Pop Between Realities, Home in Time for Tea Final (Game of Thrones)

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Well, something had to knock Doctor Who off its Hugo perch. And after competing in long form for its first season, Game of Thrones seems to have cemented itself as the Hugo frontrunner with back-to-back victories over Doctor Who in 2012 and 2013. 2012 was perhaps understandable: It wasn’t an extraordinary year for Doctor Who, and Game of Thrones did have “Blackwater,” which was a stunningly good Peter Dinklage vehicle of an episode. Even in 2013, you can possibly criticize the strategy of having Doctor Who go in with Day of the Doctor, Name of the Doctor, An Adventure in Time and Space, and The Five-ish Doctors as possibly weaker than the strategy of just chucking “The Rains of Castamere” up.

But “The Rains of Castamere” is also an episode worth looking at because it gets at the way in which much of the talk about what makes Game of Thrones good is desperately silly. Because essentially all “The Rains of Castamere” has to recommend it is that it has a lot of really shocking character deaths in it. This is, to be fair, part of the show’s brand. Its first big, iconic cultural moment was the killing of Ned Stark, Sean Bean’s character, late in the first season after having previously presented him as the show’s main character (which, to be fair, he was up until his decapitation). And this is, if we’re being honest, one of the great deaths in television history.

But the reason that it worked wasn’t that it was a shock death. Shock deaths are, frankly, overused on television. What worked so well about killing Ned Stark was that it, in one shot, altered the status quo for every other character in the show. It was a plot twist that actually changed things. Which you can’t really say about the famed Red Wedding of “The Rains of Castamere,” which butchers a significant chunk of the cast, but which mostly has the effect of either preventing things that would be been interesting from happening (destroying any possibility of Tyrion and Sansa coming to understand each other, keeping Arya wandering around) or terminating plotlines that weren’t really working that well anyway (Robb and Catelyn). It was, frankly, a cheap move, and for my money, one of the weaker episodes of the third season.

So if not its body count, what is so good about Game of Thrones? It’s tempting to say a word I’m usually quite down on: worldbuilding. But instead I’ll go with “structure.” Game of Thrones is the most lusciously structured show on television. Under the hood, it is almost ostentatious in its simplicity: it’s epic fantasy structured as a soap opera, using the same basic trick of Doctor Who whereby you sell the sense of the epic with one or two tremendously expensive effects shots per episode, thus covering the fact that every other scene is just two British actors sitting in a room talking.

But where the show really sparkles is in its use of editing and structure within an episode. The overall progression of the plot is demonstrably that of a soap opera - every episode has big moments for one or two plots and then several scenes that incrementally advance a selection of the remainder, with characters moving on and off stage as needed. This poses something of a difficulty in terms of structuring individual episodes, however. The scope of Game of Thrones quickly spirals to where there’s simply too much going on for episodes to have straightforward A and B plots. Occasionally a single storyline might dominate an episode, but other times episodes will draw their titles from single five or ten minute scenes. This means that an episode doesn’t get to have a plot, as such.

Instead each episode becomes an exercise in sketching the shape of the fictional world. An episode of Game of Thrones is a portrait of Westeros - a declaration of what the world looks like today. The show builds to this over the course of, in effect, its entire first season, beginning with the portrayal of one event in one castle and then splitting the characters up and sending them towards the various corners of the world so that, by advancing their individual plots, the show gradually shows more and more of that world.

The meat of an episode is thus largely about the transitions between scenes and the symbolic resonances they set up. Let’s take a specific example - “Walk of Punishment,” the episode that aired on April 14th, 2013, one day after Cold War, with which it shared the services of Tobias Menzies as Edmure Tully/Lieutenant Stepashin. The episode has fourteen scenes, and almost all of them have clear thematic transitions between them, with several conspiring to make larger points about the plot.

The episode opens with a Robb Stark scene that ends with Robb talking about how well Tywin Lannister is doing in the War. That prompts a cut to a Tywin scene, in which Jaime is discussed. Sure enough, Jaime is the focus of the third scene. But after this things get more symbolic. That scene features Jaime warning Brienne that when they get to camp she’s going to be raped, and advising her to let them rape her because otherwise they’ll kill her, and admitting that if he were in her position, he’d force them to do just that, which is why he’s glad he’s not a woman. The fourth scene then jumps to Arya as a not-quite-a-prisoner of the Brotherhood Without Banners. In other words, we move between two scenes of captured female warriors - an equation that gets paid off nearly two full seasons later when Arya and Brienne’s stories actually coincide.

The next few transitions are among female characters: the fifth scene features Catelyn Stark, Arya’s mother, followed by one featuring Talisa, Robb’s wife. This is followed in turn by Jon Snow, Robb’s supposed half-brother. Which makes for a series of scenes that move around Robb, leaving him as a sort of visible absence. Again, this thematic storytelling serves a larger role: Robb is ultimately not really a presence in his own right, but a marker for the absence of his father. Ultimately the story doesn’t cohere around him, and instead he’s slowly making his way to the Red Wedding. By moving around his absence, the show is quietly revealing the real shape of its world.

The Jon Snow scene does another transition along the axis of “mention a character, cut to the character,” going to Jeor Mormont, Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch (at least until he gets stabbed to death next episode), arriving at Craster’s Keep, where Craster jealously keeps women as property and sacrifices his male children to the White Walkers. Craster’s is, unsurprisingly, depicted as the most miserable place imaginable, and Craster talks of serving the true gods, giving a sense of almost Lovecraftian horror to the White Walkers.

This leads to a transition whose substance is only clear in hindsight - to Theon, captured by (at this point) unknown forces, and seemingly being set free by a character we’ll eventually learn is Ramsay Snow, bastard son of Roose Bolton. It is only in light of these facts that the transition makes sense. The Boltons are an ancient house that trace their lineage back to the First Men, and are longstanding rivals of the Starks known for flaying their enemies alive. This sort of grotesque cruelty quietly reflects Craster’s actions, expanding our sense of the White Walkers to become a sort of fundamental rot setting into the North - an expanded definition of winter.

