Hell hath no fury: Jessica Jones, Season 2

Major spoilers for Season 2 ahead

There are three things that are guaranteed to happen in any Marvel-Netflix show: someone who is presumed dead will turn out to very much alive; people will go into the hospital, where violent altercations rather than healing will take place; and someone, the villain, or the companions, or even the hero, will break out of jail. Season 2 of Jessica Jones hits all three points, and then some.

jjtop1-539x600That’s not to say that the season is predictable. Far from it. Characters that we thought we knew behave in surprising, fascinating ways. To be honest, I found myself far more intrigued by the old faithfuls: Jessica, Jeri, Trish, than any of the newer entrants. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Plenty of time for dissection later.

Season 2 opens very shortly after the horrors of Season 1 and The Defenders. Though the show doesn’t make too much of the events that took place in the latter, Season 1’s ghosts literally linger into the present, with one episode bringing back Kilgrave as an annoying, sadistic voice in Jessica’s head. It’s clear right at the outset that it will take more than a team-up with a bunch of other heroes to put Jessica’s demons to rest, and the events of these 13 episodes make it seem like that ‘rest’ will be a long time coming.

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While Jessica is trying to move past her trauma, Trish is doing all she can to dig deeper into the secrets behind her friend’s superpowers, openly going after the mysterious ‘IGH’ on her talk show.  Her journalistic ambition, however, ends up ruffling some powerful feathers, and it’s not long before a ruthless killer is on the loose, determined to shut her up. Jessica, the best friend, rushes in to protect her, and finds that far from the monster she had imagined, she is confronted with a disturbingly familiar figure: her mother.

5b78d313-9912-4c30-ac58-6e252f94bef2-jj1This, really, is the heart of Season 2, the reckoning with one’s past, the sins of the mother, and the manner in which they shadow our character’s lives. Jessica’s mother, Alyssa, is the recipient of the same mysterious treatment that saved her own life, and gave her her powers. Alyssa’s powers are far stronger than her daughter’s, but unlike Jessica, she cannot control herself. Subject to horrifying, murderous rages, Alyssa lashes out at Trish, and those she sees as threatening her survival, hers and that of her partner, the Frankenstein-like Dr. Karl Malus.

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In this season, Jessica comes face to face with her maker(s), the scientific one, and the biological. While she struggles to handle the dilemma posed by her mother—-a mass murderer who represents, to Jessica at least, her one chance at family—Trish falls down a rabbit hole of her own. Growing up as a victim of abuse, both from her domineering, driving mother and various men she encountered in showbiz, Trish has long felt helpless, and sees IGH as her one path to salvation. We watch her spin herself into deeper and deeper holes, putting her relationship with Jessica at risk. Indeed, by the end of the season we’re not even sure if they can ever be friends, let alone sisters, again.

Darkness hangs over the indomitable Jeryn Hogarth as well, who receives a diagnosis of ALS early on in the season. This launches her on a quest to find a cure, which brings us in contact with my favourite new entrant: Inez, a nurse who once worked with IGH. This being the Marvel-verse, nobody is as trustworthy as they seem, and victories do not come easily, if they come at all. In this world of superpowered beings, it seems easy enough for Jeri to believe in Inez’s stories of a ‘healer’, another patient of IGH who can heal sick persons with his touch. A desperate Jeri clings to this story, but of course, it meanders to a bitter end.

Marvel's Jessica Jones

Season 2 was written and presumably put into production long before the flood of stories that form the #MeToo movement, and the resounding echoes of the same in Hollywood. Maybe it’s because those stories, and that anger, is still so present that it was impossible to watch this season without thinking about it, seeing anger in all its forms distilled into and played through these female characters. Whether it’s Trish’s anger over her helplessness at the hands of an inherently hostile, bullying world, Jessica’s anger at herself for her seeming failures, Alyssa’s much more violent rage that was, tellingly, the result of a man’s botched experiments, or Jeri’s colder, existential fury at having the life she’s worked so hard at taken away—all of these are powerful, telling illustrations of what happens to a dream too long deferred. The male characters, Malcolm, Karl, other new entrants Oscar and an investigator named Pryce Chang, are frequently stunned by the force of this anger, and the achievements and actions it can give rise to. Often, they are left helpless in the face of it, tied up in bathtubs, driven to suicide, or defecting to rival organisations. The only exception seems to be Oscar, who presents the one pleasant thing for Jessica this entire season.

Because of the jagged theme, the season itself seems to move in a halting fashion, and it takes a while for it to find its stride. That being said, though, there’s a lot to unpack in these 13 episodes, and I’m sure that those who watch it will end up thinking about it for a long while. We cover a long trail, from the opening shots, that follow Jessica about her tawdry tasks of stalking cheating spouses, to the close, which sees her, somewhat hesitantly, embracing if not the fact, then the idea of happiness. Earlier in that same episode, Jessica had recalled how she felt ‘dead’, alone ever since the loss of her family. At the end, she seems to have opened herself to the notion that ‘death’ in her case is a choice, and taking steps to face the other way. Whether Oscar and the relief he offers will prove permanent is a question that remains; for now, it looks as though she might finally, finally, be working towards some sort of peace.

The peace that comes after a storm, or before one? Only time, and Season 3, will tell.

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Rumblings of war too distant: American Gods on TV

Every good reader and writer knows that to build a good story one requires a structure, and often, that structure is the bones of another, older tale. Almost every fantasy series does just this, bringing us into a world whose battle for existence is really just another in an ongoing conflict, only the gaps between them are so large that it feels new for those involved. A Song of Ice and FireLord of the Rings, even Harry Potter, many of them hint at what has come before, and often make it sound as though that battle, the one we just about missed, was actually the more exciting and epic and dark one; too bad we got the watered down present instead.

