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.

quentin

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.

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When arcs come crashing down


Dark-Sansa-2When a book becomes a movie or a TV show, you can expect some changes. These might be minor, like the exclusion of Ioreth or Glorfindel from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies, or huge sweeping changes involving new characters and the introduction of old ones in places they weren’t supposed to be. For the most part, I take these changes in stride. I understand the appeal of inserting Legolas into the Hobbit movies, for instance, because he forms a very obvious connection for fans of the previous trilogy, and even the Dwarf-Elf love story didn’t bother me very much.

For the same reason, changes the show runners have made in A Game of Thrones, based on the Song of Ice and Fire books, have not annoyed me. Until now.

Please note, there are massive spoilers both for the books and the TV show, going ahead.

That last episode has been the focus of a LOT of discussion. Sansa Stark is married off to Ramsay Bolton, easily the most vile and disgusting character in the Seven Kingdoms, and is raped on her wedding night while Theon is forced to watch. To their credit, the show runners shot the scene with Theon as the focus, instead of exploiting Sansa’s pain any further by zooming in on what was happening to her. But in some ways, this just served to make the emotional nadir point even more obvious. Theon, a character who has been through more torture than any other on the show, breaks down watching what’s happening before him.

What bothered me about it

Aside from the obvious fact that this storyline—Sansa getting married to Ramsay—is a HUGE change from what’s going down in the books, aside from the fact that it seems needless to include yet another rape scene in a show that seems to harbour more than a few of them (one is too many by this point), aside from the fact that watching it or listening to it made me feel sick and disgusted and terrified, there are very reader-specific reasons why this scene annoyed me.

First off—I love Theon and Sansa both. They are and always have been among my
favourite characters (numbering favourites one and two, if you want to be specific) and I supported them long before and in spite of derision and shock from friends and fellow Theon-Greyjoy-Alfie-Allen-in-GOT-206readers/viewers. I found both to have been drawn with incredible realism, being perhaps the most relateable characters in the books. These are the people who many of us, I think, would be in Westeros, characters who make mistakes and learn hard lessons. They are not heroes from the start, but they do grow to be.

In the books Theon is where he’s at in the show, serving Ramsay and playing terrorised/reluctant rescuer to Jeyne Pool, the girl who is masqueraded as Arya Stark and married to the Bastard of Bolton. Theon spends most of A Dance with Dragons coming to terms with his identity as Theon Greyjoy and all that he has done; he seeks to redeem himself, slightly, by rescuing the girl, a fellow sufferer. The point of the whole spiel is that Theon does this simply because he feels for the girl and desires to find some goodness in himself. Rescuing Jeyne wins him no favours from other houses, she does not have powerful allies they can run to—in fact, throwing his lot in with hers is pretty much the most suicidal thing Theon can do, and yet he does it.

Rescuing Sansa Stark, on the other hand, could be seen as a much more loaded act. She has powerful allies out there, and she is the Stark girl at the end of the day. No one who associates with her can forget this, not even a woebegone, maimed and castrated one-time foster brother. The selflessness and danger of Theon’s rescue mission becomes a lot more muddled when the girl he rescues is the heir to the North, as far as most people know.

game-of-thrones-1x08-the-pointy-end-sansa-stark-cap

But the real reason I’m pissed is not so much for Theon’s sake as Sansa’s. I wrote a post a while ago, trying to show the haters why I love this character so much, why she appeals to me and why I do not, repeat, DO NOT find her stupid. What I love about Sansa is the way she manages to cling to some form of idealism in a world that steadily seeks to strip her of all of it. Sansa is learning the ropes of manipulation and deceit from Littlefinger in the Eyrie—where she still is in the books—but you never get the sense that she’s become cynical because of what she’s seen. She is merely picking up the tools she needs to survive, but that glimmer of hope for a better world and the life she dreamt of is still there.

Sansa is something of an icon for me in that gritty world of Westeros. she is not perfect, like the mythical Lyanna Stark. She is not super powered, like Dany or Melisandre, and nor is she as embittered and hate-filled as her sister and Cersei. I find it amazing how time and again she is faced with utter humiliation and yet emerges from it. And now, instead of constantly being rescued by men (or, let’s be honest, only by Petyr Baelish) I hope that in the books she takes the lessons he gives her and then uses them to move on peacefully with her life, not be stuck at the mercy of those around her.

