Act Four Live: Pop culture with Alyssa Rosenberg (June 1)

Jun 01, 2015

When the credits come up at the movies, the pages in a book run out, or the last commercial rolls over the end of a television episode, the story might be over. But the discussion is just getting started. Here at Act Four, we’ll get together every week to talk about the best (and worst) in pop culture. We’ll also try to sort out why the stories we love mean so much to us, and what they mean for the rest of the world, from "The Avengers" to "Game of Thrones."

Hi everyone! I wanted to apologize: two weeks ago, I raised the possibility of an extra chat to discuss both "Game of Thrones" and the season finale of "Mad Men," and then got swamped by some work and personal obligations and didn't get a chance to make it happen. I'm sorry for letting you down. And because I don't want to let it happen again, I also wanted to let you know that I'm going to schedule a two-hour chat for June 15, the day after the season finale of "Game of Thrones." And we can definitely discuss "Mad Men" and anything else that's been on your minds.

Also, I wanted to let you know that there are still tickets available for an event I'm doing on Wednesday. My colleague Alexandra Petri and I will be discussing her terrific new book, "A Field Guide to Awkward Silences," at 7pm at Sixth and I in Washington. Also, I guarantee you a lot of talking about our shared "Star Wars" obsession. You should come and say hi!

Did Gily rape Sam last week? On the one hand, he has said no to her many times. He has explained his reasons. Those reasons haven't changed and she knows it. On the other hand, he has wanted her almost since they met and she knows it. And he didn't object during the act though he had plenty of opportunity to say stop. There are a few parallels to Sansa and Ramsay in this. Gily isn't an evil sociopath and she didn't physically hurt Sam, but she did go forward without explicit permission after a bunch of refusals and no reason to believe that Sam had changed his mind. And her action put him in grave danger if they had been caught.

Scenes like the ones between Gilly and Sam are where a lot of our discussions about affirmative consent break down for me. As you've noted, Sam and Gilly have frequently discussed the possibility of their relationship turning sexual. In the course of those conversations, they've developed strong, straightforward conversations about their desires, priorities and comfort levels. And while they haven't previously had sex, they are deeply emotionally involved: Sam has helped Gilly learned to read and helped her unlock her considerable intellectual resources. Gilly has encouraged Sam not to let go of his inner goodness and sweetness, and given something on which to hang his courage. All of which is a long way of saying that even if Gilly doesn't explicitly ask Sam if he wants to have sex with her, I trust those two to have their communication sorted. They don't have to speak words to read each other and to know that this situation is different from the opportunities Sam has turned down before.

If there's a parallel with Sansa and Ramsay, it's that in both circumstances, you don't have to speak to communicate a lot of information. Sansa's submission to Ramsay's demand that she undress signals obedience, but not enthusiastic consent to whatever's next. When Ramsay tells Sansa "We should be honest with each other, don't you think?" he doesn't have to say explicitly that "I prefer sex to be violent, and the fact that I have complete dominion over to you is exciting." He shows her. And it's not as if Ramsay is in any way unclear that Sansa is not excited about marrying him, that she's unexperienced and unsure. 

Implicit communication can be just as powerful and important as spoken words. We don't need to condemn Gilly for knowing Sam well enough to discern his consent. And the fact that Sansa doesn't speak an explicit "no" in no way acquits Ramsay Bolton of rape.

I thought the White Walker battle from last night's episode was a blast not only because I felt tense and jittery for a good half hour after the episode ended, but also because it was a necessary establishment of the Walkers as a genuine threat that makes all other conflicts seem petty and inconsequential in comparison. This was yet another welcome change from the books, where they're still just a vague menace, forever coming but never actually arriving. So, when I read your episode recap (your GoT write-ups are my go-to favorites, by the way), I was surprised that you weren't impressed by the battle. Could you elaborate on why it didn't work for you, since your recap focused more on what you did like about the episode?

I will be totally honest. I have to write those recaps crazy fast (I filed that one at 10:36, having just started writing a few minutes before 10pm, and the darn thing was 1,908 words long). So while they tend to have theses and arguments, they are records of my first impressions. And the battle at Hardhome has grown on me some now that I've had a night to sleep on it, even though it's not my favorite of the major clashes the show has given us.

A few things about my preferences in fight choreography. I prefer faceoffs between characters we're invested in: I feel like we get a lot more character development in something like the throwdown between Brienne and the Hound than in Jon Snow v. Countless Ice Zombies. In general, action movies have burned me out on battles with Huge Numbers of Anonymous Antagonists--I think it probably didn't help that I saw "Avengers: Age of Ultron" again earlier on Sunday. And the White Walkers and the wights have been one of the weaker visual elements of "Game of Thrones," though we've seen definite improvement since their introduction. Also, on "Game of Thrones," Jon Snow is a bit of an exception to the idea that bad things can happen to good people at any moment in subversion of classic fantasy tropes, so however dramatic the battle was, the ending was kind of foreseen. Finally, are you serious? Undead wights can't cross water? Maybe the Watch should just melt down the Wall and create a giant moat for Westeros.