Neil Gaiman’s work of genius, American Gods, comes at this in a slightly different way. Here, the past, one of bloody glory and sacrifice, literally wages war with the present and future. The old gods, fearing irrelevance in the modern world, go to war against the smug new ones, and a crisis of belief envelopes the United States. ‘This is the only country that doesn’t know what it is,’ the mysterious Mr. Wednesday tells Shadow, our protagonist, at one point. The book was first published in 2001. The TV series debuted this year, but it’s eerily timely, considering everything that’s happening, not just in the US, but many other places in the world.

american godsMy relationship with American Gods is one of deep respect, bordering on an almost reverential awe. I think this is Gaiman’s greatest work, and nothing he’s done, before or after, comes close. It’s such an ambitious idea, to distill the soul of an entire country, and pour it into these forms from all over the world, but somehow, he managed it. The sheer audacity of it, to take all these immigrant stories and not just elevate them to the level of the divine, but to actually have the divine take form on your page and give it an almost disturbingly human quality, so the gods piss and fuck and act as ridiculously human–if not more so—than the believers they need so badly—this is soemthing that so few writers do with any grace, let alone the mastery that Gaiman displays. Our myth writers, who sell in the thousands, cannot compare. This, this is myth writing or retelling or casting or whatever you want to call it. It’s making the old new in such a way that you can see it happening, and only marvel at the sheer craft with which its done, like a glass house in which you can see all the beams and rafters, and appreciate the architect’s vision for what it truly is.

Anyway, enough blathering about the book. How did the TV series do? I was nervous, coming to it, which is why I put off viewing it for so long. The book was so cerebral, so intense an experience, that I felt no TV show could do it justice. The avalanche of great reviews calling it the show of the year and whatnot only made that apprehension worse. There’s something about extremely glowing reviews that puts me off; maybe it’s the hipster in me, who refuses to like what the mainstream has dubbed incredible. Not unless I dubbed it incredible first, ya know.

Ricky Whittle as Shadow Moon, lost soul in a lost nation.

Ricky Whittle as Shadow Moon, lost soul in a lost nation.

So how does the show compare? Some of the key elements are the same: Shadow, a taciturn, brooding, muscular man gets out of jail to find that his wife has died in an accident. He is hired by Mr. Wednesday, a tricky old man who has some sort of grand plan up his sleeve, one which Shadow does not entirely understand. There is a crazy leprechaun named Mad Sweeney. The dead wife comes back to life and follows Shadow around. Gods old and new turn up in Shadow’s path and taunt or tease him, with lethal consequences or not depending on whose side they are on. And the whole is interspersed with flashbacks, stories of side characters, from the past or the present or in between, and how they came to America, bringing with them their beliefs and traditions, and their gods. Now, the gods feel abandoned, their followers turning to newer deities like Technology and Media (played by a totally-enjoying-herself Gillian Anderson), and the incense and sacrifice that once formed the staple of their diets, their very existence, is gone.

mr wednesdayThe casting is pretty damn good. Ian McShane plays Mr. Wednesday, and he does bring the character’s slippery charm and humour to the fore, but doesn’t let viewers forget that within, something else roils and churns, soething much older and more sinister. Ricky Whittle is broody and beautiful as Shadow, and I really liked Emily Browning as Laura Moon, or ‘dead wife’ as she’s more often called. The show has the added advantage of focusing on Laura more than the book did in some ways, following her journey, which parallels Shadow’s own. Just as Shadow journeys from doubt to belief and back, Laura, a much more nihilistic character, does the same, and Browning plays her clutching at meaning in an understated manner, which perhaps makes it all the more impactful. There also seem to be expanded roles for some of the side characters here, such as Bilquis, a fertility goddess, and Mad Sweeney, who really lingered on the edges in the book, only careening chaotically into the middle of the action now and then. I suppose this is done to pad out the whole season, and leave enough meat for a second, if not third and fourth as well.

Emily Browning as Laura Moon

Emily Browning as Laura Moon

There are downsides to this padding—and that means that the ‘conflict’ doesn’t really start until well into the season, if then. Some of the episodes are stuffed with too much long drawn out conversation, which works well for a comedy, or more ‘realist’ drama like Mad Men, but here runs the risk of being boring. I could have done with less hijinks with Laura for instance, and more of Mr. Nancy, the form of Anansi the Spider. Or perhaps more of the old gods and their stories, and less of Mr. Wednesday and Shadow conversing? Shadow is never the most entertaining conversationalist, so really, these are one man shows that we could have done without.

Would I recommend it? Let me put it this way: you can live without watching it. It’s stylistically done, yes. Some of the acting is great, yes. But does it string together well as a story? So much that is great about the Gaiman novel is that though it appears a little fragmented, though it takes a while for the shape of the ‘quest’ to come together, and even then it is only a small glimpse of what we must understand as a much larger battle that human minds cannot possibly comprehend, the whole works together. This? It’s a bit draggy in parts, and too incomprehensible in others, and overall, lacks the big picture amazement that say, Game of Thrones or Legion have. Hopefully it’ll be tighter next season.

But if you haven’t already, go read the book. Trust me, that is one thing you will not regret.

Knights in La La Land

best-leslie-knope-gifsIf there’s one thing that you can expect to hear from TV critics these days, it’s that we’ve reached ‘peak TV’. There’s so much good stuff to watch, in some many different genres, that it’s nearly impossible to keep up, not unless we, in the immortal words of Leslie Knope, ‘work hard, never sleep, and shirk all other responsibilities in our lives.’ Of course, here ‘working hard’ refers mostly to the labour undertaken by our eyes, which may become glazed if not permanently damaged, by excessive staring at a screen.

I watch more TV than a lot of other people I know, one of the few benefits of deciding not to sign up for a regular salary and its (many) perks. Thanks to Netflix and Amazon Prime and Hotstar and the  good work of Russian/Belarusian/Indian pirates, I can keep up to date with a load of shows that channels here do not deign to broadcast, or air at inconvenient hours, interspersed with ads. Despite the  amount of time I have, I have still not managed to watch everything that my friends assure me I ‘have to see’, like Breaking Bad, or The  Wire. Yes, yes, I know, I cannot claim to have lived unless I strike those off my list.

I’m usually reluctant to taste a new show, unless I’ve a) read about it in some esteemed publication whose writers I take seriously or b) been told to do so by a friend whose opinion I trust. My reluctance also stems from the  fact that for me, getting into a new show is a huge investment. Once I start something, I usually try to finish it, sticking with it as it makes its way to what is hopefully a great season/series finale. There have been very few instances where I’ve given up on a show I started, and though it may not be the  greatest example, Quantico was the  last to fall into this category. I tried to be supportive, but I’m sorry PC, I just couldn’t take it after three episodes.

