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More Game of Thrones commentary

The TV show's finale even got political commentator Ross Douthat to comment:

Two of the most successful completed sagas of the last 20 years, Robin Hobb’s Farseer novels and Tad Williams’s “Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn,” balance political machinations that would be at home in Shakespeare’s histories and larger world stories about the death and life of magic. And the promise of George R.R. Martin’s saga was that it might, in its somewhat pulpy way, offer the most successful integration yet, with a political and social world rich enough to feel like a piece of 14th- and 15th-century history they forgot to teach in school, with a chivalric order breaking down and a commercial and technological order waiting to be born … except that in this world, the dragons and the prophecies and fair folk won’t go gently into the good night.

Martin has not delivered on this promise, of course, because he hasn’t delivered a new novel in his saga in eight long years. But now, in the disappointment with the show’s finale and final seasons, he has an example of what not to do.

In its rush to finish, the show effectively lost sight of both reasons for fantasy’s appeal. The showrunners, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, seemed bored with and embarrassed by the magical element of the saga, hustling through the supernatural stuff and declining to explain crucial motivations and purposes, in order to get back to the political material … but then their haste also deprived the political plot of its sociological complexity, its ripped-from-the-pages-of-history plausibility, that was necessary to make the horror and catharsis of the early seasons work.

They either didn’t understand what made Martin’s books distinctive, or they found the synthesis of genre elements too difficult once they went beyond his finished books. And so the show’s ending embodied many of the dismissive clichés about fantasy, rather than representing the genre come of age.

A knowledgeable insider I spoke with yesterday provided a different take. He said that DB & D (as people in the industry refer to them) had an entire writing staff who, one assumes, read the Internet. And they also had GRRM in the room. And they had a budget. And they still managed to land the most epic television series in history without crashing the plane.

And what about the books?

Winding up a story takes a lot of effort. Getting one on TV takes even more. I think even the haters will miss this one soon.

On the other hand, next week brings us the Deadwood movie on HBO, Good Omens on Amazon, and...one hopes...summer in Chicago. So I think we'll survive.

Game of Thrones' anger

Megan Garber has an unexpected take on the series finale:

As the series went on, though, it became more mistrustful of emotion—and of rage, above all. Dany is angry, and that, the implication goes, helps to explain her descent into tyranny. Cersei is angry, and that leads her to a series of political miscalculations. Jon, meanwhile, who has a nearly bottomless capacity for sadness but seems constitutionally incapable of rage? The show has long treated his easy equanimity, even more than his royal bloodline, as the reason he might be worthy of the throne.

The Seinfeld-ian turn of Game of Thrones reflects that discomfort with anger. The lols of that first small council meeting are in one way about fan service, certainly—“any more,” Davos corrects Bronn, when the latter makes a reference to “no more coin,” calling back to his much-loved grammar burn from Season 7—but the yuks also perform a more broadly ritualistic function. They are meant, as Game of Thrones’ story comes to its conclusion, to cleanse that story of its sins. They are meant to suggest that the horrors of the past are of the past. And that we, the viewers, should move on just as these characters seem to have done. Gallows humor, with a Campbellian spin.

To be angry is to be compromised, suggests the show that has so often failed the angry and the marginalized; wisdom is what happens when, surveying the horrors all around you, you are capable of looking away.

This is a profound misreading—not only of the complexity of the human psyche, but also of the whole of human history. It is also a misreading of the show’s particular moment. Game of Thrones is airing into a political environment that is renegotiating the role that anger—and emotions more broadly—plays in political life.

This may not be the final word on this blog about the series.

Who played, who won, and who died?

Last night HBO aired the series finale of Game of Thrones, the TV adaptation (and extension of) George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire. After 73 episodes, perhaps a quarter-million deaths, and 4 years of screen time expanded over 9 years of our time, what have we got?

I think we've got two distinctly different shows, and the second of them, starting with the 6th season, was distinctly less satisfying than the first.

