Game of Groans: It’s Finally Over

If you’re anything like me you’re probably still reeling (and perhaps even retching) from last night’s series finale of HBO’s Game of Thrones. Yet none of it came as any surprise to me, because after seeing episode five of season eight I decided that nothing else matters–to quote Jaime Lannister and Metallica–and I went on reddit to peruse the leaked text spoilers. Unlike many who did so, however, I decided not to boycott the series finale, but rather to give it the benefit of the doubt. I chose to wait and see.

Sweet summer child that I was, I knew nothing. And before you think that I mean the spoilers were wrong, let me just groan: Oh how I wish that that were so.

SPOILER ALERT:

I’m glad I read the spoilers, but I wish I hadn’t watched the last episode. It was agonizing to see. I think I would’ve preferred getting my eyeballs pushed into my frontal lobe by the Mountain than to watch this utter shitfest of a finale. But I mean, how could I not watch it? Friends and foes, we traversed seven seasons and then waited two whole years for this. Many of us have been fans of this show for eight years or more. And I admit there was still one feeble glimmer of hope left in my heart that the leaked ending was just HBO and/or the show’s creators trolling us.

Nope.

How I feel about the finale to Game of Thrones

Early in the season I agreed with many in the fandom that it felt rushed, and that most of the main characters seemed increasingly out of character. I could even agree with most of what those who were moaning and groaning about the “Long” Night were saying, and I knew that I would soon join in the Game of Groans once Daenerys went all Mad Queen as we all guessed long ago–and many of us feared–would happen (so much for subverting our expectations). But I didn’t agree with all of the complaints about that episode.

Don’t hate me, but I liked that the Night King was taken out not by Jon, as expected, but by Arya. I get why many took issue with it, but in my humble opinion it made plenty of narrative sense, despite the alleged build-up to Jon/Aegon being Azor Ahai or some such poppycock. But even if you disagree, I hope you can understand and appreciate my view that nothing on this show has stunk higher than the turning of Daenerys into the villain in literally a few minutes of a single episode. Even Dark Willow got almost an entire season of gradual moral degradation before she went all Thanos. So this was the last straw for me, and I know what some of you will say, but the reason isn’t that Dany is my favourite character. Show Dany hasn’t been my fave for quite some time now. That honour belongs to Arya.

I’ve enjoyed watching young Arya Stark slowly transform into a kick-ass assassin, and having her defeat the Night King with a rogue’s sneak attack using the Valyrian steel dagger her brother Bran the Three-Eyed Raven gave her in season seven–the same weapon a would-be assassin tried to kill him with in season one–seemed to me not only perfectly reasonable but apropos and poetic. I think I only didn’t see it coming because I never would’ve thought the writers would snatch away their great white male hero Jon/Aegon’s epic swordfight, which in my opinion realistically would’ve ended in Jon’s death (even if it also resulted in the Night King’s demise). And of course, with no cleric left alive to cast a raise dead or resurrection spell on the cuddliest Targaryen, that would’ve been it for our dear Lord Know Nothing along with his claim to the Iron Throne. And yes, I have always been behind Daenerys #ForTheThrone. But even so I would’ve said of that conveniently shelved matter of succession: “Not like this.”

There is a difference between subverting our expectations and just tossing them along with an entire character arc out the window. The Big Bad being defeated by his own ignorance of the fact that there was a stealthy, highly trained assassin in his midst, and his underestimation of her resulting in him being tricked with virtually the same move we saw her use on Brienne back in season seven makes good sense to me, and also makes for good storytelling in my opinion. But more importantly, we didn’t get there in just one episode or even just one season. Arya’s badass character arc began early in season one and hasn’t wavered for the entirety of the series. She may have wandered around aimlessly for much of the time, but her character progression was as straight and narrow as her sword, Needle, and pointed like a laser toward her becoming the “no one”–and perhaps the only one–who could defeat the Night King. If you think otherwise, we can of course agree to disagree.