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But the show, after giving her an empowering half season, where she is rapidly learning under Baelish’s tutelage and handling herself with elan in a dangerous court, throws her back down, literally, and has her delusions of control ripped away from her. And the worst part—she’s probably going to have to rely on a man (Theon or Baelish) or another protector (Brienne) to get her out of there.

I see how its tempting to shove Sansa back into the role of the captive princess, something she’s been forced into time and again. But now, when it finally looked like she was getting out of it, it just seems needless and downright cruel to make her suffer through it again. If viewers really are expected to take her seriously, as something more than a deluded little girl, why force her through the same hells again and again and have her rescued by other agents? This, this is what I do not like.

I’m holding out hope still that Sansa will reclaim her power. I have no doubts that she will. But I still don’t see why it need have been ripped away from her in the first place.

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:

natefacepalm

‘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.

One More Thing

Is there anything better than discovering a new favorite author?

Before you go all Buzzfeed on me and start listing things, let me say that that was a rhetorical question.

For me, one of the greatest joys is finding a good book. As I’ve grown older, this has become increasingly hard to do. This may be because my reading has, to a great extent, narrowed. I don’t have as much time to devour books, and so the ones that I do read are chosen with great care and only (usually, if it’s a new writer or someone I’ve never tried before), after I scroll through a few reviews from trusted websites. At least, this is the process I follow when I pick up a new fantasy series because, let’s face it, there’s a lot of trash out there that finds itself into unsuspecting hands, especially in this genre.

When it comes to the more vaguely dubbed ‘lit fic’ however, my selection process is not nearly so clinical. If I’ve heard of the book from a trustworthy source (usually a friend who’s read it), or read and been intrigued by a newspaper/magazine review, I might be inspired to peruse it. Or I might have seen and been thoroughly impressed by the author in at a literary festival and then decided to not be pseudo intellectual—no more pretending to like him/her, let’s see if they read as good as they sound.

BJNovak_AFThe case of B.J. Novak and One More Thing was slightly more complicated. Or simpler, depending on your perspective. I love Mindy Kaling, and I raced through her Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? And Other concerns faster than I had any other book for what felt like a long time. It was hilarious, and at times I felt as though I were listening to an older sister or friend talk about things that I hope, in a few years, I might be qualified to speak about myself. Going by the law of transitivity or whatever it is, I assumed that I might like her fellow The Office writer’s work as well, and so I picked up Novak’s book.

The cashier at the counter took one look at the white-covered, innocuous looking text and told me that I was going to ‘love it’. Turns out, he was totally right. And the law of whatever-it-is was, for once, proven totally right.

One More Thing is brilliant. It is a collection of short stories, poems, little notes, that are very obviously the work of a very, very smart guy who has (it seems to me) always wanted to be a ‘real writer’. Everything about Novak’s career—a double major in English and Spanish Literature from Harvard, a stand-up comedian, a writer on the hit NBC series The Office, producer, actor and now, author of two books—signals an extremely creative person with perhaps more than his fair share of talent. His book is just like that career path, zigzagging from scene to scene, jumping through a whirlwind of emotion and snapping with energy, but never, ever anything less than hilarious and, at moments, beautifully poignant.

One More Thing strikes me as a very ‘literature student type’ book. It makes digs at the whole process of studying English, the over-reading and analyzing that becomes second nature to its students, and very considerately provides ‘discussion questions’ at the close of some of the pieces. At the end of the book, for example, he asks:

Did you think the book was funny? Why or why not?

Do you think discussion questions can be unfairly leading sometimes? Why?

Do you think “why not” is ultimately a better question than “why”?

Why or why not?

Very thought provoking, as you can see.

Some of Novak’s stories, the more obviously sci-fi or ‘uncanny’ ones reminded me a great deal of one of my favorite writers, Neil Gaiman. Like Gaiman, he infuses these short glimpses into strange worlds with more reality than many ‘fantasy saga’ writers do in their twelve-book-long epics. Like Gaiman, his writing is simple, concise, no room for bloated words or sentiments. He pins his ideas onto the page with a minimum of fuss, a skill I suppose he honed during his time writing for The Office. For instance, with a few sentences, he manages to paint this character perfectly:

For the adoration due a great poet, he made a point of writing his articles longhand on legal pads in fashionable cafes, always looking like a brilliant, beautiful mess, a priceless piece of set decoration for any independently owned coffee shop: the poet completely lost in his work, pausing only to explain—often, and at length, depending on the questioner—what it was he was working on.

