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Tyler Dean

Mazes, Monsters, and Metaphors: Stranger Things and Suburban Horror

I thought Stranger Things 3 was, overall, an excellent season—a great improvement over Season 2 and a return to some of its Stephen King-centric roots that add an extra layer of menace to the proceedings in a show which can, under some circumstances, seem a little too lighthearted and fizzy in places. But Stranger Things 3 managed to continue one of the series’ best thematic through lines wherein the Lovecraftian menace of the Upside-Down serves as a supernatural stand-in for the equally unpalatable but decidedly more familiar suburban horror of child molestation, exploitation, and abuse.

Of course, it is nothing new to see otherworldly horror dovetail with a more familiar, mundane source of fear. H.P. Lovecraft used his cosmic monstrosities as stand-ins for his own racist fear of immigrants and people of color. Shirley Jackson used her Gothic fabulae to give expression to the private terrors of the lonely and misanthropic. Perhaps most importantly, for our purposes, Stephen King uses his alien and supernatural monsters to explore the perils of nostalgia and the small-mindedness it can engender. Given that Stranger Things is both a show that banks on the nostalgia of its viewers and one that’s specifically interested in the horror landscape of the 1980s—a landscape that King was paramount in shaping—it makes sense that he would be central to the way the show uses the otherworldly to consider and talk about the mundane, tapping into the darker anxieties beneath Hawkins’ sunlit, idyllic-seeming surface.

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Game of Thrones’ Complex Relationship to Racism and Colonialism

For all of its popularity, Game of Thrones is a show that faces constant, justified criticism about its racism. It’s an essential issue to tackle, in part because it is also a show with a huge black following. Michael Harriot of Very Smart Brothas over on The Root regularly calls Game of Thrones the “blackest show on television” and his primer on the idea of blackness in the show is not to be missed.

For people outside critical conversations about race and pop culture, it can seem like it is hard to square these two different characterizations: how can a show which some critics of color see as representing their experience also be a show which regularly showcases racist writing and viewpoints? And beyond that, what are the duties of fantasy, both in its inception and in its adaptation, to people of color and issues of race, ethnicity, and color? I’m an extremely white-passing Latinx person who has never had to worry about people who look like me showing up in fantasy yarns, but I have found myself both deeply disturbed by Game of Thrones’ relationship to race and simultaneously desperate to exonerate it. It can be extremely difficult to reconcile one’s love of a show or a book from its politics—difficulties made even worse when those politics appear to be the unconscious by product of privilege. In trying to navigate these choppy waters, I find myself returning to an author whose writing I adore and whose politics I despise: H.P. Lovecraft.

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Series: HBO’s Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones Asks What Kinds of Stories Ultimately Matter

It borders on cliché that writers tend to metadiscursively tout the importance of storytelling at critical moments. Tyrion’s speech about the importance of a good story in choosing a king in the final episode of Game of Thrones may as well be Benioff and Weiss’ winking plea that the audience trust their judgement. Many are disinclined to do so after a season that was poorly paced and often gave viewers whiplash with the rapid introduction and dissolution of major plots within the course of an episode.

But I will cut to the chase and say that in the end, I loved the finale of Game of Thrones. It took its time and did its best to pull out of the nosedive that many viewers assumed it was in, and—whether or not you feel that Benioff and Weiss earned the trust they solicited in Tyrion’s speech (I myself am very skeptical)—the point they make about the importance of storytelling stands, not just as a pat on the back that privileges writers as the ultimate power-brokers of the human experience, but within the actual narrative: what kind of stories matter and what kind of stories ought to matter in a world like Westeros where power structures are built on the post-hoc justification of conquest? As it turns out, Game of Thrones values, as it always has, stories about the futility of justification.

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Series: HBO’s Game of Thrones

Is “Only Death Can Pay for Life” Game of Thrones’ Ultimate Lesson?

George R.R. Martin spent the first three quarters of the first novel in the Song of Ice and Fire series setting up Ned Stark to be the righteous, honorable hero who will sort out the viper’s nest of King’s Landing. Then he dies and we understand, in retrospect, that Ned wasn’t ever subtle or clever enough to be the savior we wanted. The penultimate episode of Game of Thrones, in many ways, played out the ultimate Martin plot: first, spend almost eight seasons showing us the rise of a ruler who has the ability to be truly great and also the potential to fall victim to her worst instincts. Then, at the eleventh hour, when she has a critical choice to make, remind us that people rarely rise to the occasion under pressure. Martin has always been a bitter realist with a dim view of human nature; Benioff and Weiss did not pull any punches in delivering that lesson.

[Please note that there are spoilers through the latest episode below.]

