Bran Stark is Hosed – A Reasonable Prediction From the End of Game of Thrones

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The Kingdoms of Bran the Broken is neither a Kingdom nor is it Bran’s. Discuss.

This analysis, from A Collection of Unmitigated Pedantry, argues that the introduction of Elective Monarchy to Westeros, and especially the election of Bran Stark as its first elected king, is doomed to failure. The reasons are as follows:

  1. With the exception of the Iron Islands, which are at best inconsistent with the practice, nowhere in Westeros has ever practiced elective monarchy. Indeed, every one of the Six Kingdoms has a tradition of primogeniture (the eldest son of the king is the next king, girls only succeed in Dorne), with families that have held power for 300 years at the shortest, and some of them go back to pre-history. These constituent kingdoms will all have more power than Bran, and will have every incentive to keep the central monarchy weakened.
  2. In pulling out of the Seven Kingdoms, Sansa Stark left her brother with no power base to fall back on. Had Gendry Baratheon been elected king, he would have one of the Seven Kingdoms, the Stormlands, in his pocket, providing him with an army he could call upon at will. Had Tyrion been elected, he would have the Westerlands, Edmure Tully, the Riverlands, Robert Arryn, the Vale, etc. But now that the North has backed out, Bran has nothing but the lands around Kings Landing – the Crown Lands – which aren’t much.
  3. Bran is unable to fulfill several of the expectations of being a king in Westeros. He cannot be a fighter; he has shown no interest in leading armies, and has been a character people find more off-putting than admirable.

The article includes a discussion of how the Holy Roman Empire and Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, two historical elective monarchies, worked (and didn’t work). Read the Whole Thing.

HBO’s Chernobyl is Misery Porn, and Therefore Largely Inaccurate

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Entrance to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. By Slawojar – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

In retrospect, both of the statements in this headline invite a “duh” response. HBO’s current stock-in-trade is prestige TV series, and it’s been apparent since the second season of True Detective that prestige television is an exercise in miserabilism. Nothing good can happen and everyone of value has to die or lose what they love unless they’ve tacked up enough suffering points (looking at you, Sansa Stark) to trade in for a happy ending. It has become its own set of tropes.
And of course, when real life gets shoved into a TV script, the exercise of creating a narrative for audiences to follow will simplify a lot of the messiness of actual truth. That’s completely understandable and not worth commenting on. But when a show deliberately ramps up the misery, and evades truth to do so, that deserves notice.

There is no good evidence that Chernobyl radiation killed a baby nor that it caused any increase in birth defects.

“We’ve now had a chance to observe all the children that have been born close to Chernobyl,” reported UCLA physician Robert Gale in 1987, and “none of them, at birth, at least, has had any detectable abnormalities.”

Indeed, the only public health impact beyond the deaths of the first responders was 20,000 documented cases of thyroid cancer in those aged under 18 at the time of the accident.

The United Nations in 2017 concluded that only 25%, 5,000, can be attributed to Chernobyl radiation (paragraphs A-C). In earlier studies, the UN estimated there could be up to 16,000 cases attributable to Chernobyl radiation.

Since thyroid cancer has a mortality rate of just one percent, that means the expected deaths from thyroid cancers caused by Chernobyl will be 50 to 160 over an 80-year lifespan.

It’s worse than that. Did you know that 80% of the Chernobyl first-responders who suffered from Acute Radiation Syndrome survived? That seems like a really high number, so the link goes to the official report where the numbers are from. You can see for yourself.

Better yet, read this interview with the Soviet general in charge of the containment operation for his take on the show. He’s kind of okay with it, but finds a lot of it baffling, particularly the image of teenage conscripts shooting pets in suburban areas.

Tarakanov: There’s this episode [in the HBO series], it’s is an ugly one. They show this boy, a conscript arriving at the military compound. What comes next is just ridiculous. They give him a uniform and moments later they are teaching him how to shoot animals. I mean, that’s just silly. Nothing even close to that ever happened. This is one serious mistake.

RTD: Are you saying they never executed animals, like they show in the episode?

Tarakanov: No, they did, but never in the residential area. In the residential parts, there were no cows, no dogs – not a single one. The shooting did take place, but it was in the forests, where wild animals still roamed, including deer, as well as cattle that wandered off after the evacuation. But to show this young boy, recently drafted, being given all this equipment straight away [is just absurd].

The way it actually happened was pretty simple. The government issued a decree announcing general mobilization. They were supposed to call in 20,000 reservists, as they were called, from, say, Moscow and elsewhere… Those were all men of conscription age, between 30 and 40, mostly.

To ask the question of why this change was made is to answer it. The emotional impact of seeing a young boy being ordered to shoot animals next to what was a family home is much greater than a 30-year-old man shooting a deer in the forest. We need that emotional impact. We need that gut-punch. That’s why people watch something like Chernobyl, and that’s why HBO makes it.

It’s a high-brow soap-opera, aspiring to be Aeschylus. In the process, actual humans are turned into props, puppets, and beasts. There’s a segment of society that feels its worldview pandered to thereby.