Totally recognizable type, I’d say.

Not all of Novak’s stories are as openly ridiculing as this one might seem to be. Like I said, OMT contains a range of emotion and encounters, and the tones of the pieces vary, but the overall effect is … comforting. I felt like I was spending the night talking to an old friend, one I knew and admired, laughing at the stories he had to tell me even when some of them made me want to cry. I knew from the first page that this was good writing, I knew this was a writer I could trust, and I know, now that the covers have been closed, that this is a writer I will go back to. 330x360xNovak_photo-e1359764894573-330x360.jpg.pagespeed.ic.3gYi-IDGZF

I hope Novak writes more, lots more. I have a feeling he will, and that he’ll continue to work his way into my heart with every paragraph he pens. He is the wunderkind after all.

One more thing—go read this book right now. I promise you, it’s totally worth your time. If you’re not convinced, maybe the hilarious book trailer will help:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2FxhTn9cEhI 

Poor Little Rich Boy

What do Jaime Lannister and Sirius Black have in common? A lot, it turns out. They’re both very rich, from proud, aristocratic families (which are very powerful in their respective worlds), firstborn sons with great talent and wit, and, of course, wonderfully handsome. They also turn out to be parental disappointments, trust the wrong people and suffer terrible trials that cause them to question the very foundation of their worth. And yes, they have ‘sons’ who know nothing about them for a very, very long time.

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Jaime and Sirius are shining examples of that up and coming trope, the Poor Little Rich Boy (or PLRB, for short). Shae defines the trope better than I ever could; in Episode 10 of Season 2 of Game of Thrones, she snaps at Tyrion: ‘I’m a poor little rich boy and no one loves me so I say funny things and pay people to laugh at my jokes’, she mocks. Tyrion looks appropriately chastened.*

The PLRB, in my opinion, is popular culture’s response to the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, painting a picture that few ‘real’ men could ever hope to live up to. Movies, books, TV shows are rife with this character- just sit in thought for a few moments and you’ll be reeling off a string of names: Chuck Bass, Christian Grey, Gawyn Trakand, Evan Chambers … While the details of their insecurity and weakness might differ, they share some traits including the notion that they have and will always continue to disappoint someone in the course of their (seemingly) empty, worthless lives.

Of course, this is remedied in the case of Chuck and Christian, but poor Gawyn damns himself and Egwene because (spoiler) he can’t get over his Rand-inflected inferiority complex. As for Evan, he was left alone at the end of GREEK, the only character who had nothing specific to look forward to.

In this post, I will examine what makes the PLRB such a compelling character, especially its manifestation in the form of Jaime and Sirius. Certainly a great deal of their allure comes from the fact that they have all that is normally associated with a ‘successful’ person: they’re rich, handsome, smart and very good at what they do, whether it’s swinging a sword or firing spells and planning pranks. At the same time, they are enormously vulnerable, whether because of love, lack of it, or their spotted, not entirely deserved reputations.

Sticks and Stones May Break my Bones, but Words Will Sorely Wound Me

Let’s begin with Jaime. When we meet him in A Game of Thrones, there seems little to like about him. He’s ‘golden’ and handsome, true, but he’s also the treacherous ‘Kingslayer’, the man who slew the ruler he was sworn to defend. A few pages after he rides onto the scene, he throws a six year old boy out of a tower and cripples him for life. After this he disappears, returns to wound honourable Ned Stark, and then is only seen again when in chains before the righteous Young Wolf.

If you came to A Song of Ice and Fire as I did, fresh from a world where characters in fantasy books were good or evil, no doubt your head spun when you reached A Storm of Swords and found yourself listening to a man you had decided to hate two books ago. When I first read ASoIaF, the TV series wasn’t even a whisper on the horizon, and so my experience of Jaime (in those first two books) was in no way as well-rounded as that of readers who came to him through the show. In A Game of Thrones , producers and scriptwriters don’t stay inside a few chosen characters the way Martin does—they present a more omniscient perspective, and so we get to see a less than wholly evil Jaime right from the start.