The next transition hinges entirely on this symbolic resonance, as it jumps to Stannis and Melisandre, the latter of whom is talking about going on a journey to find men with king’s blood who can be used as sacrifices to gain power for Stannis. This is an interesting transition - on one level it follows the theme established at Craster’s of sacrifice and barbarism. But it moves from the White Walkers threatening from the north to a barbarism that comes in from the east, and from a god of ice to a god of fire. Tacitly, then, the extremes of the two physical ends of the world are thematically linked in this regard.

This in turn allows for a transition to Danerys’s arc, since now we’re in the territory of Essos. That scene ends with an exchange regarding the oft-heard phrase “valar morghulis,” which means “all men must die,” with Daenerys noting to Missandei that “we are not men,” which sets up a transition back to Tyrion via the image of a prostitute.

The remaining two scenes are less well thematically linked: another Theon scene, and the resolution of the Jaime/Brienne plot. But this is, at least, sufficient to demonstrate how the show works. And it is worth pointing out specifically that this is linked closely to the show’s status as an adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s novels, which are downright pathological in their attentiveness to detail about the setting and the sense of structure. It is hardly being spoiler-heavy to point out that a story that has dragons on one side of the world and horrific ice monsters on another is headed to a fairly inevitable resolution. And it’s telling that one of the first questions Martin asked Weiss and Benioff when they pitched the television series was the identity of Jon Snow’s mother, a fact that’s not revealed in the books, but a structurally inevitable consequence of the fact that Daenerys is one of the story’s starting characters despite not initially seeming a part of the family whose sundering begins events.

But this understanding of Game of Thrones requires that we look at it as more than simply a narrative about characters. Like The Ribos Operation, the world of Game of Thrones moves according to recurring symbolic logic, with the same oppositions and themes playing out on large and small levels. (A favorite theme is moving between the games and backstabbing of the lords to the material misery inflicted upon the peasants, for instance.) Nobody is just a character with personality traits, nor, to be fair, just an empty piece of symbolism. Instead character and symbolism are so intertwined as to be indistinguishable from one another, and the story is built up out of the incredible density of resonance and implication that this constructs.

In other words, Game of Thrones and Doctor Who are, in 2013, engaged in the same basic sort of storytelling, only with Game of Thrones taking the approach of showing one setting in extravagant detail instead of showing a multitude of settings in brief sketches. But the basic approach and the buildup of dense symbolism is largely the same. The difference is that Game of Thrones offers a much higher level of reliability in this. Both it and Doctor Who produced the same number of episodes in 2013, and while one might fairly and accurately claim that Day of the Doctor was better than “The Rains of Castamere,” the truth is that Game of Thrones was the more steadfast show, turning up week after week with consistent dense quality while Doctor Who was busy fluctuating between Hide and Journey to the Center of the TARDIS.

So in many regards, the Hugos got it wrong twice: first in saying that Doctor Who deserved four nominations to Game of Thrones’s one, and then in saying that Game of Thrones had the better single episode. And yet on the whole, it got it right. In 2012 and 2013, Doctor Who wasn’t driving the conversation of what sci-fi/fantasy television could do. Game of Thrones had honed its toolset to something more inventive, more effective, and, most weeks, more interesting, making the “metafiction as default” approach of Moffat’s writing into a lean and efficient machine for spinning out an increasingly sweeping story without ever losing the heart of character drama that drives it.

Of course, looking at the long history of times we’ve done this dance, we can also phrase this in another way, which is that Game of Thrones put Doctor Who back in the position from which many of its most interesting moments emerge: a show with something to prove that has to respond to the larger culture around it. And while much of what makes Game of Thrones work is specific to its weird and heady mix of a hyper-detailed fantasy novel, its soap opera structure, and its Ribosian sense of scale, the challenge of elevating the formal and conceptual complexity that’s characterized Moffat’s work so far to a system of ruthlessly efficient quality is now very much open.

Comments

elvwood 2 years, 9 months ago

I've been to Craster, and it's really not that bad. It's famous for its crabs, which are tasty.

Oh, and you might want to take a look at Rage of Thrones - it's NSFW and sufficiently in-yer-face that it actually made me and my daughter lean back from the TV, but makes it's point. And you can never have enough Axis of Awesome.*

* Disclaimer: You can have enough Axis of Awesome.

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elvwood 2 years, 9 months ago

Makes its point, of course. Curse you, lack of editing tools!

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curlyjimsam750 2 years, 9 months ago

I think it's a good show but tends to stretch its storylines out over too many episodes; in particular, its trick of having the big climax of the season as the cliffhanger to the penultimate episode means that the final episodes tend to have to make do with stretching half an hour's worth of plot to fill an hour's worth of screentime. It's still very condensed compared to the books though ...

I wonder what the Moffat-is-a-terrible-misogynist people think of it? Judging by their reactions to some of Moffat's stuff you'd think they'd literally explode or something watching parts of this programme. It's a shame that what seems to be a pretty feminist series of novels by Martin has been affected by so much objectification of the female body (often without even a smidgen of plot relevance) and ignorance of the pretty horrible conditions faced by prostitutes in mediaeval society and today.

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Carey 2 years, 9 months ago

In 2012 and 2013, Doctor Who wasn’t driving the conversation of what sci-fi/fantasy television could do. Game of Thrones had honed its toolset to something more inventive, more effective, and, most weeks, more interesting, making the “metafiction as default” approach of Moffat’s writing into a lean and efficient machine for spinning out an increasingly sweeping story without ever losing the heart of character drama that drives it.