My greatest joy comes from finding a show that has finished its run, and therefore is available in its entirety to binge watch. This January, I stumbled across just such a show. It ran for all of two seasons, has 18 episodes in all, each of which is around 21 minutes, the  standard sitcom length. I was amazed I hadn’t found it earlier, given that it hit all of the  right notes (for me). Seriously, consider this:

—It’s created by the  guy who wrote, among other film successes, Tangled.

Its music is written by the  guy who shaped the  music of, among other Disney movies, Aladdin.

—It’s executive produced and written by the  guy who is most famous for voicing, get this, Aladdin.

—Oh, and did I mention, it’s a spoof of knightly romances, a convention-spinning medieval tale of spurned lovers, ‘evil’ kings, overlooked squires, badass princesses and subplots galore?

It’s called Galavant, and I devoured it in a little less than three days.

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Disney gets many things right (yes, you guessed it, Disney owns this show), and one of them is spoofing its own work. The  classic animated films are filled with little puns and Easter eggs that reference others in their fraternity—such as the  Genie turning into Pocahontas, or Pumba, in throwaway moments of Aladdin and the  King of Thieves. But self-
spoofing is elevated to an art in Galavant, which employs the  musical numbers that
distinguish Disney’s classics to hilarious effect. The  opening title is basically a sum up of our hero, laying out his ‘every fairytale cliche’, and the  problem that besets him: his lady love, Madalena, has been stolen by the  ‘evil’ King Richard, and he must ride to rescue her on her wedding day. Ring any bells? That’s pretty much the  premise of Walter Scott’s poem ‘Lochinvar.’ So yes, cliched premise, but what follows is upturn after upturn of convention, starting off with Madalena deciding, ‘on second thought’, that she’d rather have fame and riches as queen than living a poor, if ‘acrobatic’ sex-filled life with Galavant. And so less than a quarter of the  way through the  first episode, the  opening titles have been debunked—Madalena is not the  helpless damsel we expect in so many knightly tales, and Galavant is an out-of-work, wine-sozzled man with a beer gut, no longer quite the  picture of ‘ruling in every way’.

But not for long. A mysterious princess shows up, claiming to need his help for vengeance against the  nefarious Richard, and promising him the  precious Jewel of Valencia in payment. Desperate to strike back at the  man who ‘stole’ Madalena, Galavant agrees to come, and thus adventures involving landlocked pirates, ridiculous battles, and singing monks begins.

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Heroes out to save…somebody.

The  cast is perfect, particularly Karen David, who plays ‘ethnically-ambiguous’ Princess Isabella, Mallory Jansen as the  ambitious Madalena, and Timothy Omundsen as the  hilarious King Richard. Everyone sings, and hams it up, and looks like they’re having such fun with their roles, fully embracing the  faux medieval aesthetic and all its Disney splendour. There are plenty of in-jokes, like random signs pointing to ‘Winterfell’, a handsome knight named ‘Sir Jean Hamm’ (played dashingly by John Stamos), and even a dig at Disney’s problematic race record, with Isabella, Sid (Galavant’s black squire) and Galavant singing stirringly about  what a wonderfully diverse cast they are. Alan Menken’s tunes are comfortingly similar to what we expect from a Disney production—catchy and filled with digs both at the  show itself, and the  larger TV universe of it which it forms a part. For instance, my personal favourite is the  opener of Season 2, where the  cast catches the  audience up with what’s happened in Season 1, and celebrates not being cancelled despite not ‘being Game of Thrones’.

Galavant owes a great deal, of course, to Don Quixote, one of the  earliest and still best send-ups of the  medieval romance. It’s easy to watch, and really seems made for people who want a little Disney feel good in their lives—feel good that is smarter than Once Upon a Time. I loved the  show, and I think that anyone who likes Disney, who likes intelligent satire and storytelling, and also just likes to see the  typical princess figures turn things upside down, should check out Galavant. Musicals seem to be having a moment, so why not keep the  La La Land feels going, Game of Thrones style?

The Magicians on TV…and Julia

The-Magicians-Book-Cover-e1317909429117The Magicians by Lev Grossman is a very cerebral fantasy book. It stands out from others of its genre for its self reflexivity, its almost painful self awareness. Unlike other fantasy authors who quite openly and intelligently engage with the tradition they are part of (notably Samit Basu and Terry Pratchett), Grossman doesn’t use humour to deal with the weight of ‘the canon’ in his writing. Or he does, but it’s not the dominant emotion in his relationship to it. His work is almost painfully earnest in its desire to deal with the question of what an existential crisis would look like for a modern day, culturally aware fantasy nerd, who stumbled onto magic but didn’t have a Dark Lord to fight.

The answer is apparently the existential crisis would just be worsened, because you would realise that ultimately, magic does not give your life meaning and you’re just stuck with having to create one, like everyone else around you.

As you might guess, this is pretty complex stuff. It’s hard to showcase this in a  sexy, appealing manner on screen, and that was why I was a bit worried about the decision to adapt the book into a TV series. Sure, I’ll watch it, but I can’t help but be a little scared that the core of the book, its ‘meaning’ and ‘question’ as critics might call it, would be compromised in the name of entertaining a larger, not so existential-question-loving audience.

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So, worries in place, I watched the first episode of Syfy’s The Magicians. It was entertaining enough—good graphics, some nice showcasing of magic, and quick intros to all the main characters. There were some familiar faces (Ros from Game of Thrones! Ben and little Emma from Gossip Girl!), some sort of surprising changes (since when has pudgy, awkward loner Penny been a Kamasutra sex god? I thought Alice was brown haired and surly quiet rather than obviously Type A fragile quiet…) but I explained these away as either good moves for diversity casting (the former) and need to stick in at least one blonde girl (the latter). The move to age up the characters and have them graduate from college rather than high school before stumbling onto magic was also, I thought, a good one, as it was only after leaving the sheltered environment of undergrad that the aimlessness of existence sort of became obvious to me and several of my friends. Yes, I realise that’s our privilege talking, but since the characters of The Magicians are similarly (if not more) privileged, I thought it relevant to mention here.

What I did not expect, and did not like at all, was the weird scene with Julia.

I should expand on Julia here. She was, hands down, my favourite part of the series, once she came into her own in the second book, The Magician King. I identified with her, to a great extent, and thought it was amazing how Grossman developed her character from, primarily, being Quentin’s unrequited, unattainable love interest, to someone who really goes through a lot to get what she wants: mastery over magic. Julia acts as a brilliant foil to Quentin, making his angst and worries look like the griping of spoiled schoolboy, but still not robbing them of their centrality to the narrative that they hold up together.