But when it comes to Dany flipping a switch and suddenly morphing into the Mad Queen… to me it’s as if Galadriel gave her speech about how the One Ring would corrupt her and then in the same breath said, “Wait a minute… you know what? Give me that Ring, small fry!” as energy beams shot out of her eyes and Frodo evaporated. Well maybe not that bad, but still. This wasn’t just subverting our expectations. This was the random coin toss so unsubtly referred to by Varys in literally the preceding episode. It was all like “Oh, don’t forget, silly audience. Even the kindest, most just, and consistently heroic Targaryens can suddenly flip their braided white wig and massacre thousands of innocents without cause or provocation because, you know… inbreeding.”

It’s as if the showrunners tossed a coin when they were deciding how to end this series, and it came up stupid. I would’ve been fine with Daenerys razing the Red Keep even after the bells tolled signalling the city’s surrender. After all, her mortal enemies were holed up in there, and she was honour bound to avenge Missandei, whose last word before being beheaded on Cersei’s orders was “Dracarys”. And I would’ve been fine with the scenes depicting innocent people within the bailey of the Red Keep ending up as collateral damage. This would’ve been in keeping with the overall theme of the show in the past, with all of its moral greyness, hard decisions, and necessary ruthlessness. And maddeningly, at first–ostensibly to “subvert our expectations” I suppose–it actually does seem as if Dany is going to do just that.

She really does appear to make a beeline for the Red Keep initially. The shadow of Drogon swooping over King’s Landing, even the ensuing shot of him from the ground as he glides over the fleeing populace seem to be in line with this. One could almost say that this is what was originally intended by the showrunners, but if so they must have changed their minds at some point (tossed a coin?) because in what are probably scenes added later, we see Drogon destroy the bell tower (it seems like he destroys it again a bit later in the sequence, too, which I also found odd, but perhaps there were more than one), thence to systematically begin burning down the entire city. This and subsequent shots can only be explained by Dany having at first darted toward the keep, only for whatever reason to wheel Drogon around (though this is not shown) in order to wreak havoc for a while along the outskirts of King’s Landing instead of just heading straight for the keep, which makes no sense at all to me.

Believe me when I say that I’ve watched these scenes over and over again, and I just don’t buy her sudden inexplicable decision to delay sweet, sweet vengeance in order to willfully burn up fleeing non-combatants, including women and children, for no reason other than to strike fear into the hearts of her would-be subjects. The magnificent destruction of the Red Keep would have been more than enough to accomplish that. So we’re to believe that instead of going straight for Cersei, the one truly responsible for Missandei’s death (and, by proxy, Rhaegal’s as well), the Mother of Dragons “goes mad” and decides to take a little detour in order to reduce the surrounding city to rubble first, leaving ample time for her enemies to escape (the fact that they don’t escape is beside the point; only Bran could’ve foreseen that).

The sole reason that I can think of for the showrunners to have done this was in order to have shining white knight Jon freaking Snow come out all squeaky clean and smelling of roses in the end after having basely shanked his queen. And that’s a load of dragonshite.

Daenerys Stormborn and Emilia Clarke deserved better.

Critical Hit!

Matt Mercer and friends have taken the multiverse by storm, tearing gigantic rifts in the very fabric of reality

Hey everybody, in case you haven’t heard there’s this phenomenal show streaming on Twitch called Critical Role which features a bunch of nerdy-ass voice actors sitting around playing Dungeons and Dragons, and they just launched a Kickstarter to create a half-hour animated special based on the exploits of Vox Machina, the legendary adventuring party they played as during their first campaign. All they needed, they said, was $750,000. Well, they met that goal in the first forty-five minutes of their launch and as of this writing the pledges from their fans, known as Critters, have surpassed an astonishing $5.8 million! Because of this, the animated special will now become an entire series!

