Friday, 27 May 2016

The Girl Who Would Be Sansa Stark

We are five episodes into the latest season of Game of Thrones. We are halfway through and I have no idea what is the story being told. I couldn't tell you what the characters' motivations for doing anything are or even which character a particular actor is going to be playing before an episode begins.

This isn't because of some neat same-actors-playing-different-roles-each-season thing like American Horror Story or something like that for the three of you who don't watch Game of Thrones and might not know what the show is about. Each actor plays the same character across each season, aside from one or two recasting calls.

Don't let the recasting fool you, in my heart he will always be Faabio.

No, the problem is that the writing of those characters is so inconsistent that a character who was completely submissive or stoic the previous episode will act assertive or emotional the next with little to no reason. Don't get me wrong, there are a handful of characters who remain relatively consistent throughout the story but they are becoming fewer and further between as the show progresses.

This isn't a the-more-they-divert-from-the books-the-worse-the-series-gets book snob thing, by the way. Just because of the way things turned out, I've only read two and a half of the books (the third one was split in two) and only come to the show for entertainment and a compelling story, not as an adaptation necessarily.

And I liked the show. I was enthralled by the first three seasons, which I thought were fantastic. The fourth season was still entertaining but the fifth was kinda so-so. However the sixth so far has been a bit underwhelming to say the least.

"Don't listen to them, son. Yelling 'That's my father!" in every flashback scene is not a lazy or boring way of delivering exposition.
How would the audience ever know otherwise?"

This Post is Dark and Full of Spoilers

Stepping into season 6 there is so much filler and wheel-spinning in certain arcs, it's becoming frustrating and I just want things to happen. For example, in five episodes we have seen Arya been beaten up by the smug Waif character who seems to hate her, for reasons undisclosed. Arya has done nothing in those five episodes aside from get beaten up.

She may have started off as blind like she ended season 5 and gets her eyesight back in episode 3 but has learnt nothing as far as I can tell. There was no growth to her character. The Waif shows up, taunts her, and proceeds to beat her up with a stick, rinse and repeat. Arya blocks a blow while blind at one point which apparently is enough to give her back her sight. Why?

There was no indication that this was intrinsic to her learning something without the use of her eyes, like relying on her other senses since your eyes can be deceived, becoming more zen-like or anything like that. Arya blocked a single attack (possibly by accident) so she gets to have her eyesight back but then still gets beat on and I'm not sure why.

I'm equally confused why everyone is just cool with this random beating up a blind beggar girl on a public street in broad daylight.

Let's look at a counter example from Star Wars: Episode IV when Luke is lightsaber training with the floating zappy ball. In order to teach Luke to trust in the Force and open himself to a wider world of possibility, Obi-Wan tells him to try again but with a helmet on and the blast shield down so he can't see.

As Luke lets go of the limitations of his physical senses, he connects with the Force for the first time and blocks the zaps from the ball whilst blind. The lesson Obi-Wan is trying to impart is clearly illustrated and makes sense, there is more than just what we can see with our eyes. And this is only in one scene!

On the other hand, I have no idea what Arya is supposed to be learning. To be fair, she has finally been given something else to do in the fifth episode but only after scene after scene of getting beaten up with a stick because they had to fill the time somehow.

I'm not gonna delve into more examples of narrative stagnation in the show, although there are others *cough cough, King's Landing, cough cough*. No, rather I want to focus on a single character. Now Arya, along with Tyrion and Cersei Lannister, is one of the few characters in the show who remains consistent from week to week. I can give you a decent bead on who they are and what they want.

Unfortunately I can't say the same for Sansa Stark.

Well, hello stranger.

Now I know that Sansa is not many people's favourite character and is often dismissed as too passive. I reckon this is because a lot of people don't appreciate the precarious nature of her situation for much of the series and that her resistance is largely internal. Sansa is a high born girl raised to be a lady. Her strength isn't physical or militaristic but comes from her empathy for others and will to survive.

