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

Advertisements

Fan Conventions and Disabilities

First, just sharing some of my own experiences.

I have a wide range of convention experience, although I don’t attend them particularly often. I have attended tiny science fiction conventions with fewer than 500 people. I have attended anime conventions with over 30,000. I have attended conventions in cosplay, dressed as myself, dressed formally, as a human chess player on stage, as a program participant, as a featured singer, as nobody in particular. I have been attending conventions for fourteen years now. And it’s been great to see the experience change for a person with limited mobility.

Fourteen years ago, a person who didn’t have to use some kind of external aid every second of every day, couldn’t register at the Special Needs desk of most conventions, because we couldn’t “prove” our disabilities. It was assumed that a walking cane was part of a costume, even if either a)I wasn’t wearing a costume, or b)the character I was cosplaying didn’t use a cane. It was considered acceptable for not only participants but also dealers and convention staff to ask a person with a visible disability to move faster in the dealers’ room at a convention to avoid inconvenience to “the rest of us.” When I got shoved down an escalator at an anime convention ten years ago, it was treated by staff as being my fault because I was in the way of other participants and they had a panel to get to, and I should be walking, not standing, on the escalator.

Much of this has changed. I still hang a small handicapped sign on my cane when I use it, but I am no longer questioned when I walk, unaided, to the special needs desk and ask for a sticker to put on my nametag. There are still thoughtless people with tunnel vision at conventions, but staff now treat incidents such as the one I experienced correctly – as I found out a few years ago at the same anime convention.

It interests me that conduct of participants at conventions of all kinds is progressing faster concerning people with disabilities than it is concerning women. In most circumstances, in my opinion, this is not the case, even inside fandom.

Some tips for the able-bodied, when dealing with persons with disabilities at fan events – because it’s not always obvious how to handle certain situations.

Disabled cosplayers are just like any other kind of cosplayer. Treat them as such. And for gods’ sake, please don’t ask them to put a wheelchair aside for a photo. If they can, they often will. If they don’t do it when the photo is requested, it probably means it’s not possible, so don’t push it.

If you notice that a cosplayer has deliberately worked their aid into their costume (example from my own history: I cosplayed MS Gundam’s Char Aznable as wounded war veteran, since I was using a cane at the time), that’s perfectly okay to comment on.

It is courteous to make sure that someone with a mobility aid gets a seat at the start of events. It is also reasonable to expect that someone with a mobility aid will arrive at or very close to the start of said event, and not walk in at the midpoint and expect a seat. Most conventions actually have a policy that persons with the special needs sticker on their badge are to be given seats within the first five (quantity varies, check your convention’s policy before you go) minutes of any event, but not after that unless you feel moved to do so.

Watch where you’re going in crowded spaces. This should be obvious, but huge numbers of people don’t. You don’t have to treat us as though we’re made of porcelain, but where a fairly basic bump against someone able-bodied isn’t a big deal, it can throw off the balance of someone with a cane because we can’t necessarily catch ourselves. One big example of this which a lot of people don’t follow: do not move directly backward in a dealers’ room; turn around and move forward, then turn again.

Let disabled people have space on the elevator. Some conventions – and some facilities – actually have a policy about this, so check it to make sure you don’t end up in trouble. And once on the elevator, let a person with a mobility aid move to within reach of the edge. If the elevator jerks at the end, it’s important that the person be able to support their balance.

If you see someone acting “different” due to a disability, keep your commentary to yourself, unless you think someone might actually need your help. If I’m walking a little funny, or limping, please don’t draw the attention of everyone nearby to it, thanks. But if I actually fall down, I appreciate the hand up. Especially if escalators are involved.

Be aware that disabled women may be a little more skittish than most women at conventions, and don’t take it personally, just give us a minute to calm down if we’re startled. Almost all women who attend conventions have either experienced or witnessed some sort of harassment, and we’re constantly aware of potential danger. Disabled women are often aware that in dangerous situations, we have metaphorical targets painted on our foreheads.

We’re here for the same reason you are: because we share an interest of some kind. Whether it’s Star Trek or classical literature, we’re here because we love it. In that, we’re just like you. Treat us as such. And if you misstep a little, no biggie. We get that you’re trying. Just try to be understanding, and we’ll return the favor by being as clear and as patient as we can.

Some tips for safety and fun, for people with disabilities when attending fan events – because while it is not our obligation to make ourselves “normal” for others, it is our obligation to take an effort to keep ourselves safe, and be watchful and to be clear about our needs.

That’s a big one: be clear about your needs. If you need something from staff, ask for it. Often staff are volunteers who are there because they share your interest, not because they’re trained disability advocates. They are more than willing to help, but need your guidance to know how. Also, you can’t expect someone to give up their seat to you if you don’t ask for it.

Make it clear with a sign or orange tape or some such that your cane or whatever isn’t part of your costume. Not everyone will know your character, and so not everyone will be able to distinguish someone who is in a wheelchair due to a disability from someone who has borrowed one from a friend for costuming.

Make sure you are noticed. Make noise to let someone know if you’re behind them, if them backing into you would be a problem. Make sure you have something that extends over your head, like a small flag, if you’re in a wheelchair. Have something brightly colored with you or on you. It makes it just that much less likely that someone will crash into you on an escalator (it’s obviously not your fault if someone shoves you down an escalator, just like it wasn’t mine, but it’s so much better if it doesn’t happen at all).

Keep aware of things around you. You know to look both ways before crossing a street. At a convention, you’re always in a street. It may not be a busy street, but it’s at the very least a bike path, and there are potential hazards that you should be on the lookout for. Simple awareness will go a long way to keep you from getting injured.

Have a little patience with your fellow fans. I’m not talking here about the idiots at conventions who say insulting and bigoted things about people with disabilities – I’m talking about people who clearly have no experience with these issues, and may be varying degrees of socially inept, but who are trying, and are nervous about seeming like one of the other group. They’re here because they have interests in common with you, and that should go some way toward drawing you together. Our culture is a precious thing, and it’s worth a little patience.

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.”

Introduction Post: What I’m Doing Here

I have discovered that there are some professions which eventually become difficult to “turn off” after hours. Doctor, psychiatrist, lawyer, mathematician, designer… teacher… academic researcher…. and so here we are. I am a teacher and an academic researcher, as well as a voracious fan of just about all geeky/nerdy media types. I find it impossible not to mix them all: I cannot turn off the literary analysis when I read comics or fantasy or play a video game, and I cannot entirely turn off the teacher in me when playing a tabletop roleplaying game.
I am also one of those people who have great difficulty keeping silent in the face of perceived wrongs. The phrase ‘anima irenea’ is a piece of medieval Latin that has several related meanings: a peaceful spirit; a spirit at peace with itself; a spirit that brings peace. In my opinion, these are at times contradictory, but all of them describe me at various stages of my life and writing. Sometimes my writing here may be inflammatory in content or tone. I have strong opinions – and I can hear my friends laughing at the understatement. Some of my posts here will address things I perceive as wrongs — keeping me at peace with myself, although I welcome lively and passionate argument and civil discussion.
Some of these posts will get very political, especially concerning education and civil rights. I welcome debate on any post I make here, whether political or otherwise, but please keep discourse civil. I reserve the right to delete comments which are discriminatory, threatening, or harassing in any fashion.