In this episode, Julia, who has been turned out of Brakebills but still remembers the world Julia_Wickerof magic, has decided to do whatever it takes to get back the one thing that really means something to her now, magic. She teaches herself spells from the internet, we assume, refusing to listen to a condescending Quentin when he tells her she doesn’t ‘have it in her’ to learn, that Brakebills has not made a ‘mistake’ in turning her away. Julia then gets near-assaulted in a club bathroom, where is forced to reveal her magical abilities and then led by her creepy stalker to what we assume is a hideout and ‘school’ for the ‘non official’ magicians.

So far, so good? No. I did not see why the scene with Julia had to be so, for want of a better word, rapey. Her buttons pop off her shirt one by one, her shirt is stripped off, and she is pinned by an invisible force against what I think are pipes. Then a smiling man approaches her, and it’s obvious to us that he is the one responsible for it all. He asks her how it feels to know that he can do anything to her, to which Julia somehow manages to respond by yanking herself out of his invisible hold and making her hands flare with electrical surges.

I felt really disturbed while watching this. While I understand the writers might have wanted to push Julia into an extreme state of vulnerability in order to showcase her latent talent (a common theme in many superhero/magical stories), I didn’t see why they had to use such an obviously sexual way of doing it. Did she really have to be stripped down and threatened with physical and sexual assault to come out shining? I hate to ask this, but would they have done that if she were a boy? I somehow don’t think the sexual overtones would have been present if that were the case.

Maybe what got to me about Julia’s…experience was how absolutely nightmarish but simultaneously terrifyingly realistic it was. You don’t need to be in a fantasy world to be afraid of something like that happening to you, and I know plenty of people, women especially (me included), who are aware of just how easily that could happen to them. For this reason, I was not able to focus on the ‘magic’ aspect of it, or ‘appreciate’ what it revealed of Julia. I couldn’t wrap my head around why she had to be pushed specifically in that direction, in what felt like a very voyeuristic fashion. And it was quite literally voyeuristic, not inspiring, since her tormentor and near-rapist (though he explicitly disclaims the title) stands around watching with a creepy smile on his face.

Julia goes through some really dark places in the course of the series, but she always comes across as extremely strong. I don’t know if the show is going to explore all those elements (they’ve changed so much already, so who knows), and this may just be their disturbing precursor, but I don’t think that’s really enough reason. I can’t keep thinking this was a Game of Thrones-esque use of rape, or near-rape, to illustrate that this is a ‘heavy’, ‘serious’ show. My point is, you don’t need that to show that a character is releasing energies in a stressful situation. And while Grossman does deal with sexual abuse in his books, he never makes it seem voyeuristic, as the show did.

I hope this was a one-off, and am crossing my fingers that things don’t continue in this fashion further down the line. As we know, the magic only gets weirder here on out.

Why Mindy Kaling doesn’t have to be my pioneer

Written in response to the piece ‘Mindy Kaling is not your pioneer’ by Alex E. Jung in Al Jazeera America. Original article here: http://america.aljazeera.com/opinions/2015/1/mindy-project-racetv.html

mindy1‘To be born a woman is to know/That you must labour to be beautiful’

I’m sorry for the pretentious quote (it’s from W.B. Yeats’ ‘Adam’s Curse’ by the bye, for those who are interested). One of my professors gave me a great piece of writing advice in my third year of college: ‘Never open with a quote,’ he said, ‘let the reader hear your voice straightaway.’ Then he paused and added, ‘Also it sounds incredibly annoying.’

I try to stick by those guidelines, but something about the topic today just called out desperately for a quote, and that one has been bouncing around in my head all day, ever since I read this article on how Mindy Kaling, and her on-screen alter ego, Mindy Lahiri, are not/is not a pioneer. The Yeats quote, for some reason, sums up my feelings perfectly, but I would add an extra dash to it:

‘To be a coloured woman in entertainment is to know/ That you must labour to be everything’.

The author of this article has one major problem with Mindy Kaling, and that’s this: she is not a pioneer for Asian-American women. At least, not enough of one. She uses the age-old rom-com formula of ‘ upwardly mobile white Americans whose aspirations are to find love; its women tend to find belonging by marrying the right man.’  And worse, she does this by dating only white men.

Alex Jung (the author) makes a number of good points, I will admit that. He says that Kaling, through this character, is ‘the [perpetuating] the great lie of romance, which suggests that love and marriage are not somehow informed by class, race and gender conventions.’ By dating and settling down with a white man, Lahiri, the character,seeks the ‘ultimate assimilation’ into the American context, a specially white American context.

Mindy and her boyfriend, Danny Castellano (played by Chris Messina)

Mindy and her boyfriend, Danny Castellano (played by Chris Messina)

He points out that we know nothing of Lahiri’s parents, that none of her partners or she herself comment on her Indian heritage (even her very Christian boyfriend, Casey, says the reason he cannot be with her is because she is ‘selfish’, not because she is a Hindu) and that she seems to be a ‘character simply born of the imagined community of lovelorn career women whose identities are defined purely by what they buy’. Instead of revolutionizing and reworking the conventions of the 90s rom com, Kaling has adopted it unapologetically, and simply inserted herself into the lead role.

Harsh.

Kaling’s own response to her success has been double pronged: on the one hand, she has gone on record stating that she ‘embraces’ her position as a role model for younger women, specifically younger Indian-American women. On the other hand, she’s also said that refuses to be ‘treated as an outsider’ and made a token representative of her race. In other words, she seeks to beat the majorly white entertainment establishment by ignoring her ‘otherness’ altogether, and thereby urging others to ignore what many might see as a handicap in their own quest for success.

This deliberate negating of her ‘race’ as a potential issue, and thereby as a constituent of her character’s identity in The Mindy Project, is what Jung seems to take offence at. There is a difference between denying something and ignoring it—Jung accuses Mindy of denying the importance of race in something like romantic relationships or professional dynamics; I think Kaling simply ignores that her character’s race and non-white upbringing might be an issue and thereby, in some ways, presents an even more revolutionary perspective. What would it be like to live in a world where it really didn’t matter if you were Indian-American and are unburdened by societal expectations and cultural baggage? That’s Mindy Lahiri’s world.