I'm not alone. Here are just a few of the critics on last night's finale:

  • Spencer Kornhaber from the Atlantic complains that "[t]he finale gave us yet another historic reversal, in that this drama turned into a sitcom. Not a slick HBO sitcom either, but a cheapo network affair, or maybe even a webisode of outtakes from one." Shirley Li simply says the show "failed Cersei."
  • From the Times, Jeremy Egner asks, "All hail king who?"
  • Mother Jones digs into the ecological catastrophe of the dragons.
  • The Tribune's Steve Johnson actually found it satisfying, but he felt the person who "won" the game was "a compromise choice in the logic of the series, and he felt like a compromise choice in the moment Sunday night, as we were realizing this is what all of this has been leading to.
  • The Guardian's Lucy Mangan calls this season "a rushed business" that "wasted opportunities, squandered goodwill and failed to do justice to its characters or its actors," but "the finale just about delivered."
  • Over at Vox, Todd VanDerWerff's take on the finale was simply: "Huh." "(Is [Grey Worm] a freshman poli-sci major who’s like, 'Well, if America could just start over ...'?)"

Meanwhile, everyone with a production company has started trying to make the next big hit. Good luck with that. Whatever it is, it will likely fall victim to the problem that faces every television show: it's a business first, and a show second.

Can't suspend disbelief on this point (GoT spoilers)

If you haven't seen Game of Thrones Season 8, episode 4 ("The Last of the Starks"), stop reading now.

I need to rant about the impossible—not just improbable, but impossible—success of the Iron Fleet's attack in the middle of the episode.

<rant>

Now, I get that Game of Thrones is fantasy. White walkers, dragons, magic, and all that, I get it. I gladly suspend my disbelief in the fantasy elements of fantasy stories all the time. As a relevant example, when the Night King speared Viserion last season, it made sense, because the Night King was a magical being. Obviously he had a magic spear! I'm cool with that.

But dammit, get shit right when it's not a fantasy element.

Unlike the Night King, Euron Greyjoy is not a magical being, no matter what he thinks of himself. So him shooting down Rhaegal with a battery of ship-mounted, artillery-sized crossbows was total bullshit. It served the plot 

Hitting a fast-moving aircraft with a deck-mounted gun is so insanely difficult that navies could not reliably do it until the 1960s. You need computer-assisted, radar-guided targeting systems and gyroscopically-stabilized guns. Or ship-to-air guided missiles, which have radar and computers built in. Even then, they miss all the time.

Before computers, anti-aircraft guns worked by saturating the sky with rapid-fire, explosive ordnance. Flying through hundreds of exploding 50mm rounds will, sometimes, bring your plane down—but not as often as one might expect. And that's true even with guns mounted on solid ground. Ship-mounted AA guns gave sailors more of a feeling than a fact of protecting their ships from aerial attack. Just ask, oh, anyone who served on a ship before the Vietnam War. Or the guys on the Arizona.

Only after the 1890s, thanks to an invention US Navy brass didn't even understand at the time and almost killed, could a ship even hit another ship reliably from any distance over 100 meters. Even in World War I ships would pound away at each other with 15-inch guns and hit one time out of 100. (Of course, one or two hits with ordnance that size could sink a ship.)

The problem is roll. Ships roll in the water, even when at anchor, even in nearly-still water. Deck-mounted guns therefore need to float freely in their mounts so that they don't change position after you have a firing solution on your target. That was the invention the US Navy didn't even want until the officer who invented it demonstrated it in a live-fire exercise.

But even if the ships sat in completely placid water, the Iron Fleet's crossbows would have huge variations in accuracy because their projectiles lack flight stability. They had small fletching and the crossbows themselves provided no rifling. (Notice the bolts in the show don't spin in flight, even though archers in ancient times knew enough to add spin to their arrows by tweaking the fletching.) I would bet half the Lannister gold that one of those things firing from a fixed position on land at a range of 1,000 meters couldn't hit a barn twice in 100 shots.

So: The idea that a ship-mounted crossbow could hit a dragon in flight at a range of well over 1,000 meters while the dragon is actively evading it is so stupid I'm annoyed that it happened even once, let alone multiple times.

And let's not even discuss the energy required to launch a ballistic projectile that large across that distance. Energy that comes from human beings winding them up. It would take minutes to reload those things using human power. So even if they scored a nearly-impossibly-lucky, fatal hit on Rhaegal, Drogon would roast them alive while they were reloading.

Bottom line: unless the Iron Fleet secretly brought a modern destroyer to the battle, they couldn't have hit Rhaegal if he were sitting on the next boat, let alone flying evasively thousands of meters away. Hell, they couldn't have hit Denarys's ships at that range, except by accident.

And no, that's not my only problem with the episode, but it's the one that annoyed me the most.

</rant>

Is Moneyball killing a game show?