All right, now for those of you who didn’t just crawl out from under a rock, HOLY SHIT IS THIS A WAKING DREAM? Seriously, did I wander into a fairy ring or follow the will-o’-the-wisps into some illusory pocket dimension in which nerds rule the universe and everybody loves each other? If so then please don’t rescue me.

The Cast of Critical Role, tl to br: Sam Riegel, Taliesin Jaffe, Marisha Ray, Matthew Mercer, Liam O’Brien, Laura Bailey, Ashley Johnson, Travis Willingham

I’ll never forget when I first discovered Critical Role and Vox Machina. I was thrilled that a show like this even existed, so imagine how I felt once it dawned on me how successful it was. And it didn’t take me long to start fantasizing about an animated series based on these characters, though at the time I didn’t think it was likely to happen anytime soon.

Funnily enough, I was led to this uncanny web series by another strange phenomenon which I’d once considered an unlikely success, the television show Supernatural, when Felicia Day made an appearance on it as Charlie Bradbury, a lovable nerd who instantly became my favourite recurring character. I also recognized that actor from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and when I learned that she had a web series called The Guild I had to go check it out. It was then that I was introduced to Geek & Sundry, and thereby the Vox Machina campaign of Critical Role, which Day also guest-starred in.

I was a latecomer though. By the time I started watching the first campaign the second one, featuring a new adventuring group called the Mighty Nein, was already beginning. So when I joined the ever-growing online community of Critters on Tumblr and Twitter, I kept seeing spoilers everywhere. This eventually prompted me to just jump right in and start watching the live stream of the second campaign every Thursday while I struggled to catch up on past episodes the rest of the week. Now that I’m all caught up with the second campaign, I’ve gone back to catching up with the first one. But I’ve still got a long way to go.

The great thing about the upcoming animated special SERIES!!! though is that it will deal with events from before the campaign started streaming, so I can take my time and not feel pressured to neglect my real life in order to get up to speed. But then, another great thing about this show is that once you get a feel for each of the characters, it doesn’t really matter where you start watching. I mean, I tuned into the live special The Search for Grog when the VOD became available in February despite having only seen episodes 1 -18 of Campaign 1 at that point, and I was still able to thoroughly enjoy it.

Travis Willingham plays Grog the Goliath Barbarian in Campaign One of Critical Role

Needless to say, I’m very, very, VERY excited about the upcoming animated series The Legend of Vox Machina and I hope we’ll eventually get to see one featuring the Mighty Nein as well! Huzzah!

How I Got into Dungeons and Dragons

The dragon Smaug from The Hobbit animated film by Rankin/Bass Productions (fair use)

Since J. R. R. Tolkien’s 127th birthday was this past Thursday I thought I’d date myself by telling you all the ancient tale of how I first got into D&D. It started with Tolkien, though not because I’d read the books. When I was a kid, back when we had idiot boxes instead of smart TVs, I saw the televised Rankin/Bass animated films The Hobbit and The Return of the King, and also Bakshi’s The Lord of the Rings, and immediately became immersed in the Professor’s strange yet endearing world of high fantasy. Oddly enough, I wouldn’t end up reading Tolkien’s works until I was sixteen, but that’s a tale for another time.

In those days I was a short, scrawny, quiet kid with glasses and buck teeth, painfully shy, nerdy, and anxiety-prone. School was a special kind of hell for me. I got bullied and picked on a lot. I was very much an introvert; far more so than I am now. I lived mostly in my head, and from the time I could pick up a crayon I’d been drawing worlds and characters to inhabit them, telling myself stories about them–and later writing those stories. So once I’d been introduced to Tolkien’s Middle-earth through those films, my inner world became fiercely populated by hobbits, elves, dwarves, goblins, trolls, and the like.

Seeing how much I liked to draw, one day my mother bought me a sketchbook and a pack of magic markers in an array of colours. It was a step up from crayons, and I was in world-building heaven. I’d sit for hours on the floor of our living room mapping out underground tunnels teeming with goblins. The goblins were represented by dots not much bigger than a pinhead, but they were colour-coded. One shade of green indicated a foot-soldier, another a guard, another a warg-rider, and so on. I never tired of this.

