Act Four Live: Pop culture with Alyssa Rosenberg (May 21)

May 21, 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.

Hi everyone! Thanks for your patience with me yesterday: I was dealing with a family emergency that required my immediate attention, and meant that I would have been only half-present, if that, with all of you here. Let's get to it! I'll try to keep the chat running a little longer than usual if possible. And non-"Game of Thrones" folks, please be patient with us: this will be our last chat dominated by that show for a very long time.

Are we sure that GRRM would have produced a better ending in his books? Book 4 was pretty bad (and rambling), and 5 was only a bit better. My theory is that the reason why he hasn't published book 6 yet is because he's been having trouble reining everything in. He at least has had the luxury of taking his time, which B & W did not have with the show.

I don't necessarily think that George R.R. Martin would have "produced a better ending" to A Song of Ice and Fire. As Isaac Butler, a critic I quite admire, put it on Twitter, "GOT and ASOIAF are works of incredible ambition. In both cases part of the thrill of watching it is that they are *beyond the abilities of the people writing them*." I've long been on record as saying I think that "Game of Thrones" was, in places, a necessary edit of Martin's very, very sprawling epic. Clearly, at the end, I think they condensed too much for the sake of speed at the expense of character. A better edit probably lies somewhere between the two. Right now, I've settled in a place where I feel grateful for what Martin gave us, and if he is ever able to finish the story, I'll enjoy his version.

I may have calmed down significantly regarding my feelings for the GoT finale. I blame sleep deprivation and a sick kid. (The two issues are closely related.)

Nope, I've got them all here! I hope your kid is feeling better and that you managed to get a good night sleep in there.

Why did he confess? He could have just said, Danerys took off because Ban told her I had a better claim. Wagons West Unsullied!

I imagine the pool of blood in the throne room on the fresh snow might have been a tad difficult to explain. I also think Grey Worm might have taken exception to the idea that Jon had a better claim to the mission of Daenerys' that inspired him. But also, come on, he's Jon Snow! I was actually surprised that the episode called back to Maester Aemon's declaration that love is the death of duty, and not to Ned Stark's maxim that the person who passes the judgement should swing the sword.

My first command would be for everyone to find something else to call me!

You would think! Although I guess if you can see the past, present and future, maybe you're less concerned with sobriquet?

I was disappointed sure wasn't writing her own page! I love that Sansa is queen in the North, but I still feel the women on the show did not end as strongly as they should have. Arya killed the Night King! Show some more respect!

I would have liked to see Brienne finish Jaime's page and then start her own, which would have made the scene a more direct parallel with Jaime's own encounter with the Book of Brothers. I think I agree with you that I would have liked to see the women of "Game of Thrones" get more time and space in the final episode, but I didn't necessarily need things to end differently. I don't think it's not strong for Arya's story to end with her sailing off in search of adventure: in their own ways, both she and Jon are defining roles for themselves that they previously couldn't have imagined would be available to them. To me, that's a victory. And it's a real sign of strength to recognize that you don't fit into an existing order and to create something entirely new for yourself.

Was it necessary for Danerys to be murdered to stop her ascension to the Iron Throne? Could she have been taken captive and held accountable for what could ostensibly be considered 'war crimes,' though I don't think this was a concept in the realm?

I suspect it's hard to take a captive who has a dragon. And Jon, Davos and Tyrion didn't have the forces in the city who would allow them to enforce that decision; presumably, Sansa's forces don't arrive until slightly later, even given the weird ways time was operating in the show at this point. 

Are we given any info on the relative brainpower of a dragon? Dog? Dolphin? Bonobo? Are we supposed to regard them as some kind of super-mutated falcon or is there more consciousness there?

Totally unclear!

A better ending would’ve been to have the Dany kill John and the others and continue on with her quest to be the ruler of the world. Why didn’t that happen?

This is genuinely the first time I've seen someone defend that proposition, especially after Dany's decision to burn King's Landing. I'd love to hear more about why you feel that way!