I'd take umbrage with this statement: give me the Potter-esque meta-fiction of The Angels Take Manhattan over the far more pedestrian Game of Thrones any day. I'm probably in a huge minority here, but for me the greatest piece of symbolism from Game of Thrones came in the first five minutes of its first episode, where a gate was opened. Very. Slowly.

Far from being unique, I'd say that Game of Thrones is very much a retread of other contemporary (albeit historically based) dramas such as Rome and the Tudors. For me, it's fantasy designed for people who don't like fantasy: anything silly has been removed, and its most fantastical elements (the dragons and ice monsters) are kept in the background as long as possible.

I also find it fascinating that in the ongoing "Moffat is sexist" debate few seem to bring up Games of Throne being far more sexist (even to the extent that it added a rape that wasn't in the books). I have to admit I haven't watched much past the first series: has anyone addressed the racism of blonde aryan beauty ruling those beastly coloured savages yet? And as to the undying threat of the other: Game of Thrones really does sum up the paranoia at the heart of western civilisation at the moment. Politically there is little different between Game of Thrones and the remake of Battlestar Galactica.

Game of Thrones adds to the current cultural debates as an addition to the "DC New52-isation" that seems to believe that dismemberment and sexual violence equal adult. Anyone can be serious: it's easy. Give me silly any day. The Stature of Liberty as a possessed Weeping Angel stimulates my imagination far more than semi-feudal incest.

Sorry to anyone who likes Game of Thrones. It just didn't agree with me.

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unnoun 2 years, 9 months ago

...But you're getting a Community guest post. I know you are.

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Neo Tuxedo 2 years, 9 months ago

I wanted to like A Song of Ice and Fire, but about a third of the way into A Clash of Kings, the amount of fuckery that was being heaped on Arya got to be too much for me (as per my comments on How to Read The Last War in Albion).

That said, I've worked out a way to reconcile the popularity of Game of Thrones with my Frankian belief that humans really do want to do good; it's the only major media property advancing the brutal but all-too-plausible proposition that some problems have gotten so bad as to no longer admit of solution, and some problems were never going to be solved in the first place because the structure of the society to which they're happening precludes that society enacting any real solution.

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John Anderson 2 years, 9 months ago

While I agree with the broad sweep of your points, I can't agree that "anything silly has been removed". My wife and I find Game of Thrones *egregiously* silly. We got about 40 minutes into one of the season two episodes and she asked, "We're forty minutes in and there's been no tits. Did they not get the memo this week?" Although barely an episode goes by without me snorting with derision, we find it oddly compulsive.

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Aylwin 2 years, 9 months ago

Rambling off-topic, as I haven't seen any of GoT or read any of aSoIaF...

give me the Potter-esque meta-fiction of The Angels Take Manhattan

Potter as in Dennis? I'm not sure that's the best analogy. I mean, yes, it's in the same medium, and plays with the same pulp/noir genre as The Singing Detective, but surely Potter's big metafictional thrust is about how the life we live is not like the fly-on-the-wall objectivity portrayed by most TV drama but is an experience in which fantasy and fiction are indissolubly meshed together with memory and with current sensory experience and outward behaviour, so that if you want to show what it's really like to be someone you have to show all these things and their overlaps and interactions with one another. Whereas TATM's business of your life actually being or becoming a story (fictional or historical), whose narrative shape works to constrain and trap you, is more what I would call Stoppard-esque.

Or do I just have the wrong Potter?

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Seeing_I 2 years, 9 months ago

I have been wondering, and hoping, if the Eruditorium would take on Community!

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J Mairs 2 years, 9 months ago

It really bugs me that the top-rated commentators on anything I see on, say... Facebook, for Doctor Who always seem to take "Moffat/Doctor Who is a misogynist" as the default position, but very rarely do I see "Game of Thrones" suffer the same treatment.

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Carey 2 years, 9 months ago

@Aylwyn

No, you have the right Potter. You may be right regarding Stoppard versus Potter (round 1). However, Potter was very interested in the control of the author over fiction (coming to its logical conclusion in the unfairly maligned "Black Eyes"*) where fictional characters exert control over their authors and viva versa. The Angels take Manhattan features an end that mirrors that of Black Eyes: in the way the characters take over authorship of their own fiction, much to the displeasure of their previous author (Potter in Black Eyes, the Doctor in Angels).

Potter was one of the few tv authors in the 70's and 80's would distort any genre he looked at with his own authorial voice, in much the same way that Doctor Who does, which Moffat takes further in Angels by having the ultimate trap for the Doctor being the monsters distorting the genre before he actually gets there to distort it himself.

As I said in my earlier post, the Angels takes Manhattan is a work of genius that a) deserves far more praise than stories that simply kill off a lot of cast members;** and b) being more than just "the one with the walking Statue of Liberty."

*To be fair, I may be more sympathetic to "Black Eyes" than others because I read the book before seeing Potter's own tv adaptation. Although I always thought that there was something fitting about a story about an author not being able to entirely control his work being made into a tv show with a director not being able to entirely control his work.

**This also points to a potential flaw in the "upping the stakes" storytelling of this type: Ned Stark's death is surprising, structurally a couple of series later the same trick is pulled off by upping the body count. the problem is, what's left after that?

I also have a problem with Games of Thrones because of its source: if you're going to base your drama on the War of the Roses then there's only one outcome: the wrong person wins at the end, and the mistakes of the period will take centuries to solve through great social upheaval. And the later will be very hard to pull off in the structure utilised for Game of Thrones.

If George R. R. Martin was clever, he'd have the ending of Game of Thrones mimic probably the best outcome of the end of the War of the Roses: a hundred years later the events influenced a playwright to make art that has not only survived the centuries, but changes how we look at the events themselves (to the point that the defacto view of Richard the Third is Shakespeare's, not actually histories).