Washington Post columnist Charles Lane sees a disturbing connection between Jeopardy! champion's streak on the show and the data-driven approach that has made baseball less interesting:

People seem not to care that Holzhauer’s streak reflects the same grim, data-driven approach to competition that has spoiled (among other sports) baseball, where it has given us the “shift,” “wins above replacement,” “swing trajectories” and other statistically valid but unholy innovations.

Like the number crunchers who now rule the national pastime, Holzhauer substitutes cold, calculating odds maximization for spontaneous play. His idea is to select, and respond correctly to, harder, big-dollar clues on the show’s 30-square gameboard first. Then, flush with cash, he searches the finite set of hiding places for the “Daily Double” clue, which permits players to set their own prize for a correct response — and makes a huge bet. Responding correctly, Holzhauer often builds an insurmountable lead before the show is half over.

Dazed and demoralized opponents offer weakening resistance as his winnings snowball. And, with experience gained from each new appearance on the show, Holzhauer’s personal algorithms improve and his advantage grows.

In short, this professional gambler from Las Vegas does not so much play the game as beat the system. What’s entertaining about that? And beyond a certain point, what’s admirable?

Of course, Holzhauer’s strategy could not work without his freaky-good knowledge of trivia, just as baseball’s shift requires a pitcher skilled at inducing batters to hit into it. The old rules, though, would have contained his talent within humane channels. As it is, he’s set a precedent for the further professionalization of “Jeopardy!,” a trend which began 15 years ago with 74-time winner Ken Jennings.

If you enjoy watching nine batters in a row strike out until the 10th hits a homer, you’re going to love post-Holzhauer “Jeopardy!”

Also interesting is the timing: Charles van Doren died April 9th. He won the equivalent of $1.2m in 1957 by cheating on a game show.

Agents of what, exactly?

Most members of the Writers Guild of America (WGA) last week fired their agents because of the intrusion of finance into their business. Large agencies, some owned by finance companies and no longer partnerships, no longer appear to represent the writers they claim to represent, as the agents have interests on both sides of many deals.

The Association of Talent Agents (ATA) has responded to all these principals firing their agents with questionable logic:

For those of you who haven’t been following, the WGA (for which, until recently, my husband worked as a magazine editor) wants the talent agencies to sign a new code of conduct to ensure the agents do their jobs — getting their clients the best deals possible — and that’s it. No using clients as part of an overall package deal or working with affiliated production companies; too often, the WGA contends, these practices result in writers getting shafted.

The ATA says the agencies will not be signing any such code because the WGA is not the boss of them and writers actually benefit from packaging, which has been going on for years.

So the WGA instructed its members to fire their agents, which almost all of them have, and announced it is suing the four major talent agencies.

In response, the ATA accused the WGA of trying to throw Hollywood into “predetermined chaos” and instructed its members to keep a list of any writers trying to get work without using an agent because, according to ATA reps, this is illegal.

So just to recap: Writers are unhappy with how major talent agencies have been repping them. When confronted with this, the agents refused to make any changes, so the writers fired them. Now the agencies are saying the writers cannot do this because, according to them, writers are legally bound to be represented by people who they believe are shafting them.

Even by Hollywood standards, this is Absolutely Insane.

It's going to be interesting as lawyers and accountants start representing writers.

Note: I'm still going through photos from this weekend, so I'll have the official Park 29 and Park 30 postings up today or tomorrow.

Don't air the speech

James Fallows argues that television networks have clear precedents as well as unprecedented reasons not to air President Trump's speech tonight:

The challenge for the news media was to “make the important interesting,” rather than to search for the purely interesting. Car-crash footage, or the last seconds of a sudden-death playoff game, will always be more eye-catching than reports on a drought, or on sexual-harassment patterns, or emergency-room standards, or a million other topics. But things that are merely interesting will never lack for coverage. The definition of news is that it attempts to explain things that matter, things that a democratic society needs to know about in order to make sane decisions.

Donald Trump has been the most entertaining figure on the public stage since he came down the golden escalator in 2015. TV news, in particular, has therefore not been able to resist showing him (and his rallies) or talking about him. It’s the civic equivalent of seeing that 9-year-olds are guzzling down the Mountain Dew and asking for more Spam. Trump’s going live? Let’s switch to the White House! This needs to change.