She does what she needs to do with the tools she has at her disposal. For example, while his captive and betrothed to be his wife, Sansa acts as the perfect lady in response to King Joffrey's horrific mental and physical abuse. She often turns the other cheek while making it clear to him that he hasn't broken her. Courtesy is her armour as well as her weapon.

At least that was her character, more or less, over the course of the seasons 1-4. There were a number of sidesteps, she whined a bit early on and didn't seem to have a lot of real agency since her internal resistance didn't translate well on-screen but at least I knew who she was. Even during the second half of the season when she lies to the Lords of the Vale to protect Petyr Baelish for reasons.

But at the end of season 4, this happened:

Who are you and why are you dressed like a Sith Lord?

Sansa ended the season as an apparently domineering and/or manipulative seductress who is meant to look badass in her Sith dress. And don't tell me you don't notice the dress. If you Google Image search 'sansa stark season 4 dress', this is the dress which comes up. It was an iconic visual but a complete 180 for the character.

Which makes what happens in the fifth season all the more illogical. I'm not gonna do full on recap because GoT Gifs & Musings did a fantastic retrospective of the Season 5 Winterfell plot-line I encourage everyone to read (there's one for each plot-line in Season 5). Essentially it boils down to this: every single decision made by the characters in this plot was to serve one purpose, to get Sansa to Winterfell so Ramsey Bolton could rape her on their wedding night.

They decided that Ramsey had to rape Sansa for reasons unknown and contrived everything to fit that decision. Once Sansa realises that they're heading North to Winterfell, she tells Baelish she doesn't want to go but he convinces that she can marry Ramsey to avenge her family...

I had the same look on my face too, Sansa.

That is easily one of the stupidest things I have ever heard. How the hell does one marry for revenge? What does that actually mean? Baelish knows that by marrying Ramsay, Sansa solidifies the Boltons' position and Roose Bolton's claim as Warden of the North, right? We're told not many Northerners like the Boltons and are still loyal to the Starks but a marriage between the two houses would bring an end to that. How does her marrying Ramsay help anyone but Ramsay?

Whatever, let's go along with this like Sansa does because the plot tells her to. She gets to Winterfell, shows she isn't intimidated by the Boltons but does nothing to win them over like Baelish said she should in order to avenge her family. Also she could have and should have left as soon as she realised what a monster Ramsay is, which is pretty early on but doesn't because reasons.

The rape happens like it was always going to on their wedding night since the whole arc was written with this destination in mind. Baelish is supposed to be smart, the show constantly tells us how conniving and knowledgeable he is but apparently he knew nothing about Ramsay somehow. And Sansa goes along with this plan purely because the plot says so, not because it makes any sense for her character to do so. Anyway, at the end of the season Sansa and Theon/Reek escape Winterfell.

Sansa: "You think jumping off this really high wall is really a good idea?"
Theon/Reek: "My body is already broken, so I should be fine."
Sansa: "..."

Which brings us to Season 6 and the many faced Sansa. Sansa starts the season off running away from Ramsay's dogs and men with Theon (he's pretty much dropped being the broken Reek unless the plot demands it). They come across a river and Sansa says she can't cross it but Theon says they must to throw the dogs off their scent.

Two things to note here. First Sansa says "I can't" not "We can't". The Sansa I knew was empathetic to a fault. She would be just concerned about Theon as she is about herself, despite what he had done to her family, so that doesn't jibe with me.

Secondly, this show frames this hesitation as a weakness on Sansa's part and Theon needs to convince her to cross the river but there's very good reason for not crossing the river. It is freezing cold and snowing. They could get hypothermia and wouldn't be able run anymore.

"Weren't you mentally broken too? Should you be making the decisions here?" - Sansa probably.

Whatever, they cross the river but the dogs still find them anyway so Theon's brilliant idea to cross the river in freezing conditions to throw off their scent came to nothing. Anywho, Brienne and Podrick ride in and save them, Podrick somehow having learnt to ride a horse well enough off-screen that he can swing a sword without falling off. Oh, Theon also kills a dude since apparently he got over his body being broken somehow and can hold a sword straight again.