Second—on the character’s decision to date only ‘white’ men. Mindy Lahiri is NOT Mindy Kaling. Mindy Lahiri is an overblown, ridiculous, gossipy and extremely selfish character—even her creator thinks so. Lahiri’s life and decisions are not something anyone should seek to emulate, except perhaps for her professional credentials (which, in Season 3, she seems to be really working on). It’s the same way no one can possibly look to Michael Scott, Steve Carrell’s character on The Office, for guidance. Is it not possible that Lahiri is an object of spoof here—that her decision to only date a certain kind of man shows more about her character than it does about Kaling’s racial politics?

Can you take this character seriously?

Can you take this character seriously?

And finally—why does Kaling have to face these questions at all? What sort of responsibility does she have to her audience that someone like, say, Charlie Sheen or Lisa Kudrow doesn’t? Charlie Sheen could play a drunken, debauched man on Two and a Half Men and no one called him out on the terrible representation of Malibu residents. The two were not conflated as the same person (which is funny considering that, based on all reports, Charlie is much more similar to his onscreen character than Mindy is). Kudrow’s character on FRIENDS, Phoebe Buffay, dates a series of men over the course of show, but not one of them is non-white. In fact, the only character on that show who dated anyone ‘not of his race’ was Ross, possibly the least popular of the six.

By expecting Kaling to answer questions that other, non-minority actors don’t have to is a form of discrimination. By asking her work to showcase her ‘difference’ from the run of the mill show runner is also ascribing her a ‘token representative’ status, it is implying that she is not like the others. It’s pretty much the equivalent of someone asking you why you made angel cake when you are Indian—can’t you make halwa instead? Maybe you don’t want to make the halwa. Maybe angel cake is what you love and want and damned if you haven’t worked hard on learning the recipe. If you can make that angel cake better than anyone else in your class can, why not go ahead and do it?

Kaling is an entertainer, a performer, and forcing her to handle the unresolved tensions of an entire society is unfair. She is not in her line of work to speak for the Indian-American community, she is there to make a successful career out of it. Kaling’s fun, smart and she’s certainly broken a number of barriers for women in television, but don’t expect her to be a culture-mascot or a politically-correct watchdog; don’t expect her to be ‘everything’.

High Class Satire or, Why I Love Blair Waldorf

IDiademas-blair-waldorf-5 love the trashy TV series Gossip Girl. To be specific, I love Blair Waldorf, one of the five main characters on the show. Blair has been, for a few years, one of my favourite people to watch on screen, to emulate in real life, to quote in any situation. I’m tempted to copy every other website on the Internet and put down my reasons for this in concise points (accompanied by witty gifs), but I think that would be an embarrassment to the teachers who put so much effort into teaching me how to write well structured, flowing essays.

Now, it’s easy enough to figure out why any ambitious, self-important girl would automatically have a fondness for Blair. She’s in abundant possession of both those qualities, and along with that, she’s smart, well networked, and downright ruthless when it comes to getting what she wants. ‘If you really want something,’ she tells Serena, ‘you don’t stop for anyone or anything until you get it.’ She certainly seems to employ this philosophy, and doesn’t always play by the rules to ensure that she’s successful in her endeavours. And despite her bitchy asides and scheming takedowns, Blair has her heart in the right place.

For someone who adores the conventional markers of success as I do, Blair seems the pinnacle of perfection. She has a near-perfect GPA, impressive internships and recommendations and, maybe best of all, an intensely passionate and never boring relationship. The last is something that takes up a lot of space in most discussions of Blair—how can you discuss her without bringing up Chuck, after all—but I’ll save it for another post.

Separated from her context like this, Blair seems a commendable achiever, and not someone you’d assume would provide much in terms of emotional variety. Lay out her traits, and she comes across as someone who’s always living life on the more intense plane, plunging from one dramatic escapade to the other (in her love life) or charting out strategies to get to the next goal. You wouldn’t think this is a girl who, more than any other in her social circle, would entertain you and keep you engaged. Surely she has no time to appreciate the lighter side of life.

High fashion and high drama and lots of pretty people. This is what Gossip Girl is made of.

High fashion and high drama and lots of pretty people. This is what Gossip Girl is made of.

The Gossip Girl TV series is based, loosely, on the books of the same name by Cecily von Ziegesar. I’ve only had the privilege (or can confess to the shame) of reading one of those, and the tone of the books can’t be more different from that of the TV show. Where the books are lighthearted, irreverent and, at times, openly satirical about their over-priviliged characters, the TV show makes their hijinks life and death issues, their dating lives endlessly complicated and emotionally draining, and more than one character is faced with the prospect of utter and complete social elimination.

This is in keeping with the TV genre the series seeks to conform to: that of teen drama. Like the earlier show from the same producers, The OC, Gossip Girl is meant to portray a world that most of its viewers will never be a part of. It’s hard to get people invested in this world—how is it possible to feel sad for someone like Serena van der Woodsen, the perfect ‘it’ girl who seems to have everything? The only way you can do that is to make her life hellish, her family seem a toxic waste dump, and give her a sackload of issues that she can only deal with by running away to the countryside and changing her name. To keep up a satirical take on the Upper East Side for six seasons, for an audience that it not known for its interest in that kind of comedy, would have been difficult. So the makers opted to change the books’ tone and make it darker, more serious and much, much more deadly.

But suspension of disbelief fades after a while. It’s hard, no matter how many drug overdoses you portray, or daddy issues you dump in, to feel any sort of sustained

Sorry honey, it's just hard to feel sad for you when you look like THAT.

Sorry honey, it’s just hard to feel sad for you when you look like THAT.

sympathy for characters who quite obviously have much more than you. You can’t help but realize, after a while, that all their problems are self-created, and they must be the stupidest people on earth to find themselves in these terrible situations again and again. Why would I feel bad for Serena, who seems to get into Brown, Yale, Columbia despite doing nothing in high school? Why would I care about Nate’s broken heart when he’s shown me, time and again, that he can and will pick himself up just in time to fall for the next scheming, beautiful new face on the UES?

Seriously, this was me every time a new female character entered the show:

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‘Nate! No, Nate don’t look at her! No, don’t kiss her! Oh honey, don’t, don’t go and fall in—‘

Damn it,pretty boy. If only you weren’t, as Raina said, as smart as you look.