Instead, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau plays a man who wears his spotted reputation with a mixture of pride, resignation and a careful layering of carelessness. He ends the famous declaration ‘There are no men like me. Only me.’ with a half-grimace, underlining the character’s peculiar solitude and consequent loneliness. Coster-Waldeau presents a Jaime never entirely certain of his father’s regard for him, the scene in Tywin’s tent is Season 1, episode 7 (‘You Win or You Die’) being a great example. This scene does not take place in the books (at least, we are never witness to it), but serves, in the show, to begin building the figure of a man who is not entirely inhuman, even if he does do some monstrous ‘things’ for ‘love’.

It’s this lingering sense of honour, of idealism that sets Jaime apart from his twin and his father and makes him similar to Tyrion. For all his devil-may-care swagger, Jaime does set some store by what others think of him—how else does one explain the bitterness that coats his words every time he speaks of ‘honourable’ Eddard Stark and his quicksilver judgments? The strange ‘honor’ that Jaime possesses, that he slowly builds upon in the course of the books, emerges when he is divorced from his family and forced to confront the seamier, less than gilded side of Westeros. Once he is disowned by his father and heads into the riverlands and back to the warfront, the transformation of Ser Jaime is nearly complete.

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Post-capture, Jaime begins to lose some of his swagger and thus begin his journey to ‘likeable’ character in the books.

Black as He’s Bred

Just like Jaime, Sirius too is brought up as the firstborn son and heir of a rich and powerful house, one that holds certain beliefs that often seem to put it at odds (at least, in the years the Potter books are set in and make extensive reference to) with the rest of the wizarding world. To the Blacks, duty to family and bloodline is above all, as enshrined in their motto, ‘Toujours Pur’. Sirius’s breaking of Black family tradition via Sorting into Gryffindor house only marks the beginning of his stated (and canon-supported) rebellion. At the age of fifteen, he famously runs away to join another family (though he never formally changes his name), marking his clear emergence on the ‘right’ side.

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Fan art representation of Sirius Black

Like Jaime, however, the stain of Sirius’ blood/actions never quite leaves him in the text. Misapprehended as the Secret Keeper for the Potters, Sirius is jailed for twelve long, harrowing years and publicly maligned as a traitor of the worst kind. He is never exonerated during his lifetime, forced to hide and ‘escape justice’ for three years on the run for a crime he never committed. The chief reasons for the easy tarnishing of Sirius’s reputation lie, I believe, both in his family’s reputation and his own actions in Hogwarts. As Severus Snape bites out, ‘Sirius Black proved he was capable of murder at sixteen’. Though it’s never stated in the books outright, I believe this was a reason, however slight, for Dumbledore, McGonagall, indeed, most clear-thinking characters’ easy acceptance of his ‘guilt’.

O Brother, Where Art thou?

Another factor that constitutes a large part of both characters’ portrayals  is their relationship with their younger brothers. Both Jaime and Sirius ‘abandon’ their forebears’ definition of family duty to pursue their own goals: Jaime as a member of the Kingsguard and Sirius as a fighter for the ‘blood-traitors’’ side. As stated earlier, at the start of the books, Jaime does not come across as anything other than a dutiful son (chiefly because we do not actually get to look into his head in this section of Martin’s saga). He loves his brother, his worry for him driving him to recklessness and sparking off violence in the heart of King’s Landing. Tyrion himself often thinks of Jaime fondly in the first three books. The regard comes crashing down only when Jaime reveals his own part in the tragic tale of Tysha. At this point, Jaime has already broken from Tywin; this act leads to a schism in his relationship with his brother, one that I am not sure they will ever be able to repair.

Though barely glanced at in the text, it is implied that Sirius too failed Regulus, abandoning him to the manipulations and overbearing nature of his parents. Sirius speaks of his brother with bitterness in The Order of the Phoenix, implying that he was a low-ranking coward who didn’t even have the sort of twisted bravery that would carry him through his chosen service with the Dark Lord. We have no way of knowing whether he ever tried to persuade his brother to abandon the Black beliefs after he ran away from home, but given the Marauders’ general attitude to Slytherins and Sirius’s overwhelming bitterness towards his family, we can assume that whatever attempts he might have made were feeble and, above all, unsuccessful. At least as far as Sirius knew.