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Series: HBO’s Game of Thrones

The Gothic and Game of Thrones, Part II: Theon, Sansa, and Shared Trauma

In the first half of this discussion, we looked at the way in which George R.R. Martin channels the Gothic in the Song of Ice and Fire novels. In particular, this is shown through Sansa Stark whose belief in the power of the chivalric stories that Westerosi society uses to mask its inherent cruelty is a kind of retreat—what Eve Sedgwick would term a metaphoric “live burial.” In this second essay, we’ll look to Theon Greyjoy, Martin’s other “Gothic heroine,” as well as parse the way that Game of Thrones uses both Theon and Sansa to try (semi-successfully) to bring out the Gothic in full force within the larger narrative of the show.

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Series: HBO’s Game of Thrones

Rewriting History Can’t Change the Past as Game of Thrones Reaches Its Endgame

When Aegon Targaryen landed on Westeros proper, he raised his close friend (and possible half-brother) Orys Baratheon to Lord of Storm’s End. Orys married the last daughter of House Durrandon—the line of the storm kings—and took on their ancestral seat, their sigil, and their traditional powers. It was as though House Durrandon has never existed and House Baratheon had always ruled in Storm’s End. On this antepenultimate episode of Game of Thrones, Aegon’s descendent similarly takes the eldest surviving Baratheon bastard and removes the fact of his bastardy in order to promote him to Lord of Storm’s End. With a single proclamation, the history of the Seven Kingdoms is rewritten, and Gendry Rivers (though shouldn’t it be “Waters”?) is suddenly Lord Gendry Baratheon.

Of course, the very next thing he does is seek out his lover and propose marriage. Gendry has always been a somewhat foolish romantic, eager to do what he’s told and both uninterested in and unaware of his gigantic role in the only game worth playing. Throughout “The Last of the Starks,” that theme played out at every turn, to tragic effect: one can rewrite history at the drop of a hat, but there is no ability to erase the effect that history has on one’s person.

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Series: HBO’s Game of Thrones

Facing Down Death in Game of Thrones Season 8

In many ways, Game of Thrones is a series of sacrifices made by people who refuse to turn away from the truth of their death. Ned marches south to King’s Landing, knowing it is a viper’s nest he is ill suited to take on. Stannis marches on the Bolton-occupied Winterfell knowing that the majority of his men have abandoned him. Olenna Tyrell eagerly drinks the poisoned wine proffered by Jaime so that she can deliver one last barb. Jon charges into Ramsay’s army and would have died but for Sansa’s timely intervention.

This ethos, that one faces death head on and, in doing so, dies with honor, is undercut in one key moment in season one, episode eight, “The Pointy End”—the first episode written by George R.R. Martin himself. During the Lannister purge of Stark men, Arya is beset by Ser Meryn Trant of the Kingsguard while training with her combat instructor, Syrio Forel. Arya wants to stay by her teacher’s side and help him fight off his attackers, but Forel repeats a line from an earlier training session: “What do we say to the god of death?” Arya responds with “Not today” and runs.

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Series: HBO’s Game of Thrones

Everything Happens Too Late To Matter in Game of Thrones Season 8

The well-worn trope of characters facing their possible last night alive borders on cliché—so much so that a character saying anything to the effect of “this could be our last night on earth” is barely even subtext for suggesting a sexual liaison. This trope is nearly always used to bring simmering plot points to a boil and challenge long-established elements of the status quo. The last night on earth is a last chance, a culmination, a high point. Not so on this week’s episode of Game of Thrones, “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms.” Here, the episode works to show viewers that it is far, far too late for the climaxes and resolutions offered to hold any lasting meaning.

This is accomplished in numerous ways—perhaps most notably through the use of the haunting “Jenny’s Song” to suffuse melancholy and woe into all of its proceedings. Jenny of Oldstones, the subject of Podrick’s (and Florence + The Machine’s) song, is a complicated and tragic figure from George R.R. Martin’s novels. She is best known as Westeros’ answer to Wallis Simpson, the commoner for whom a Targaryen prince abdicated the throne. She is long dead by the time of the books, but her song is used to mark moments of somber reflection in the text. The song is less interested in her love story than it is in her status as a (possible) survivor of the tragedy of Summerhall. In brief, the tragedy of Summerhall was a conflagration that destroyed the Targaryen Winter Palace and killed not only Jenny’s husband (Duncan Targaryen), but a whole host of other Targaryens and their retainers, ending the golden age of the dynasty and paving the way for the Mad King to ascend to the throne. In “danc[ing] with her ghosts” “high in the hall of the kings who are gone,” Jenny of Oldstones is an object lesson in what happens when you outlive your own story. She is mired in the past, clinging to undoubtedly worthy things that are, unfortunately, too long gone to make a difference.