But I doubt that will be the ending.

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Carey 2 years, 9 months ago

Gah! that should read default, not defacto. Curse auto correct and the lack of an edit button!

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Jarl 2 years, 9 months ago

That suggestion of the major difference between GoT and DW, that one focuses on intricately describing a setting and the other sketches a series of backdrops, reminds me of one of the few major classic series fanboy whinges that I think might have some merit, something you brought up in the review for The Long Game in a sympathetic capacity. Classic Who had the time and space (ah-ha, do you see what I did there) to really delve into a setting, even if at times it failed to take this opportunity. New Who, meanwhile, partly due to the format but primarily (I think) due to the emphasis placed on plot acceleration, doesn't really get the chance to do this.
I was trying to think of the most fleshed out settings in New Who that aren't, say, the Powell Estate or UNIT's London (or, for that matter, Torchwood's Cardiff). The only non-contemporary earth settings that really get a good depiction, where you get a sense of what the place looks like and how it operates, are Satellite Five/The Game Station and the hotel maze we might possibly call the titular God Complex. The first one abutts a more problematic setting, though. Satellite Five and the Game Station are supposed to be just locations within the Fourth Great And Bountiful Human Empire, which is only really defined by its absence. Without a coherent world to be settled within, it just becomes a crazy sci-fi parody of a TV studio, like one might see in a movie or TV show from the 1980s. Again, New Who avoiding worldbuilding (no compunctions here, being a DM and all) in order to focus on plot development, while only haphazardly linking the two.
... thinking about it, the Town Called Mercy actually isn't a terrible example of a setting, and also foreshadows the decently developed Town Called Christmas in both world details and plot elements. That's a good way to do it, use two settings to bounce off one another, so that they sorta fill each other's blanks in. I think that was the intention with New Earth, with both stories set there kiiinda dealing with drugs and disease, sorta, but the locations of New Earth that we visit are so different that, well, the Doctor's reaction in Bad Wolf is more appropriate regarding it than the Game Station, from the viewer's point of view.
You know what, cancel what I said before, there's also the Library. So there's another good setting, and the more I think about this, the clearer it is that these are mostly multi-parters. The Long Game, Bad Wolf, and Parting of the Ways, Silence in the Library and The Forest of the Dead, and A Town Called Mercy and Time of the Doctor as a thematic pair. Sister cities across time and space. Maybe the haters are right about this one particular and rather subjective thing, maybe the 45 minute structure just isn't well suited to building a world for the Doctor to land in and wreck up, not without another 45 minutes to give us a better sense of what he's wrecking up.

You bring up The Ribos Operation a lot, and I recently saw and enjoyed it. Despite the densely packed narrative of a Doctor Who episode these days, I have trouble imagining New Who attempting such an ambitious setting, even though with the expanded location budget they could nail the look of the place. There'd be no room for such indulgences as Scringestone. In fact, we'd probably not even get to hang out with Binro the Heretic very much. Such a terrible thought.

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Carey 2 years, 9 months ago

True, but at least The Guardian has noticed it:

http://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2014/apr/29/game-of-thrones-racism-sexism-rape

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Froborr 2 years, 9 months ago

Wouldn't Inspector Spacetime be more of a "You Were Expecting Someone Else" than a "Hop Between Realities"?

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unnoun 2 years, 9 months ago

I think I'd be much more willing to watch this show if House Paradox was around to spice things up.

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Aylwin 2 years, 9 months ago

However, Potter was very interested in the control of the author over fiction (coming to its logical conclusion in the unfairly maligned "Black Eyes"*) where fictional characters exert control over their authors and viva versa.

True. OK, so I was being a bit overly argumentative there. Also, I, er, haven't actually, um, seen Blackeyes, which probably doesn't help.

Still, though, as I'm being argumentative...

if you're going to base your drama on the War of the Roses then there's only one outcome: the wrong person wins at the end

I'm a bit startled by this. In general terms at the whole idea of a "right" or "wrong" winner in a struggle between broadly interchangeable factions of the same extended family and their broadly interchangeable adherents, over which of them got to eat the pie.

And in specific terms, in so far as there could be a "right" winner, at the apparent implication that Henry VII was the wrong person, while Richard III would have been the right one. I mean, quite apart from the whole murdering-his-nephews thing, Richard was a crap king. Despite being set up by his brother with vast wealth and the means to assemble a huge clientage, even before seizing the throne, he failed the most basic test of kingship - being able to get people to fight for you.

Whereas Henry was, from pretty much any relevant point of view except that of the aristocracy (because he frustrated their political ambitions, their wish to hold onto that part of the surplus they'd extracted from its producers, and their appetites for courtly showing-off and for warlike opportunities for posturing and pillage), a good king. That is, from the point of view of his family, obviously (no small consideration in terms of what was expected of kings, or powerful men generally), from that of the monarchy as an institution, and from that of anyone who benefited from not being killed, maimed, raped, robbed or rendered homeless due to another pointless war or to the violent excesses of some local landowner asserting his interests in old-school fashion in the absence of effective government.

However, on account of the large say that aristocrats had in shaping later perceptions, his prevailing image is of "that miserable money-grubbing bastard". Current historical tastes, with their tendency to valorise courtly glamour as against dry governmental competence, don't do him any favours either.

I find the current Richard III cult utterly mystifying. Like a cross between the Diana-spasm and women who fall in love with imprisoned serial killers. Especially its adherents' conviction that anyone who doesn't subscribe to it must think that Shakespeare's play is historical fact.