‘There are no men like me, only me’

Yes, I’ve already referenced this quote earlier, but I think it’s a perfect summation of the presentation of both Jaime and Sirius in their respective universes. Is there anyone quite as handsome, as well-bred, as good with a weapon or as misunderstood? James Potter may have stood in close competition with Sirius, but the former’s early removal from the series ensures that all we have of him is hearsay (and the occasional jaunt down Pensieve-lane). Besides, the ‘Potter’ name doesn’t seem to have quite the power and dark magic that ‘Black’ has attached to it, the same way ‘Lannister’ sounds a deal more heavyweight than ‘Tyrell’ in Westeros.

Jaime and Sirius’s life choices ensure that they do not follow the ‘conventional’ paths, i.e., marry and settle down to produce equally wonderful children. However, they both do have ‘sons’ (and in Jaime’s case, a daughter as well): Joffrey, Tommen and Myrcella for Jaime, and a godson, Harry, for Sirius. Neither of them is there for their children for much of their lives. For Jaime, this is a safety issue, where his very life, his sister’s and the children’s depends on the continued belief of the masses (and the king) that the children are Robert’s. For Sirius, this is because of his being locked away in Azkaban. Even later, however, Harry reflects rather ungratefully (in a throwaway line in Deathly Hallows) upon how ‘reckless’ a godfather Sirius was, hoping that he himself will not be such to Teddy Lupin. Personally, I found this reflection rather astonishing, given Harry’s immediate reaction to Sirius’s death was to blame himself for his own hastiness and willingness to succumb to Voldemort’s trap. The reading of his death as a result of his own recklessness was something I would have assumed Dumbledore would make, not Sirius’s beloved and adoring godson.

Speaking of recklessness, can we forget Jaime’s impetuous wounding of Ned Stark? Or indeed his shoving of Bran out the window? Both are the result of his ‘unthinking’ quickness, a characteristic that Cersei laments and Tyrion cannot afford. Jaime is ‘reckless’, he stabs first and thinks about it later, he cannot be ‘serious’ about anything precisely because, up until his maiming, things come so easy to him. In the world he inhabits, he does not have to wonder about his ability to succeed. Neither does Sirius. This is why they are able to treat combat and perilous situations the way they do: with a laugh, a jest and a casual grace that others cannot hope to achieve.

And yet, we still love them

They have everything, as I’ve no doubt underlined multiple times. They have everything that would make for unparalleled success in any context. And yet, they don’t find it. And that’s why they work.

I had the misfortune to brush through a terrible ‘fantasy’ novel some months ago, where the protagonist was a well-toned, intelligent, handsome man who ‘fought’ to find release. Within a few sentences, I hated him. He was too self-confident (even while being presented very obviously as a flawed and under-confident being), too successful, too together. No one wants a hero you can’t sympathize with, especially in a fantasy novel, where everything else is supposed to be sort of alien anyway.

So what makes these particular near-perfect characters, Jaime and Sirius, work? One reason, I think, is because they are not the main characters. Though Jaime is a viewpoint in A Storm of Swords and the books that come after, he is one among many voices and, he is not one we have been with from the start, as in the case of Jon Snow, Danaerys, or Tyrion. The Harry Potter books, of course, are written primarily from Harry’s point of view, and Sirius ranks far below characters like Ron and Hermione and Neville in terms of screen-time. We don’t see too much of either of these figures, a fact which, I think, makes them more attractive and less jealousy/cringe-inducing as was the case with the earlier mentioned character.

Besides, Martin and Rowling are far better writers than that guy was.

Second, I believe the manner of their introduction has a huge part to play. Both Jaime and Sirius are presented first as ‘bad guys’, and it’s only later that we learn the stories behind their supposed crimes. The readers’ initial dislike or negative impression of them is slowly corrected only after surprising and thought-provoking revelations, which raise complicated questions about duty and loyalty. It turns out, surprisingly, that these guys were placed in hellish situations (especially in Jaime’s case) and tried to make the best of what they were offered. I think our surprise at their ‘good guy-ness’ and the revelation that we, the judging readers, have also condemned them without hearing the whole story, does a lot to help us forgive them their Rich Boy angst. We are now eager to make them understand that we are different from their dense, unmoved peers. We hear them, we see their ordeals, we appreciate what they’ve been through. We are now there for them, heart and soul.

