Act Four Live: Pop culture with Alyssa Rosenberg (July 17)

Jul 17, 2017

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.

Greetings, everyone! Happy Monday, and Happy First Day After The First "Game of Thrones" Episode Of The Year Day! Given the writing sprints I do on Sunday nights, I'm feeling unusually peppy, and I'm looking forward to talking to all of you. Let's get to it.

Pink Tardis merchandise - yay or nay?

If you're asking if I'll buy any, the answer is probably not. Television networks send me enough show merchandise that I tend not to buy any myself (and I don't exactly keep much of it in the first place). 

If you're asking if I think it's a good idea, my reaction is sort of a profound shrug. I dislike both the idea that the only merchandise suitable for girls and women is pink; I would never, for example, wear a pink Red Sox or Patriots jersey, much less pink "Star Wars" garb. But I also don't think there's anything wrong with liking pink, or wanting merchandise from a franchise you love in colors you think are more flattering to you. I'm studiedly neutral.

But I also think that when it comes to "Doctor Who," one of the questions will be how much manifesting as a different gender changes who the Doctor is. Whatever answer the show gives is bound to be endlessly debated, and that's a good thing. We're due for a good pop culture argument about the extent to which gender influences personality, etc.

I maintain that a good half of the motivation behind that sequence was to troll GRRM on the soup thing.

It was pretty trolly. And incredibly gross, especially as someone with a sensitive gag reflex. But definitely funny.

Could you and the Post start a dedicated "Game of Thrones" chat for each week when the series is airing? Although it would require an extra hour of your (or a colleague's) time chatting with GoT fans, it would make the fans happy, as well as those of your followers who don't watch the series (by freeing up this chat from GoT posts).

In the past, we've done a Facebook Live chat and may again this year. I will say that doing that this season is tricky for me: "Game of Thrones" overlaps with the most intense stage of this year's Giant Project (TM), making it difficult for me to add another obligation, and I'm traveling during some of the episodes, and I'll be recapping while technically on vacation, and I can only test the patience of my fellow travelers so much. If nothing else, let's plan on doing a dedicated chat after the finale; I'll make sure we can set that up.

I'm not sure if you've seen it yet, but I thought War for the Planet of the Apes played with imagery and themes from Apocalypse Now in really deliberate and smart ways. Of course, it's far from the first movie even this year to riff off of Coppola's classic, so I've been wondering, what is it about that film - and the Heart of Darkness narrative in general - that makes it still so compelling/influential? Also, on a slightly different note, at what point does using pop culture touchstones as inspiration become lazy/a crutch?

I'm hoping to sneak out to see it tomorrow or Wednesday; I was traveling to help a friend who had surgery when it screened in DC, so I missed the critics' screening. But it's been on my absolute must-see list; I loved the first two movies in the franchise, and my friend Peter Suderman, whose opinions often overlap closely with mine, praised it to the skies. 

As for the appeal of Heart of Darkness of stories, I suspect part of it is that they give us a safe way to acknowledge that we're a lot smaller and the world is a lot bigger than we think. Even those of us who live in cities and believe in peaceful conflict resolution wonder what it might be like to be tested, to slip the confines that govern our day-to-day-lives, and see how we make out.

As for what's the line between transcendent and tacky, I guess I think about it a little bit the way I think about fair use in copyright law. Does the reference build upon the thing it's referencing, or comment on the original in a way that either makes something new or makes you see something in a fresh way? If so, then I'm all for it. If it's just an attempt to capitalize on another work's glory, then I tend to find myself bored or itchy.

As someone who grew up with the book, I'm really looking forward to Ava DuVernay's A Wrinkle in Time adaptation. However, when I watched the trailer this weekend, my excitement was ultimately eclipsed by frustration. I know it's just a teaser, but it was so conventional, from the use of a slowed-down version of "Sweet Dreams" (this trend makes me miss when trailers just ripped off the Inception fog horn) to the emphasis on special effects. A Wrinkle in Time is fantasy and epic in scope, but the story appeals to me in large part because it focuses so intimately on Meg. I wish Disney didn't feel the need to sell it as a "save the world" action movie. I don't know how much you pay attention to trailers, but does it bother you how monotonous they are? What do you think makes a good trailer?