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Series: HBO’s Game of Thrones

The Gothic and Game of Thrones, Part I: The Burial of Sansa Stark

Let’s start with an unpopular opinion that I happen to hold: Sansa Stark and Theon Greyjoy are, by far, the two best characters in both George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series and the TV show based upon it. Don’t get me wrong, I have a deep fondness for Tyrion, I’m on board with Daenerys, Sam, Arya, Catelyn, Brienne and a whole slew of others. But Sansa and Theon are in a class by themselves. This is probably due, in no small part, to their position as Martin’s window into the Gothic, which is a genre that dominates my professional and personal life.

Martin’s series is most often compared to the works of epic fantasy writers like Tolkien and Robert Jordan. He cites historical fiction writers like Philippa Gregory, Bernard Cornwell, and Sharon Kay Penman as some of his biggest influences. With HBO’s adaptation, we have seen horror become a third dominant genre, especially with the hiring of The Descent’s Neil Marshall to direct two of the series’ biggest episodes (season two’s “Blackwater,” and season four’s “Watchers on the Wall”) …and, you know, all the zombies. But, in a series that is so focused on the ways in which people obtain, hoard, and lose political power, it is worth noting that the Gothic threads—especially those in Sansa and Theon’s plotlines—are some of the most explicit and nuanced in their discussion of that central theme. This is the first of two articles on the subject. In this one, we’ll discuss the general ways in which we might talk about Martin and the Gothic as well as do a deep dive into the life of Sansa Stark, the more obvious candidate for the mantle of Gothic heroine.

[Potential spoilers: This article discusses Game of Thrones through Season 7 and the Song of Ice and Fire books through The Winds of Winter preview chapters.]

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Series: HBO’s Game of Thrones

Time is a Bloody Spiral Between “Winter Is Coming” and “Winterfell”

The Mexica believed that time was a spiral. Not a circle, where everything that happened previously was destined to happen again, identical, ad inifinitum. Not linear, where the way forward was uncharted and momentum, progress, and change ruled the day. But, as author/illustrator James Gurney once pointed out to my eight-year-old brain, a combination of the two: a spiral. The forces of history push us ever forwards, but events rhyme with one another—parallel but not identical. That was what I couldn’t get out of my head after watching “Winterfell,” the final season premiere of Game of Thrones.

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Series: HBO’s Game of Thrones

Exhuming Lady Stoneheart: What We Lost in Game of Thrones’ Biggest Cut

I read the Catelyn chapter that details the Red Wedding in George R.R. Martin’s A Storm of Swords during gym class, sometime during the spring of my senior year of high school. Because I was not supposed to be reading at the time, I remember having to modulate my emotional response. I sat on the indoor bleachers by the basketball court, panicking and flipping through the remaining pages to see if another Catelyn chapter appeared. When I finished the novel later in the week, I was greeted by this haunting bit of prose,

When she lowered her hood, something tightened in Merrett [Frey, a lesser son]’s chest. No. No, I saw her die. […] Raymun opened her throat from ear to ear. She was dead. […] her eyes were the most terrible thing. Her eyes saw him and they hated.

“She don’t speak,” said the big man in the yellow cloak. “You bloody bastards cut her throat too deep for that. But she remembers.” He turned to the dead woman and said, “What do you say, m’lady? Was he a part of it?”

Lady Catelyn’s eyes never left him. She nodded.

I remember not being able to sleep after finishing it. I did not start reading A Song of Ice and Fire until 2000 when the first three novels had been published, so this was, in addition to the end of the novel, the first time I did not have more of the series to satisfy me. The first glut of reading was over, and it ended with a morass of feelings that my seventeen-year-old self was not fully prepared to cope with.

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Series: HBO’s Game of Thrones

A Game of Feels: The Radical Empathy of Game of Thrones

One of the most compelling moments in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels (and the era-defining television show that bears the name of the first book) is not one of the author’s signature shocking deaths, displays of unrelenting cruelty, or visceral battles. Rather, it is a quiet moment of expanding empathy wherein the audience is forced to acknowledge the complexity of a character who had, up until that point, served only as a font of villainy.

The character in question is Jaime Lannister, handsome son of privilege, whose incestuous relationship with his twin sister, casual maiming of a ten-year-old, and general aura of arrogant self-satisfaction when it comes to his martial prowess paints him as something as close to the primary villain of the first two novels as Martin’s capacious and complicated series can muster. And yet, in book three, A Storm of Swords, Jaime Lannister, a surprise narrator after spending most of the previous book imprisoned, reveals to his traveling companion that the very act that earned him the nickname “Kingslayer” and gave him the reputation of being a man without honor is, in fact, the noblest thing he has done in his life. Martin reveals that Jaime Lannister saved hundreds of thousands of lives by slaying the king he was sworn to protect, murdering the Mad King in order to prevent him from giving the order to burn the capital city to the ground.

In many ways, that moment changed not only the arc of Jaime Lannister’s character, not only the course of the novel, but the entire thesis of Martin’s series.

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Series: HBO’s Game of Thrones

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