Act Four Live: Pop culture with Alyssa Rosenberg (May 13)

May 13, 2019

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, friends! Sorry to be getting us off to a slightly late start. I want to ask everyone's patience today: for scheduling reasons, I'm unable to do a two-hour chat today, so this one may be fairly "Game of Thrones"-heavy. I'll look at the scheduling next week to see if we can do a more extended conversations. For those of you who are not enamored of Westeros, I'm going to ask you to be a little bit patient here (and also, submit questions on other subjects if you want to discuss them!). We're almost at the finish line.

One of the things that struck me about this week is that a resolution this wasn't a bad episode. I don't really have a problem with Dany becoming the villain, or Arya turning back, or Jaime doing...whatever Jaime was supposed to do. As an isolated episode, this wasn't awful. But when it's combined with the head spinning character development (one example: Varys giving up 7 seasons of exquisitely careful planning where he won't reveal his goals to anyone who might leave the room alive suddenly reversing so that he can become a 'I-told-you-so!' human torch plot point) the episode just doesn't work. I'd argue Bran foreshadowed this; reducing one of the most interesting character arcs into a forum for exposition was a warning sign that we should have paid more attention to.

I think that's a good point. It is genuinely baffling to me that the creators made the decision to truncate the final seasons of "Game of Thrones" like this. All of these character arcs could have felt more plausible with more time to let them sprout from seeds into full bloom. But they made a decision not to give us or the characters that breathing space, and so we're racing along without a lot of what made the show so terrific in the first place. It's a genuine shame. I've been rewatching the earlier seasons, and it's amazing how much slower they are: Dany spends all of season two either getting to Qarth or in Qarth, and the buildup to her vision in the House of the Undying (which is turning out to be one of the few bits of foreshadowing that actually matters in the endgame) is worth it and powerful. Now, everything's just happening, not always for a reason. It's moderately exhausting.

One of the things that WaPo's erstwhile Celebritology chat used to do when there was a pop-culture phenomenon comparable to GoT that some commenters wanted to discuss, while others didn't, was to dedicate the regular hour of the schedule chat to anything but the hot-button topic, then reserve a second hour solely for discussing it (with comments submitted before then collected for that hour). As a non-follower of GoT, I'd suggest that you try to do something similar -- even if it's only a half-hour of each. Thanks.

I'd like to be able to do that, but in addition to covering culture and running this chat, I'm also managing a big project and handling some other responsibilities. This week, an important meeting about the big project meant that I couldn't do a two-hour chat. Next week, we'll try to schedule things differently. But I'd genuinely ask you to be patient with me, and with your fellow chatters. And please, submit questions on other subjects! My queue is overwhelmingly saturated with "Game of Thrones"-related questions, and there are few on other subjects. I can't answer questions I don't get.

I think it's obvious that the last season or two have been rushed the story would have benefited from a few more episodes to breath. That being said, almost everything has been telegraphed/developed and I don't get the complaints I'm seeing on twitter that DnD have "ruined" the characters or are pulling big twists out of thin air.

Since Dany's dragons were big enough and powerful enough to set people on fire, the show has established that her default solution to situations is often overwhelming firepower, and that she tends to pay back cruelty with cruelty. Where I think "Game of Thrones" could have done better work is in establishing that Dany is utterly failing to connect with the people of Westeros. There have been bits and bobs of this along the way: solemn faces as she, the Dothraki and the Unsullied ride into town; the conversations she overhears about how much everyone likes Jon, etc. But other than her one attempt to curry favor by legitimizing Gendry and giving him Storm's End, there just wasn't that much space to see a mutual discomfort, and even antipathy, grow. We should not be in a situation where the only foreshadowing of what Dany would really do is a conversation she has with Tyrion in the same episode about why she thinks the people of King's Landing ought to revolt against Cersei. An under-discussed aspect of her heel turn, I think, is that Dany has always had a suicidal streak as well as a murderous one. Her decision to walk onto Khal Drogo's funeral pyre may have been an act of conviction, but it was a suicidally risky one. Blowing out that dynamic, which has defined other Targaryens past as well, would have made her decisions in King's Landing make even more tragic sense.