This finally, is what makes characters like Darcy, Christian Gray, Jaime and Sirius tick—the readers’ desire to be forgiving and benevolent, to hand out comfort to those who are otherwise misunderstood by their own society. We are all a little bit like Sansa Stark in that way—these ‘monsters’ won’t hurt us because we know their weaknesses and unlike the rest of the mileu, we understand them.  We know the real Jaime Lannister, we see past the glamorous exterior of Sirius Black, we really have the power to forgive them their stupidities and mistakes.

I think it’s that, really, that makes these characters so seductive. The idea that, no matter how perfect they are, they have weaknesses that only we as readers are privy to and can forgive. It’s hard, if not impossible, to exert the same kind of power in real life—all the glamorous, powerful people are not waiting for you to come to them and assure them that everything is okay. Neither would they be supremely grateful for it. But these guys—they’re all ours to forgive and love. And everyone knows that in fantasy, it’s the forgiver who’s the real hero at the end of the day.

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Frodo taught us well.

* I haven’t included Tyrion in this definition because he does not have the same physical and social advantages that these Rich Boys have. He’s a Poor Little Rich Boy with a lot more problems than these guys could ever dream of.

Welcome back to Westeros: ‘Valar Dohaeris’

So I finally managed to watch Episode 1 of Season 3 of GOT yesterday. I trekked across the city to a friend’s house, where we dimmed the lights, pulled out the peppermint (yes, for some absurd reason, I wanted to watch Game of Thrones with PEPPERMINT by my side) and hurled a beautiful print onto a big TV screen. Such a change from watching it on a laptop, which, though bigger than many laptop screens I’ve seen, still does not give the kind of awe-inspiring experience that a TV screen can generate.
Now that I’ve built the atmosphere, allow me to share my thoughts on the episode:
I liked it. I wouldn’t say I LOVED it, mostly because nothing much really HAPPENED and the music was definitely not at its peak (I am partial to Theon’s theme), and the end seemed a little ‘eh’, okay. But it was good to see some of my favourite characters back on screen after what feels like ages.
‘Valar Dohaeris’ starts with a puffing Samwell Tarly running through a light blizzard, no doubt trying to get as far as he can from (what we presume) to be the aftermath of the battle we saw about to take place at the end of the season finale (White Walkers vs The Night’s Watch). Speaking of this battle, I was a little disappointed that they took the practical way out and left it to our imaginations. Sam rather fortuitously finds Mormont and the rest of the band, only to confess to them that he failed at his ‘one job’- the send out ravens to the lords of Westeros, telling them that peril draws nearer as the winds turn colder. Mormont caps off this conversation (and bit of the episode) with the melodramatic but nonetheless true statement that unless the Night’s Watch warns the world of what is coming, ‘everyone you know will be dead!’
Lovely beginning, wouldn’t you say?

Peter Dinklage plays up Tyrion's vulernable, lonely side.

Peter Dinklage plays up Tyrion’s vulernable, lonely side.