Quick Review: Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile

extremely-wicked-shockingly-evil-and-vile-549dda557f5e5c9f5632a216886432b2 I detest serial killers. By which I mean, I detest the attention paid to them by popular culture. There is a sickness in being as aware of them as we are, something concupiscent in our fascination with twisted pyschopathy. That being said, I am hardly less guilty. I regard From Hell (the graphic novel, not the movie) as a work of art. I have rewatched Mindhunter (in fairness, this series is largely about the FBI’s early exploration with the phenomenon of the serial killer, and is as deeply ambivalent with the fascination with them as I am). And I watched this, despite never giving a damn about Ted Bundy. He was a beast in human flesh, and he got what was coming to him. More than that need not be said.

But this film, like Goodfellas and The Wolf of Wall Street, does an admirable job of explaining the fascination with the evil character that sits at the heart of it. The mafia was a way for immigrants to break the rules and get paid. Wall Street is a way to manufacture wealth out of nothing by selling people the promise of wealth. Extremely Wicked doesn’t have the ambition to explain why Ted Bundy murdered 30+ women in the 1970’s – what explanation, really, could there be? – but it does go a long way towards explaining why his case haunts us, forty years after he was finally caught.

Everyone says Zac Efron is great in this, and he is. The camera still loves him, and he makes every use of it. But what makes this film worth watching is its mis-en-scene. We don’t see Ted Bundy as a killer. We don’t see him cut a swath through innocent co-eds. We see a handsome fellow pulled over in his VW Beetle by a cop and arrested. We see him stand trial despite maintaining his innocence. We see him intimate to his longtime girlfriend that someone is out to get him. We see him withstand prison with stoic spirit and determination. And gradually we get wrapped up in his worldview, his frame, until we find ourselves perversely believing that he’s the protagonist, despite knowing full well that he’s everything the title says he is. It’s a marvelous exercise in structuring a film to drive home the real story, which is that this man was a handsome and charming shell, capable of pulling people into his orbit, and successfully hiding the demon underneath.

But only for a time. Reality will out, and eventually even Bundy is no longer able to maintain the pretense. The climax of the film is the moment where Bundy’s almost self-gaslighting persona cracks – not fully, not in the spittle-flecked Hollywood way – but enough to confirm for us that what we know to be true really is. And that’s both satisfying from a film point of view and deeply sickening from a human one. As with MacBeth, this film about a killer has a weird way of condemning all of us.

When You Need the Tropes – Game of Thrones Edition

I spent a day angry about the Game of Thrones finale. I won’t go into the why, because I’m going to write something larger on that topic later on. Put me in the group of fans that found it highly unsatisfying and leave it at that.

Many of those same people have been saying that the series has dropped off since they left the part that books covered (and really, before that. Season 5 was a mess – the Dorne plot was ridiculous).

The other complaint for fans of this saga is that we’ve been waiting for the next book for seven-and-a-half years (or as I like to call it, the entirety of my eldest child’s lifetime). And since Martin hasn’t given us anything like a meaningful update in at least half that time, we’ve gone through cycles of denial and bargaining and anger and are coming to accept that we may never see the end.

And Megan McArdle has the explanation for that.

In trying to create a world where anything could happen to anyone at any time, he may also have created expectations that could never be fulfilled. We loved surprises such as the carnage of the Red Wedding, because that made the whole thing more believable. But in the end, a good story must deliver something that reality rarely does: a clean narrative arc.

Which meant that despite the illusion that anything could happen, most plausible things actually couldn’t. One way or another, the Starks had to win the battle for humanity, and Westeros, because otherwise why did we spend all those years following them around? Making that feel realistic in a world that isn’t governed by cosmic justice is, well, a heroic task.

You can only deconstruct the tropes of fantasy so far before it becomes an exercise in misery porn. Which is what HBO series tend to trade in (Chernobyl anyone?), but which is not the reason fantasy epics exist. You tweak the tropes to update the genre, not to destroy it.

Too many people would rather it be destroyed because of their own cultural-warfare reasons. It’s enough to make a body disinterested in what the establishment offers us for entertainment.

John C. Wright on Time Travel: An Absurdity Wrapped in a Non-Starter

It’s a longish post, but well worth your time.

In science fiction stories, there are a limited number of ways to explain the conundrum of how time travel can work in a world where there is both the appearance of free will and the appearance of cause and effect.

I doubt I can list all the various answers of the various imaginative authors who have attempted in an entertaining way to address the paradox. It makes for entertaining bull sessions by college students and philosophers, however.

But I can mention some basics:

In effect, the effort is to see how you can keep one or both of the appearances of cause and effect and of free will.

