This post contains major spoilers through the end of Game of Thrones Season 5, and includes speculation for potential plot developments in Season 6.
Game of Thrones’ fifth season is not a failure. But it depicts characters failing left and right, here, there, and everywhere. Self-styled kings and would-be saviors died. Rulers mismanaged cities on either side of the Narrow Sea with disastrous consequences. For one Stark sister, individuality was punished as selfishness. For her older sibling, status as a full-blown player in the game was turned into the ashes of renewed victimhood. Failure ties Season 5 together. Now, Game of Thrones is not a show based around triumph, but never before in the show has bitter failure been so pervasive. I believe at least part of the public frustration with the season can be linked to this dissonance. And now, let’s dive into this unifying theme of the season – strap in, this is a long one.
Daenerys Targaryen’s rule of Meereen is marked by well-intentioned failures. Faced with the rise of an insurgent group called the Sons of the Harpy, a member is arrested. Before a fair trial, a beloved representative of the Meereenese common people named Mossador murders the prisoner in his cell. Wanting to enforce equivocal justice, Daenerys orders the unapologetic Mossador executed publicly. PR nightmare by way of an unfortunate series of events, and suddenly the claws are out. The stoked rise of Harpy activity leads to the death of Daenerys’ trusted Queensguard Ser Barristan Selmy. And eventually, despite canny political compromises on Daenerys’ part (a marriage to nobleman Hizdahr zo Loraq, reopening the Fighting Pits), the Harpies reveal themselves en masse at the opening of the Great Games. Daenerys’ loose dragon Drogon sweeps in, taking her on his back, and flies her away from the city all the way to the Dothraki Sea – and far away from the site of her ultimate failure to keep order in Meereen. That flight is not triumph, but rather relief, Daenerys taking an exit strategy from the mess she has failed to prevent. And with her dragons representing her authority and power, it’s no coincidence that two of them are chained in the Great Pyramid during her stay in Meereen, a metaphor for her impotence.
Another self-styled monarch, Stannis Baratheon, fails operatically this season. After saving the Night’s Watch from certain defeat at the hands of Mance Rayder’s wildlings, Stannis marches south to retake Winterfell from the hated Boltons. But as oppressive winter snows in Stannis’ army, he then plays Agamemnon to daughter Shireen’s Iphigenia, sacrificing her to the Red God. Sure enough, the weather calms, but threefold disaster strikes: Stannis’ wife Selyse hangs to her death, a large portion of the army deserts, and the Bolton army slaughters the rest. And the could-have-been king himself is finished off by Brienne of Tarth. Stannis has paid a karmic price for sacrificing his kin, and his claim has been forever lost. (Sidenote: As a book reader killing off Stannis at this point drives me crazy in part because in the books’ mythology, the killing of a beloved one is inextricably tied to the salvation of the world from the White Walkers.) And another interesting thing to note with this war in the North: when Melisandre tried to seduce him, if Jon Snow had spread his legs, as it were, a shadow assassin would have killed Roose Bolton just as one murdered Stannis’ brother Renly. Maybe she should have led with that instead of the vague mumbo-jumbo! But in any case, Stannis, the only claimant to the throne who knows to care about the threat from beyond the Wall, is dead. He has failed in every way.
Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish is a high-stakes gambler, and his past ones have been wonders to behold. By manipulating Lysa Arryn to murder her husband (Hand of the King Jon Arryn) and implicate the Lannisters, Littlefinger set off a specific chain of events that led directly to the War of the Five Kings. By not apprehending Arya Stark (disguised as a boy) even when Littlefinger recognized her at Harrenhal, he prolonged the Lannisters’ search for a key hostage and the Starks’s search for family, subtly but significantly changing the face of the war. By conspiring with Olenna Tyrell to kill King Joffrey and implicitly frame Tyrion Lannister, Littlefinger accelerated political chaos in King’s Landing. But his big gamble in Season 5 backfires, hard.
By marrying Sansa Stark to Roose Bolton’s legitimized bastard son, Littlefinger sets off a chain of events that theoretically leads to his own Wardenship of the North. But his plan relies on two pillars of sand: Stannis’ conquest of Winterfell, and Ramsay’s pliability. On the first point, we already know how well that turns out. On the second point, Littlefinger’s intelligence is woefully incomplete, and given his obsession with Sansa, I don’t think he would marry her off to someone he knows to be a psychopath. But of course, this brings us to Sansa, the tragic pawn in all this. At the beginning of the season, Sansa is assured, picking up canny political skills and learning to project control. Her dyed black hair is symbolic of this. But Ramsay violently interrupts her growth, and by the end of the season, a red-haired Sansa choose a possibly fatal jump off Winterfell’s battlements to escape her abuser. Littlefinger’s gambit has crumbled spectacularly, and he has failed Sansa.
