enough.

One of my favorite moments in the series is the point when Theon Greyjoy goes home for the first time in years, after spending time among the Starks, and is looked at by pretty much everyone as having “gone soft.” Up until this point, the Starks have been the “hard Northerners,” Westeros’ prime example of harshness and living with the wildness of the surrounding elements, and suddenly this is called into question. Up until this point, when Theon has bragged about his homeland and its harshness, the reader has been left to assume that he is lying or at least exaggerating, and the reader has been left to be wrong. Their House Words are delightfully chilling. Those of their sole bannermen to have House Words of their own? Remind us that this lifestyle can really, really suck. If one reacts to the Starks’ Words with “Well, that’s grim,” one can legitimately react to the Greyjoys’ with “Well, that’s even more grim.”

House Lannister – Hear Me Roar! Bannermen: House Crakehall – None so Fierce. House Marbrand – Burning Bright. House Peckledon – Unflinching. House Plumm – Come Try Me. House Sarsfield – True to the Mark. House Serrett – I Have No Rival. House Swyft – Awake! Awake!. House Westerling – Honor, not Honors.

House Lannister is my favorite, with the possible exception of Martell; I’ve made no secret of this. But I admit, their House Words are really, really silly. Fortunately, the whole family seems to know it, and every time the Words are quoted it’s with tongue lodged firmly in cheek, which makes me like them even more. (This also explains, now that I think about it, why they say “A Lannister always pays his debts” so often, in an attempt to make everyone forget their actual Words.) Their bannermen all have House Words which are pretentiously fierce (except possibly Peckledon, who scored big time on “cool and to the point” by sounding more like Martell than Lannister), but maybe a little less fierce and a little less pretentious – okay, a lot less pretentious – than their ruling House. The Lannisters were the first, in contrast with the Starks and the Boltons, to make me think about the bannermen and how they make us think about the whole House. Specifically, the Lannisters employ the Cleganes, who sadly appear not to have any Words of their own (I nominate “Kill, Kill, Kill”), who are the first truly distasteful bannermen to whom the audience is introduced. This, in my opinion, is a masterful piece of writing on Martin’s part, as he rapidly manipulates our opinions of the Lannisters as a whole, if we’re not extra careful. I covered this in my previous post, so I won’t do too much more on it here.

House Tully – Family, Duty, Honor. Bannermen: House Mallister – Above the Rest. House Mooton – Wisdom and Strength. House Piper – Brave and Beautiful. House Smallwood – From These Beginnings (Vassals via Vance). House Wode – Touch Me Not (later to Baelish, creepy).

With the exception of Wode, which I will deal with in a minute, these are all extremely self-satisfied, which is the impression I’ve always had of the Tullys as well. The Tullys’ House Words, and their order, were the other set that prompted this analysis in the first place, because of the questions of situational morality and resulting issues of moral relativism that they evoke. This is one of my favorite examples of a set of House Words that indicate a set of priorities which may or may not be a good idea in any given scenario, and may or may not have any moral standing whatsoever. “Family first” sounds nice, but as House Tyrell does such a lovely job of showing, what sounds nice isn’t necessarily so, and vice versa.

So let’s talk about House Wode for a second. This one just struck me because it’s one of the few Houses to completely change hands involuntarily over the course of the series. There are some Houses who betray their ruling Lords and switch sides, but this is one which is conquered and forced to change sides. They go from House Tully to House Baelish, and with that set of House Words. Am I the only one thinking sympathetically about Sansa Stark here?

House Targaryen – Fire and Blood

Ah, House Targaryen, last but not least, and with no bannermen of their own anymore. I tried to find a comprehensive list of which Houses had fought for them during Robert’s Rebellion, but couldn’t find one. Even with the House removed from power in Westeros, their Words definitely remind us of the old legend of House Targaryen, that whenever a baby is born, the gods toss a coin in the air, with greatness on one side and madness on the other. This set of Words could apply to either. One can see them applying to Daenerys at her best, or Aerys at his worst. One can hate them, one can fear them, one can love them, one can worship them… the one thing one can’t really do is ignore them. This is another of those sets, though, that I wonder what it would do to a child, growing up with it.

So what’s your point?

Well, I definitely found the first thing I was looking for: evidence in one direction or another to answer for myself a single question: if one groups all the Houses by banner allegiance, is it clear whether the author deliberately grouped sets of House Words? I think there’s a definitive “Yes” here. The sets are just too consistent to think otherwise, and the series as a whole is too precisely written to assume it’s anything approaching accidental. My second question was: if it was deliberate, is it part of how the author has subtly manipulated our views of each House? I think, again, Yes, in ways I hadn’t even realized until I wrote this.

Okay, we knew he was a good writer. So what’s your point?

Does this change the way we should see the Houses? Not necessarily. But one of the things this series – in both its versions – is so good for, is increasing our own self-awareness as audience members. If nothing else, compiling this has helped me with that. And maybe it was a little ridiculous to spend about four hours in the middle of the night putting this together. (Maybe I have a bit of a fangirl problem here.) But it sure got my brain working, in a way that just reading the books, or just watching the show, didn’t, even though those do engage my brain to a degree that most fiction just doesn’t. And for that alone, the effort was worth it to me. And if it sparks some thought or discussion somewhere, even more so.