So all these characters get pretty unbearable, even Dan Humphrey. But the ones who constantly rescue the show from taking itself too seriously, who remind you time and again of what the books were originally intended to convey, are Blair and her posse.

Seriously, straight out of 'Mean Girls'.

Seriously, straight out of ‘Mean Girls’.

I dont know if it’s just Leighton Meester’s superb delivery and comic timing, but Blair, despite having as ‘intense’ and dramatic a storyline as any of her peers, never becomes an emotional drag in the same way. She alone of the main characters doesn’t appear to always take herself seriously all the time. Meester never makes her lack conviction in herself, but at the same time, her character is one that could as easily belong in a comedy as in a self-styled drama. Blair’s scenes on the steps of the Met, with the ‘mean girls’, her plans to wrangle an internship with Indra Nooyi and become a ‘powerful woman’, her ‘bridesmaid contest’ serve not only to make her appear a woman serious about her position in the world, but also underlines the utter ridiculousness of that world and its traditions and hierarchies. Around her, the other characters look silly and diminished too, while she just comes across as smarter for having realised and played along with the utter stupidity of her surroundings.

One of my friends once said that she liked people who ‘were so smart they can be openly silly because they are just that secure about themselves’. I think Blair, at least as played by Meester, is like that. Her overdone eyelash flutters, doe eyed looks and quicksilver facial expressions belong in a Mean Girls movie, or a romcom parody. And then she reminds you of her intelligence and intensity by declaring undying love for Chuck Bass—emotions which you can take all the more seriously because she’s not always operating on that register. Her ability to swing between levity and drama make her palatable, give you room to laugh at her and her world (thus reducing the threat an envy-potential of her world) as well as keep you hooked and rooting for her eventual happiness.

I don’t know if Meester intends to get into comedy a la Mindy Kaling,but she certainly has a talent for it. And given her life story and ultimate crossover marriage, I’m sure any book she decides to write will be a more than interesting read.

That's right, bitches.

That’s right, bitches.

How to be a Millenial, Ryan Howard style

‘I was the youngest VP in company history.’

‘More recently, he worked in a bowling alley.’

I watch a lot of TV. To be precise, I watch a lot of American TV, as do many people of my socio economic background and ‘Westernised’ upbringing in this part of the world. American TV is our go-to, our comfort food, something we keep up to date with as religiously as we update our Facebook statuses and do Buzzfeed quizzes. In some cases, more religiously. American TV isn’t even considered ‘foreign’ for us any more, in the same way American pop music and cinema has become ours more than its more ‘desi’ counterparts, at least in my case.

So it’s not surprising that I find, as I tend to find in literature, characters and situations from these TV shows that correspond almost uncomfortably well with my life. Recently, I’ve been ploughing through the US version of ‘The Office’. It took me at least half of the first season, but now I’m hooked and find myself turning almost unconsciously to Michael Scott and his band of not-so-merry men and women when I have a half hour to kill.

There’s one character I love watching more than the rest, not because I find him particularly entertaining (if there is one singularly always-entertaining character it’s definitely Kelly Kapoor) but because he is so freakishly close to home. In fact, if me or many people I know were to be slotted into a type and then ridiculed using a character, that character would be, sadly enough, Ryan Howard. ryan 2

Ryan Howard seems to me the classic ‘millenial’, the wunderkid who soared high on expectations, his own and that of others, and then came crashing spectacularly to earth when it turned out he had no idea how to function in the real world. He went to a fancy business school and then got hired on a ‘temp’ basis at the Scranton branch of Dunder Mifflin, a job he quite obviously thinks beneath him. ‘I could have gone anywhere,’ he says once, with a rather awestruck look. He could have been placed as a temp ‘anywhere’ in Scranton, and he ended up here, in this office.

Let’s consider Ryan’s professional track record: from ‘temp’, to no longer a temp (but never a true salesmen, having never made a sale), to obnoxious corporate hotshot who pushes for digitalisation in the name of progress (everyone gets a Blackberry when Ryan gets on the job), to fallen star. In Season 5 we find out he’s working in a bowling alley and has bleached his hair blonde. Apparently the sun in Fort Lauderdale is very strong.

What I find most disturbingly close to home about Ryan is his sense of total entitlement. There’s no doubt he’s smart, and at the beginning at least, he has dreams of starting his own business. His number one fan, Michael, disses those dreams straight off by telling him ‘That’s a terrible idea’. Ryan goes from quiet and ambitious to messed up power-hungry and back to temp in the course of five seasons. Ryan takes no one seriously unless they have a job at the corporate headquarters in New York or are validated by a fancy business degree. Ryan ignores the efforts of his boss to befriend him and then takes an obvious pleasure in pushing that boss, and everyone else, down when he gets to a superior position. Ryan then tumbles down and is exposed for the overreacher he is, the fire guy second time temp who can’t even make one measly sale and now lives, once again, with his mother.

I'm doing you a favour, yo.

I’m doing you a favour, yo.

I know The Office is a comedy and we’re supposed to laugh at all this. The thing about comedy is, if the same stories were captured in drama or a slightly more ambiguous genre, like the one Girls occupies, we’d feel more than a little sad, or disturbed. Ryan’s inability to stick with anything is similar to the dilemmas and self-created problems that trouble the characters of Girls. The latter is considered a pretty searing portrait of today’s twenty somethings, adrift in the world and armed only with seemingly unnecessary and unusable degrees and loads of self worth. Does Ryan have lots of self worth? Oh yeah. enough that he can tell Kelly ‘I need to break up with you so I can go on this trip to Thailand. It’s just something I have to do.’ In his own eyes, his personal net worth is huge, and this filters through in all he says and does.

Do I think Ryan is a bad person? No way. I think he’s super realistic. I can sympathise with his desire to have it all now, to not have to wait around for ‘good things’ to happen, and work his way to the top. I can also totally get on board with his need to be on the phone all the time. I think he’s a college kid who didn’t entirely grow up, or not yet at least. I think he’s an entitled twenty something, and a character that I find eerily and perhaps disturbingly sympathetic. After all, it’s taken more than a few of us a long time to forget that we’re not in college anymore.

More’s the pity.