I haven't watched the Ocasio-Cortez documentary yet, but did review stating how the theme she promotes is the importance of women of color to hold public office which doesn't seem to challenge her on this. Sharice Davids of Kansas City is one of the two Native American women elected at the same time into the House of Representatives and Stephanie Murphy of Orlando is the first Vietnamese-American woman to be elected into the House of Representatives. Rep. Ocasio-Cortez came into their districts to actively campaign for their white male primary opponents. Murphy and Davids are far more in line with Ocasio-Cortez's worldview. If a hypothetical U.S. Senate races in Iowa of J.D. Scholten versus Joni Ernst or Mark Kelly versus Martha McSally you can't say Enst or McSally aren't any less a woman than Ocasio-Cortez or Harris or Warren or Gabbard or whoever else. Feminism is hard and isn't a bumper sticker or sick burn and after reading reading people like Noreen Malone or Hanna Rosin writing on Ernst's victory, "we've moved past symbols" seems to apply way more to women with disagree with politically.

I think you're right that "Feminism is hard and isn't a bumper sticker," but that leads to a series of important questions. Is anything a woman does in public life inherently feminist, simply because it means furthering women's participation in a sphere from which women have historically been excluded and unrepresented? Or is it the substance of a woman's work in public life that matters, and as a result, are there situations where the feminist value over replacement could favor having a particular man in a position in public life rather than a woman? What proposed solutions do we decide are feminist? Do Ernst and McSally telling stories about their own experiences in the military contribute more towards reforming those institutions than specific bills or policies that might be advanced by men in positions of power? We have to sort all of these questions out and agree on the answers if we're to arrive at a common definition of feminism. And I think we're nowhere close to doing that.

Will he ever warg into something useful in these final episodes? What a waste of an opportunity to be awesome.

Hoooboy. I think a broader, but still important, question for "Game of Thrones" is how much any of the magical worldbuilding George R.R. Martin seeded along the way is going to matter or pan out at all. Do the prophecies matter? The verdict seems mixed. Does the Stark kids' connections with their direwolves matter at all? Unclear. Is Arya going to steal someone's face next week, or was the point of all that time in the House of Black and White just that she got very good at murdering people? I think there's an argument to be made that this is the point: that we seed meaning in all of these seemingly magical things that turn out to have no significance at all becuase we're trying to understand the world. But at this point, that might be a stretch, at least in the execution of the show.

A Lebanese writer complained about an employee on the metro and now people are saying it was a racist action because she complained about was black. Are we now living in an age where if you're black no one can ever have a complaint about you because it's considered racist. Personally, I feel like the people blatantly disobeying the metro rules by cranking on loud music without headphones are black commuters. I don't think that's a racist statement, because statistically that's been the case.

Goodness did this question not go in the direction I was expecting, about whether or not it is the right decision for Tynes' publisher to back out of her book!

I would urge you to make note of the disjunction between your last two sentences. You say personally you believe something to be true, than assert that statistics bear you out. Which is it? What's your proof?

Also, I would recommend that you spend some meditating on the difference between thinking it's good that people follow the rules and taking it upon yourself to enforce them by trying to cost someone their livelihood.

Because of how universally hated Daenerys is, it seems like the obvious and predictable outcome next episode is that Arya kills her, and that John takes the throne instead. But, because that is such a predictable outcome, do you think that they'll go that route?

I have long thought that the perfect ending for "Game of Thrones" would be that Dany goes mad and Jon has to kill her. Given how heavily the promo for the final episode seems to be signalling that Arya will kill Dany, I wouldn't be shocked if it's a bit of rather-aggressive misdirection. I also wonder if Jon's look towards Dany when she has Drogon flame Varys is a bit of a callback to Ned Stark's teaching that the person who passes the sentence should swing the sword themselves; Dany is not exactly doing that by barbecuing her enemies, and it may have gotten Jon thinking about what the honorable way out is. If Jon does end up sitting on the Iron Throne, I think it will be in the bitterest, most compromised possible circumstances. 

I was going to write up a little review of Schitt's Creek for a blog and I was going to mention how the character of David is more outwardly gay than his romantic partner and how some of the traits he has might be seen as negative at times (his emphasis on fashion in a superficial way) and positive at times, but I don't think his being gay is the most important thing about him and the more I keep thinking about how to write about him or even just how to think about him, the more minefields I run into. Any thoughts?