Have you seen/heard an explanation for the near universal opinion that GoT rushed the ending? With so much talk of sequels they obviously want to stay in the GoT business, so why whiff the finish in order to start up an onslaught of prequels? Were the actors at the end of their contracts, so prices would skyrocket? Didn't seem to phase the producers of Big Bang or Friends. Was everyone just exhausted and ready to turn out the lights?

My understanding is that Benioff and Weiss wanted to move on to their next project, which was a "Star Wars" movie, and that they insisted they could land the thing. Obviously, they were wrong.

Alyssa, You took a question last week about the Natasha Tynnes story that you found a little harsh. (I also want to note that I also asked a question about writing about a gay character on Schitt's Creek you complimented). In it, I mentioned that I think Tynnes suffered too much blowback and people attached too much of a race component (as is often the case). I then mentioned that the most bothersome people on my metro commute (in terms of playing loud music without speakers) are black. Let's take a step back from racism and call it an observation. If you want, you can guide me what to do with that an observation. I assume someone's called racist for making an assumption, I'm just saying my personal experience is that the people who bother me most on my metro commute by disobeying the rules about loud music are black. I find it problematic. What should I do?

I think you should treat those people as individuals, and avoid over-generalizing or focusing on their race or ethnicity.

Continuing the recent GoT analytical trend that compares what is with what could have been, contrast your review of the finale with that of Hank Stuever. You have a long way to go before your critiques come close to the quality of his.

I admire Hank and have learned a great deal from him! I'm not sure what your purpose was in coming over here if you think I'm such a dreadful critic, but have a lovely day!

Longer-winded version of the question I submitted earlier: I’ve decided the abruptness of the reveal about Daenerys’ true nature succeeded as a cautionary tale about charismatic revolutionaries in general. So I’m curious where you ended up on this. On the one hand, virtually all of us felt cheated by the abruptness of the reveal that Daenerys was insane like her dad. Not just “went mad at the end,” but evidently was always mad. (Depending on how things played out, it still seems to me that she had the potential to transcend her DNA. But for someone like that, going berserker-postal will always be a latent option.) But this is exactly how it often plays out in real life. Some charismatic revolutionary comes along, saying all the right words about liberating the people and so on. Even those closest to them find their sincerity convincing, in part because they truly believe every single word they say. Then, after seizing power, it turns out they are ruthless megalomaniacs who respond to criticism --- even from those they once trusted -- with extreme paranoia and violence. There are always hints of the danger ahead, but we ignore them because we want to believe.

I actually feel like one of the things that's sitting a bit oddly with me a few days after the finale is that I'm not entirely sure the show suggests that Dany actually had some kind of psychic break. The speech she gives to the Unsullied and Dothraki, and the orders she's giving in the aftermath of the Battle of King's Landing are all express a coherent, if repulsive, worldview, as does her decision to burn King's Landing itself. Her discussion with Jon may be wishful, but it doesn't read as entirely delusional. All of which is to say, I think your point may be correct: Dany had the form of an inspiration figure, but no clear program of social reform outside of what was emotionally fulfilling for her personally. I think one thing the show might have done differently is focused on the hardening of both Grey Worm and Missandei, the people who were closest to Dany, and who were most personally invested in her mission of conquest. Those relationships were obviously important to her, but they were also an indication of Dany's influence and how her worldview was enforced and propagated, and giving them short shrift felt like a bit of a missed opportunity. 

Poor Drogon- he lost his whole family and is now all alone. I kinda wish Drogon had torched Jon- that would have been fitting, I think: both characters who had been set up to be the heroes of the show die. Where did the Dothraki go? They just up and left? Peacefully? Why on earth would Bronn be made Master of Coin? He had to ask Tyrion what loans were a few seasons back! I wish that Dany would have sat on the throne- just for a second! Grey Worm just standing their letting Tyrion and the other Lords/Ladies decide what's going to happen next felt off. Overall, I think they ended it decently compared to what my expectation were after the mess that has been season 8.

I feel like the show ended in roughly the place I'd predicted, if it was headed for a happy ending, which created a weird sense of disconnection. I felt satisfied with the events as such, but the execution itself felt so oriented towards fan service that it ended up making the whole thing feel a little cheap and light.

Now that the King has been defeated, why do they need a Nights watch or a wall? Where did all those Dothraki come from at the end?