We then move on to Tyrion, who is still in his lonely, dark chamber (he has been ousted from his Hand position), checking himself out in a mirror. Cersei pays him a none-too-friendly visit, where the brother and sister barely manage to conceal their mutual antipathy and distrust. Cersei is nervous about Tyrion talking to their father and demands to know why on earth he would want to. Is he planning to tell Tywin any ‘lies’ that might damage her? Tyrion helpfully points out that it ‘isn’t slander if it’s true’ and is then left in peace. Parallel to and companion to this interaction is a scene with Bronn the sellsword, ‘the upjumped cut throat’ who has developed a taste for the ‘finer things in life’ and gives us a chance for some frontal female nudity. It wouldn’t be GOT without a whorehouse scene after all, would it?
Then there are Davos and Robb Stark scenes–the former being rescued and deposited (against his friend Salladhor Saan’s will) on Dragonstone, where a beaten Stannis huddles and ‘licks his wounds’ in the company of Melisandre. Davos speaks up against her when she delivers one barb too many (‘death by fire is the purest death’, she croons to him–this after Davos has seen his son burn before his eyes on the Blackwater) and is thrown into prison for his pains. Not the best welcome home.
Robb and his minions, for whom Roose Bolton has unaccountably become spokesperson, turn up at a deserted Harrenhal, where scores of Northmen have been slaughtered for no apparent reason. To remind us that Catelyn is still in his bad graces, he demands that guards escort her to a ‘room that may serve as a cell’. Talisa the Volantene finds a living man among the heaps of dead and revives him with her ever-handy water pouch. He gasps out that his name is Qybrun.
Not what I was expecting, but it should be interesting to see how they spin this.</p>
<p> Now come two of the best scenes in the episode–Sansa and Shae play an ‘imagining game’ on the pier, guessing where various ships are going and why. When Shae attempts to insert some truth into the game, Sansa stops her, saying that the ‘truth is either terrible or boring’. That’s a great line, and a view of Sansa’s face shows us how she’s changed- she’s sullen looking and there’s a growing light of cynicism in her eyes. As she tells Lord Baelish later, when he offers her help, ‘I’m a terrible liar’. Is she though, really? Somehow with the new face I can’t believe it. She’s all grown up.
Shae and Ros have a bit of a chat while Baelish is crooning to Sansa about her mother (this reminded me so much of School of Thrones. The actor got Baelish spot on.). Ros remarks that ‘it’s not easy for girls like us’, pointing out how well they’ve done for themselves. Ros then asks Shae to look out for Sansa, which was quite touching. These women who have nothing, or have started with nothing, seem to care more genuinely for the girl than anyone in her social station does. Ros has always been portrayed as the wholesome, good-hearted woman, the ‘prostitute with a heart of gold’, so I guess it doesn’t come as a surprise that she’s probably one of the few in the entire series with her heart in the right place. Shae however…I’m not so sure.
While on the subject of Sansa, I should mention Margaery Tyrell, a woman who knows just how to play the masses. Lady Tyrell visits an orphanage in the filthy lanes of Fleabottom, the very area where the royal entourage was attacked and Sansa nearly raped last season. Here, Margaery plays the politician to the hilt, winning the hearts and smiles of young children via GOT merchandise (you can bet those soldier dolls are going to be hitting the shelves soon) and stories about the importance of their fathers in the defence of the city (these are the kids whose dads fell defending King Joffrey’s claim). It is very sweet, but one can’t help but think that Margaery is just being a smart politician. Coming after Ros’s simple request to Shae, this appears fake and contrived. The point, I suppose.
There is one person at least who is leery of Margaery’s ‘niceness’, and that’s Cersei. She warns the pretty young thing that she may need to start putting some ‘metalwork’ on her dresses once she gets more familiar with King’s Landing. Margaery acts sweet and optimistic and generally a little nauseating, but Cersei is ‘put in her place’ by her son who, it’s obvious, is spiraling far out of her lioness’ claws. Not too long before the mysterious prophecy comes into play for the Queen, then.

No, Margaery wasn’t the other ‘best’ scene that I mentioned. That honour goes to Tyrion’s conversation with Tywin, where the latter hurls his request for his ‘rights’ to Casterly Rock in his slashed face and tells him that ‘every day’ he sees him ‘waddling about’ is a punishment from the gods. Tyrion’s face loses the customary cockiness and brazenness he usually wears, in fact, the whole episode sees him scrounging for some semblance of the whip-smart attitude he normally displays. Tyrion is a man still reeling from the shock of battle, ingratitude from his family and his close shave with death. He suddenly seems to realize how very, very alone he is.

 

For the first time, I saw what others find so compelling in him. There is no DOUBT that Dinklage does a great job playing this multi-layered character. The changes that flit across his face in this one scene alone are sure to touch you. We see a man scrambling to reassemble his dignity, his bravado and seeming, for the first time, utterly utterly vulnerable.

 

The last scenes go to the Dragon Queen. Daenerys is stocking up on an army in Astapor and considering the ethical implications of buying eight thousand slaves to fight for her cause. On the up-side, the dragons are growing. On the down-side, they’re growing far too slowly for her liking. Hence the stopover in Slaver’s Bay and an interlude with the Unsullied, whose ability to bear pain is graphically demonstrated in a cringe-worthy scene.