Trump just lies. He doesn’t know, or he doesn’t care, about the difference between claims that are true and those that are obviously made up. (Daniel Dale, of the Toronto Star, has indefatigably catalogued Trump’s lies, at a rate of more than 100 per week.) Maybe 4,000 “terrorists” have been apprehended at the southern border? Maybe zero? Who can ever really know? Over the past week Trump has claimed that former presidents “privately” told him they supported building his wall. All four living ex-presidents have taken the unusual step of denying that they said any such thing.

The network executives’ position has a lot in common with that of the Senate Republicans. Each group knows with perfect clarity what Trump is actually doing. The Senate Republicans know that Trump is using the wall as a distraction and life raft. They know that because they had unanimously approved, by voice-vote, a plan to keep the government open, with no mention of the wall, before Trump panicked in the face of criticism from Ann Coulter and Fox News. They could pass that resolution again tomorrow—but they won’t speak up in public, so fearful do they remain of being criticized, too. For their part, the network executives know exactly what Trump will do if given air time. (Though they also realize that the formal Oval Office speech is Trump’s weakest venue. He’s not good at reading prepared texts, with his trademark ad-libs of “that’s so true” when he encounters lines he had clearly not seen before.) But they are giving it to him.

They were not afraid of criticism for turning down Obama. They are afraid about what would happen if they turned down Trump. You can think of lots of explanations. But the difference is clear.

I won't watch or listen to the speech live because I have other plans, and because Fallows is right. Why listen to half an hour of untruths coming from a person manifestly unfit to sit behind the desk he'll be sitting behind?

Daily Parker bait, times 3

Of course I'm going to blog about these three articles.

First, former George W. Bush speechwriter and lifelong Republican Michael Gerson looks at the culture of celebrity that surrounds the President and says "our republic will never be the same:"

The founders generally believed that the survival and success of a republic required leaders and citizens with certain virtues: moderation, self-restraint and concern for the common good. They were convinced that respect for a moral order made ordered liberty possible.

The culture of celebrity is the complete negation of this approach to politics. It represents a kind of corrupt, decaying capitalism in which wealth is measured in exposure. It elevates appearance over accomplishment. Because rivalries and feuds are essential to the story line, it encourages theatrical bitterness. Instead of pursuing a policy vision, the first calling of the celebrity is to maintain a brand.

Is the skill set of the celebrity suited to the reality of governing? On the evidence, not really.

Second, Crain's business columnist Joe Cahill calls out Eddie Lampert's offer to buy Kenmore for $400m as a call to put Sears into hospice care:

There's plenty to worry about in the latest letter from Lampert's ESL Investments. First, Lampert is offering just $400 million for Kenmore, supposedly the company's crown jewel. When he first floated the idea of buying the household appliance brand in April, estimates pegged the likely selling price at $500 million or more. Maybe the lower bid is intended to elicit higher offers from potential third-party acquirers. Or it may signal that nobody else is interested and ESL is angling for a bargain.

Second, the offer is both nonbinding and contingent on ESL finding a third-party equity backer to finance the purchase. The letter says ESL is "confident" it can find such a backer. In other words, billionaire Lampert isn't willing to risk his own money buying Kenmore. This is consistent with his recent reluctance to raise his bet on Sears Holdings as a whole. As I've written before, he could easily take the company private—at the current market capitalization, the 46 percent he doesn't already own would cost less than $100 million—and capture the full upside of a turnaround. He's shown no interest in doing so.

And finally, on a happier note, the Chicago Tribune lists eight bars where people can go to read:

After living in the United Kingdom, freelance book publicist Jonathan Maunder turned to Chicago’s literary greats to connect to his adopted city. He remembered a night last year visiting Rainbo Club, the bar favored by “Chicago, City on the Make” author Nelson Algren.

“As I stepped out of the bar, a little drunk on both a couple of pints and Algren’s beautiful writing, I stood for a moment under the red neon of the Rainbo Club sign, which was reflected on the just rained on street, and felt a powerful connection to the place I was in and its history,” he said.

[He recommends] Kopi, A Traveler’s Cafe
5317 N. Clark St., 773-989-5674

A friendly, relaxed cafe/bar, which always has people and a good atmosphere (and sometimes accordion players) but never feels overly busy and hectic, in a way that might be distracting from reading.

Given that Kopi is a 20-minute walk from my house, I may just stop in this weekend.

I was a little bummed that the Duke of Perth didn't make the list, though.