I think trailers for something like this are tricky: longtime fans are always going to have their own passionate sense of what makes the work great, but the studio also has to sell new audiences with no preconceptions or attachment to the work on getting to the theater to see it. My hope will be that there is a more intimate story in there, but intimate perspectives are harder to sell than spectacle. And in this case, because a big selling point is the presence of actresses like Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon and Mindy Kaling (not to mention Best Chris, Chris Pine), a trailer is always going to spotlight those very big names.

In terms of what makes a good trailer, I think it's one that sells you on the mood of the movie. The later "Wonder Woman" trailers that spotlighted the film's humor and warmth did a wonderful job of selling what made it great. The "Suicide Squad" movie was itself a disaster, but the trailers were jaunty and funny and edgy in a way that made the movie look much more appealing than it is. The trailers for "Dunkirk," which I'm seeing tonight, are clean and stark; they build the tension of the film without giving you a sense of release, which makes you want to go find out what's going to happen.

I suppose I'm in the minority here, but FYI fantasy programming. movies, books, etc., hold no interest for me. Some of us actually watched other shows than GoT on TV last night, in our case PBS (including a new "Grantchester" episode). And on NPR this AM, co-host David Greene confessed that he watched "Law & Order: SVU" reruns last night!

I'm very much aware that you exist! I cover "Game of Thrones" as extensively as I do because the debates around it are rich and fractious and interesting to me, and because it's one of the few mass media spectacles less. Don't worry; there are only six more weeks to go this year. Please be patient with me and your fellow chatters.

I probably should have said this earlier, but obviously please assume that this chat will discuss "Game of Thrones" plot points.

I'd have found the premiere a lot more satisfying if Gilly had gotten some dialogue along the lines of, "So you have to empty 100 chamber pots a day as junior-maester-in-training and be drawn a picture to realize that there's dragonGLASS in DragonSTONE?" Sheesh, least surprising reveal ever.

Agreed, Gilly was a bit misused there. But I do love seeing a straightforwardly good mother with her kid on screen in "Game of Thrones," even for a moment. 

The more I think about it, the more last night's episode was a microcosm of just how badly and inconsistently Sansa's arc has been written for years. Balcony Sansa was great - a character that's incorporated everything that's happened to her over the last several seasons. Great Hall Sansa? Given everything she's been through, let alone the training Littlefinger has provided her, let alone how she was raised, the public argument with Jon in front of the nobles makes zero sense save as a badly worked plot device. She's very well aware of how to have influence, and also aware that airing public laundry is about the worst way to do so. That the writers can't be consistent with her even through a single episode - let alone the Dark Sansa/Sansa victim whiplash of the last couple seasons - is beyond aggravating.

Oh, I kind of disagree with you there. For all that Sansa has been shaped by Cersei and Littlefinger, neither of them has ever been terribly successful as leaders, and Sansa herself hasn't had much opportunity to actually lead. The scene in the Great Hall seemed like a gambit that didn't quite work, and that taught her something valuable. I don't know that I would think it was smarter or more consistent for the series to make her an absolute strategic genius from the get-go. She's going to make mistakes this season, and wrestle with what are obviously some very difficult feelings and contradictory impulses.

I was really distracted by Ed Sheeran on last night's episode. Having him sing in the background is one thing but then to keep him in an elongated scene seemed to be too much. Why do you think such a smart show resorted to such stunt casting?

They've cast musicians in a number of episodes in the show before, including at the Red and Purple Weddings. I suspected they thought it would work again, but it turns out that putting someone with a very recognizable face front-and-center in an extended scene rather than tucked safely in the background was fairly distracting.

I'm a member of a discussion list (who isn't?), and today we all got an email that said "HELP" in the subject line, and nothing in the body of the message except the sender's signature block. Sender is a complete stranger to me. I phoned, no answer. So I emailed to ask if there was anything I could do. I really had to think about what action to take. Did someone start typing something and hit send too soon? Is their kid messing with their email? They replied that there was no emergency, but how do I know? And even if they'd answered when I'd phoned, how would I know it was them? What would you do in a situation like that?