 

Trouble never leaves the Dragon Queen alone for long, and she is soon prey to an assassination attempt while strolling in the marketplace (you’d think she would have learned to avoid these things by now). Luckily, the attempt is foiled by one Ser Barristan, who has finally emerged after a full season, this time with a beard. Jorah looks distinctly uncomfortable with this addition to the ‘Queen’s Guard’, but has the wisdom not to say anything. How long will ‘the Bold’ stay mum about his treachery? I’m guessing until the end of the season, at least.

 

All in all, a decent episode, if not the best. A good return to the land of Westeros. I’m looking forward to seeing  Arya, Jaime (oooh), Bran and Brienne next week (or is it this one?). And there’s always room for new faces at the feast–people do move aside so obligingly after all.

I got 25 minutes

Sorry, I should keep to house style and turn that into twenty five minutes.

I got twenty five minutes with the first episode of Season 3 of Game of Thrones. That’s it. But in that twenty five minutes I saw five different locations, thirteen recognizable characters (one new) and heard various strains of familiar melodies. In short, it was a jaunt into Westeros that left me stranded outside the walls of a keep (not telling you which), wondering what I had done to piss off the gods of technology.

I’m sure Neil Gaiman could come up with something. I will claim Muse credits for that novel. ‘Cyberspace Gods’, the third part of his deities-in-modern-life series.

What I saw was, of course, promising. There seemed to be a lot more talking than I’m used to in a TV show (um, given that I have filled my time between GOT seasons with a lot of Gossip Girl and reruns of the OC, this is not a surprise). There was, of course, the obligatory sexposition (which I very knowledgeably pointed out to my co-watcher), some screeching which could have come from either of the CGI-born (dragons or White Walkers), and pouty Jon Snow spouting profound and utterly spoofable lines.

I was home.

Now to just get through the hours until I can return my room, brew some Earl Grey in my trademark ‘Winter is Coming’ mug and hope the cyberspace gods have gotten over it, whatever ‘it’ was.

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Game of Thrones season 3: trailer

By now I’m pretty sure most of the youtube-viewing and GOT anticipating world has seen the trailer for the third season. It’s a melange of images and characters, and some intriguing glimpses of what is to come. Also, it’s got a heady soundtrack accompaniment in the form of Ms Mr’s ‘Bones’, which I’ve been listening to on repeat for the past two days.

The trailer throws up a hell of a lot of questions, even for someone who’s read the books and has a fair idea of what to expect.

-Who is the ‘old friend’ Varys is speaking to in the opening? Tyrion? Master Illyrio? Littlefinger? The second and third seem rather doubtful–it’s in now way been a ‘long time’ since he spoke to them, since we have Littlefinger’s and Varys’s infamous repartee in Season 2 and the eunuch is the one who stows Tyrion away in a room after the Battle of Blackwater Bay. So who is it?

-Is it Melisandre who speaks of ‘death’ coming for ‘everyone and everything’? It’s been a year since I watched Season 2 (eeks, the horror), so I’ve sort of forgotten what her voice sounds like. I mean to go through both previous seasons before the third one premieres, so maybe I’ll have an answer to this speaker by then. Unless, of course, it’s a new character. In that case I’ll hazard a guess at Meera Reed.

-Where was Theon? Oh, right. We didn’t get him in this book. But, but, they had so much to tie up from the previous one! Are they going to premiere the hell-made-flesh Bastard of Bolton in this season? I’m not sure I’ll want to watch those scenes, anyway.

-Of course we had a sneak peek of more Catelyn chasing Robb scenes. It’s a trademark. As is Bran’s shooting an arrow.

-Where were Sansa and Arya? I can’t believe I got to point 4 before I realized they had been missing. Not to mention Shae, Rickon, Osha and DAVOS.

Hell, at least we got a glimpse of a growing dragon. And Dany has SHIPS! Not too long before she meets Barristan and Strong Belwas then.

Cersei looks as lovely as ever. And yay! Brienne is going to kick some ass very, very soon!

For the record, I am not one of those who ships Brienne/Jaime. I like them as platonic partners in crime. Let’s not look for romance everywhere. We saw where that got us with a strong female character in Harry Potter (coughTonkscough).

Over all, I think HBO has been very parsimonious with revealing the new characters. Way to build up the anticipation.

Winter had better get here SOON.