And here we get to the scene that was utterly insulting to me because of how condescending and unconsciously misogynistic it was. Brienne pledges herself to Sansa who then looks to Theon for approval. WHY?! No, seriously can anyone tell me why she needs Theon to approve her actions, especially to approve Brienne?

Let's start at the most obvious, Theon doesn't even know who Brienne is. He's never met her before. For all he knows she could be just one more of Ramsay's mindfucks. He has no reason to trust her. Sansa on the other hand has met Brienne before and knows that she served her mother. Second, Brienne is pledging herself to Sansa, not to the both of them. Lest we forget, this is Sansa Stark of Winterfell, a lady highborn and true. She doesn't need permission from anyone to accept a knight, least of all from the man who had betrayed her family.

Okay, moving on to what might be an even more egregious act, Sansa forgets the oaths and needs to be prompted by Podrick of all people. Podrick, a squire who is so ill-trained he barely knows the basic protocols of knighthood and is repeatedly berated for his ignorance. This is supposed to be the same Sansa who didn't forget her courtesies when Joffrey showed her the head of her father on a spike, right?

Now I know people might say that she is in shock and traumatised following her rape and the following pursuit in the cold and wet but I call bullshit. While trauma effects people in vastly different ways and leaves a scar, there's no established reason why Sansa, who has suffered more abuse in her lifetime than most, would all of a sudden forget her courtesies when that had been the one thing which she had used as her defense.

"Hey, it's kinda cold out here in the snow. Can we hurry this along?"

Alright fine, Sansa in this season is unsure of herself and fragile following the events of the previous season. Fair enough. I don't agree with this development since it makes little sense given what was established for her character but okay, let's roll with it. Sophie Turner is a fantastic actor and can sell it.

But then she behaves like regular Sansa in the very next episode, trauma forgotten as she converses normally with Brienne. She is also the voice of reason when Theon wants to put the fire out for fear of being caught but she points out that they'd freeze and they just need to make it to the Wall. Okay, fine.

And then we are introduced to badass Sansa two episodes later. They say this is the same character and she is still played by Sophie Turner but this isn't the Sansa we saw so far this season or the previous season. If anything this character seems to have picked off where season 4 Sith Lord Dress Sansa left off, confident, assertive and in charge.

Hi there, do I know you?

After she has a touching reunion with Jon Snow at Castle Black, during which she apologises for being awful to him when they were kids although that was never shown onscreen but okay,  Jon gets a letter from Ramsay demanding Sansa be sent back or rape and pillaging will ensue. And it is Sansa who steers the conversation and convinces Jon that they need to take back Winterfell, Wasn't this the girl who was too afraid to cross a river a couple of episodes ago?

Don't get me wrong, I really like confident assertive Sansa, I just have no idea where she came from. Did she get over her trauma just like that? Because that's just terrible writing. I'm sorry, there's no other way to get round it, that's poor writing with no concept of how trauma works or manifests.

I'm no expert but I'm pretty sure trauma isn't a means for people to act in completely random ways. Usually trauma manifests in a specific ways like shutting down emotional reaction or conversely feeling intense reaction to things, not "I'm a badass now after being completely incapable a couple days ago".

But then we get to the kicker with the arrival of Baelish (by teleportation?) at Mole's Town, just south of Castle Black. Sansa goes to confront Baelish, with only Brienne as guard for reasons that make no sense, and gives him quite the talking down.

You may be badass now but this still makes no sense.

So she's left the security of Castle Black to face Baelish with Brienne and gives this line of dialogue which is probably the most meta piece of writing in the entire show,
“Did you know about Ramsay? If you didn’t, you’re an idiot. If you did, you’re my enemy.”
YES! How could Baelish not know about Ramsay? The series shows again and again how he knows things that he shouldn't about everyone, even things he couldn't possibly know but the plot says he has to. There is no way he couldn't have heard of Ramsay's atrocities. He's the son of the Warden of the North, it's not like he's some random unknown.