UNCLEAR!

I believe the rumor is HBO is plotting four potential GOT spinoffs? I wonder if that influenced the ending we received? If the books will end with a lot more characters dead, or at least with much less open-ended endings?..... Regardless, I hope we now get: 1. Prequel (fine) 2. Arya Goes West - Is whats west of Westeros actually Eastern Asshai? We can pray! Arya the Shadow Binder!! 3. The Continuing Adventures of Jon and Tormund - the ultimate goth/extrovert buddy team up! 4. Drogon - The last dragon wanders the planet haunted by his lost brothers and little platinum haired soulmate, setting wrongs to right. Seeking acceptance, love, and a few hundred juicy goats. Kind of like a 70's incredible hulk show, without the dull Bruce Banner parts.

George R.R. Martin has been fairly unequivocal that none of the characters we know will appear in any of the spinoffs. Mostly I hope Maisie Williams ends up starring in a Beka Cooper series, but that could just be me.

Thank you for all the work you put into reviewing GOT over the years. I first discovered you (and Maureen Ryan) while searching GOT reviews way way back. It has been a joy to follow your take on this show through the years, and to be exposed to your other projects. I look forward to following you in the years to come! thank you again!!

Thank you so much! It's been such a joy to have this community, and I'm very much looking forward to whatever it is we decide we all want to dig into next.

Do we know he can't have kids, for a fact? Seem to be a lot of assumptions here. Also, a kicking of the can down the road so there can be another war of successive after Bran dies seems not a great solution, although perhaps Sansa would be sufficiently powerful to take over all the kingdoms. #teamsansa

SO many assumptions there, though of course, the world in which "Game of Thrones" is set is not one with noticeably enlightened attitudes about disability.

All good things must come to an end --- even our favorite shows on television. That being said, wondering what your take is on the extreme levels of expectation, and yes, pressure, that we place on the final episode of the shows we love. We want the end to be amazing and something we will remember forever, but more often than not, they A) Don't end the way we'd write/want them to, and B) End up disappointing us. (see Selnfeld, GOT, The Sopranos, etc.)

This is an excellent question, and one I'll tackle in this week's newsletter.

I can't help but feel that they really did wrong by Cersei and Danaerys, I was hoping for more interesting and consequential story lines for them both this season. At least Sansa is the Queen of the North.

I feel okay about Daenerys' storyline, but I agree with you about Cersei's, mostly because I absolutely could not stand Euron Greyjoy as a character and every moment he was on screen made me itch.

After watching the finale last night, I went back and rewatched the GoT pilot episode to get a feel of how the show had changed. In doing so, I realized that one of the most disappointing aspects of the past 2 seasons (aside from their abbreviated length) is the loss of the atmosphere and tone that had defined the show. Early GoT was slow, gritty, and medieval to its core. There was much more gore and brutality, and many characters did things that we moderns find unsettling or even horrifying (Dany's treatment by her brother, Ned Stark personally beheading a night watch deserter). There was magic, but it was mysterious and mystical and, at times, scary. I had forgotten how scary the white walkers were in the early seasons. The characters seemed limited by their society, their technology, and their place in the world, in both big and small ways (it took Robert Baratheon a month to ride to Winterfell!). All of this really differentiated the show from high fantasy stories like Lord of the Rings. And yet in the final two seasons it felt like Benioff and Weiss decided to turn GoT into a high fantasy setting with less horror, less grit, less mystery, fewer limitations on the characters, and more modern sensibilities around morality and culture. They also seemed to decided to downplay or eliminate many of the magical elements of the show, and the ones they kept lost most of their mystical edge. It's not just that there was less worldbuilding in the final seasons, but that the world suddenly seemed like a different one than had been built in seasons 1-6. Do you feel the same way?

I do! I'd also add that the world just...shrunk. We don't have a sense of what's happening in Essos. We've lost a sense of how the remnants of the great houses are coping and making and breaking alliances. We have no idea how the countryside is faring. In the final council scene, I realized the series basically completely flashed past Robert Arryn, who apparently got kind of hot, and skipped over the new Prince of Dorne. We basically got down to King's Landing, Winterfell, and North of the Wall. 