Master Manipulators: Petyr Baelish

One thing we love doing in the fantasy community is pitting random characters against each other in grand showdowns. I suppose this has a lot to do with the form of the genre, where really, each series/book ends in a dramatic encounter between the ‘good guy’ and ‘bad guy’, or, to give them their genre-specific names, prophesied hero and dark evil overlord. In our time out of the books however, we like to toss characters from different series against each other, to figure out who would win if, say, there was a cross-world war and Harry Potter found himself facing Darth Vader.star-wars-vader-force-choke

 

vs.harry with wand

No contest. Clearly Vader would win. Harry could Expelliarmus his Jedi sword, but Vader does have that nifty little strangulation technique.

In my upcoming posts, I’m profiling characters of a certain type in preparation to pitting them against each other—four master manipulators who pull strings and make puppets dance in their respective worlds. You can thank a rather intense and nerdy discussion on Facebook. What makes this comparison difficult is that all their worlds are so different, and their particular skills and positions are largely shaped by the world they inhabit. Therefore, removing them from their contexts and trying to view them objectively is  trifle problematic, but I’m going to ignore such purist concerns in favor of the potential entertainment these comparisons will afford.

Without further ado…

petyrPetyr Baelish

Strengths:

Utter and complete lack of permanent alliances. Littlefinger is loyal only to himself. He shifts and shuffles his allies according to his convenience, does each major house enough ‘favours’ to make them believe that he is firmly part of their team.

Money matters: Littlefinger has his hands on the economic pulse of Westeros, or whatever passes for it. He finds money where there is none to be found, makes his own from his brothels. Money is might, in any universe, and his gold is what allows Littlefinger to buy knives, protection and loyalty from those who have no other reason to work for him.

Lack of discernible agenda: This is, perhaps, Littlefinger’s greatest strength. He always keeps his opponents guessing. Does he support the Lannisters? Yes, for a while. Why? We don’t know. Does he think the Tyrells should have the power? He certainly seems to let them think he does. He plays people so well because he knows what everyone else wants, which is usually power or vengeance, but no one has the same grasp on him because his long-term plan is so hazy. Does he want to marry Sansa and rule through her? That’s a possibility. Does he just want to do whatever upsets Varys’s plans? Also a possibility. Five books in, we have no idea.

Weaknesses:

Lack of physical strength: Granted, we haven’t actually seen Littlefinger in a fight, but from what we know, he’s a small man who, more often than not, hires people to do his killing. He has never been a soldier, was quite thoroughly routed by Brandon Stark when he did try to pick a fight (fine, he was ‘little more than a boy’ but I’m pretty sure that if he had any latent martial skill, it would have manifested by then), and he does not seem the kind of man who has time to invest in physical training. No, Baelish is much too sophisticated for the old school chivalric/martial code of lords like Ned and Robert. It’s precisely why he looks down on them.

Lack of allies: If push came to shove, who would back Baelish up? No one. Even Sansa is, obviously, playing her own game with him. This is the flip-side of being a totally rogue agent. He has no family connections, no romantic connections (except Lysa, who is now dead) and the one bond he does seem to have, with Sansa, will, I predict, be the one that ends up destroying him.

Conclusion: Littlefinger is formidable. He couples immense intellectual capacity with financial know-how, and plays a game that very few seem to be able to see, let alone guess the object of.  I wouldn’t even call his bond with Sansa a weakness, since we don’t know how far he’s playing her and what his eventual aim with her is. I somehow doubt he’s going to be easily seduced and left for dead. No, Littlefinger’s going to have a bigger plan than just getting into bed with her.

sansa-and-petyr-sansa-stark-34188034-950-525

 

And if he doesn’t, I’ll be rather disappointed.

Next time, I’ll assess the second contestant in this face-off. Who’s it going to be? Now, that’s a surprise.

An Empire State of Mind

It’s easy to find blogposts and listicles about how important it is to travel in your 20’s. The writers of these posts say inspiring things about how travel builds perspective, travel doesn’t have to be the provence of the rich, travel brings you face to face with people and situations you would never expect. I’ve seen so many of these, some of them with agendas more clearly discernible than others (for instance, there’s one about how girls should travel in their 20’s rather than get married. I have a problem with posts like these simply because they seem to judge those who do choose to get married in their 20’s, which I find a little discomfiting. People should be able to get married whenever the hell they want, and that includes in their 20’s), but rants aside, they all make this one point: travel broadens horizons, and really, you should do it.

I would describe myself as an indifferent traveler. I don’t really enjoy meeting new people all the time, neither do I need to throw myself into particularly ‘exciting’ and ‘new’ experiences in order to find my life enriching and fulfilling (I think I do well enough building and dispensing drama on my own—just ask any of my close friends). Certainly I enjoy seeing famous and touristy places, but my ambition does not include that oft cited by so many people: ‘I want to see the world’.

Having said all this, there are a few places I would like to visit, a short list of countries that includes, for various reasons, Peru, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Morocco, Canada and one particular city: New York.

top-of-the-rock-photo-ispI visited New York for a day in 2009. It was a there and back again trip, consisting of a hurried Chipotle lunch with cousins, a quick trip through the MoMA (Museum of Modern Art), three hours standing in line waiting for tickets to a Broadway show at Times Square, hurried gobbling of cheesecake, strolling through a little bit of Central Park—I remember rocks—and then rushing to Majestic Theatre, where I lost my heart to a singing Phantom and his Gothic tunes. We then took a night train back to the domestic haven of New Jersey, and New York and its treats were left behind.

This quick visit was enough to give me what I thought of as a ‘sense’ of the city, and the only word I could use to describe it was ‘life’. The moment I stepped out of Penn Station’s underground caverns and onto the street, I felt an almost electric thrill shoot through me. Here, I thought, is where I want to be. Ever since then I’ve dreamt of walking down fifth, sixth or seventh avenue, clutching a rapidly cooling coffee as I make my way to my skyscraper-housed office. This vision may or may not have been unduly influenced by The Devil Wears Prada movie. Given how much importance that movie and various other NY-based books/TV shows (cough Gossip Girl cough) have in my imagination, I wouldn’t be surprised.

28annehathawaygoldpurseoutfit

Totes going to be me some day.

I finally had the opportunity to stay in the Big Apple. I crashed at a close friend’s place on 125th and Broadway (like a true New Yorker, I have learned to locate places based on street and avenue number/name), very close to Columbia University. I took the Subway on my own—woohoo!—and travelled about Manhattan. I met a range of interesting people, old friends and new as the cliche goes, and undertook the grand mission known as ‘finding oneself’. I walked past humongous skyscrapers multiple times, looking up at the windows and wondering when I would sit inside and look out upon the commuters and tourists scurrying below. I stood outside the NewsCorp office for a full five minutes and plotted takeover, even messaged a partner in crime about how we would one day rule the publishing and television world from there. 