I would say it's almost like the writers are acknowledging the criticisms of Sansa' arc last season if the rest of the episode and Sansa's erratic characterisation post-rape didn't seem like a perfect example of "She needed to be raped in order to learn a lesson".

Because that is what it is. For the writers of the show, in order for Sansa to learn that the world is cruel and become badass, something they set up at the end of Season 4 but reigned back in Season 5, she needed to get raped.

"No, please. Do go on."

Execution of her father. Nope. Mental and physical abuse at the hands of a tyrant king. Nope. Deaths of her 'brothers' (she didn't know it wasn't them who were burnt). Nope. Loss of her brother and mother. Nope. Being married off to a member of the family which orchestrated the fall of her own house. Nope. Being nearly thrown out of the Moon Door in the Ayrie by her deranged aunt who suspected her of sleeping with Baelish. Nope.

She totally needed to get raped in order to learn from that tragedy. A rape which was completely and utterly contrived, where all the events leading up to that moment made no sense but had to happen, Since Ramsay needed to rape his wife on their wedding night and his wife needed to be Sansa because it wouldn't mean anything if it hadn't been another character, right?

But let's get back to 'rape as motivation'. I've written before about rape in pop culture on this blog and that the depiction of rape is a sensitive topic but an important one. However, using the same quote from Rachel Eddin I used in that post:
Take a good look at your story. Why do you think a rape is what you need for it to progress? Is there something else that could fill the same function? Unless you have a damn good reason to include rape in a story, you probably shouldn't. Using sexual assault as a motivation-in-a-box or an equivalent trope will do nothing but steal credibility and respect from a really serious, really important subject. Plus, you'll look like a twit.
"Sounds about right."

What we are seeing in the current season of Game of Thrones is exactly how rape shouldn't be used in storytelling, sexual assault as a motivation-in-a-box. It's a disservice to the audience who is invested in the character, it is a disservice to the story being told, it is a disservice to real victims of sexual assault, and it is a disservice to the character.

Sansa didn't need to be raped in order to want revenge on the Boltons. She already hated them since they are traitors who killed her brother and mother. And it's obvious they only used the effects of her trauma (timid unsure Sansa) when it was convenient to have other characters shine by protecting her, not for any dramatic or thematic reason.

I had always felt a bit defensive for Sansa. She was always put in impossible situations with little resources and survived but still got a lot of flack from the fandom for her apparent lack of agency and 'girly' ways. But this badass woman who suddenly appeared out of nowhere isn't Sansa.

Or rather she is who we wanted Sansa to become but how she got there makes no sense and isn't the same character Sophie Turner had been playing earlier in the season or the season before that.

And that, I'm sorry, is just bad writing.


Sansa Stark Game of Thrones Wiki

Winterhell Perspective - GoT Gifs & Musings

Game of Thrones 5x3 - Sansa and Littlefinger - You loved your family. Avenge them.

Game of Nonsense Week One - Fandom Following

Game of Nonsense Week Five Point One: The Ballad of Sansa Stark - Fandom Following

Friday, 20 May 2016

Attack on Titan: In Defence of the Wall

About a month ago, I finished watching Attack on Titan, the massively popular anime series feature terrifying monsters called 'Titans' which have nearly wiped out humanity, the remainder of which hides behind humongous walls built to keep Titans out. It is brilliant.

Once an episode finished, my girlfriend and I were left in such a state of anxiety and desperate excitement to know what would happen next that we had to watch the next episode. This led to some serious binge watching.

I mean, just look at that.

Everything in the show is set to eleven. The stakes are absurdly high for one - humanity is on the brink of extinction and the battle the protagonists fight is against an unrelenting unstoppable enemy, one which they aren't equipped to face. They are hopelessly outmatched and know it.

The drama is so intense, it could be accused of being melodramatic if the high stakes hadn't already been so well-established. The characters' emotions are exaggerated, the reality of their situation warrants their dramatic outbursts.