That sounds like a frightening and upsetting experience, and I'm sorry you had it. Do you know anyone who knows the sender in person? If so, maybe the best thing to do would be to reach out to that go-between and say you were concerned; that way you can assuage your own anxiety without hitting the point of badgering someone. Beyond that, I think you behaved in a highly responsible fashion and there's probably not more you can do. I don't know the nature of the email list, but could the emailer have been asking for help with a problem related to something you normally discuss?

I'm really curious if they will explore the TARDIS' reaction. In the Neil Gaimen written episode, the TARDIS manifested as a woman caring deeply about the Doctor. Will the apparent gender of the TARDIS change? The INTERESTING questions overwhelm the troll issues by a lot.

Oooh, that does sound interesting! I hope the writers can strike a balance between exploring the implications of this latest regeneration without making the show solely about it to the extent it implies that Ladies Are Weird.

how brilliant she is. That column on how DJT jr gets to be a kid at 39 at the price of actual black children never getting to be kids (with the making of kid like mistakes that comes with it) at all was brilliant. Seriously. And humorously. And seriously again.

Alexandra Petri is a deity, and I am fortunate to get to work in her presence.

Never seen it. Should I? Seriously!

I'm going to answer this in the newsletter, because it is a genuinely fresh kind of Game of Thrones question.

I feel like there was an important development that I didn't fully understand. When Jon is meeting with the lords, he says which castles are likely to be first encountered when the white walkers cross the walls. Later, The Hound sees them crossing where the wall meets the ocean next to a mountain shaped like an arrow-head. I'm guessing that we're being set up for Jon to guess wrong on the entry point. Can you make sense of all this?

Hmmm, this didn't stand out to me as a potential contradiction. I think I read Sandor Clegane as seeing a crossing that is either to come, or is happening already. As we saw early in the episode, the Night King and his forces are very much on the march.

Am I wrong for thinking that a weak episode considering the shortened season? Maybe it's just me realizing how much they need to cram into 8 episodes, but it felt both rushed in some parts skipping over expected story or conflict (Sam, Dany), and wasting precious time in others where they were treading established conflict (Jon/Sansa/Littlefinger).

I think a lot of it was setup. I found it to be a very thematically strong episode, but one that was essentially about placing the pieces on the board. I would expect the next six episodes this season to be quite propulsive. It's also possible that the episodes next season are going to run longer than an hour, so I think we've got some space.

Punishing the children for the sins of the parents. Behave as if your power has to be retained through fear, not because you can unite people to their common benefit. Jon Snow thinks like a Stark. It is possible that Bran does too, though that is still unclear. I'm not sure how much of Arya will be left if she ever gets revenge on all of her targets. All her interactions that seem ordinary are potentially part of her larger plans. Setting up the mass poisoning must have taken a lot of work. I guess there is some hope that there is something left of Ned and Cat's daughter since she saved Walder Frey's most recent wife (that is who that was, right?), but that is a small thing compared to the rest of her plans.

What's happened to Arya and Sansa is so, so sad. When I was writing my preview for the season, I noted that I wanted to see as many of the Starks as possible back in the same place so the show could address whether they have the capacity to be a family again. I suspect they don't. But given that the show started with the Starks, one way to measure the cost of all of this is to show us the full destruction of them as a family unit.

The Laramie Project at the Capital Fringe festival is must see theater. Two more performances. One at 9:30 PM on Thursday and one at 5:00 PM on Friday. I am not connected to the production, but I saw it on Saturday.

Passing the recommendation along!

Did you ever see Nancy Meyers' rom-com "The Holiday," starring the nonpareil Kate Winslet, as well as Cameron Diaz as a workaholic owner of a company that makes movie trailers? There's some clever snark in the script about the film biz. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Holiday#Cast

I did! I think the Kate Winslet-Jack Black half of the movie is better than the Cameron Diaz-Jude Law one, but I remember those jabs!

I've heard that this movie doesn't have a single line spoken by a female (human or ape). How come studios are still doing this in 2017? It's hard for me to believe that nobody in the production spoke out about this, which leads me to think it was a deliberate choice. Honestly I was on the fence about seeing it in the theaters anyway and I think I'll pass now. Has there been much outcry about this?