Other major characters fail routinely. Arya progresses in her training to become an identity-shifting faceless assassin, but then kills Ser Meryn Trant for personal revenge. For this, Arya is blinded – a girl fails to become no one. Jaime’s hilariously ill-thought-out plan to kidnap his daughter Myrcella and spirit her away from Dorne predictably fails. But even after the Prince of Dorne has allowed Jaime to take Myrcella and her promised husband Trystane to King’s Landing, tragedy strikes. Just as Jaime reveals to Myrcella that she is his daughter, she succumbs to a fatal poison and dies in her father’s arms. Margaery Tyrell, after making coy but pointed plans to shoo Cersei Lannister out of King’s Landing, is imprisoned for defending her “sinful” brother Loras. Her manipulations, which have worked for so long, are no longer of any use.
Jon Snow, now voted Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, is at least successful in saving about 2,000 wildlings from the White Walkers. But it is a pyrrhic accomplishment at best; more than half of the 5,000 wildlings at Hardhome are killed by the army of the dead, and added to it. Jon even says of the evacuation upon return, “It was a failure.” And this effort of Jon’s is rewarded by a Julius Caeser-style assassination by his own men. Et tu, Olly? And so Jon Snow lies dead.
The previous cases are all unambiguous failures; other characters end up with a bit more of a mixed result, most notably Cersei Lannister. As Queen Mother, Cersei unwittingly ensures her own comeuppance. After populating the Small Council with sycophants, Cersei surreptitiously orders Ser Meryn Trant to assassinate Mace Tyrell… to undermine Margaery. Cersei makes the insane decision to arm the Faith Militant in an overblown design to arrest Loras Tyrell… and thus undermine Margaery. Cersei sets out to systematically destroy the alliance with the Tyrells, which is the one utterly vital to the Lannisters keeping control of the throne. Of course, the Faith ends up arresting Cersei as well, and after the indignity of confession, Cersei must undertake a naked Walk of Shame between Baelor’s Sept and the Red Keep. But at her lowest point, Cersei beholds her new toy, Maester Qyburn’s reanimated Zombie Mountain… and Cersei is free to start a campaign of revenge.
Two other bittersweet fates are assigned this season. Brienne misses Sansa’s signal to her for help, and thus fails in the duty she considers most high. But she also avenges her beloved Renly by killing Stannis. Ser Jorah Mormont, though worn by the trials of exile and sick with insidious greyscale, has worked his way back into the semi-good graces of his beloved Queen Daenerys.
Indeed, there are a few exceptions to the rule of failure this season. Theon Greyjoy finally takes action against his Bolton oppressors and takes steps to erase his identity as Reek. With Varys’ help, Tyrion Lannister finds renewed purpose as an advisor to Daenerys’ cause. Samwell Tarly departs the Wall with Gilly and Little Sam to travel south and become a maester. But when it comes to proactively accomplishing goals in Season 5, Ellaria Sand of all people may be the greatest success story of the season. She fulfills her objective of killing Myrcella and stoking aggression against the Lannisters. Good on you, Ellaria! Oh, wait…
A large majority of main characters failed spectacularly in Season 5. But let’s look ahead. I think that a significant part of Season 6 will reverse the fortunes that came to fruition in Season 5, with the sixth season acting as a sort of slightly more upbeat inversion of some of the dark depths of the fifth season. We’re entering speculation mode, so preface each following sentence with “I believe”…
- Daenerys will unite all the Dothraki khalasars and fold them into her army, with a little persuasive help from Drogon. She will also return to a stable Meereen, having been brought to order by Tyrion, Varys, Grey Worm, and Missandei. With her own leadership qualities, dragons, a huge army, and a working Small Council of her own, it’s time to sail west and, you know, attack.
- The Boltons will finally be defeated by a coalition of Northern houses, with some help from a certain resurrected bastard of Winterfell.
- On a related note, Bran will use his greensight to uncover the truth of Jon Snow’s parentage by Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark.
- Sansa and Theon will be instrumental in agitating the Iron Islands to attack Lannister/Tyrell forces in the south, which will unfortunately interrupt Samwell and Gilly’s road trip.
- The Lannisters and Tyrells will ironically work together to bring low the Faith Militant.
- Cersei, still on trial, will demand a trial by combat using her Zombie Mountain as a champion. The Mountain will be killed in that trial by his younger brother The Hound (returned from the abyss by the red priest Thoros)… also sealing Cersei’s fate.