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peeeeeeet 2 years, 9 months ago

Well, I found the first episode odious enough that it's the only one I watched, and nothing I've heard or read since - including what Phil writes here - has tempted me to give it another chance (well, OK, the presence of Natalie Dormer has given me some pause for thought). So it's possible all the people who would take issue with that side of it just aren't watching. Doctor Who's sexism (and racism, for that matter) is, in my view, characterised by occasional unfortunate lapses rather than systemic issues so it's a hard show to junk just for that reason alone. Which doesn't mean it's not maddening when the lapses do happen.

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Gallifreyan_Immigrant 2 years, 9 months ago

I am going to miss this blog when it's over, just because of comments like these.

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Thomas Lawrence 2 years, 9 months ago

If any blog series can have multiple "final" entries, it's this one. Hell, by my count the whole of TARDIS Eruditorium is set to have at least three finales, one of which has already been published. And even that discounts any Capaldi-based continuations.

(Time of the Doctor, Day of the Doctor and Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead are all set to be (or already were) on-blog finales in slightly different senses, I reckon. And for the books, possibly Now My Doctor: Matt Smith will provide a fourth.)

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Neo Tuxedo 2 years, 9 months ago

quite apart from the whole murdering-his-nephews thing, Richard [...] failed the most basic test of kingship - being able to get people to fight for you. [...] I find the current Richard III cult utterly mystifying. Like a cross between the Diana-spasm and women who fall in love with imprisoned serial killers.

If you want to stop being so utterly mystified, I suggest you read Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time. If you've already read it and come away uncomprehending, then I literally don't know what to tell you.

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Thomas Lawrence 2 years, 9 months ago

I read the books first, and I never saw the Red Wedding, when it occurred, in quite the same way as Dr. Sandifer. Yes, in a sense it's the same trick with extra gore, but I think there's still a game that GRRM is playing with narrative expectations that necessitated the Red Wedding or something like it.

The construction of A Song of Ice and Fire as I see it is of continued and repeated subversions of the traditional fantasy epic. We are initially presented with Ned Stark as a seeming protagonist of a fairly traditional fantasy epic narrative: his nobility and honor are contrasted with the southern lords' worldly fecklessness, he discovers a dark secret at the heart of the kingdoms, he encounters villains and tribulations and we're all set for the big showdown. And then Ned is betrayed, his nobility and honor shown to be weakness in this brutal world, and his head gets cut off.

So the narrative consequences of that are rich and sustain the next book or so, but there's a narrative gravity towards Robb. Robb is effaced rather more in the books as a protagonist than he is on TV (he doesn't get chapters written from his point of view) which mutes this somewhat, but nevertheless the urge to recast the story in terms of a revenge epic is, I think strong. Having had our first expectations turned over, we come to assume the real story must now be how Robb is the true king to be restored and the death of his father the disordering incident which precedes his triumphant rise and vengeance over the Lannisters. Everything about the usual patriarchal Campbell tripe insists to us that this must be so; the son has inherited a destiny and mission from the father.

And then the Red Wedding. GRRM massacres not just some characters, but another traditional epic that might have been. and again we undercut the idea that being honorable is a good thing (Robb's only there because he's trying to make an apology to a man he slighted; had he not cared, he'd have lived) and also that an epic seeming-protagonist can only be undone by epic stakes (ultimately, Robb dies because he pissed off a grumpy old man by failing to marry his daughter, and the man was just extremely, disproportionately grumpy).

Ultimately the rules of the epic may reassert themselves, and either Dany or Jon or both together will rise up to defeat the ice monsters with dragons or whatever else, but by repeatedly playing games with our expectations in such a brutal fashion GRRM has managed to achieve an unsettling effect which makes even this eventual presumed resumption seem vastly more compelling.

For its part I think the TV series did the Red Wedding something of a disservice by placing it in the ninth episode slot. It's far more brutal coming as it does in the books, simply mid-way through the third book without overmuch by way of fanfare.

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encyclops 2 years, 9 months ago

I think I got through one episode of The Tudors. I used to adore Jonathan Rhys Meyer but I'm much less enchanted by cheekbones these days and good christ was he awful in that episode. So was everyone else. I think even if you don't like Game of Thrones you can at least admit that the acting is generally really, really good, something we talk about surprisingly little in these discussions about television programs. Sometimes you'd think we were just reading script books.

If you are interested in Dany's relationship with the Dothraki, and indeed with the other cultures in that part of the world, you definitely have to watch past the first series. A good part of her story at this point concerns the fact that she's an outsider ruling and conquering cities and cultures she's not a part of. She definitely brings some above-average qualifications to the job, or else the story would not be interesting, but to my eyes neither the books nor the show depict this as an unproblematic situation. The problems are the point.

If you didn't like the first season, I wouldn't encourage you to keep going, but I'd be wary of drawing conclusions about the remaining three based solely on the first.

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Matthew Celestis 2 years, 9 months ago

I stopped watching it once I got to the third season. I became disgusted by all the violence.

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encyclops 2 years, 9 months ago

Given how dull by comparison Robb is as a character, it's easy to forget that he's one of the contenders for the throne. So plotwise the Red Wedding of course has the effect of removing one more rival king in Stannis's path. It's noteworthy that Renly, Robb, and Joffrey are all killed by underhanded methods: magic, assassination, and poison. I don't think it's a cheap move at all, except insofar as "cheap moves" are how Stannis moves toward the throne. If Robb had been defeated in battle, for example, it would have broken the pattern that's developing.

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John 2 years, 9 months ago

Yes, what Aylwin said about the Wars of the Roses and Richard III. I genuinely do not understand how anyone could take the main point about the Wars of the Roses to be that "the wrong person wins at the end,". As that "the mistakes of the period will take centuries to solve through great social upheaval," I'm not even sure what that's supposed to mean. The Tudor period is extraordinarily successful at stabilizing England. There's obviously a big, twenty-five year hiccup relating to the Reformation in the middle (roughly 1533-1558), but the fact that England emerged on the other side just about as prosperous and internally peaceful as before shows, I think, the resilience of the Tudor settlement. And I have a very hard time seeing how the problems of the Stuart period have much of anything to do with the "mistakes," whatever those might be, of the Wars of the Roses.