Since I don't know an answer to this question that I can be factually confident in, I don't think I can answer this for you. Also, I'll be honest: I like seeing movies that are all about women, or that feature strong female characters! But one of the reasons to have more of those movies is so it's less of a big deal when a movie's set in an exclusively masculine setting. There's nothing wrong with a movie focusing solely on male characters. It's just wrong when there aren't an equivalent number of such movies focused solely on women.

Everybody should be watching The Strain, not Game of Thrones. Better acting, better writing, funnier dialog, and a great mythology.

Sonny Bunch, who writes weekly for Act Four, may agree with you on this! I'll see if he can be provoked into writing a defense of just such a contention.

Would it not been mode appropriate for King Jon (First of His Name) to answer Sansa thusly :'YOU married a Lannister. YOU married a Bolton.YOU watched and did NOTHING as your little brother was murdered.Should I take YOUR head?' And he doesnt even know how she betrayed Arya,Ned,Catelyn and Robb.

Nah, that wouldn't have worked at all. First, Sansa's marriage to Joffrey was arranged, and it never actually took place. Second, her marriage to Ramsay Bolton was also arranged, and performed under incredibly intense duress. Third, BOTH OF THOSE MEN VIOLENTLY ABUSED HER AND NONE OF THIS WAS HER CHOICE. It's awful that Ramsay murdered Rickon, but there was nothing Jon or Sansa could have done to stop it, and Jon's futile grand gesture cost the lives of hundreds of his men. If Jon had done this, I would have hated him forever for stupidity, not merely the nastiness involved in this line of argument.

I wonder if they will show anything about what happens to the serving girls etc. I doubt things go well for them. And is anyone left to let Edmure out? I guess technically he should be getting the Frey holdings.

One thing I want to write about later this week is the decay of civil society that we're not seeing on screen. The chance that those young women survive to deliver Arya's message is mixed at best; if they don't starve, they might be raped or killed or sold into slavery. Arya's revenge, just like Cersei's quest for domination, doesn't involve any larger plan for the future. Maybe personal satisfaction keeps you safe as the world burns. But I'm not so sure.

Back in my day, 35 years was the start of middle age. No, really!

You would think!

I wonder if it was a zombie email sent by some malware, but an anti-malware program removed the attachment before it got to recipients?

Hmmm, maybe, although don't you think the original sender might have just said that they didn't send the email?

Oh no - you are so NOT alone in not getting alot of what's the tube theses days. Hubby & I often ask "Who watches this stuff?" We do watch PBS, comedy, sports, news, 60 Minutes, movies, etc., but many of the regular shows we don't really get. Thankfully there are chats like this to help us at least hear the right show names and stuff so we don't sound like idiots when trying to be chatty in the office....

I'm going to tell you a little secret: because of the intense fragmentation of popular media, no one is caught up on everything, and there are plenty of shows and movies even professional critics haven't heard of. Embrace the stuff you love, and when you get into conversations like that, sell it to your conversation partners! The stuff you feel weird about watching may actually be things that someone else would love if only they knew about them!

Could you have called the police? Even your own 911 could put you in touch with the relevant one, although if you have the sender's phone number presumably you know the area code, so could narrow down the location.

I suppose that's an option, though I also think it's worth considering that calling the police can trigger a lot of unintended consequences. It's not unreasonable for the original poster to want more information before taking a step like that.

On a lot of automated e-mail list systems, there are a bunch of functions that you activate by sending a short message ("help" "unsubscribe" etc), maybe that's what the sender was trying to do. Kudos to the OP for wanting to help, though. I spent a sleepless night years ago trying to get a hold of someone who had posted a despondent message on a group chat; she sounded suicidal. Luckily there was another member who knew her in real life who was able to go to her house and take care of her.

A highly useful perspective. We can be conscientious without torturing ourselves unnecessarily. Thank you for all the useful responses to our original poster.

Have they ever explained this? I thought most of the fighting age men went with Robb, and very few came back. Then the remainders slaughtered each other at the Battle of the Bastards.

The best special effect on "Game of Thrones" just may be its magic well of fighting men. If I accept that there are dragons, I'm willing to give this one a pass even though I generally think you're correct. 

Thanks so much, everyone. Great questions as always! I'll see you back here this time next Monday, where we will talk both "Game of Thrones" and other things. In the meantime, don't melt! Bring me your best stay-cool recipes for our next chat.

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