Much of the last 12 episodes of GoT had some of the most artistically beautiful cinematography on TV. But now that we've made it thru the finale it appears to be what many of us suspected, a superficial coating to gloss over the lack of narrative driving what the show was so good at in its first several seasons. I get that all things have to end, it just seems like either D&D got tired and built a world too big that while they may have know how they needed it to end, they didn't know either 1) how to get there in a way that did justice to the characters stories, 2) how to get there with a budget that only allowed 12 more episodes for seasons 7 & 8 or 3) how to get there in a satisfying manner before they have to go work on Star Wars. Also - looking back on how harried the last 6-12 episodes were, maybe they could have gotten a little more narrative in with a little less slow motion dramatic walking - like Arya to the white horse - that turned out to mean absolutely nothing. Just an observation.

Noted! I think a lot of folks agree with you.

How much are we to read into Drogon's melting the Iron Throne in regard to what it says about the intellectual heft of dragons? From a metaphorical standpoint, it's clear that the Iron Throne, or the pursuit of it, can be seen as the reason Drogon's mother is dead. Does the dragon have enough understanding to realize that John did the right thing and saved countless lives by killing an emerging tyrant? If he understands that John killed Danny, then why wouldn't he kill John in turn? We certainly know that dragons feel emotion and that Drogon loved his mother, but he's also a pretty brutal killing machine.

Yeah, it's all a little bit silly.

On its own I was okay with the GOT finale and there were some really nice positives throughout the episode. The shot of Dany walking forward to address her people as Queen where Drogon's wings seemed to spread from her back was nothing short of iconic. Sansa claiming independence for the North and wearing the crown was extremely satisfying, albeit, as you mentioned, too brief. Brienne leading the Kingsguard is terrific. I would say it was a satisfactory, not great, ending for the least common denominator of fans. For those who count themselves as a bit more devoted, there were just so many questions left unanswered that it's hard not to be frustrated. Game of Thrones is, arguably, the most influential fantasy story of, at least the last decade thanks to the TV run, possibly longer for the readers. Yet in the end the show seemed to abandon so much of the mythology that makes it a great fantasy saga, it's just hard not to be completely baffled. That said - going into the finale, little of this surprises me, as D&D have long ago abandoned most of the mythology unless it served as a convenient plot point to shuffle their breakneck pace along. Just off the top of my head: What green eyes will Arya shut? Did the Azor Ahai prophecy just not mean anything? Did the Lord of Light just peace out after the White Walkers demise? What did Bran becoming the Three Eyed Raven actually accomplish? And please don't get me started on the point of Jon Snow being Aegon Targaryen. As far as I can tell, the only reasons it mattered that Jon was a Targaryen are: 1. To give him the inner moral justification to kill Dany because he knows he would rule differently. But then he doesn't. 2. To allow him to walk by Drogon to accomplish #1. 3. To allow him to not get burned by Drogon after accomplishing #1. 4. To gross us out with more incest. I dunno...I guess it's a little soon to get a good sense of the overall feeling of how it all works together yet, but I suspect the farther we get from the finale, the worse the last 12 episodes will look as part of the whole. Kind of a shame.

One of the reasons I'm eager to see Martin's final novels, if he ever finishes them, is because I'm curious to see what he intended for those plot threads, even if they weren't integral to the story's endgame.

I mean trying to think of it outside the review world? Is "from the creators of Game of Thrones" a good selling point? Can the actors lead a production? Will it get awards? Will "it's 'Game of Thrones,' but in a..." make a good elevator pitch?

I think that last is a very interesting question. I was extremely excited for Marlon James' "Black Leopard, Red Wolf," which was heavily billed as "an African 'Game of Thrones'," but which made me question what the publicists meant by that. It was definitely big in scope, and it had horror elements, but it didn't have the shifting perspectives that I think is one of the hallmarks of "Game of Thrones," nor necessarily the sociological detail. I think one of the ways we'll see the legacy of "Game of Thrones" get hashed out is in these sorts of indirect allusions that tell us a lot about what people thought "Game of Thrones" was.