- Jaime will make his way to Riverrun, rendezvous with Brienne, and have an ambiguous role to play in the coming conflict.
- Because Ellaria succeeded in Season 5, she has to fail in Season 6. She’s as good as executed.
Well. I’ve gone really overboard with the detail here, but that’s what being a Game of Thrones fan is. The ability to engage with the minutiae of the show’s world reflects one of its great strengths, as its story is so rich and open for many avenues of discussion. Failure may tie the fifth season together, but the canvas of the show is so broad that Season 6 is sure to push different buttons. When the season premiere airs on April 24th, 2016, our watch begins.
This editorial contains spoilers for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.
It’s the calm at the beginning of the third act. We cut to a wide shot of a snowy mountaintop in what look like the Himalayas (but who can say?). It’s a vision or hallucination, because Superman comes upon his late adoptive human father, Jonathan Kent, tending to some farm business. Pa Kent begins a monologue – he explains how when he was younger, he saved the Kent family farm from flooding. He was rewarded with cake. But in the process, he had inadvertently flooded the next farm over. Pa Kent would go on to hear the screams of drowning horses in his sleep every night. He was a hero. But the collateral damage was a poor price to pay for that heroism. Then, it’s abruptly over. Our regularly scheduled build-up to an action climax continues.
There are, unfortunately, lots and lots of candidates for my least favorite scene in Batman v Superman. In fact, on technical, visceral, emotional, and other levels, there are certainly worse scenes. But I’m writing about this one because, brief as it is, it actually represents several things wrong with the film, and I’ll use this scene (heretofore referred to as the Pa Kent Horse Bit) as a sort of skeleton key to unlock them. So let’s go down a few avenues the Pa Kent Horse Bit opens up, saving the worst for last.
It’s a non sequitur scene with no set-up, and cutting it out wouldn’t really affect anything. The Pa Kent Horse Bit comes and goes like a goddamn ninja. Where is Superman when he has this vision? Has he gone to sleep and had this dream? The film doesn’t care to lead into the scene in any fashion, and after it’s over, we again careen miles away in narrative space. The scene before doesn’t feature Superman; the scene after doesn’t feature Superman. It’s not just that the way the scene is framed is suspect; the scene is not framed at all. Indeed, the editing of this film as a whole is a train wreck. This manifests in several ways. The Batmobile car chase is a confusion of jagged cuts, and if you developed a drinking game based around every time the film fades to black and back in again, the personal consequences would be disastrous. Batman v Superman laughs at your mortal ideas of scene transitions.
It’s a dream/hallucination sequence in a movie drowning in them. In a related sense to the broken editing on display, dreams, time-travel dreams within prophetic nightmares, and hallucinations are everywhere in the movie. It’s lazy storytelling to rely so heavily on these, not just for the plot but also just to cut to something interesting. Despite coming out of nowhere, Bruce Wayne’s dream of a dystopian Earth marked by a tyrannical Superman is about ten times more interesting than what’s going on the film’s waking state. And I would advise the movie to do something with that nightmare from a character perspective (like to viscerally show and explore Bruce’s fear of what having a Superman can do to society), but it is more than likely meant just to set up future movies. But whether it is or not, more to the point, it exists outside of what is going on in this movie. And the story we’re supposed to care about is left limping.
It features dialogue which tries to trick the audience into thinking it’s profound and mature. Like a lot of the screenplay, the Pa Kent Horse Bit is serious-minded and trying hard to come off as meaningful. The mountaintop setting fits with the film’s lofty ambitions. But these ambitions are not matched by true exploration of issues that the film drops into a blender, and the result is an experience that just becomes inert for long stretches. And the entire crux of the screenplay relies on something deeply immature: the lack of communication between the heroes. When Batman and Superman meet after the Batmobile chase, they exchange scowls and petty threats. There’s no articulation of grievances. We get “The Bat is dead”, but not, “What do you think you’re doing, wantonly killing and branding criminals who may or may not end up dead in jail?” We get “Do you bleed? … You will”, but not, “Your being here led directly to thousands and thousands dead in Metropolis”. I get it, it’s hard to get them to fight unless they’re both jerks, but it’s still the opposite of maturity.