Wright mentions a number of methods (he calls them “options”) for dealing with the paradox:

  1. Free Will Doesn’t Exist (You can go back in time, but you will do exactly what you did, because that is what happened. This is the Slaughterhouse Five answer. “The Moment is Structured That Way” say the Tralfalmadorians).
  2. Cause and Effect Doesn’t Exist (You can go back in time, but in changing the past you only eliminate yourself).
  3. The Universe Doesn’t Like Things Changed (You can go back in time, and change the past, but the universe will order itself so that it gets the desired result in spite of your actions. This is the Tralfalmadorians-on-Steroids).
  4. Time Travel is Just a Scene-Change Device (Dr. Who, Quantum Leap, etc.)
  5. Multiple Time Lines Without Consequence (the easiest solution, in which no matter how much mucking about you do, the only changes will be cosmetic, and you can always go back and re-do it, and you will discover that you in fact, already have)
  6. Time is a Hard Drive Being Overwritten (By changing the past, you destroy the original timeline in which time travel was invented. So time-travel has the result of eliminating time-travel)

It’s great fun to consider, and I’ve always admired the Back the Future precisely because it makes Time Travel very difficult. You’ve got to have a Flux Capacitor and you’ve got to have 1.21 jiggiwatts of electricity and you’ve got to get that car up to 88 mph. Miss either one of these, and the time travel won’t happen.

I also especially enjoy the second movie because the plot takes it back inside the structure of the first movie, and revisits the exact same scenes without disturbing any of them, or indeed having anyone in those scenes notice that they’re being observed. It fascinates me. I’ve never seen a sequel deconstruct the first movie so entertainingly.

What Came to me Watching Last Week’s Game of Thrones

Anger be now your song, immortal one

Akhilleus’ anger, doomed and ruinous

that caused the Akaians loss on bitter loss

and crowded brave souls into the undergloom,

leaving so many dead men– carrion

for dogs and birds; and the will of Zeus was done.

-The Iliad

Below the fold, the climactic scene in the episode, with Black Sabbath in the background. Obviously, *SPOILERS*. This has also been done with AC/DC, and Metallica, but I like this way better. And seriously, this stuff is R-Rated; it’s incredibly violent.

Quick Review: The Highwaymen

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This little NetFlick represents the third time Kevin Costner has played an historical lawman up against a famous criminal. In 1987, he did the Hollywood version of Elliot Ness, playing a bright-eyed young crusader forced to get rough to take down Al Capone. In 1994, he did the opposite of that, giving us the grim dirty reality of Wyatt Earp as a thoughtful counterpoint to the previous year’s Tombstone. 

Both of these roles depend to a certain degree on Costner’s trademark flintiness. One of my favorite moments in The Untouchables is when Ness, having been suckered by a bum tip on his first bust, cuts out the headline “Crusader Cop Busts Out”, and pins it to the corkboard behind his desk, then turns around and stares down the rest of the Chicago PD squadroom, a sea of hostile faces silently watching him. His face says “You wanna laugh at me? Go ahead, laugh. I haven’t even started yet.” Underneath the law-and-order, square-jaw good intentions is a quiet fury, which will break loose over the course of the film and throw men off of buildings. He gets his knuckles dirty, because that’s the Chicago Way, and that’s how you get Capone.

Wyatt Earp takes this theme to extreme. The film spends a good hour giving us Earp’s failed first life as a young husband and businessman, who loses his mind when his wife dies, and heads west a jump ahead of a possy, never to return to the land of his birth. Something in him died, the film tells us, and this made him precisely the kind of iron man needed to impose order on the chaos of Dodge City and Tombstone. There is no sign of the killer with the heart of gold, as in True Grit, or even the man haunted by his sins, as in Unforgiven. Wyatt Earp feels neither joy nor remorse in violence. He does what must be done. He’s as cold as a pistol in the rain, and the film is relentless in telling us that by men such as this, and no other, was the wilderness tamed.

In The Highwaymen, the theme encounters variations. First of all, in the story of Bonnie & Clyde, the men who caught them are virtually unknown to the public at large. Frank Hamer has never had a movie or a radio show about his exploits, and previous Bonnie & Clyde films have had the law as a faceless entity, a nemesis that catches up with the romantic pair as it eventually must. Much of The Highwaymen is a reversal of this trend. In fact, we hardly see Bonnie or Clyde in the film, and when we do, we tend not to see their faces. In this film, they are the shadowy enemy, the thing that strikes unseen. Instead, we see Frank Hamer and Maney Gault (an excellent Woody Harrellson), two old Texas Rangers in an era that has ceased to appreciate them even as they make a desperate call for their skills learned, occupying center stage.

On one level, Frank Hamer is as storied a lawman as Wyatt Earp or Elliot Ness, and as feared for his toughness (he’s credited with saving 15 Blacks from lynch mobs and the Ku Klux Klan). But there’s a reversal here. Hamer is hard on the outside, but inside has moments of vulnerability and understanding. His conversation with Clyde Barrow’s father in particular is a moment of confession and of near-empathy. But he does what must be done.

As with the 1967 Bonnie & Clyde, the film leads up to the young criminals death by bushwacking, and does not spare the audience the reality of that shooting. But if Bonnie & Clyde was all “Foggy Mountain Breakdown”, the bright Rebel Yell of the New Hollywood, this film is as dour in tone as its protagonists, and seems to take as its soundtrack Johnny Cash’s “Someday God is Gonna Cut You Down”. We recognize the humanity of Bonnie & Clyde even as we know they’ve got it coming, and we feel a certain horror at the men who gunned them down even as we appreciate their efforts. Nothing is ever as neat and clean as we want, which is why sometimes containing evil requires methods extraordinary.