This is apparent just from the show's original opening theme song. An insanely awesome tune which is equal parts over-the-top camp and pure adrenaline pumping. Everything is designed to ramp things up, thrashing guitars, heavy metal drums, bombastic orchestra, piercing choir, unrelenting vocal. It is nothing short of epic.

That is Attack on Titan in nutshell. A ridonculously epic show. There is barely a moment to breathe, particularly in the first several episodes as you're thrust into this world and events unfold so quickly and so shockingly that you can scarce believe what you're watching. The pace is relentless. The spectacle gripping. The story compelling.

And I realise I haven't done a good job so far summarizing the story or describing the show at all. Since I want to address some analysis and weird theories about the show, summarizing the plot might be in order. Alright, before we get into this, for everyone who hasn't watched Attack on Titan yet...

This Post is Full of SPOILERS, Seriously Dude Don't Touch It

Spoiler 1: The Titans breach the outer wall protecting humanity in the first episode.

As previously noted, Attack on Titan is set in a world where humanity lives inside cities surrounded by enormous walls due to the Titans, gigantic humanoid beings who devour humans.

As per Wikipedia,
The story follows the adventures of Eren Jaeger, his adopted sister Mikasa Ackerman, and their friend Armin Arlert, whose lives are changed forever after a Colossal Titan breaches the wall of their home town. Vowing revenge and to reclaim the world from the Titans, Eren and his friends join the Scout Regiment, an elite group of soldiers who fight Titans.
In the first episode, Eren's mother is eating by a Titan before his own eyes as he is being taken away to safety. There is really a feeling through the series that anyone can die, that no one is safe. This is an enemy that can't be reasoned with since they only live to eat humans and not for nourishment, they can survive without food. They eat humans just because.

This is Thomas Wagner. He was a cadet with Eren and a character we get to see grow over the course of several episodes.
He is the first cadet in Eren's squad to get eaten by a Titan but not the last.

I bring this up because in a post on Fandom Following about Plot Armour, Attack on Titan was brought up as an example of how not to use plot armour. For the uninitiated, "Plot Armor is a narrative device which allows any character to survive anything (as long as the writers consider them important enough)." Essentially how the bad guy's bullets seem to always miss the good guy.

According to the Fandom Following writer, while Attack on Titan tries to do the 'Anyone Can Die' thing, it ultimately fails since it establishes who the main protagonists are and doesn't kill them off, using the example of Eren. And that's where this argument falls flat for me. The Fandom Following post criticizes the fact that Eren seems to die but is brought back "shortly afterward none the worse for wear, with special powers to boot".

This kinda misses the point. I have this idea that just because people are aware of the tropes which exist in storytelling they apply them to situations which might fit the trope in isolation but with no concern for the wider context of the story being told.

This is where Eren is eaten by a Titan and for all we knew had died.

When Eren 'died', it was a complete system shutdown moment. My girlfriend and I stared at each other in disbelief, they could have killed off the main protagonist could they? And he isn't brought back shortly the next episode like some cheap emotional trick.

He comes back three episodes later, emerging from the body of another Titan, a Titan body he was unknowingly controlling. See Eren's return from death wasn't an example of plot armour in action. Rather it was an important narrative development and thematically significant. It signaled how little we, and the characters, know about the Titans and who Eren is, as well as seeding things for later in the season.

The revelation that Eren can turn into a Titan isn't a glib "oh, now the protagonist has special powers" empty twist. It raises questions and is treated with suspicion by the rest of the characters but also offers them the first glimpse of hope they've had in long time. It has narrative purpose and isn't just a lazy way to write a character back to life or avoid death.

He uses his new Titan body to pick up a big rock and use it to plug up a hole. It's more awesome than it sounds.

And really, the Fandom Following post missed an excellent opportunity to use a perfect example of plot armour in action from the show, Armin. While Armin is quite bright and able to think up clever strategic plans for attacks on the Titans, he is a so inept as a fighter due to his crippling fear of the Titans that he often just freezes when confronted by one of them. If any character has plot amour, it is Armin.