I think the wise thing to do here is to write about the decisions the writers are making and how they seem to play out, rather than writing about the gay character as if they are an actual person. You don't have to say that an emphasis on fashion is bad; instead, you can say that the writers seem to be using the character's emphasis on fashion in a way that undercuts other qualities that make him seem more substantive, using examples and pointing out alternatives. You can make the case that the writers are saying something about gay culture that is either troublesome, or that doesn't seem to be what they intended and parse out how. Talk about how these choices are landing for you. But preserving that distinction between writing about a fictional person as if they're real and writing about the choices a series of creators are making will save you a lot of trouble.

Also, this is a really careful and considerate concern to raise, so thank you!

Just curious if you been following the republishing of the diary and if it makes it better, worst, or no difference.

I really would need to read the new edition to make a decision. My understanding has always been that Frank's father expurgated certain things from the diary, and I'm generally in favor of things that make iconic figures, like the one Anne Frank has become, more complex. In the end, I'd probably like to see something like the annotated version of "Little House on the Prairie" that was published recently comparing the manuscripts so we can see what decisions Frank and her father made along the way.

How does the dwindling significance of the direwolves in Game of Thrones rank in terms of your overall disappointments with the adaptation of the books to TV?

Honestly, not incredibly high? It was a nice touch, but it's of a piece with wondering how much of Martin's worldbuilding was leading somewhere and how much of it was just atmospherics that we--and perhaps the characters themselves--over-interpreted.

Your post about Avengers Endgame gave me a lot to chew on after I saw the movie last week, and I’m especially grateful for the link to Peter Suderman’s piece, which forces us to question the real value of fan service. But I think I have to disagree with your conclusion. In the first place, it’s no mean feat to produce a blockbuster franchise that is consistently satisfying though not innovative. The DC movies, and the Star Wars prequels, to take two examples, have come up short largely because the filmmakers failed, or have failed, to create the kind of engaging characters and story arcs that the MCU does so well (and I would argue that any MCU misfire, in movies or TV, stems from the same problem). What has been satisfying for me as a longtime comics and film fan about the Avengers franchise was that it took both the characters and their relationships seriously, and worked to get us to like and root for them, rather than relying on prior knowledge and just saying “here are your heroes, so love them.” And there’s no guarantee they will continue to succeed; there's a reasonable doubt that the MCU will be able to sustain itself as it moves into Phase Four, with different characters and actors. In the second place, as you correctly note, the current Golden Age of Television has never been about the ratings-toppers. The presence of "American Idol" and "NCIS” atop the Nielsens did not diminish the triumph of “Breaking Bad.” You could certainly make an argument that blockbusters crowd out smaller films, but that argument goes back at least as far as Star Wars and Indiana Jones. I suppose I still have faith that art will still score a few victories over commerce, even without any magical gemstones.

I actually totally agree with you on this! The Marvel Cinematic Universe is a genuine triumph of pleasurable craftsmanship, and the casting directors in particular deserve an enormous amount of credit for putting together such a completely delightful ensemble. My main quibble is treating the movies as if they're politically or artistically significant, which is a different thing entirely.

I like the way the show fulfilled the Valanqar prophesy. Jaime's hands were around Cersei's throat at her death, but they were comforting hands, not strangling. I didn't see that coming. Nice twist, show producers. What did you think of that?

I know a lot of folks hated how Cersei and Jaime went out, but honestly, it was fine with me. I just wish Jaime had had a lot more room to reverse course and go back to Cersei.

I will say this about the episode: even with all the plot holes, the inconsistent character behavior, etc… I watched with rapt attention, and rarely took my eyes off the screen. The person-on-the-street view of the dragon whooshing overhead between tall roofs helped depict the terror of the citizens, including showing people burning (only adults though, they didn’t go so far as to show children, which I’m grateful). I also liked how faces and gestures did the speaking, specifically the look on Jon’s face while looking at Daenerys on the dragon after the bells rung… we all know he was thinking “No, no… please don’t” without his having to say it outright. Plus, the scene where Tyrion released Jaime felt real and was touching, instead of just dialog to move the plot along. Again it wasn’t perfect, but it felt like GOT episodes from better seasons.