Are you planning on doing a rewview of "Running with Beto" documentary on HBO? Not specific to this documentary, but is it hard to review political movies? I mean the people who dislike a politician aren't any more or less legitimate for your review to consider than those who actively support that politician. I mention it because I read a review from a certain entertainment journalist knocking this documentary because he didn't seem to like the politician, but I wasn't coming for this guy's own political stuff and didn't tell me much about the movie itself.

I'm planning to watch it, but I may not review it, since one of my cousins was a producer on it. Can't risk family gatherings getting awkward!

But on the subject of political documentaries, I generally manage to think of the politicians as characters, and to judge the movies based on how well they illuminate their protagonists and the bigger ideas at stake. That makes it easier to review them; it's not a matter of whether they help or hurt candidates I care about or despise. Like any other story, it's about how well they're told.

Aren't the Maesters kind of obsolete if Bran exists or would be if Bran ever told anybody anything?

Unlike Google, not everybody in the Six Kingdoms will have access to Bran, so I think Maesters might be more efficient.

What do you think of this theory about that Azor Ahai prophecy?: yes, it's Arya, who defeated the Night King. But it's also Beric, with his sword of flames who needed to save her in that corridor, and it's Melisandre, who should definitely be sung of in story and song as Lightbringer, with her fires for the swords and the moat. And yes, it's Dany, under that flaming star with the smoke and the dragons born of stone [without whom they'd all be dead already, as Missandei pointed out], and it's Theon, born in salt, who bought those crucial extra minutes of distraction under the tree. And it's the Hound too, with his own smoke and flame, because that's actually whom Beric was trying to save by saving Arya. And with the need to kill the second Big Evil, Dany the genocidal tyrant, Jon finally is in there too, as the prince that was promised who plunges his sword in the heart of his beloved. -- Melisandre's original, terrible mistake was trying to force the prophecy to be about one person, but prophecies are tricky things and this one was always going to be fulfilled through relationship. It takes a village [and more] to defeat the cataclysmic challenges of Ice (the Night King) and Fire (Dany & Drogon).

Oh, I like that!

Just curious if you ever heard the quote, "Pourvu que ça dure"? The origin is Napoleon's victories were being evoked by Napoleon's mother with her saying (in a thick Corsican accent), "Pourvu que ça dure!" I guess the translation into English would be "hope it lasts" or "if only it lasts" and I grew up near the border (no the other border) and French Canadian politicians loved invoking this quote from Napoleon's mother when asked about their popularity or they're riding up after an electoral or legislative victory.

Hah, I hadn't, but I love that fatalism! Sort of a Canadian "All men must die."

In the series premiere of "This Is Us," what gives away that one storyline is not the present-day, but actually 1980 is when a man lights a cigarette inside a hospital maternity ward. "Mad Men" loved its smoking. I was wondering if our kids will have that with eyes glued screens. People were always on screens all the time. It's so weird. Just imagine the conversation going similar to the smoking: "Didn't you guys know how bad that was for your health?" "I mean, kinda? We learned more latter on."

That's an interesting question. It's both true that smoking is an easy way to signal a specific historical period, but it also conveys a certain kind of style. I don't think staying glued to smartphones creates the same kind of vibe, so we'll see to what extent they're used to locate viewers in time in the future.

Thanks for last week's warning about the flood of GoT questions. I skipped through the column almost entirely when I read it as a transcript. As one of the few people in the US who has never seen a single episode of GoT, I would ask that you devote a limited amount of time to GoT this week. Or, put a disclaimer at the beginning of the chat saying that it will be mostly Got, and I can check in again next week. Thanks.

Your wish was answered! As it has been on previous weeks!

I've been reading that Elizabeth Olsen auditioned for Daeneryrs. How much do you think that recasting would've made overall?

Hmmm, I don't know that I feel like Olsen is a tremendously more varied actress, so maybe not much? It's hard to imagine these counterfactuals after the fact, though I admit I have spent a certain amount of time wondering how I might have felt about this season of "Game of Thrones" if Richard Madden, who played Robb Stark, had been cast as Jon Snow.