Superman is passive. In the Pa Kent Horse Bit, Superman walks up to the shade of Pa Kent, gets a life lesson dumped on him, and exit stage left. This illuminates a bigger problem: this sequel to Man of Steel suffers from a crippling fear of letting its Man of Steel speak. Throughout, Superman’s default status is brooding silently. There’s a montage where he saves people, which is rendered unintentionally funny by Superman’s apparent deep sadness in doing so… but we the audience are never privy to what Superman is thinking. We hear a whole bunch about what everyone else is saying, but what’s going on in that Kryptonian brain? There’s a scene where Senator Finch invites Superman to a Senate committee for a dialogue. This is it, this is the moment when we’ll finally hear Superman’s side of the story, his perspective! … And the scene is short-circuited by a terrorist bombing that serves no story function except to be hard-hitting and edgy. Go back to your daily brooding, Superman. Even though this is your own sequel.
But here’s the point of no return. Its true sentiment is that heroism is not worth the trouble. The message in Pa Kent’s ghostly form is clear, and it reeks. But of what? Batman v Superman director Zack Snyder has publicly spoken of his admiration of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, a novel he intends to adapt for the screen. It’s a brazen beacon of Objectivist ideas, extolling what is known as “rational self-interest”. And this starts to make sense of what’s going on in the scene. You can be a hero, saving the farm. But the price of that heroism will sure learn you, son. Jonathan Kent’s widow is also a presence in the film, and judging by her big scene with Superman, Jonathan and Martha “You don’t owe this world a thing” Kent were made for each other.
As a side note: the way Jonathan Kent is set up as a presence before the Pa Kent Horse Bit is nothing short of baffling. After the Senate bombing, Superman tells Lois in a should-have-been-poignant scene, “I’ve been living my life the way my father saw it, righting wrongs” and being a hero. Okay, so he’s talking about Jor-El, his Kryptonian father, right? He goes on to say that the idea of Superman is “the dream of a farmer from Kansas”, his father’s dream. What??? Anyone who has seen Man of Steel saw Pa Kent sacrifice himself to keep his son’s superpowers a secret. I cannot emphasize that enough. So these lines of dialogue are bald-faced lies. And in service of what? The only possible reason would be to retroactively change Pa Kent’s outlook on Superman. But the entire sentiment of the Pa Kent Horse Bit is exactly the kind of subversion of heroism we got in Man of Steel. The screenplay is such a fumble that it can’t even stay internally consistent on major character moments.
So a short while after the Pa Kent Horse Bit, Superman sacrifices himself to destroy the abominable monster Doomsday. But here’s the thing – he sacrificed himself without having ever getting over the situation and being Superman. Because Snyder and the other filmmakers have created a world that makes the Superman concept untenable. Now, Snyder has a track record of using explicit Superman/Christ metaphors, especially in Man of Steel. Going with that, the Pa Kent Horse Bit should be Superman’s Gethsemane moment, the scene in which Superman despairs of his preordained responsibility before finally making the choice to face his destiny. But the film is inept. It can’t make the scene work on any level – it’s not meaningful, it’s not touching, it’s not relatable, and it carries a poisonous sentiment. The Pa Kent Horse Bit? Maybe I should call it the Pa Kent Horseshit.
In plain sight, the scene illuminates something weird. Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice are films that question the very nature of heroism, but not in a constructive way. Rather, it’s in a manner that promotes selfishness and complacency. The ideal of Superman is torn down. The DC cinematic universe, a series of superhero tentpole blockbuster films, is built on the foundation of stories that are essentially deconstructions of heroism. And that is insane to me.
There’s even more wrong with the film that what’s illuminated by the Pa Kent Horse Bit. I would need to record an audio commentary to cover them. The raw deal is that, again, this universe of films faces an upward battle. Batman v Superman, a movie supposed to be selling the Justice League, features a rapport-free, virtually teamwork-free team-up of Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman, and the latter two heroes never speak a word to each other. Anything can be turned around, with the necessary resources and the right people guiding a film. But with Snyder prepping to shoot Justice League Part One within the month, I am worried. The DC universe can’t afford another $250+ million miscalculation. Suicide Squad looks interesting (and its multimillion dollar reshoots look to add character moments and humor), but I’ll be most looking forward to Wonder Woman in 2017. Not only is it the first high-profile female-led superhero film since Elektra in 2005, it also figures to be the first movie in this DC superhero universe not to be a deconstruction of heroism.
Contains spoilers for Zootopia (known as Zootropolis in some territories)
Zootopia is a very fine movie. Its lead characters are endearing, a lot of the humor is on point, and the video-game-overworld layout of the titular city leads to some eye-popping visuals showing off a fully realized world. But what does it have to say?
Quite a lot, actually – too much, even, but I’ll get into that later. I separate the film’s moral from its attempt at allegory, so I’ll address the moral first. The moral/message is great and very timely. We’re in the midst of a 2016 Presidential campaign marked by some ugly, downright troglodytic racism and sexism on the part of a certain candidate, and Zootopia comes along with a healthy message of tolerance, hitting hard against xenophobia and prejudice.