All of that said, there are some dandy things in the "Hardhome" battle! I love seeing the White Walkers on the ridgeline brandishing those severed heads! Watching our new pal get taken down by the zombie kids was a genuinely affecting moments. The giants' tenacity is an amazing thing to behold. And I'm excited to think about the distribution of Valyrian steel swords across the Seven Kingdoms and what that means for the story ahead of us.


I've been wanting to ask this for a while, so glad to have the chat back! Anyway, there was a question in the last chat about whether Littlefinger knew what would happen to Sansa when she married Ramsay and it mentioned a quote from (I think) one of the show's producers, who basically said that Littlefinger was unaware of the situation - which, to me, doesn't make sense with what we've seen of his character and his interactions with Sansa. Long story short, it made me think a lot about interviews and how I often find that, especially with GoT and Mad Men, they actually detract from my experience of a show rather than enriching it. I was wondering: at what point, if any, do you think it's safe to ignore what the people working on a show say about their work? To what extent should viewers take into account creators' interpretations when forming their own?

I'm a textual critic, which means that I sometimes find it interesting to hear what creators say about what they think they've done, but it doesn't govern my interpretation of the work. I don't really care what David Benioff and Dan Weiss think happened between Jaime and Cersei Lannister last season: to me, what I saw on screen was a sexual assault, and I'm interpreting everything that happens between them in the context of that event. I tend to see Littlefinger as someone who's smart enough to know that Ramsay Bolton is a violent psychopath, and arrogant enough to assume that Sansa will still want him if she survives her ordeal.

It makes a lot of sense that creators and producers are giving tons of after-the-fact interviews. There's an enormous market for them, and they help extend the news cycle around any individual episode or scene in a movie. But they also tend to contribute to the idea that there's a definitive reading of pop culture, when in fact, there's not. Creators' intentions can be good to know about in that they let us measure the gap between their plans and what ended up on screen. But we don't have to agree that what they made is what we saw! And I worry that these interviews and the idea of an objective interpretation are making us weaker critics. Rather than reading text, quoting text and explaining what we took away from a shot, we're citing interviews. That gives too much power to creators, and risks attenuating our own interpretive muscles. 

I am disappointed in the Spring Baking Championship on Food Network. I would have picked either of the other two guys, but the one I did not want to win got it (if you had seen Damiano, you'd have been for him too!). I never pick the winner on Food Network Star, although my favorite from season 4, Kelsey Nixon, who came in 4th, has a very successful show on Cooking Channel and the three who came in front of her are no longer on. On a completely different note: Johnny Manziel, aka "Johnny Football," is in trouble again. Does he never learn? I remember when my favorite football player, Ben Roethlisberger, got in trouble. He is now a respected athlete who works hard to provide dogs for the police and care for retired police/military dogs and has been named to the Mid-Atlantic Conference Hall of Fame with Canton definitely in his future. He's also a happy husband & father. Maybe Manziel needs a wife?

I think it's worth noting that married people and people in long-term partnerships get themselves into massive trouble all the time! Ray Rice socked his fiancee in an elevator. Floyd Mayweather's been involved in a hideous incident of domestic abuse involving his children. Former House Speaker Dennis Hastert has been married since 1973 and recently got indicted for misconduct apparently stemming from his teaching and wrestling career, which began in 1981.

And in general, I think there's something unnerving about the assumption that men are some sort of wild animals who can or need to be restrained by the love of a good woman. That suggests that men can't improve themselves or be responsible for their actions. And it puts an enormous amount of pressure on women to be civilizing and moderating influences. That's a pretty miserable model for long-term relationships.

Despite the seeming universal praise for last night's episode online, I've seen a big split among people I watch with over the ending battle and the White Walkers generally. While some love the battle and the looming threat, others found it a tacked-on zombie/fantasy distraction from the intrigue and characters the show is known for. The latter didn't come to the show to watch yet another zombie story. Is there a concern that the show ostensibly seems to be heading for a world-deciding fight with zombies from the North despite giving them little screen time and the show generally finding success in quieter character moments or conversations? Conversely, how do you keep interest in the squabbling in Dorne or King's Landing when you're about to be overrun by ice zombies?