Armin was literally about to be eaten by a Titan only for Eren to miraculously pull him out of the Titan's mouth at the last moment and sacrifice himself instead. That's how Eren died. He was Armin's knight in shining plot armour.

Don't get me wrong, Armin is important to the plot but the way he has survived numerous situations where he surely would have died if he wasn't a main character are pretty obvious. This is the difference between just applying a trope without context and examining how the context of the show fits the trope applied.

[Full Disclosure: I love Fandom Following and think it's a great site but this writer kinda dropped the ball here.]

This is Dot Pixis. Note his appearance, this will be important later.

Moving on, one thing I had heard about Attack on Titan was that it was Japanese propaganda. This was something I was aware of going in but didn't really catch at all while watching. At first I thought it might be because of cultural dissonance, I wasn't able to pick up the element of propaganda so I decided to research after I finished the first season.

And from what I can tell, essentially the propaganda theory is based on two things. First is the fact that Dot Pixis, a high ranking general in Attack on Titan, had his appearance based on General Akiyama Yoshifuru, a war hero in Japan who committed several atrocities against Korea and China. Second is that Eren and the rest of the characters are in the army and sacrifice their lives for the rest humanity.

That's about it. From that, it is argued that Attack on Titan is Japanese imperialistic military propaganda. Because one character's physical design was based on military hero/criminal and the fact that the characters are part of an army. Since of course, by basing a character's design on someone infamous from history, you fully endorse that person, regardless of whether the character's personality is completely different.

Also, the fact that the only way for them to fight the Titans is as part of the army isn't discussed, nor is it raised how the characters mistrust the high command and are mostly working outside of command to get things done. 

No really, it's kinda a major theme of the second half of the season. The Scout Regiment, which Eren and co are part of, face off another human-Titan and suspect the higher ups in the military of a cover up so they essentially go rogue to root out the conspiracy. But nope, still military propaganda.

Couldn't possibly be a metaphor for the inevitably of death considering how the Titans are near unstoppable and kill everyone, could it?
Also, could possibly be about seeing giant monsters fight, I dunno.

The thing is, I'm not going to argue there isn't a lens through which you could argue the show has a xenophobic angle (they built a wall to keep out an invading race which is mindless and wants only to kill the normal people inside the wall) but the propaganda theory just doesn't hold water for me.

That was pretty much all I had to say about Attack on Titan, for now at least. Well that's not quite true since I did want to talk about other things but they can wait for a later post.

And I think a good place to end is by saying that I really enjoyed Attack on Titan and can't wait for season 2 to come out... what?! it's been pushed out to 2017?! Not cool.


Friday, 6 May 2016

Break From Another Star - Read The Zeppulian

Hi the internet, no post today.

It's not you, it's me. I just needed time to myself to focus on my online science fiction comedy serial novel, The Zeppulian. This is something I've been putting quite a bit of effort in and even launched a website for.

It tells the story of the Zeppulian, the fastest and grandest ship in the galaxy, which is stolen by Zo and Qin off the planet Lozth. Problem is, they have no idea how to fly it. Luckily, they meet Kara whose escape pod crashed into the ship and is an ace pilot. Together they must evade all the people trying to capture the Zeppulian, including the Neuzuan fleet of space pirates, as they have adventures across the galaxy on their way to a fabled lost planet so lost no one knows its name.

If you like jumping right into the middle of a story, check out The Story So Far...

But if you prefer starting at the very beginning, a very good place to start, check out Part 1 of Chapter 1, Zo and Qin.

If you like what I do and want to support future content, please go over to my Patreon page. Any donation, no matter how small, would be just the best.

About Me

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This introduction is supposed to let you know that you have found the correct Caleb. 

I am here to tell that your search is over. I am indeed the correct Caleb for any given situation. Parties, hunter-gatherings, long walks on the beach, shindigs, guest appearances, and so much more. I am an multi-purpose Caleb guaranteed to impress friends and influence your uncle.

I also write stuff online.