I absolutely agree. It's a total mystery to me why they hyped the Battle of Winterfell so much, when this was obviously the superior episode on almost every level: better shot, clearer outcomes, more focused on character as an expression of the events? I could do without Cleganebowl, an event I never cared about in the slightest, but it felt so much more emotionally rooted than the final showdown against the dead.

As someone who's read A Song of Ice and Fire, do you think the fall of King's Landing portrayed in last night's GOT episode was the deadliest event in the history of the seven kingdoms?

Possibly! It certainly seems worse, overall, than the attack on Harrenhal, though I do wonder if any of the battles of the Targaryen conquest were individually more deadly.

Do you have any book theories on how Aegon, Jon's older brother (I think?), will fit into the story? Is he just another wedge to drive into Dany to make her go "mad"? Will Aegon go mad if he looses a few battles/close relations? Will we have two mad Targaryens??? I worry that Dany going crazy, and having both Jon and Aegon hanging around as potential better options really hammers home a strange "women rulers, crazy right?" type theme. Not to mention the other examples of Cersei and Lady Stoneheart's stories.

I think he's probably a fake.

Edmure Tully is still alive in the TV show and has a son by his wife Roslin Frey, one of Walder Frey's daughters. So he is just kicking it during all these wars?

Good question! Maybe he, Roslin, Sam, Gilly and Tormund are all watching this, as narrated by Bran?

It felt like "Game of Thrones" just wouldn't allow us any fun. Evil Queen versus Good Queen, nope we won't let you have that.

I think deliberately giving you a very bad time is exactly what "Game of Thrones" was designed to do. Being annoyed that the show isn't allowing you any fun is missing the show's core mission!

I was the same age as Arya when the show started. Even though I didn't start watching until later, I feel like I came of age with this show and many of its characters. As silly as it sounds, watching the Stark siblings grow into their chaotic world gave me the chance to grow up right there with them. I know I've learned so much from this show, and I'm wondering what you feel we should take with us from Game of Thrones as it comes to an end. What specific moments stand out to you as memorable lessons? Whose journey(s) have you enjoyed the most over the years, and what have they taught us? Your weekly reviews will be dearly missed ❤️

Awww, you just simultaneously made me feel elderly and warmed the cockles of my heart!

I think the journey I appreciate most, purely from a sentimental perspective, is Samwell Tarly's. John Bradley deserves enormous credit as an actor here. He's subtle and funny, and it's amazing to see how he actually made his face look duller and less handsome so the audience would see him as Jon and his fellow trainees initially see Sam when his most obvious quality is his cravenness. My great terror for the final episode is the possibility that Dany will have Sam dragged to the capital, declare that he's lied about Jon's parentage, and roast him as an example. I need Sam, Gilly and Little Sam to all make it out alive.

The non-sentimental person in me thinks that "Game of Thrones" is a sad and powerful allegory about the futility of trying to personally dash yourself against the rocks of a political system. No one person can break the wheel, even with dragonfire. It takes collective action, but not the way Dany thinks of it.

With Varys gone, sweet Tormund retired in the north with Ghost, and Tyrion hopelessly caught in Dany's hurricane...Ser Davos Seaworth is my last favorite character I fear for next week. He seems to be the best of all characters; endlessly loyal and true like a Stark - but without their dumbass blindness to consequences, ...solidly anchored to the plight of the common man abused by the elite - but without the addiction to use what power he has to try and play the game of thrones like Varys,... and possessing a certain wisdom and cleverness- but without Tyrion's habit of underestimating his opponents and trying to get a bit too flashy. Please, use your oracle like powers to assure me our stalwart onion knight makes it through one more week!!! Perhaps Davos, back on his little island, teaching his daughters to fish and sail until he dies an old man in total obscurity is the happiest ending this story can provide.

Maybe this is grim of me, but I told my husband that Davos is the person whose face I think Arya is most likely to steal, given that Dany is not yet apocalyptically angry at him, and thus might let him get physically close to her.

Folks, I have to hit up another meeting. I'll be back here next Monday, though I have yet to figure out the timing. Stay tuned!

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