Of course, it uses a city of anthropomorphic animals to make this point, illustrated in part by the two leads; we have female rabbit Judy Hopps and male fox Nick Wilde, who were in some way brought low by prejudice before rallying back to ensure a happy ending for the movie. They do this by circumventing a conspiracy to artificially make the 10% minority of predator animals go “savage” by introducing a drug into their systems. The plan was working for a while; “innocent prey” saw their worst prejudices realized with rabid killer predators on the loose, leading to panic, paranoia, and hate against the predators. Now for the film’s ending to be happy, the force of institutional racism is literalized and arrested in the form of the Mayor, a seemingly meek sheep named Dawn Bellwether who is behind the conspiracy. She rants about us vs. them and virtually declares war on the dreaded other. This is after making repeated comments earlier in the movie about how she and Judy need to “stick together”, but all the while orchestrating a fear monger’s campaign. She’s Trump if he kept it a secret.
So we have a simple moral of anti-xenophobia, arising from a complicated allegory. When getting into the specifics of Zootopia’s allegory, I think it’s overcomplicated and incoherent. Let’s break it down.
The setup begins with mysterious incidents of certain individuals of predator species going savage. We learn that “Night Howlers” are involved somehow. Judy Hopps inadvertently stokes the racially charged fear in the city when she states in a press conference that these predators are going back to their “natural state”. (To the film’s credit, this shows how even a good person can say offensive things because institutional racism can sometimes run insidiously deep.)
Next we further the Night Howler mystery by learning that it’s a flower, and that consumption of it leads to an animal going savage under psychotropic influence. So something like a crack/meth epidemic is causing this – just say no, and cue cute Breaking Bad parody.
But then it’s revealed that Mayor Bellwether is on a zealous crusade. She has the drug concentrated into pellets, arms her officers with dart guns, and orders predators SHOT WITH THE DRUG. We went from social commentary about oppression, to social commentary on minorities and drugs, to social commentary on minorities getting shot by the authorities. Mixed metaphor, much?
Now, of course, traditional mainlining of drugs has no place in a children’s movie and the movie needs the drugs to get in the predators somehow. For an example of a plot point not taken, the writers could have, I dunno, put the drug in a liquid that only predators drink – this could at least take advantage of how the movie uses animal biology. But the choice to reverse-engineer this plot into a commentary on minority groups getting freakin’ shot is a decisive one.
Stacking these revelations on top of each other ends up turning a potentially compelling parallel to our world into a circus show. Are the predators going savage because they’re an oppressed minority? Because they’re taking drugs? Because they’re all getting shot? By pulling it in all these different directions, the allegory is diluted. The film finds a bunch of real-life things to “comment on” and puts them in a blender. This isn’t the best allegory, it’s the most allegory.
Indeed, maybe part of this is a consequence of how plotty, procedural and reliant on successive revelations Zootopia can be. (Clue leads to clue, and it’s kind of hilarious how many times Judy recording someone saying something incriminating is a plot point.) Also, Zootopia is keen to comment on all these racial issues that we face, but at the end of the day this is still an animated comedy with animals. While the film certainly chafes against stereotypes to a certain extent (Bunnies are coded as feminine in the movie’s world, so cue Judy’s annoyance at jokes about bad driving and being really emotional), most of the animals are given predictable behavioral traits (Timberwolves gotta howl). As (the extended Marlon Brando joke) Mr. Big says, “We may be evolved, but we’re still animals!” I totally understand why a weasel named Weaselton is there acting all “weaselly” – after all, this is an accessible family movie – but it makes a thematic graft between these races and our human races kind of a no-go. When you’re depicting an allegorical world where these predator species did in fact originally evolve to kill the prey species, can you really justify this as a parallel of our world?
The place where Zootopia’s allegory was really helped out was with the pop star Gazelle. Just as Gazelle’s peaceful protest against racism was crashed, so did Beyoncé’s statement of solidarity with victims of police brutality at the Super Bowl face a big backlash. While I know Gazelle doesn’t know at that point that the predators are being shot, from the objective filmmaker’s viewpoint, that is a pop star protesting a minority group getting shot by authority figures. That’s timely as hell.
While it has a wonderful moral, Zootopia takes a sloppy path to get there, and stumbles as allegory. This doesn’t necessarily diminish it much – wearing its heart on its furry sleeve, it’s a great time at the movies in the company of likable characters living in an interesting world – but it shouldn’t be held up as some brilliant satire. It’s great on basic message. It’s just not so great as allegory.