What is it with the trope of women getting "too much" power and then deciding to use it to kill everyone? Dark Phoenix, Willow, Danerys, Vanya Hargreeves (from the Umbrella Academy). It's really getting to be pretty disturbing that there seems to be this underlying fear of powerful women in our culture.

"Getting" to be disturbing? I think this idea has been around for years, and it's one of the reasons characters like Sansa Stark, Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel resonate so strongly with viewers. I don't always respond to these specific heroic figures, but in general, I think it's absolutely the case that we have an enormously long way to go to convince people that women can hold a lot of power without going completely bananas. (Of course, the emotional, mercurial presidency of Donald Trump hasn't done anything to convince people that men shouldn't be given lots of power.)

"The Big Bang Theory." I thought a bit of it was great, much of it was good, but I have an issue with the way Penny's pregnancy was handled, as she'd made clear many times she didn't want kids. It seemed awfully disrespectful of her. OTOH, on "Young Sheldon," the adult Sheldon's voiceover once mentioned how he'd changed after he had children (plural), so it might have been a more satisfying conclusion if Amy had gotten pregnant following the Nobel notification, while Penny instead earned a promotion at work (cf. Roz on "Frasier," when the writers wisely decided NOT to marry her off to Frasier, or anyone else, in the series finale).

By contrast, I was hugely relieved that "Brooklyn Nine-Nine," which did an episode this season about how Jake Peralta (Andy Samberg) was anxious about having kids, didn't end the season with his wife, Amy Santiago (Melissa Fumero) getting pregnant. As someone who recently went through the stages of getting married, getting pregnant, and having a kid, I understand why television storytellers default to these milestones. For a lot of people, it's a logical succession! But I appreciate it when showrunners stick to what's true to their characters' natures rather than defaulting to some sort of artificial norm.

About all I can say for the conclusion was that it was about the best they could have come up with given the mess they created on the way, which is marginally ironic given it's the same issue GRRM faces with the books and the area they got the most praise for cleaning up. After listening to Dany's justifications, though, I realized something else: D&D never quite figured out the role of the small folk, and it hurt in a lot of ways. I don't think anyone wrote about it at the time, but if you step back and think about it, murdering the High Sparrow should have had massive consequences among that group. If they'd dealt with that, it would have in turn allowed for much earlier development of the her heel turn - Dany either cared about them or she didn't. Instead, I'm still not quite sure what her liberation theology meant.

Oh, that's a smart point. I think that in lieu of figuring that out, they simply eliminated the population both as a plot point, and literally, in the case of Dany's attack on King's Landing. Having another episode or two to demonstrate how she wasn't connecting with the common people, and how her dragons inspired terror rather than excitement, could have gone a long way towards contextualizing her transition--at least, further than her complaining that the people of Westeros weren't liberating themselves the same way the people of Slaver's Bay did.

I think it's less about race, and more about socioeconomic class. Tynnes no doubt can eat a meal in a restaurant or in her office while working. The blue-collar Metro employee doubtless cannot afford the former, nor have the privilege of the latter, so was grabbing a meal as catch-can. I'd have cut the Metro employee some slack, regardless of race.

I think that's probably right.

Maybe the poster came after Weingarten's chat. Gene had the (silly) opinion that geek fandom was a sillier way to spend your time than pro football fans or, the saddest of all, fantasy football fans.

His loss!

I'm surprised no one else caught onto the fact that Tyrion named him Bran the Broken so that he could wear the admittedly mean nickname like armor so it can never be used to hurt him...

This is another place where the show might have built the callbacks to earlier seasons more strongly!

She did eat a raw horses heart early on. It was bigger than her head. And she was already substantially pregnant so, presumably, it required a lot of effort to finish.

I think that's Dothraki tradition, not madness, though maybe we should blame her transition on a Essos riff on Mad Cow Disease, rather than genetics?

Folks, I've got to move a piece through the editing process. Thank you, as always, for your thoughtful questions. For those of you who can't get enough, I'll be hosting the PostOpinions Twitter chat on Thursday. You can submit additional questions here, and I'll transfer over the questions I couldn't get to today. The chat will be off next Monday for Memorial Day, and will return on June 3.

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