In school my favourite subject became geography, but only due to my fascination with maps. The first day of class one year I sat next to a girl who would become my best friend in the sixth grade. We bonded over our fondness for all the multi-coloured maps in our geography book, which we were made to share due to a shortage of textbooks in our over-crowded classroom. It started with a made-up game in which we were rulers of the world. As in the board game Risk, the joys of which I had yet to discover, we chose which regions of the world would be our territories and then started marking things like military bases on the maps–yes, we desecrated a defenseless textbook. But it wasn’t long before we began drawing our own maps of worlds that had never existed until then.

Then there was this boy in our class who was the class clown, but also the biggest nerd. I eventually became friends with him as well, and would hang out with him at his house from time to time. We’d play Zork on his personal computer, and I would map our journey. But my first experience with anything D&D official was through the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons video game we’d play on his Intellivision. Like most kids back then I loved video games, but this one was different. As you explored that world, you could only see so far ahead; a bit of realism which I would learn many years later from playing Baldur’s Gate was known as the fog of war.

My second encounter with D&D wouldn’t come until the following year, when I attended middle school. My mother, who was on the PTA, got me into a nerdy school with only around two hundred students. But I was still too shy to make new friends and I was feeling pretty lonely, until one day after class as the lunch period began I noticed a group of other kids had stayed behind and started pushing desks together and arranging chairs around it, accompanied by an older kid I’d never seen before. So out of sheer curiosity I lingered, sitting in the back of the classroom, drawing in my sketchbook. And that was how I witnessed my first real D&D game.

I can still recall one of the Dungeon Master’s exchanges with his very green twelve-year-old players, who all had first level characters, after they had comically blundered through one of his dungeons without a light source (they kept falling down slopes and taking damage even before they’d encountered any monsters). Having come to a small room lit by torchlight, they spied a chest in one corner.

Player 1 (to the DM): What’s in the chest?

DM: Do you try and open it?

Player 1: Um…

Player 2 (to Player 1): Don’t, it might be trapped.

Player 1 (to the DM): Well… what might such a chest contain?

DM: You don’t know. You have no idea. It could be anything. It could be treasure or a pile of orc shit. You won’t know until you open it.

We all laughed, and as the game continued I felt emboldened enough to sit a little closer, where I was able to look on with fascination at all these strangely shaped many-sided dice, rulebooks, character sheets, and crudely drawn maps on graph paper. And then to my utter surprise and eternal delight, as everyone was leaving after the session was over, the Dungeon Master–an eighth grader and thus infinitely cooler than I was–kindly asked me if I would like to join next session. Of course I said yes! And so began a glorious lifelong adventure, and one I’m happy to say I’m still on to this day.

A Bard Bards, Always…

And I don’t mean they cover their horse with protective armour, though they may certainly do that as well. No, when I say that a bard bards I’m Englishing in a time-honoured manner, turning a noun into a verb because I damn well can.

But the truth is I haven’t been barding much lately, largely due to this Tumblr debacle which hath called me to the front in impatient defence of my fallen fellows (and aye, I consider “fellows” a gender neutral term), sith that it so hath rankled me and ruffled mine feathers and all that.

Even my Tumblr has a tendency to veer wildly off topic, though, an inclination perhaps induced by the very nature of the microblogging medium itself, if not mine own chaotic bent. But be that as it may, this blog is just getting started; ’tis a fresh field, free real estate, my new hearth and home wherein I may sit and rest from my journeys across time and space and bend thine ear a bit.

And yes, I will be dispensing bardic lore at some point. So whether thou art a bard thyself, in real life or just fantasy, or whether bards and their lore merely tickle thy fancy, welcome. I’ll also be blogging about pop culture and politics from time to time, and I have a penchant for filking as well.

Wassail!