I have very small dreams, you see.

New York was everything I dreamed it would be. Granted, I spent only ten days there and didn’t actually have to brave rush hour crowds, eke out a living and pay a humongous rent, so my picture of the city is rather rose-tinted. But it felt, more than anything, like a bigger, more international version of Delhi, perhaps shinier and the teensiest bit safer, in some ways. In other ways, more dangerous.

Perhaps this, its Delhi-like feel, made me even more desperate to be seen as ‘part’ of the city, a true ‘local’. It’s impossible, at a glance, to tell who is from New York. It houses people from every race, every country probably, ever sort of social, economic and religious background. Given the smorgasbord of humanity, it’s easy enough to blend in, be perceived as someone completely at home here. I figured out the easiest way to pass off as a local, i.e, not a clueless tourist (which, whatever I say, I was) was to plaster a confident, vaguely arrogant expression on my face and just stride off in the direction I thought I was supposed to take. Luckily for me, my face assumes this expression almost by default, and even when I took the wrong exit from a subway, quick glances at the street corners enabled me to reroute myself properly.

Why was I so desperate to blend in? Perhaps I just wanted to extend the illusion of being part of the city, convince myself that yes, I am here and I will be here. If people validate this notion, all the better.

Did traveling to New York give me the much vaunted ‘perspective’? Yes. It taught me how very much I want to be seen as successful, creative, a force to be reckoned with—all images one associates, thanks to pop culture, with NYC. More than that, it showed me that I want to be all those things there. I want the skyscraper-housed office, the overpriced coffee, the snootiness of an Upper East or West side address. Impossible to get? Well, like Jay-Z said, ‘If I can make it here/I can make it anywhere’.

Challenge accepted. 

blair

Bring. It. On.

When Gossip Girl meets A Game of Thrones

I recently quipped that, based on a rewatch of the Gossip Girl series, the Upper East Side looks a whole lot like the seamier world of Westeros. It’s got the same elements: people from privileged backgrounds/powerful families fighting for control of a limited geographic space. What happens outside of that Upper East Side (henceforth referred to as UES) area is of little concern, but for some reason it’s a power base that even outsiders want to enter or are forced to contend with, and it ends up corrupting them.

And the true voice of power here? A Varys-like figure who collects and disburses information at his/her own discretion and can lay low the most elevated with one fell swoop.

I decided to have a little fun and lay out some of the parallels between my favourite UES families and their Westerosi counterparts.

The Humphreys – House Stark

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This was a no-brainer. The only family that pretends to have any sort of noble idealism, who live outside the polluting atmosphere of the Manhattan area, but who, for some odd reason (love or friendship or simple desire to climb socially) have gotten sucked into a world that leaves them scrambling for purchase. Whether it’s Jenny’s Sansa-like fascination for all things fancy or Dan’s Jon-like ‘outsider’ status, the Humphreys are the Starks, sans the direwolves.

The Waldorfs – House Tyrell

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The Waldorfs are the one family that has finished playing out its family drama before the show opens. Headed by a formidable matriarch (Eleanor Waldorf is a little scatter-brained at times, but it was she who, by her own admission, taught Blair her scheming ways), its pride and hope rests on Blair, the supposedly virginal beauty who seeks to rule the UES with an iron fist. Blair is perhaps the one character who is most open about her desire to rule (what, exactly, is debatable at times), echoing Margaery’s famous line in the show: ‘I want to be the Queen’. And Blair will do whatever it takes, marrying disastrously into the royal family of a tiny European nation if that’s what’s called for.

The Archibalds – House Baratheon

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Baratheon, to me, has always been a bit of a random house. What is their USP? It’s not dragons, it’s not wealth, and it’s certainly not misinformed idealism. The three Baratheon brothers we meet in the course of the books are all radically different from each other, and their motto, ‘Ours is the Fury’ is rather lacklustre compared to heavyweights like ‘Fire and Blood’ or the ever-doleful ‘Winter is Coming’. But they are rich, and they are royal—indeed, they were second in line after the Targaryens were bumped off. And people do seem to like (some of) them. The Archibalds struck  me as that sort of family—very random, very rich and sitting on a huge family history that they could use to their benefit if they chose to (which they do, a couple of seasons into the show).

And Nate, if he were anyone on Game of Thrones, would be Renly. Pretty, popular, but no way would he be able to handle the pressures of being king. That’s best left to…

The Basses – House Lannister

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You knew this was coming. The wealthiest house on the UES? The one with the most spotted reputation, with the scheming, cold-hearted father and the disappointing, profligate son who (SPOILER) ends up acting out in the worst ways possible? The Basses can afford to pay off Blair’s dowry and still remain top-dog on the UES, just as the Lannisters extend credit to the throne and manage to field large armies at the same time. The Basses know how to play the games of the UES perhaps better than anyone else, disappearing and reappearing as per their own convenience. They run with unsavoury types, but manage to come out of each scandal with their fortune and their name intact.

And finally..

The Van der Woodsens – House Targaryen

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I have never understood why the VDW’s are so popular on the UES. Aside from Serena’s obvious good looks, the family seems to have nothing but bad decision making skills on its resume. Their family affairs are more messed up than any others on the show, with cheating and lying about deathly illnesses running rampant. They even have a con-artist snuggling into their ranks (literally) and passing off as one of them.

But for some reason, they are up there, powerful and making terrible judgment calls to protect themselves. Like Dany, Serena wants to  dissociate herself from the madness of her forebears and tries time and again to shuck the UES-VDW mantle, to become one of the ‘people’, whether by dating ‘outsiders’ or changing her name. Time and again, she is hauled back to awareness that she can’t escape her past. Serena is perhaps the one idealistic and naïve figure in this bunch of messed-up blondes, and she seems well aware of that.

But when Serena wants, she can take the world down in more fire and blood than even Blair is capable of. In fact, in terms of sheer collateral damage on the show, its Serena who wins top-spot in her generation.

Really, when you step back and look at it, the parallels are rather uncanny. Are we sure the Gossip Girl makers were not reading A Song of Ice and Fire when they scripted their show?