I think you're asking a good question about the nature of the show. My sense is that "Game of Thrones" is going to end with some sort of climactic struggle that will bring a lot of the different characters together on the front lines. I trust that what's happening in Dorne, King's Landing and Braavos is going to matter, whether it determines how some characters get to the final battle, what they're doing when they get there, or what role they play in rebuilding the world after the clash is over. And the show is really strong when it gets characters in conversation: Pod and Brienne's discussions of their origin stories is probably my favorite moment of this season.

As I mentioned earlier in the chat, I'm feeling a tad more positively disposed towards the battle at Hardhome than I was immediately after seeing it. But I don't think I'm ever going to be a zombie person (no matter if they're fast or slow). Watching folks throw down with a mass of antagonists who all behave fundamentally the same way can give us only so much information--and we already know that Jon Snow is pretty good with Longclaw. And watching people get swamped by unstoppable robots or zombies gets monotonous after a while. I think it will be smart if "Game of Thrones" ends up narrowing the conflict a bit, so it's more about our protagonists versus the White Walkers rather than our protagonists versus endless hordes of wights, who may well end up getting gobbled by dragons. That would make the fights a bit more personal and strategic, and it would give us what we've been sorely lacking: a sense of who the White Walkers are.

Have you been keeping up with the current third season of "Orphan Black" especially the municipal elections stuff with the Alison clone?

I am SO behind on "Orphan Black." I hope to make time to binge at some point this summer, since I'm more than a season behind at this point. If I get current, I promise to let you know, but it probably won't be this month, since in addition to "Game of Thrones," I have to travel for a high school graduation and a wedding. Yikes!

I feel like book fundamentalist are sort of like the Tea Party. So the Wall Street bailouts happen and nearly everybody in the nation is upset about. Even if you get the rational for it, you don't like. Then the Tea Party starts making noise about how they are upset about it and they are starting a movement to deal with financial issues. Except when academics start to survey people who call themselves Tea Partiers they uncover that these people are nearly all Republicans or unregistered former Republicans and their main concerns are not economic issues, but the same old social issues (abortion rights, gay rights, etc...) that have been activating the conservative Republican base for years. I feel that a lot of critics online after the outcry over Ramsay and Sansa's wedding night are not about sexual violence, but the same old book fundamentalism that GoT has been dealing with day one and in the way I don't like how the Tea Party is just real economic issues I care about for their old social agenda, I don't like book fundamentalists latching on the people who really do care sexual violence and are upset what they watch in that episode. Another political connection is David Benioff and D.B. Weiss are kind of like Martha Coakley in her lost in the special election to succeed Teddy Kennedy in the U.S. Senate. Even people who agree with Coakley on the issues that they care about didn't want to vote for her since they were turned by her contempt for campaigning for their vote. B&W rarely do fan podcasts and do major interactions with the fans outside of the major events like San Diego Comic Con. They are more likely to do an interview when do with Variety or EW than WinterIsComing.Net or Boiled Leather Audio Hour podcast. There is a difference in that Coakley turned people off who would want to vote her and ASOIAF book fans are never going to embrace "Game of Thrones" because any deviation from the without fault source material is end-of-discussion blasphemy. Sure people could easy poke holes in these connections...

So, I'm all for political readings of culture, but I think comparing book purists to the Tea Party is a bit of a stretch, not least because the potential real-world consequences of the Tea Party's influence are much more significant! That said, I think you've gleaned an interesting insight about power and fandom that's of a piece with genre fiction's move from the margins to the mainstream. In the past, if a show like "Game of Thrones" got made at all--and let's remember, that's a big if--it might have had to rely on book readers much more heavily than is the case today. Something like Entertainment Weekly or Variety have much larger reach than fan podcasts do, and I say that as a Friend of the Boiled Leather Audio Hour. That EW and Variety are interested in "Game of Thrones" at all is a reflection of the way nerd culture has become utterly mainstream, and it's also an opportunity to reach people who might not have tuned in to the show and the books yet in a way an interview with a fan site of longer vintage might not. We nerds and geeks live in unsettled times, when we're finally getting to see some of our oldest dreams come true, and yet are finding that our years of devotion don't mean what we thought they might.

So what do you make of the fact that her first interview is in a publication with an extremely strict paywall? seems like there was a better way...

I think it makes a lot of sense. By going with Vanity Fair, Caitlyn Jenner gets a photo shoot with Annie Liebovitz, who is kind of the go-to person if you want to debut a highly polished, sophisticated new portrait of either yourself or a new project. She also gets a lot of publicity build-up to her debut of her new self: Vanity Fair will do the teaser, provoke speculation, and then bring in a massive audience for the full interview and photo shoot. And frankly, for a publication to make that kind of investment in a story, it totally makes sense that they'd try to juice their online subscription numbers out of it. Annie Liebovitz don't come cheap, and neither does Buzz Bissinger. This is a decision that makes sense for everyone involved, and forces those of us reading at home to put an actual dollar figure on the value of our curiosity and patience. As someone who writes for a living, I'm all for it.