What exactly would make anyone think that an England ruled by the House of York would have somehow even been substantially different from Tudor rule? What makes Richard III, or Edward IV for that matter, a more attractive king than Henry VII?

I'm generally skeptical of taking strongly partisan stances about long gone historical events, but the appeal of the House of York in the Wars of the Roses is just utterly mystifying.

Also: The Daughter of Time is a novel. It's not a first hand account of why Richard III is awesome. As far as I can tell, it's mostly a tendentious brief for the defense. The basic argument, so far as I can gather, is the utterly risible idea that Richard III doesn't have the face of a murderer. I'd say Aylwin's characterization of it as comparable to those people who fall in love with imprisoned serial killers sounds about right.

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John 2 years, 9 months ago

I still have a hard time understanding how anyone could read the books and think that Ned Stark is your classic epic hero. If we were reading the first book as an epic fantasy, Ned's role, and especially the fact that his children form half of the points of view in the book as a whole, suggests that he's not the epic hero. He's the epic hero's father. The obvious parallel that always comes to my mind is Leto Atreides in Dune. Ned's role in an epic fantasy is to do exactly what he does - to get killed in order to leave his children to carry on the story.

The reason his death is shocking is because so much of the first book doesn't play as an epic fantasy. In particular, Ned's chapters play as a detective story, with Ned more or less as Philip Marlowe gradually getting a clearer picture of the seamy underside of Westeros. Ned's dead is shocking partly because Martin plays a bunch of games to convince us he won't kill him, but also because the "White knight in a trenchcoat" type detective character always exposes the plot and lives to see another day. It has nothing to do with fantasy or epic tropes, in which Ned is obviously dead meat.

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John 2 years, 9 months ago

Balon Greyjoy is also assassinated, although I suppose he's still alive in the show for some reason.

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encyclops 2 years, 9 months ago

My unexamined hunch is that Dune is an extremely useful point of comparison for Game of Thrones, and my unverified suspicion is that it's a major influence. Your Leto comparison is on point, although interestingly Dany is Paul -- the young white hero with mystical abilities who goes to live among the "Middle Eastern" nomadic tribes and rides a wyrm.

To people who can't say "Game of Thrones" without adding, "oh, man, he keeps killing people off!" I point out that each novel is in the neighborhood of 1000 pages, so you get somewhere around 2-4 average-sized novels' worth of time with most of the major characters, and often more than that. This is a LONG story about a world full of war. It's amazing some of these characters live as long as they do.

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encyclops 2 years, 9 months ago

I can't remember if he's alive or not at this point in the show. I think not? but my eyes glaze over whenever something happens with the Greyjoys so I'm not a reliable witness. Regardless, yes, if his leech isn't fried by now it presumably will be soon.

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Carey 2 years, 9 months ago

The Daughter of Time was a genius subversion of the mystery novel: applying the rules of the genre to historical fact. While fiction, much of it is based on research, the most interesting of which is that much of what is known about Richard the third is second hand information originally published in the reign of his successor, Henry VII. It also applies the well used detective maxim: "Who benefits?" to the murders of the Princes in the Tower, and comes to the uncomfortable conclusion that it actually made Richards position worse to dispose of them, and the person most likely to benefit (because of how far down he was in the line of succession to the crown) was actually Henry. As to the Tudors being extraordinarily successful? It was a police state riven during much of its middle period by discord from the change to Protestantism.

For all the glibness of my phrasing, any end of the Game of Thrones, if it reflects the source material, would see a relatively unlikely candidate assuming the throne and cementing his legitimacy through marriage and murder (see how many Lancastrians were put to death during Henry's reign); his son causing havoc through his marital decisions; and his granddaughter flaming religious persecution and murdering over two hundred for their beliefs.

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Neo Tuxedo 2 years, 9 months ago

"As far as I can tell, [The Daughter of Time is] mostly a tendentious brief for the defense. The basic argument, so far as I can gather, is the utterly risible idea that Richard III doesn't have the face of a murderer."

As far as I can tell from that statement, you found it too tendentious to keep reading past a certain point. Grant is drawn into studying Richard by the portrait, but once he gets into Richard's correspondence, and what was written to and about Richard during his lifetime, he sees there the man he describes in Chapter Fourteen:

"That charming men of great integrity had committed murder in their day Grant knew only too well. But not that kind of murder and not for that kind of reason. The kind of man whom Dr Gairdner had drawn in his Life and History of Richard III would commit murder only when his own personal life had been bouleversé by some earthquake. He would murder his wife for unfaithfulness suddenly discovered, perhaps. Or kill the partner whose secret speculation had ruined their firm and the future of his children. Whatever murder he committed would be the result of acute emotion, it would never be planned: and it would never be a base murder.
"One could not say: Because Richard possessed this quality and that, therefore he was incapable of murder. But one could say: Because Richard possessed these qualities, therefore he is incapable of this murder."

Before that, he recalls two different accounts of Richard's behavior toward Jane Shore:

"That hysterical scene during the Council in the Tower which was reported by More, that frantic outburst on Richard’s part against the sorcery that had withered his arm, had been against Jane Shore.
"The contrast between the reported scene, pointless and repellent even to a disinterested reader, and the kind, tolerant, almost casual air of the letter that Richard had actually written about her, was staggering.
"So help me, he thought again, if I had to choose between the man who wrote that account and the man who wrote that letter I’d take the man who wrote the letter, whatever either of them had done besides."

The portrait may be the starting argument, but it's hardly the basic argument. The basic argument, as I see it, is that the evidence against Richard is made of hearsay to a degree that would get it thrown out of any reputable court and most disreputable ones. As Carey points out in a comment that went up while I was writing this one, "much of what is known about Richard the third is second hand information originally published in the reign of his successor, Henry VII."