“Bad Guys” and “Worse Guys” in Game of Thrones

DISTURBING CONTENT ADVISORY: If you haven’t seen Game of Thrones or read Song of Ice and Fire, both contain large amounts of sexually disturbing and violent material, which will be under discussion in this post and probably in any comments as well.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: This post will discuss both the HBO series and the original books by George R.R. Martin. This post and the comments will likely be rife with spoilers for both.

These two related works – the HBO hit Game of Thrones and the George R.R. Martin fantasy epic A Song of Ice and Fire – are wonderful fodder for those who, like me, tend to prefer complex characters over simple ones. In my experience, at least, villains are often painted with greater nuance than heroes, as if the author assume that we will automatically “sign on” with the causes of the “good guys,” but they have to explain the reasoning of the “bad guys” to us. The result, to me, is that villains are almost always more interesting, more attractive, and more sympathetic than heroes in speculative fiction genres.

George R.R. Martin seems to have circumvented the problem by foregoing heroes altogether, at least in the “present day” of his world. There may be heroes of the past, but even they are turning up more ambiguous than one usually finds in epic fantasy. The real brilliance of this move, though, lies in the fact that the author managed to manipulate the majority of his audience into thinking that wasn’t his intention for the entirety of the first book (a feat which the showrunners of the televised version replicated with season one on HBO).

I have had a very frustrating repeated experience when discussing these two works with people. Allow me to describe it here. And please note, this has happened even with people who normally are able to discuss literature and film with me in a rational manner. It’s pretty quick to describe. At some point, someone asks the question, “Who is your favorite character?” And I answer, honestly, “Jaime Lannister.” At this point, the conversation goes one of two ways. If the person has read or viewed past a certain point, they say, “Ah, after he lost his hand, you started liking him.” And I protest, “No, he’s been my favorite since the beginning.” At which point we get the same result as if the person hasn’t seen Jaime lose his hand at all, which is that the person promptly explodes with “You’re a horrible person!” Not “I disagree,” not “He’s a horrible person, how could you like him,” but “You’re a horrible person.”

You see, Jaime became my favorite character in the books the instant he was introduced simultaneously as “The Lion of Lannister” and “the Kingslayer,” when he first enters the feasting hall at Winterfell. Before he threw Bran out of a window, before it became apparent that he was sleeping with his sister – not that either of those was inconsistent with the portrait painted in that first snapshot. It became apparent then that this was going to be the character who would be the standard-bearer for moral neutrality and complexity, which has certainly been borne out in later revelations and events. Most readers noticed the other two events much more, due to their spectacular nature, and when I ask people why they don’t like Jaime, those are always the items they bring up. Then they bring up the issue of him having murdered his king, which is of course far more complex than the title of “Kingslayer” would grant.

So let’s talk about that particular event for a bit, because there’s one piece of information that almost everyone overlooks, and is never brought up in conjunction with it in either the show or the books. Jaime makes the snap decision to murder the Mad King Aerys, to prevent him from immolating the capital and everyone in it. Not the job of the Kingsguard, certainly, quite the opposite, but one has to wonder what the world would look like today if one of Hitler’s bodyguards had done the same thing. Would we condemn them? Probably, since we would have no way of knowing what might have been. But let’s get to that missing piece, which wouldn’t have been the case for that hypothetical German: Jaime was only seventeen years old when he made the decision to take that action and never explain his reasoning to anyone, to prevent a panic and instead take everyone’s judgment on himself.

Let’s get to the judgment side of things now. In the first book and first season, Jaime appears to be squarely on the side of the “villains,” along with the vast majority of the cast. The lines are drawn clearly, Starks versus Lannisters, good versus evil, straightforward versus backstabbing, swordsmen versus poisoners (not that this was true either, of course, but it was so easy to believe), you name it. In my opinion, Eddard Stark was the worst thing to happen to Westeros since Aerys. He’s a lousy King’s Hand, and a hypocrite who takes far too much pleasure and comfort in passing moral judgment on others to be a reasonable administrator in a complex world. (This opinion is just about as popular as loving Jaime.) He has his own moral compass, to be sure, but it isn’t what he claims it is. He works for his own honor, his own ideas of right and wrong, and places those above the good of the realm… while claiming that his greatest motivation is service to the Crown. Eddard Stark, in this, is as treacherous as the Lannisters could ever be. Robert Baratheon’s own good, the realm’s own good, were never Ned’s priorities.

The Lannisters are far better rulers. Not that this makes them “good.” Or even “good rulers.” They certainly aren’t that either. And Joffrey is a special case – there’s a reason he was possibly the most hated character on TV, and that there’s an online campaign to erect a statue of him in New Zealand for the sole purpose of publicly tearing it down in celebration. But the rest aren’t anywhere near the sadistic psychopaths that Joffrey turned out to be. Cold, calculating, manipulative, broken: these are all apt descriptions. But those aren’t necessarily all bad qualities in a ruler, which after all is the end prize of the titular “game of thrones.”

The concept of “house words” is also used beautifully to manipulate our ideas of morality in this fantasy world. An apt example is House Tully, with their words of “Family, Duty, Honor.” There’s a great scene in the show reminding us that to members of this family, it should always be “family first,” and this is portrayed as a positive quality. In a family member, it probably is – but not in the ruler of a country.

At their hearts, none of these characters are perfect rulers. None of them may even be good rulers. Quite a few might make competent rulers. But the moral rules and the logistical rules don’t necessarily match up… which is probably a good thing, since there are no “good guys” to be found, only “bad guys” and “worse guys.”