This is a write-up from the Montreal Gazette about "Mohawk Girls" a "Sex & The City"-type show about 4 young single Mohawks looking for love. There is one storyline with the character of Anna played by Maika Harper who has a Mohawk father and a white mother. Movies and TV shows often get the criticism of minority's story through a white character, but Anna isn't that although I think she's the most relatable and fun character. She has just moved to the reservation so as she is discovering what life is like there and especially since she is a rebellious and fun-loving by nature is often confused and frustrated by live there and she also doing post-grad and so we see as a misunderstood outsider among her white peers too (a white classmate asks her if taxpayers are paying tuition since philosophy doesn't seem like great return on their money). One her main storylines is dealing with a real thing called "blood quantum." To Anna she knows that blood quantum laws were created by colonial authorities to lower the number of people eligible for benefits under treaties and she's right, but her Mohawk friends say they know the origins, but blood quantum is important to keep Mohawk nation going so Anna goes to the tribal band office and discovers her blood quantum ancestry percentage is under 50% and not considered Mohawk and hides it from everybody. I am just restating her plot points, but her reaction to this is really interesting and unique.

Sounds like an interesting show! I'll have to take a look at see if I can find a way to watch it.

Isn't the bigger issue with the scene that someone is generally not going to go into sexy times right after they've nearly been sexually assaulted? To me, that was the bigger issue with the scene.

I actually found that kind of affirming: the Brothers of the Night's Watch (not to mention Craster, her awful, rapist father) haven't been able to take Gilly's sexuality from her, or poison it so she associates it with violence or turns away from sex altogether. She's still a person with a healthy sense of her own desires. There's something beautiful and powerful in that.

Wow these questions are really intense and maybe a little nerdy. I must say I was expecting something a little lighter like discussions of what Rand Paul can do with his hair to get the media to see him more seriously or whether B. Jenner's new look is due to styling advice from a professional. Your thoughts ?

Welcome to the Act Four chat! This is what we do here: intense and nerdy readings of mass culture and what it tells us about ourselves and the world we live in.

Though to answer your questions: 1) as someone with naturally curly hair, I am heavily in favor of Rand Paul keeping his tresses exactly as they are. 2) Yes, I think one privilege Caitlyn Jenner's experienced during her transition is having the financial resources to reconfigure her body and her wardrobe so she can look exactly the way she's always wanted to. I'm sure that in addition to first-class medical care, she's getting advice, whether from her own daughters and step-daughters, who are style professionals, or from stylists.

Given all the criticism you've laid at the feet of the Game of Thrones producers on camera angles of nudity, is there a particular reason you're not taking the same reasoning with the extreme wide shots and extra brutality involved in Outlander?

It's because I'm not caught up. I can't write criticism about something I haven't had a chance to watch. I'd refer you to Libby Hill for intriguing writing on the subject:

In case you missed it, it's been made clear several times.

Oh, that's right. It's been a while since I re-read them. Still, even if it's canon, it sort of feels like silly canon. Maybe Dany's dragons will end up melting the Wall and making my dreamed-of moat.

I have a beef with Stan and Peggy ending up together. OK, if you're gonna go there in the end, why bother with the dude she couldn't find her passport for? It would have been better if you just left it at that, so the take-away for Peggy in the finale would have been "Will she ever find a balance between love and work?" since that is still a huge concern for even today's working mothers, and Peggy was right on the cusp of that happening. By her ending up with Stan, it just seems like a schmaltzy Hollywood ending, not at all in keeping with the spirit of the show.

I will confess to being, on some level, a Stan and Peggy, er, stan, so I may be the wrong person to ask you about this. To me, it was clear they were probably going to get together when Peggy told Stan about giving her child up for adoption and talked about his feelings towards his own mother. The two other people who know about the adoption are Don, who Peggy is far too smart to get with now that she knows him, and Pete, with whom Peggy now has a respectful, even touching friendship. If she told Stan, that was a big deal. 

As for Peggy's other promising date? Well, I think sometimes people get together with the person they're meant to be with after someone else helps them feel open to love. Peggy's had a rotten run, and while Passport Guy wasn't necessarily the person she was meant to be with, he reminded her that, post-Abe, there are relationships worth having. Stan's the beneficiary of that. And I hope Passport Guy is off benefiting from his good karma somewhere.

That's all for this week, folks. I have a bunch of "Aquarius" and "UnReal" to watch. See you next Monday!

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Alyssa Rosenberg
Alyssa Rosenberg blogs about pop culture for The Washington Post's Opinions section.
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