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timber-munki 2 years, 9 months ago

Personally the gratuitousness of season 3 got to me, particularly the repeated scenes of the torture of Theon that didn't really serve any purpose beyond continuing to show Ramsey Snow's sadism, which doesn't really go anywhere or offer any insight. Also the way the Red Wedding was shot. Personally I'd have had a shot of Caitlyn commenting on Roose wearing chainmail, a shot of the doors getting shut & bolted and the Bolton/Frey archers appearing on the balcony & loosing arrows into the Starks and then the aftermath. Pregnant characters getting literally gutted on screen is ultimately serving adolescent nastiness rather than the story.

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Matthew Blanchette 2 years, 9 months ago

I eagerly await the Orphan Black post...

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Aylwin 2 years, 9 months ago

This comment has been removed by the author.

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Aylwin 2 years, 9 months ago

@Neo Tuxedo: So you're saying that Team Richard actually is a case of people getting their view of history from fiction? Ironic.

@Carey: cementing his legitimacy through marriage and murder

So quite a lot like the Yorkists then. Except maybe the marriage part.

It was a police state riven during much of its middle period by discord from the change to Protestantism.

As opposed to the liberal-democratic-anarcho-socialist utopia, strangely untouched by the religious upheavals engulfing the rest of northern Europe, which would naturally have resulted if a different set of Edward III's fratricidal descendants had managed to hold onto the throne?

In general your view seems to be that all the bad things that happened in sixteenth century England (though none of the the good ones, obviously) were the result of one cousin and his descendants rather than another cousin and his putative descendants ending up with the spoils. Given that nothing in the recorded behaviour of the Yorkists is terribly indicative of a strong genetic predisposition to sainthood*, I'm not sure where you get that idea from. Except maybe from the remarkably widespread insular English belief that the Reformation and Counter-Reformation were Bad Things that happened because Henry VII's eldest son died young and his second son failed to have a son with his first wife and couldn't get an annulment because her loving nephew had the pope's balls in a vice. (Martin who?) Even then, I'm not sure how that sequence of events could be seen as being explicable by "the mistakes of the [Wars of the Roses]".

*Setting aside for rhetorical purposes the fact that saintliness was not really a helpful quality in a king anyway - after all, some would say that's partly how the whole mess got started in the first place.

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encyclops 2 years, 9 months ago

The torture took me aback too, but it seems as though you have to somehow demonstrate the journey Theon takes to get to Reek. Was there another way to make that transition plausible? Maybe so. Was there a more effective one? I'm not sure. I read the books, so I don't know if people who didn't would have found it a bit far-fetched without being shown rather than told.

As for the Red Wedding, sure, I suppose you could have implied that rather than depicting how ugly and personal it got. I feel pretty confident that you wouldn't have come out of it feeling the same way about the betrayal. I don't think the show would affect people the way it does if it were less graphic; there's a real danger of the violence coming to seem casual and routine by drawing a veil over its methods and effects, and I do think becoming desensitized to it would fail to serve the story.

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Aylwin 2 years, 9 months ago

Obviously, when I describe Edward III's descendants collectively as "fratricidal", I'm using the language loosely. Only the Yorkists were literally fratricidal.

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storiteller 2 years, 9 months ago

My husband loves the books, but between the fact that I don't like high fantasy very much (I enjoy Lord of the Rings, but not that much) and all of the rape and incest I've heard about, I have no desire to read them. Seeing as I've heard the TV show is worse...well, no.

I think the big difference is that the Moffat haters feel betrayed by their own favorite TV show. They came on as New Who fans who then hit a few seasons they really didn't like and blamed the show runner. If you never started watching a show in the first place, it can't break your heart.

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jane 2 years, 9 months ago

I'm with storiteller -- what drives the Moffat haters isn't its ostensible flaws as progressive storytelling, it's that it so fundamentally changed from the show they fell in love with. Well, at least the Tumblr version of Moffat hate, which has the RTD era as its baseline. The anorak version of Moffat hate being rooted in certain Classic eras as its baseline. And it's kind of easy to discern which is which, based on the line of argumentation used to attack the show.

Game of Thrones, as Phil has argued, hasn't really undergone such upheaval in terms of the vision of the world it presents. And it's not like it GoT isn't progressive -- the rape and incest and violence is certainly under critique, as are class issues and indeed the whole notion of kings and queens.

The main difference, at least so far (for GoT will end, whereas Doctor Who will always regenerate) is that GoT is certainly more cynical in its treatment of power issues. Brute force is not trumped by romance, while cynicism and intelligence come to, at best, a draw.

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jane 2 years, 9 months ago

The other thing GoT has got going for it, from a production standpoint, is that it isn't constantly having to create new sets. Sure, there may be more location work, but it's still got an awful lot of consistency to draw on. It's a lot easier to detail the world when it's the same world that's getting detailed week-in week-out.

The other thing that GoT has in its favor is more breathing room within an episode. Yes, they've got cover more ground, but they've got more time with which to cover it. The average GoT episode is closer to an hour than 45 minutes.

And finally, it's not a show that needs to reinvent the wheel every week. All it has to do is adapt a series of books that have already been written. And yes, adaptation is surely as difficult as a new creation, albeit in different ways, but having the roadmap already laid out surely aids in creating a show that's consistent week to week.

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Marionette 2 years, 9 months ago

I enjoy GoT but I do find the misogyny offputting. When I mentioned to a friend that I had been watching the show, he said he had avoided it because he'd been put off by what he'd heard about it, and I had to admit that if it had been any weaker in other respects, the misogyny and violence would have overwhelmed my interest in it.

As for this attitude that Moffat haters don't make a fuss about GoT; I'm not sure it's a competition. And the fact that people don't write about GoT on their Dr Who blogs doesn't mean they are fine with its representation. Whether or not another TV show contains misogynistic elements is really irrelevant to a discussion of the misogynist elements of an unconnected show, unless you are particularly discussing the cultural context.

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John 2 years, 9 months ago

Aylwin - let's note that, from Henry VIII on, the Tudors are in fact descendants of both sets of fratricidal cousins. Henry VIII generally comes off a hell of a lot more like his maternal grandfather than he does like his father.

As to Daughter of Time, I've no idea if it's a good novel, as I've not read it. As a work of history, it seems deeply lacking even based on the evidence available when it was written, and plenty of evidence has come out more recently to suggest that the princes were widely rumored to be dead by the summer of 1483. And, I mean, look, if they were still alive, why on earth wouldn't Richard bring them out to show that they were still alive and he hadn't murdered them?

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TheOncomingHurricane 2 years, 8 months ago

Yep, he's still living unless we find he's been offed offscreen when Yara returns to Pyke.

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elvwood 2 years, 8 months ago

For an answer to all your questions regarding Richard III, listen to Big Finish's The Kingmaker. That clears it up.

The strongest argument put forward by The Daughter of Time in my opinion is the one that basically says it would have been a stupid move for Richard to make, and that there was no other evidence of him being stupid. (The bit about him not having a murderer's face is part of the fiction, not the defense: this is just what prompts the sick detective to investigate further. It could have been phrenology for all the relevance it has.)

I have not made a study of the case but have visited a museum (in York?) which used a lot of their space to present evidence; my opinion coming away was that the balance of probabilities was against him being responsible, but that I wouldn't be surprised either way. I can't remember what made me think that.

All of which is actually not too relevant to whether he would have made a better or worse king than Henry VII, given the acts they all committed as a matter of course in those days!

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Ozy Jones 2 years, 8 months ago

Yes. Absolutely. Thank you, Jane.

A week ago I was in one of those on-line discussions where you find yourself defending Doctor Who in its current guise against those who prefer what has gone before (any era, doesn’t matter which, there’s always some fan who championing a previous ‘ideal’ era). This time it was the supposed utter crap writing and storytelling in Series 8.

I’m not blind to the bits that were not as good as they could have been, and some episodes worked better than others. So I challenged the other posters to give me a consistently better written current show that does what Doctor Who does. They trotted out the usual suspects… Game of Thrones, Walking Dead, Constantine, Orphan Black, Gotham, etc…

And so? Not one of these, worthy shows they may be, does what Doctor Who attempts, and for the most part pulls off, week to week, and has done so for fifty plus years; create a new world each and every episode (apart from the very occasional exceptions) and tells a different type of story each and every week, with a substantially different cast and sets, each and every episode.

There’s really none. All of the others are able to construct on what has gone before and world build and character build with ever stronger foundations. And there’s the familiarity factor, the comfort factor, if you like, of spending time with characters, locations and situations you know intimately; along with the consistent ‘house style’ of writing and storytelling.

I’ll take the odd wonky episode if it means I get twelve individual and unique surprise packages each year.

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Anglocat 2 years, 8 months ago

Well, Daughter of Time is novel, but there are serious works challenging the traditional caricature of Richard III, and pointing out that he appears to have been, if anything, rather a strait-laced moralist than other. And in fact he was far more merciful than Henry VII (who started his reign from the day before Bosworth so that those who had fought for the duly crowned king could retroactively be declared traitors, and made to sue for pardons at great expense.) Indeed, the only reasons that the Stanleys were able to betray Richard was because Richard pardoned them for their previous treason.

If you're really interested, there are a few good non-specialist books on the subject--Paul Murray Kendall's good but dated Richard III, Jeremy Potter's Good King Richard, and Bertram Fields's Royal Blood (the latter is from a non-historian). All of these point out the inconsistencies and impossibilities relied upon by traditionalist (pro-Tudor) historians, mostly down to the veneration of Sir Thomas More, whose account of Richard's life is not only fanciful in the extreme, but contradicted by the documents.

On the subject of the princes, Richard may indeed have killed them, though the point is far from clear--their being debarred from the throne by illegitimacy, based on Edward IV's unavailability to marry, and physical custody of them has been argued to have been all Richard needed, and their invisibility from 1483 to 1485 not much more marked than young Richard's own invisibility for years of his childhood. Whereas Henry VII's great idea of ending the war in a union of York and Lancaster required their (and thus Elizabeth's) legitimacy, and their death (so that Henry could actually take the throne.)

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BerserkRL 2 years, 8 months ago

And as to the undying threat of the other: Game of Thrones really does sum up the paranoia at the heart of western civilisation at the moment. Politically there is little different between Game of Thrones and the remake of Battlestar Galactica.

If you're saying that BSG promotes fear of the Other (as opposed to dramatising it), I have to disagree. The protagonists are pagan polytheists and suicide bombers; the antagonists are monotheists who turn out to be our ancestors.

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Jarl 2 years, 8 months ago

I'll defend that Gotham is pretty good (its aesthetics alone make it one of my favorite shows on TV) but I wouldn't even put it on even footing with Doctor Who as it is now.

... Not that there's certain eras I'd rather watch Gotham than, mind you...

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Daru 2 years, 8 months ago

V. late but wanted to just drop in a comment - I did struggle with GoT in the first season with the way particular way women were objectified. In many ways by season 3 and 4 this did change I think. I do find the show personally compelling, as watching a show focussed on a single world is fascinating for me. I don't find it more adult because there is *more* violence etc, but in an odd way I find the depiction of an unstable world where actually no one is really safe and real threat is stalking the land everywhere as people fight for power sort of refreshing - as usually certain characters would be ok simply by the role the hold.

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